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Failing to Learn from History: The Lesson of the First Anglo-Afghan War and Questions about the US-NATO Campaign

“The Americans in Afghanistan are Demons. They claim they burned Korans by mistake, but really those were “Satanic acts that will never be forgiven by apologies.” Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai

It seems that we in the West seldom learn from history nor do certain Afghan leaders like Hamid Karzai. The situation in Afghanistan has taken on a more ominous tone as the situation continues to spiral downward with Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s demand for the US and NATO to redeploy their troops to large bases and leave the countryside to Afghan control. Even more ominously he said that the Afghan-NATO relationship was “at the end of the rope.”  Karzai alluded that he did not believe that US and NATO account of the killing of 16 Afghan villagers near Kandahar.

This should come as no surprise to any observer of Afghanistan or anyone familiar with the relationship of Afghan leaders with western occupiers.  Karzai knows that the US-NATO era is coming to an end and even though he rules only because he is buttressed by western military power he is now trying to ensure his political and literal survival when we leave be it in 2013 or 2014.  The one thing that Karzai needs to keep in mind is that like his predecessors who turned on their western supporters be they British or Soviet he will be dangling from the end of the rope when we leave. He and his corrupt band of thieves who have alienated and plundered their own people will not survive their wrath once the protective cordon of American and NATO troops is withdrawn.

Karzai’s anti-American stance is further reinforced by the growing number of killings of US and NATO troops by Afghan police, soldiers and other personnel. Even this week an attack was made by an interpreter who drove a stolen pickup truck at a Marine Corps General and his British Brigadier assistant commander at Kandahar while awaiting the arrival of Secretary of Defense Panetta. Likewise the death of a Marine in February was officially announced as being at the hand of an Afghan soldier. The death occurred before the Afghan reaction to the burning of the Koran and was the 7th NATO service member who died at the hands of Afghan forces in February.

Staff Sergeant Robert Bales at the National Training Center in 2011 (US Army/DoD Photo)

The final nail in the coffin for the campaign occurred last week when Staff Sergeant Robert Bales for unknown reasons went on a shooting rampage killing 16 Afghan civilians including 9 children when they were asleep in their homes.  Bales actions whether attributable to a psychological breakdown, being drunk or if he was simply a cold blooded killer have effectively destroyed any chance of the United States and NATO recovering the situation in Afghanistan. It is already said that Bales attorney plans to use the case to also put the US war effort on trial. Since Bales reportedly has a Traumatic Brain Injury or TBI and possibly PTSD who allegedly was told that he would not be deployed again expect that the Army Medical Department and Madigan Army Medical Center will be raked over the coals. Those institutions and the Commanders of Joint-Base Lewis McChord are already being investigated for downgrading PTSD diagnosis to other mental illnesses that do not qualify for medical disability payments.

Staff Sergeant Bales appears to be a man who appeared until this incident to be an honorable and professional soldier with a distinguished combat record. However he had a number of potentially troubling legal and personal situations occur over the past number of years and had not been selected for promotion. How those events play into this and what may have happened to push him over the edge or to unleash an evil in him that no one knew was there will be the subject of much debate in the coming weeks.  None of it will be good for the United States.

At the same time the question will have to be asked how and why a soldier with injuries of PTSD and TBI was deployed as part of a small team supporting Special Forces troops instead of with his own unit even after allegedly being told that he would not redeploy.  That is a question that must be answered.  Why would the Army deploy a soldier with known PTSD and TBI as an Individual Augment with different unit than which he was assigned? In this environment he would not be in a place to have the same camaraderie of being part of his own unit probably suffer much more isolation with the inherent dangers of such a situation. Having served on small bases in Iraq with the small teams of advisors and having worked with Sailors, Soldiers, Marines and Airmen assigned to commands as Individual Augments (IAs) and having been one myself I can say that these assignments are often much more dangerous for those with preexisting trauma.

The result of this latest incident coming on the heels of the burning of the Koran and other religious texts at Bagram Air Base, the release of a You Tube video of a US Marine Scout Sniper team urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters and the revelation of the “Kill team” in 2010 has for all practical purposes ended any chance of making a successful transition in Afghanistan.

Last Stand of the 44th Regiment of Foot 1842

Afghanistan was supposed to be the “good war” and for a couple of years that is what it was. US forces had taken down the Taliban regime with minimal effort in 2001 and appeared to be well on their way to finishing off Al Qaeda and banishing the Taliban from Afghanistan. However in 2003 the US took its focus off of Afghanistan by invading Iraq. We also had placed our trust in Hamid Karzai to guide Afghanistan into a new and democratic era. Karzai has proven to be much like Sujah Shah Durrani who the British imposed on Afghanistan in 1838 when they could not get Emir Dost Mohammed Khan to do their bidding in trying to keep Russia and Persia from dominating Afghanistan. That was a mistake of epic proportions that led to one of the greatest British military, diplomatic and political disasters of the Empire.

A survivor to the First Anglo-Afghan War Chaplain G.R. Gleig wrote about that war something that may be said about our campaign there in years to come:

“a war begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, brought to a close after suffering and disaster, without much glory attached either to the government which directed, or the great body of troops which waged it. Not one benefit, political or military, was acquired with this war. Our eventual evacuation of the country resembled the retreat of an army defeated.” 

We can pray that it doesn’t happen that way. What started as an attempt to find and kill Osama Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan in October of 2001 has turned into a long term occupation that serves no strategic interest of the United States.  Nearly 100,000 US troops are tied down in a country where they can do little conduct local operations against an intractable enemy to support a corrupt government that the people of Afghanistan loathe.  It is so similar to the British experience that it makes one wonder if anyone has ever read a book about the country before invading it.

Bin Laden is dead and Al Qaeda is still reeling from continued strikes on its leadership. The goal of the war was achieved. Afghanistan is Afghanistan. It will not change and any threats brought by terrorists that may try to use it as a base can be defended so long as we are able and willing to whack a mole whenever they raise their head up, just as we are in the Horn of Africa, Yemen and even Pakistan. That does not require 100,000 tied down in Afghanistan where they are exposed to local threats as well as the possibility of being cut off from supplies should Pakistan or the Russian Federation cut supply lines or should hostilities break out with Iran.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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