America’s long, long Afghan war
Twenty years ago this month, the last Soviet soldier left Afghanistan after a disastrous war that lasted nine years, seven weeks and three days. Barring military and political miracles, the United States will stay longer in Afghanistan than the Soviets did. Considerably longer.
Present U.S. plans to reinforce troops fighting a war that is, by most accounts, going badly, provide for up to 30,000 additional soldiers to be deployed over the next 12 to 18 months. By that time, the U.S. presence will almost have matched the Soviets’ stay and will exceed it by the end of 2010.
And if U.S. history is any guide, politicians running for the 2012 presidential election will describe the Afghan war as Barack Obama’s war because he switched emphasis and carried out a campaign pledge to draw down troops in Iraq and bolster U.S. forces in Afghanistan, now 36,000 strong.
Obama critics will complain about the Afghan war’s cost — probably around $70 billion a year — and demand an accounting on what it has achieved and when it will end. So far, nobody is venturing forecasts beyond “it will be long.”
General David Petraeus, the man credited with turning the tide of the war in Iraq, has spoken of Afghanistan as “the longest campaign of the long war.” Defense Secretary Robert Gates predicts “a long and difficult fight.”
By an ironic twist of history, Gates was instrumental in getting Soviet troops out of Afghanistan when he was deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the U.S. supplied anti-Soviet fighters with cash, weapons and intelligence.
Now Gates is involved in getting more American troops into Afghanistan and it is not difficult to imagine that eventually the United States will face the same agonizing decisions the Soviets faced in the end. Gates, the only Bush White House cabinet secretary retained by Obama, wrote about exit problems from a war gone wrong for the Soviets in his 1996 memoir, From the Shadows.
He said that by 1987, the CIA had concluded the Soviets wanted out. “But tough decisions were still in front of them – how to get out, when and without losing face … I was truly convinced that the Soviets would have difficulty arranging a face-saving way out.”
They did get out, under an agreement signed in Geneva, and the last soldier to leave, Lieutenant General Boris Gromov, walked across the bridge that links Afghanistan with the Uzbek town of Termez on February 15, 1989. The war had killed about 15,000 Soviet soldiers and an estimated one million Afghans.
RETALIATION TO MASS MURDER
By early February, the U.S. death toll in Afghanistan stood at 644 and that of the NATO-led multinational coalition of the International Security Assistance Force at 427. Afghan casualties, both military and civilian, are a fraction of those of the Soviet war.
The Soviet and American wars in Afghanistan differ vastly in scale and purpose. Moscow wanted to prop up a Marxist government and at the height of its involvement, had a 115,000-strong force in the country. More than 600,000 of its soldiers served there and the invasion drew international condemnation, complete with a (partial) Western boycott of the 1980 summer Olympics in Moscow.
In contrast, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan was in retaliation to the mass murder of 3,000 people in New York’s World Trade Center and at the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. That attack was carried out by members of al Qaeda, which had been given support and safe haven by the Taliban government of Afghanistan.
The American assault on Afghanistan initially dislodged the Taliban but failed to destroy al Qaeda or eliminate its leader, Osama bin Laden, whom George W. Bush had promised to catch “dead or alive.” Even with a $25 million bounty on his head, bin Laden has eluded capture and broadcast a new audio tape just a week before Obama’s inauguration on January 20.
Meanwhile, the Taliban have recovered and are steadily extending their influence with a permanent presence in more than 70 percent of Afghanistan, up from 54 percent a year ago, according to the International Council on Security and Development, a think tank based in London which closely monitors the war. NATO officials dispute that percentage but there’s no dispute that three out of four main highways into Kabul, the capital, are being harassed by the Taliban.
It is a situation that lends itself to General Petraeus’s oft-repeated dictum: “You can’t kill or capture your way out of a complex insurgency. The challenge … is how to reduce substantially the number of those who have to be killed or captured.”
That’s a task made more difficult by the fact that Taliban and al Qaeda elements can count on sanctuaries across the border with Pakistan and hot-pursuit U.S. air strikes into Pakistan carry the risk of destabilizing the fragile government there – the government of a nuclear-armed state.
Another complicating factor: Afghans don’t like outsiders to interfere in their affairs as successive invaders, from Alexander the Great to the British and later the Soviets, learned at great cost. In his memoir, Gates hails the departure of the Soviets as a great victory and adds: “Afghanistan was at last free of the foreign invader.”
That’s not how the Taliban see it, 20 years later.