When the Soviet Union sought to conquer Afghanistan, they did so to preserve the communist government that they had helped to install in that majority Islamic state. While most native born Afghans were Islamic, they were Islamic in a very Afghanistan way. Afghanistan is an ancient land with little infrastructure linking together its pretensions of being a unitary state.
In fact, most Afghans belonged to rival ethnic tribal sects, with the Pashtun being the most dominant sect there. And even among the various ethnic tribes, there remains tense religious division between Sunni and Shiite Islam, much as there is throughout the Greater Middle East.
Yet, the one thing most Afghans can unite against is a foreigner. And, failing that, they dislike foreign ideologies taking hold in their land. This was one of the primary reasons why the communist government of Afghanistan that arose shortly after the ending of the historic monarchy of Afghanistan was so hated. When threatened, the Soviet Union–the big neighbor of Afghanistan at the time–moved into Afghanistan in force, intending to cow the local population and to force feed Soviet communism to the people there.
As history would prove, the USSR’s fantastical attempt to impose communism on Afghanistan ended in failure. A decade of warfare, loads of blood and treasure pissed away, and the inevitable loss of Afghanistan to US-backed Islamist forces ended whatever hopes Moscow had of creating a Soviet client state so close to Iran. Not only did the Soviet military endeavor to impose a radical, foreign ideology upon the ancient people of Afghanistan fail, but shortly after the last Soviet soldier departed Afghanistan in disgrace, the USSR itself collapsed and the Cold War ended.
It turned out that Islam and a hatred of foreigners among the Afghan people was far more galvanizing of a force than either the Soviets or, as time would show, the Americans could comprehend.
After the horrendous terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States and its allies invaded Afghanistan. They did it a bit differently than the Soviets did. Rather than surging into the country with large, lumbering forces, there was a conscious effort to keep the US military footprint small. At first, CIA paramilitary and US military Special Forces teams enmeshed alongside anti-Taliban forces native to Afghanistan with the aim of breaking the Taliban’s hold of the country and crushing Bin Laden’s al Qaeda network in the country.
It worked–to a point. The Americans used their greater technology to enhance the martial prowess of the local forces it had aligned with. But, as the British learned the hard way in the nineteenth century, one can usually rent an Afghan…but one can rarely buy the loyalty of an Afghan outright.
Still, in the Fall and Winter of 2001, the Americans had not replicated the same mistakes of the Soviets. While there was loose talk of spreading democracy to the country, the primary focus was on routing the Taliban from the nation’s capital of Kabul and either killing or capturing Bin Laden and his top lieutenants.
Sadly, the George W. Bush Administration utterly failed in its original mission to capture or kill the man responsible for the most horrendous terrorist attack in American history–an attack that had occurred under Bush’s watch–Usama Bin Laden. At the critical Battle of Tora Bora in December 2001, CIA paramilitaries and their Afghan partners had Bin Laden on the run and surrounded in the mountain passes separating Afghanistan from neighboring Pakistan.
The Americans had been caught flat-footed by the 9/11 attacks. Few in the Pentagon had any contingency plans for dealing militarily with Afghanistan. Outside of the Special Forces, the US military did not have the resources to project conventional American power into landlocked Afghanistan in any reliable timeframe.
The CIA, on the other hand, had access to Afghanistan and could penetrate the country–with the help of the Russians, of course. Within a few days of the 9/11 attacks., the CIA’s first paramilitary teams were flown into Afghanistan on Russian military helicopters and the rest, as they say, is history.
From the outset of the slap-dash mission, though, the Americans were always undermanned; they could do little more than counterterrorism operations. They could augment the local Northern Alliance. They could chase down terrorists and use AirPower to break apart Taliban resistance in the cities, like Kabul. Beyond that, it would be difficult to have the kind of major American military operation that so many US politicians and American voters were accustomed to.
At the time, Bob Woodward reports then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as complaining that, “We’re not running out of targets to bomb, Afghanistan is!” In essence, the kind of dazzling air war that had impressed American voters during Desert Storm would not be replicable in Afghanistan. The terrain was different and the enemy was far more diffuse than Saddam’s forces had been in 1991.
The failure of military planning became apparent when CIA paramilitary teams, as led by Gary Bernsten, and affiliated US Special Forces units needed about 100 Airborne Rangers to be deployed to the Pakistani side of the border to effectively plug the gaps in the mountains between Tora Bora in Afghanistan and Pakistan beyond. US Central Command (CENTCOM), under the leadership of US Army General Tommy Franks, refused the request for troop deployments to the area to stop Bin Laden and his confederates from escaping.
To compound matters, America’s Afghan “allies” in the Battle of Tora Bora essentially switched sides and, because the Pashtun were sympathetic to Bin Laden and his Taliban allies, helped get Bin Laden and his fellow travelers across the border into Pakistan, where Bin Laden and his cadre were shielded by Pakistani intelligence for years to come.
Rather than admit their failure so early on–when victory had appeared to be assured–the Bush Administration shifted gears. First, they began surging larger, conventional forces into the region. Soon, the mission escalated from counterterrorism and punitive expeditionary warfare to democracy promotion.
Not only did the Americans impose democracy upon fragmented Afghanistan, but they entrusted the leadership of the nation to a group of unpopular ethnic minorities belonging to the Northern Alliance and they simultaneously propped up a notoriously inefficient and corrupt “democratic” regime in Kabul.
The war was lost the moment Bin Laden slipped across the border in Pakistan. The mission shifted from a necessary one of a limited US military footprint meant to hunt down and capture or kill Bin Laden to one of regime change coupled with the promotion of both the wholly alien concept of democracy as well as the insane tenets of post-modern Liberalism. Under the imprimatur of “human rights” various American Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) and affiliated “soft power” projecting institutions flooded into Afghanistan over the years to throw money behind the strangest (in the eyes of most Afghans) endeavors.
Not only would girls and women be taken out of their traditional roles in Afghan society, but they would be educated and made into equals for Afghan men. While this is a hugely good thing for Afghan girls, it was completely offensive to many Afghans and helped to militate them against the Americans.
That, coupled with other odious Liberal “human rights” campaigns in a country that is strictly Islamic and inherently Medieval, ensured that not only would the Americans remain in Afghanistan indefinitely–but that both al Qaeda and the Taliban (as well as other anti-American militants) would be empowered to resist the US presence in Afghanistan.
For 20 years, Americans, like the Soviets before them, attempted to impose entirely alien ideology upon the ancient Afghans. They failed. In the eyes of many fighting us, we are the ideological insurgents and they are the counterinsurgents, protecting their lands from heavy-handed defense contractors and un-Islamic ideologies, all to restore what they believe is the “natural” order of Afghanistan that has pervaded in their country for centuries.
My great fear is that, when the last American G.I. finally departs Afghanistan, the United States may soon fall thereafter–just as the Soviet Union collapsed in the wake of their long defeat in Afghanistan.
So, I ask, what the hell were we thinking in Afghanistan after all of these years?!
What’s more, have we learned our lesson…or will our elite replicate the terrible mistakes of the last 20 years elsewhere, say in Africa?
Time will tell. I’m not optimistic.