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Afghanistan”€”Where Empire Goes to Die

August 17, 2008

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Afghanistan”€”Where Empire Goes to Die

For nearly thirteen years between 1979 and 1992, the Central Intelligence Agency managed the U.S. government’s largest-ever covert action program in support of the Afghan mujahedin’s war to rid their country of Soviet occupiers and Afghan communists. The CIA learned many lessons from this experience, the most important also being one of the simplist:  Money is much appreciated by the Afghans you work with, but it will not get them to do what you want done. Despite the billions of U.S. and Saudi dollars expended in support of the mujahedin, there was almost no occasion when the Afghan insurgents took orders from U.S., Saudi, or Pakistani officials as to the pace of combat, targets to be struck, or efforts toward political unification. Ever polite, the Afghans would take your money, offer thanks, and then do exactly what they wanted to do with no regard for your wishes. The idea that U.S., Saudi, or Pakistani intelligence officers “€œran”€ the mujahedin is a fantasy; if anything, it was much closer to the other way around.

And that was acceptable. The U.S. objective in Afghanistan was clear and simple: to paraphrase Admiral Halsey, the goal was to kill Soviets, kill Soviets, and kill more Soviets. What has come to be known as “€œCharlie Wilson’s War“€ had little or nothing to do with Afghan self-determination and democratic nation-building; it had everything to do with exacting revenge from Moscow for the role it played in defeating America in Vietnam. In this context, the CIA-run covert action program was a significant success:  the Red Army withdrew in defeat in 1989; the Afghan communists were annihilated in 1992; the USSR suffered high casualties which caused societal problems; and Moscow’s Afghan war sped the bleeding of the already dying Soviet economy. The clear lesson for Washington was that the U.S. got what it paid for: dead Soviets, the Red Army’s defeat, and the USSR on the road to implosion. But the money it expended bought no control of the mujahedin, and no influence on how the postwar Afghan environment unfolded.

Between the covert-action program’s end in 1992 and al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks, this straightforward lesson was lost on the U.S. government and”€“unforgivably”€“inside the CIA as well. In the wake of what Osama bin Laden calls “€œthe Tuesday of God’s glory,”€ George Tenet“€”then Director of Central Intelligence”€”came up with a scheme for Afghanistan that ignored CIA’s 1979-1992 experience and depended on buying the Afghans”€™ loyalty and obedience. This purchase, Tenet claimed, would be possible because of the Afghans”€™ avarice for money, an avarice so intense that they would, he and his senior officers told President Bush, sellout their religion, their tribal mores, and even their mothers for cold, hard Yankee dollars. (See Tenet’s own At the Center of the Storm, and, more important, Bob Woodward’s Bush at War.) A few hundred U.S. Special Forces, a similar number of CIA officers, U.S. airpower, and truckloads of cash, Tenet claimed, would allow America not only to buy victory but buy it in a way that limited U.S. casualties, ensured Afghans bled for U.S. interests, and paved the way for building a democratic Afghanistan. 

DCI Tenet pushed this ahistorical policy because,

1. He wanted to please President Bush and his cabinet;
2. He and his senior lieutenants at CIA HQs were ignorant of the lessons of CIA’s long Afghan experience; and
3. Tenet and his Agency acolytes were too arrogant to consult the dozens of Afghanistan-experienced CIA officers who would have told them that the DCI’s Afghan plan would yield near-term tactical success, but ensure eventual strategic defeat. 

Tenet, by the way, chose senior officers to manage the Washington end of the post-9/11 CIA Afghan effort who had little and, more often, no Afghan experience; most were specialists in Africa, Europe, or Latin America and ignorant of the Muslim world. The damage these neophytes did was limited only because a dozen or so superb CIA Afghan/al-Qaeda specialists were deployed on the ground and ran the Afghan show themselves. For those brave men and women, it surely was a case of lions in the field being led by asses in Washington. (I recount this tragic-comic story in my Marching Toward Hell: America and Islam After Iraq.)

So what did airpower, a few thousand U.S. personnel, and many millions of dollars buy America?  Well, Mr. Tenet’s plan bought control of the Afghan cities”€”which each foreign invader of Afghanistan since 300 BCE has easily won”€”while allowing the Taleban, al-Qaeda, and their allies to flee to the Afghan mountains, Pakistan, and elsewhere to prepare to fight another day. Ignoring not only CIA’s experience, but also that of the British and Soviet attempts to defeat an Afghan foe and occupy the country, the United States by mid-2002 found itself controlling the major Afghan cities, protecting Karzai’s puppet regime that ruled no farther that Kabul’s environs, and facing an undefeated and rebuilding Islamist insurgency based beyond its reach in a Pakistani safe haven. These factors were dominant by late-2002 and have steadily worsened. Today, the Taleban al-Qaeda, their allies, and an increasing flow of non-Afghan Muslim fighters from across the Islamic world have seized the initiative from a too-small-for-Afghanistan”€”which is bigger than Texas”€”U.S.-led military coalition made up of American, British, Canadian, and Australian fighters and a large number of pseudo-military European well-diggers, medical inoculators, police trainers and school-house builders. 

In sum, the Bush administration’s use of the Tenet plan has enabled the West’s defeat in Afghanistan and the return of an Islamist regime to Kabul. 

Could it have been different? 

Historically speaking the answer to that question is a firm “€œYes.”€ There have been two foreign military operations that have worked in Afghanistan. The first was led by Alexander the Great in 329 BC, and his army faced many of the same problems now confronting the U.S.-led coalition:  hit-and-run attacks, intense tribalism, the Afghans”€™ seemingly innate talent for insurgent warfare, impenetrable terrain, xenophobia, and the enemy’s determination not to stand and fight to the finish. Alexander solved his quandary by applying a combination of annihilating military action whenever possible with a process of planting communities of Greek colonists in Afghanistan. (The book to read on Alexander’s Afghan campaign is Frank L. Holt’s Into the Land of Bones.)  

Because the U.S. political elite refuses to use to the utmost its taxpayer-funded weapons of savagery, and because not many American or NATO-country citizens would be excited about relocating to Afghanistan, Alexander’s model simply isn’t applicable.

The other successful foreign military campaign in Afghanistan was conducted in Britain’s Second Afghan War (1878-1881) by Lieutenant-General Sir Frederick Roberts. Having lost an entire British army in 1842 to Afghan insurgents from the Pashtun tribes, London decided it was best to respond to the July 1880 defeat of a 2,500-man British force at Maiwand near Kandahar with a punitive expedition aimed at smashing responsible Pasthun tribes, rather than another attempt to occupy the country. Roberts marched his 10,000-man force from Kabul to Kandahar, fighting the tribes along the way, and defeating them in climactic battle near Kandahar.  His mission complete, the tribes quieted and licking their wounds, Roberts withdrew his force to safety inside India. (The best book on the Second Afghan War is Brian Robson’s The Road to Kabul.) 

Back in garrison, Roberts wrote to his superiors in London what remains the best advice on Afghanistan ever put on paper.  “€œIt may not be flattering to our amour propre,”€ explained the man who is still the only modern Western warrior who succeeded in Afghanistan, “€œbut I feel sure that I am right when I say that the less the Afghans see of us they less they will dislike us.  Should Russia in future years attempt to conquer Afghanistan, or invade India through it, we should have a better chance of attaching the Afghans to our interests if we avoid all interference with them in the meantime.”€

America and its allies have now been on the ground in Afghanistan for nearly seven years and apparently are not aware of Roberts”€™ conclusion that absence makes the Afghan heart grow fonder, or its implicit reciprocal”€“familiarity breeds Afghan contempt.  .                         

Because U.S. political leaders are ignorant of history, don”€™t give a hoot about it, or both, Washington’s post-9/11 Afghan adventure was based on a plan for occupation and nation-building that history had long ago shown to be the road to defeat. Adding poignancy to the coming disaster is the last chance Washington was offered on the eve of war by the eminent British historian, and great friend of America, Sir John Keegan. Writing on 14 and 20 September in London’s Daily Telegraph, Sir John told Washington that Afghanistan was unconquerable and that the only viable option for U.S. military action was a punitive expedition”€”like that of LG Roberts in 1880″€”to destroy as much of the Taleban and al-Qaeda as possible. In essence, Keegan advised Washington to get into Afghanistan quickly with overpowering force, kill everyone who needed killing without much concern for collateral damage, and then get out more quickly than it entered. This splendid historically informed advice went unheeded, and seven years on America and its allies are on the edge of defeat in Afghanistan.

Affairs in Afghanistan might not be over until the fat mullah sings, but the lad can be heard trilling off in the background. In the Afghan campaign, Washington has failed to:

1. kill as many Taleban and al-Qaeda fighters as possible at the war’s start;
2. close the Afghanistan-Pakistan border to prevent the escape, and then return, of most Taleban and al-Qaeda forces;
3. replace the Taleban’s law-and-order system it destroyed, thereby restoring a lawlessness that made Taleban rule look like “€œthe good old days”€;
4. send nearly enough U.S. and NATO troops to defeat a steadily growing insurgency; Avoid alienating a conservative Islamic tribal culture by not demanding democracy, secularism, and women’s rights;
5. eradicate the world’s largest, richest, and best-armed heroin industry; 
6. form a regime that perpetuated the 300-year old tradition of Pashtun dominance in Kabul; and
7. recognize that President Musharraf would not destroy Pakistan’s stability and security by doing America’s dirty work against the Taleban and al-Qaeda, as if he was a Cold War U.S. proxy.

These failures were not inevitable, but they are now irredeemable. 

The force of approximately 50,000 troops constituting the U.S.-led coalition might have been just big enough to conduct the sort of fierce, fast punitive expedition led by Lt.-Gen. Roberts and recommend by Sir John Keegan. But it is woefully”€”even comically”€”inadequate for its assigned multi-task of keeping Karzai in power and spreading democracy; creating nationwide law and order; training Kabul’s military, security, and police services; building an economy and transportation/communication infrastructure virtually from scratch; defeating al-Qaeda; eliminating the Taleban; and neutralizing the world’s most potent heroin-growers and narcotics traffickers.

In this context, the promises made by Senators Obama and McCain to send two more U.S. brigades”€”about 6,000 troops”€”to Afghanistan would be laughable if they were not so clearly ludicrous and blatantly uninformed. Six thousand more U.S. troops assigned against the current set of priority tasks are a drop in the bucket. In terms of controlling the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, for example, 6,000 troops would provide four soldiers or Marines for every kilometer. This level of reinforcement would, at most, serve to disguise for a bit longer the fact that every soldier and Marine in the U.S. military”€”regular forces and reserves”€”would be needed to give America a bare chance of attaining its goals in Afghanistan. And, if other U.S. interests are to be protected at home and abroad at the same time, such an overall manpower requirement could only be met by reactivating conscription.

The reality described above is unlikely to become clear to Americans before November’s presidential election, and until then they will be deliberately misled by the candidates”€™ two-more-brigades promise and the traditionally glacial pace of Afghan developments.  A year or two after inauguration day, however, the new president surely will be faced with an unavoidable decision to either massively increase U.S. military forces in Afghanistan”€”to a total far exceeding the largest we had in Iraq”€”or evacuate the country with no U.S. goal accomplished.  Given the cowardly draft-phobia of both parties, the latter option will be picked and that decision will galvanize the Islamist movement, greatly increase its funding and volunteers from across the Muslim world, and give all Muslims faith in ultimate victory against the West based on the Islamists”€™ defeat of the two greatest powers the world has ever seen.

At that point, America’s real”€”and perhaps unwinnable”€”war with Islamism will begin.

A twenty-plus-year CIA veteran, Scheuer headed the agency’s Osama bin Laden unit, managed its covert-action operations, and authored its rendition program. He is the author of several books, including Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror and, most recently, Marching Toward Hell: America and Islam After Iraq.

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