Afghan Journal

Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics

Afghanistan: neither Vietnam nor Iraq, but closer home perhaps

November 11, 2009


[Women at a cemetery in Kabul, picture by Reuters' Ahmad Masood]

As U.S. President Barack Obama makes up his mind on comitting more troops to Afghanistan, the search for analogies continues. Clearly, Afghanistan cannot be compared with Vietnam or Iraq  beyond a point. The history, geography, the culture and the politics are just too different.

The best analogy to Afghanistan may well the very area in dispute – the rugged Pashtun lands straddling the border with Pakistan and where  the Pakistani army is in the middle of an offensive, argues William Tobey in a piece for Foreign Policy.

Tobey, a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfar Center and who served on the National Security Council staff under three U.S. presidents, takes a walk down history to the 1936 uprising against British rule in Waziristan.

The rebels were driven by radical Islam, Pashtun nationalism and armed opportunism, much the same factors firing up the modern Taliban campaign.  

“The rebels improvised roadside bombs, ambushed convoys, and launched hit and run attacks on isolated outposts to drive out alien forces. They kidnapped and beheaded British soldiers and civilians. In unprotected villages, they massacred civilians who did not support them. ”

And when troops chased them, they crossed the border into Afghanistan. Much of the same is happening on either side of Waziristan’s border with Afghanistan and you could be forgiven to think if this isn’t a re-run in some ways.

Even the British response in Waziristan seems to be similar to US/NATO operations in Afghanistan. They called in air strikes, the earliest use of air power, and with similar set of rules to limit civilian casualties. But of course, like the NATO forces they ended up causing civilian casualties.


[U.S.Marines in Helmand, picture by Reuters’ Asmaa Waguih}

The British, also attempted, to improve civil society, building roads and schools. Again the results were mixed. Some people appreciated the assistance, but many others saw it as a way to extend British military power and Western values deeper into their lands.

Here’s a Time magazine article from January 1948 detailing what it calls Britain’s “most dogged  (and futile) essays in civilisation.”

Eventually Waziristan was pacified through a combination of overwhelming force, shrewd political moves dividing and sapping the morale of the rebels, and patience, Tobey says.

The thing to remember is that the West’s war with al Qaeda must somehow not be transformed into a war with nearly 40 million Pashtuns who live on both sides of the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, he says.

 The West has just saved itself more trouble by acquiescing to the re-election of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, however imperfect the process may have been.  

The brute reality of Afghanistan is that it would be even more difficult to govern under a non-Pashtun president such as Karzai’s main challenger Abdullah Abdullah who is half-Tajik, since Pashtuns are half the population and “most of the trouble”,  says Bret Stephens in a piece in the Wall Street Journal.

Stephens, in fact, argues that it is self-serving for the U.S-led coalition to blame Karzai for all of Afghanistan’s problems.

“It would be equally useful if some of Mr. Karzai’s more acerbic Western critics could ask themselves why matters went abruptly south in Afghanistan after several years in which they had gone swimmingly well under Mr. Karzai, including a thriving economy, girls back in school, people having access to health care and so on. The answer has a lot less to do with Mr. Karzai’s performance than with NATO’s.,” he says.


Unless we develop a comprehensive South Asia strategy, the most we can hope for is a temporary peace in Afghanistan.

What would such a strategy look like? Well, at the very least it requires some moderation of the strategic competition between India and Pakistan.

Without attention to this aspect of the problem, we really are only playing around at the edges of the conflict.

For more, see:


Once again I will ask: Did America win or lose the war in Iraq? Did America just abandon one war for another or what? America will lose this war and then invade another country, most probably Iran. Then it will repeat the pattern throughout the Middle East until somebody puts a stop to it.

Posted by Mufaso | Report as abusive

Sometimes I ask myself,what’s the point of sending young men to die in some forsaken place where only poppies grow amid the ragged mountains to fuel the heroine industry?. Unlike Iraq there is no oil. The Soviet Union was the latest of the powers to withdraw in defeat. B ut I guess Obama has to have his own war, as Bush’s had Iraq. It’s going to get much worse before it gets better.

Posted by Ricardo | Report as abusive

Since the president can’t make up his mind about sending the requested troops that his top general wants, I have changed my mind about the whole situation! Instead of allowing our troops to be ”
sitting ducks”, I say pull our troops out to keep more from getting killed. There is no use in having them in harms way if we do not intend on winning the war. That’s not real bright! The president speaks our of both sides of his mouth. He says it is a necessary war, but he is not in favor of sending the troops needed to win!!! If we are not there to win, pull out and I don’t mean waiting, and waiting, and waiting. The president doesn’t seem to care how many of our troops get killed. I wonder if he would be in favor of pulling them out to save a few lives. If he doesn’t care how many get killed, he might as well leave them there until most are killed. Which cost more, shipping them home in coffins or bringing them home alive!! I suspect, bringing them home alive would save more money. Maybe, he would think that saving money is more important. He needs to save all he can so he will have more to spend!
Get the troops our ASAP. They are trapped. He will probably take another 6 months to make up his mind about withdrawing the troops, which will allow more to be killed!

Posted by hankster6 | Report as abusive

I think the best analogy would be the Afghan / Mujaheddin war of the 80s..

But I prefer reality to comparison.

While it remains almost unfathomable that the worlds most powerful armies together cant even find one man let alone win a war in a third world country where after 8 years the situation is worse than ever, maybe the answers aren’t that complicated. Maybe the Afghans themselves are against the coalition and the invasion?

When you hear things like, profound electoral fraud and political corruption, massive bribes being paid to the Taliban, security at an all time low and the absolute explosion in the heroin production from almost zero to 90% of the worlds supply it’s hard to imagine Afghans being happy about this..

Posted by brian | Report as abusive

Mufaso, concerning Iraq, all America wanted is for the country to be stable enough to keep a puppet government in power who is strong enough to keep the oil flowing.
Now that this has pretty much achieved it could probably be said that they won their war, though it cost them a lot more than expected, they could care less if the entire country turned was ruined in the process..
Oil flow guarantees US reconstruction contracts in Iraq and a dependable supplier of oil for the future (no more OPEC oil leverage or embargoes).

Ricardo, Afghanistan is a geo-strategic and economic prize none the less. There has been a plan for a ‘trans-Afghan pipeline’ for many years now that will tap into the vast natural gas reserves of central Asia distribute it through the region via Afghanistan. nistan_Pipeline

Here’s what Obamas top political adviser has to say about central asia:

“About 75 per cent of the world’s people live in Eurasia, and most of the world’s physical wealth is there as well, both in its enterprises and underneath its soil. Eurasia accounts for about three-fourths of the world’s known energy resources.”

“exploitation of new sources of energy and the Central Asian region and the Caspian Sea basin are known to contain reserves of natural gas and oil that dwarf those of Kuwait, the Gulf of Mexico, or the North Sea.”

“For America, the chief geopolitical prize is Eurasia… Now a non-Eurasian power is preeminent in Eurasia – and America’s global primacy is directly dependent on how long and how effectively its preponderance on the Eurasian continent is sustained”

“For Pakistan, the primary interest is to gain Geostrategic depth through political influence in Afghanistan – and to deny to Iran the exercise of such influence in Afghanistan and Tajikistan – and to benefit eventually from any pipeline construction linking Central Asia with the Arabian Sea”

“That puts a premium on maneuver and manipulation in order to prevent the emergence of a hostile coalition that could eventually seek to challenge America’s primacy.”

“Moreover, as America becomes an increasingly multi-cultural society, it may find it more difficult to fashion a consensus on foreign policy issues, except in the circumstance of a truly massive and widely perceived direct external threat.”

Posted by brian | Report as abusive

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