Afghanistan threatens to become another Vietnam
By Alan Caruba
The next President of the United States of America must decide whether to withdraw our troops from Afghanistan or expand our involvement there. Having lived through the long years of the war in Vietnam, I can tell you that Afghanistan looks and smells like Vietnam. It is the classic wrong war in the wrong place.
In late October, I read a small news item about Parwiz Kambakhsh, 24, an Afghan journalism student who had downloaded and circulated an article about women's rights under Islam. The news was that his sentence of death had been overturned by an appellate court that reduced it to a mere twenty years in prison on the charge of blasphemy. He can still appeal to the Supreme Court of Afghanistan. This is the state of freedom of speech, press, and thought in Afghanistan.
If you want to know what life was like in the seventh century, Afghanistan is the place to go. It is largely devoid of anything passing for modernity, by which we mean medical facilities, schools, roads, and such. Never mind the telephones and other detritus of modern life, the conversations have not changed in centuries.
Afghanistan shares a long border with Pakistan and Iran. Also bordering it is Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Turkistan, and Tajikistan. None of these places is a tourist destination. All are Islamic.
The only reliable element of Afghanistan's economy is poppy cultivation for the opium trade which the CIA estimates generates "roughly $4 billion in illicit economic activity." This is another way of saying that none of this money reaches what passes for a central government except in the form of bribes. It is a major source of funding for the Taliban.
Few Americans were interested in Afghanistan until September 11, 2001. We have had a military presence there for seven years, along with NATO nation components. Much like the "military advisors" that initiated our involvement in Vietnam, today's generals are calling for more troops.
Afghanistan has been conquered and occupied since the days of Alexander the Great. Nothing much comes of it. It remains a mystery why they bothered. Putting too few or too many troops into Afghanistan does little except to demonstrate the futility of trying to impose one's will on people who have resisted every such effort for centuries.
Founded as a nation in 1747 when Ahmad Shah Durrani unified the Pashtun tribes, Afghanistan was primarily seen as a buffer between the British and Russian empires. Democracy, as in most Middle Eastern nations, has never taken root there.
It became the graveyard of the Soviet empire after they intervened militarily in 1979 to support a tottering Afghan Communist regime. After they withdrew in 1989, the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. It is now known as the Russian Federation. It is still run by the former KGB. And one wonders why anyone in the U.S. government thinks any good can come of being there?
The Taliban took control after the Russians left and Osama bin Laden found a congenial place in which to plan 9/11. That's why the first U.S. response to the attack occurred in Afghanistan as U.S., allied, and an anti-Taliban Northern Alliance of tribes were able to drive the Taliban across the border into the frontier provinces of Pakistan and elsewhere.
The U.S. effort to create a democratic government there began with a new constitution and, in December 2004, the election of Hamid Karzai as president. He barely controls Kabul, the capitol. The southern and eastern regions are still beyond control.
In essence, the rule of law barely exists in Afghanistan, if at all, unless you factor in Sharia law which reflects a seventh century approach to justice. The government and all aspects of official life in Afghanistan are so corrupt that even President Karzai's brother is allegedly on the take.
I am not a military strategist, an expert in foreign affairs, or can lay claim to much more than common sense, so I confess it defies my understanding why the United States and our NATO allies are in Afghanistan. Expecting democracy to succeed in such a primitive and hostile place seems more a justification for military occupation than anything else. The whole place is tribal.
Other than his distaste for our invasion of Iraq and disposal of Saddam Hussein, it is baffling that Barack Obama says that Afghanistan is the "central front" against al Qaeda. The CIA says it has no bases there. The Taliban—outsiders just like us--have their own agenda as seen in their effort to render the place a complete and total Islamic hellhole.
Little wonder, therefore, that word keeps getting out that both English and French military leaders regard Afghanistan as virtually beyond any hope without putting a far greater number of troops there. Millions are being spent as it is. Between 2002 and 2007, Germany spent $80 million to reform its police corps. The U.S. has budgeted $800 million for 2008 to assist its security forces.
In early October, General Jean-Louis Geogelin, France's military chief, confirmed that British Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith remarks that "there is no military solution to the Afghan crisis" reflected his own views. The Brigadier recommended that NATO lower its expectations regarding a happy outcome to the conflict. It was, he said, "unrealistic and probably incredible" to think that the multinational forces in Afghanistan could rid the country of armed bands.
There are two occupations available to the Afghans. One can either be a farmer raising poppies or one can join an armed band, be it either the government's, one's tribe, or the Taliban's.
In an October 1, 2008 Christian Science Monitor article, it was reported that "The U.S. military is working to put a new strategy in place for Afghanistan and Pakistan that could allow it to expand airfields, preposition military forces and equipment, and prepare for a more robust effort soon against Islamist extremists in the region." Four more U.S. brigades are poised to be sent to Afghanistan, including one that will deploy in January.
I have my own military strategy. Let's pull our troops out of Afghanistan and, with their permission, let's keep enough troops in Iraq to ensure that its government can maintain its security and as a platform for any conflict Iran might initiate in the region.
The United States of America has a full plate of problems right now. Expending troops and treasure in Afghanistan strikes me as a bad investment in a very nasty place. It is an invitation to repeat the all the errors of Vietnam.