America’s long, long Afghan war

By Bernd Debusmann
February 4, 2009

Bernd Debusmann - Great Debate–Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own–

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.

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.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

Destroy the poppies. Grow food instead. If anyone starts to threaten the farmers, then arrest them. Kill them if they resist.

The drug industry is the single problem in Afganistan. The money reaches the hands of the government. The thugs control the farmers through fear. The drugs become money to fund terrorism.

This is why we need more soldiers, as well as more UN assistance to help build up the country.

If you can provide the Afgani people with a mosques, hospitals, farms, and the ability to protect their family from thugs, the war is won.

Posted by Spooky | Report as abusive

Most of the contributor have accused Pakistan as main hurdle in bringing peace into Afghanistan. Those who do not familiar with the area should not comment. Some of you have suggested that ‘Pakistan should be bombed and flatten’

Dear friends, Pakistan is not a carrot or cucumber. It is a nation of 160 Million peoples and have enough arsenals to reply any aggressor in appropriate manner.

We are the people who fought USSR and breaked it up into 17 or18 new nations. If any one is thinking it is so easy they should try and wait for their own demise.

Posted by Al Baloushi | Report as abusive

legalize and tax drugs worldwide. we can then drop the unnecessarily expensive war on drugs and have one less stupid obstacle to tackle here. whose with me?

Posted by Vishal | Report as abusive

A better way and maybe the only way to stop the war in Afghanistan is for the U.S. and others to sit down with the Pukhtoon (Pushtoon) tribes of all denominations living in Southern part of Afghanistan.

To include the Pushtoons of the Pakistani tribal areas, namely, North and South Waziristan, will definitely not hurt either.

I am a Pushtoons. On an individual basis as well as on a Pushtoon national basis, they are more receptive in a positive way if you want to sit down to talk ‘with’ them and not ‘to’ them. Otherwise, for Pushtoons, it is always an eye for an eye.

They will not leave you alone until they are finished or they finish the invaders. History confirms that. They still exist and they will but the invaders would be finished.

Sit down with them and talk. Of course, the U.S. has all the military power on earth, but that has not solved anything in this world.

General David Petraeus is an excellent commander but more than that, he is an excellent negotiator with a Ph.D. in communications. That, in reality, has reduced tension in Iraq. He acted more as a diplomat than a military commander.

Humans have always responded positively when offered to negotiate and negotiate in peace. Guns and carrots both work but what we need now is more carrots than guns.

Bernd Debusmann is right onto something. Keep up the good work. One thing I want to say about the author himself is “In the article, a couple of places, I get the feeling that the author wants to be explicit about what the U.S. and others should do but has not done so.”

Posted by Shafi | Report as abusive

I agree with Al Baloushi … People are speaking from their asses…. Pakistan has one of the most experience army in the world they have fought three wars with India and India had to pulled back half million of its army from Pakistan borders just few years back because they know its not a joke to attack Pakistan… Reality is Pakistan is the most reliable and dependable friend of USA.
Pakistan has lost over 5000 soldiers fighting Taliban and Islamic nut cases. Its cost in trillions to fight insurgency we know it from Afghanistan and from Iraq. Pakistan is fighting Indian founded insurgency within its boders for four years now….few billions that we have given to Pakistan are not more then lolly pups and popcorn.. we are handing out three billions to Israel every years for 30+ years and what we are getting in return just the headace …..

Posted by speakamerica | Report as abusive

Read just 1 book to understand the Afghan situation:-
Ghost Wars by Steve Coll.
You will figure out how the US and Pak spy agencies ran the covert war to kick out the Soviets.
But also the tensions between the CIA and ISI on how the funds were being utilized (Most of the funds went towards financing the Pak nuke).
The US was then constrained by the fact that Pak was the only place where it could have waged the war from since Iran had just had the revolution.
Again, today it seems the US is falling into the same trap and relying too much on Pak to get supplies in for the war. If the US can get different supply lines through Central Asia with Russia’s help, then I think Pak’s influence on Afghan affairs will lessen and the Afghanis can have better control over their country.
US needs to learn from its mistakes committed 20 years ago.

Posted by sbyuhofs | Report as abusive

I have a solution to this problem that works for everyone. Joe Biden recently said that Afganhistan should be the “world’s responsibility”. How about lets scrap that idea and make Afganhistan “Afganhistan’s responsibility!!” Barack Obama’s foreign policy is just like Bush’s except that the new theatre of war is in Afganhistan. How would you all like it if the Taliban came to the U.S. and told us how to live? That is how they feel in their country too folks. Just leave them alone!!

I’m sorry but they only way for the U.S win to this war is to reduce their military presence and increase the rebuilding and helping the poor. You want the people to trust you, you want the people to know that you are their for them. Bulid hosiptals empower local leaders, build schools. The more good the U.S can do the better and then the people will not consider them enemies.

Posted by Dude | Report as abusive

Could we not just seal the Afgan penninsula, not letting anyone in or out, no imports, no exports, nothing. I am sure that this is not the answer but it makes as much sense as going in and killing people or trying to win their hearts and minds. These people are looking forward to the next life – they don’t care about this one.

Posted by Joe Mixon | Report as abusive

The outside foreign invaders listed form an exclusive and notorious club of superpowers that have arrogantly marched into the tribal regions around the Hindu Kush only to stumble out years later bloodied and sobered. The only member of this club to gain anything like a decisive victory over the Afghan resistance was the Mongol Horde (utilising as they did a brutal moral flexibility with regard to civilian life that is not politically viable today.)

Alexander, the British and the Soviets all discovered that state-of-the-art technology and tactics alone were utterly incapable of providing the desired strategic results.

I understand that Mr Obama is a student of history – he will be aware that the US and ISAF operations will probably last generations, not years, and that even the conclusion of the Taliban as a force will not mean an end to resistance.

The most likely strategic outcome is the devolution of governance back to the tribal elders and withdrawal of frontline troops. The bigger question is how long do we, the West, hold the line – maybe fifty or a hundred years is acceptable against the backdrop of a War on Terror – and will the relatively-informed democratic peoples of the 21st century continue to sign up to this policy every term?

Posted by OldFriend | Report as abusive

afgahnistan is the American ‘Masters’ of War’s (Bob Dylan Circa 196′s something) Vietnam !
its a money making industry. why’s and whereefore’s don’t matter, just as in veitnam. as long as the US administration keeping spending tax dollars on war goods.

$70 Billion a year?! we could, with a hard bargainer get ‘em down to $20 Billion just to buy the crop and burn it or toss it into an ocean, outer space or indeed sell it back to them. just like the british in the opium wars, now there’s a government who knew about horse trading!!!

Posted by gerry newby | Report as abusive

The USA is going the way of the Roman Empire. The Federal government is bankrupt. The interest on just the stimulus package will be $350 billion a year or so.

The USA cannot afford the battle. We are the foreign invaders, resented by many. The only rational course is to draw down the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and end our military campaigns in both countries. Will Obama see that? Only time will tell, and time is short.

Posted by Buckley | Report as abusive

Pull all troops out of all conflicts now,
Your strategies are floored. Spend more time thinking about your enemy. Your two biggest battles are the war on drug traders, and the power struggles with the oil nations, who just happen to use religious fundamentalists to fight their battles.
What you need to understand is it is all interelated, it is all about power. Drugs, Guns, money , & religion are all used as ways and means of gaining power. So these are the things that you need to fight, not the foot soldiers in their own lands. You can’t win that war.
However the way you can beat these fundamental problems is by beating them in your own backyard. You must make the oil nations redundant. Don’t buy their oil, use only renewable energies. You drain their funds you crush their power. You don’t need to shoot at them, they will shoot each other. You can’t change religion, but a democracy can legislate it into submission, they are generally harmless anyway if they are bound by the correct laws. The drug traders need to simply be put to death. No jail, no second chance, just death is the only long term deterant. You must remember that most of these people are not of sound mind, and would steal from & even kill their own mother to gain power. The earth is better off without these people period. They can not be rehabilitated. Their may be hope for thier children. Unfortnately this is the only answer, and if we all want to live in a safe world then we all must rise up against these animals who steal,rape, kill, not only people but the worlds defenceless wildlife. Read the current stories about Sth American drug lords, you will be apalled.

Posted by Brad | Report as abusive

Unfortunately, U.S. foreign policy is periodically reset by a new Administration filled with people who have little historical memory and even less experience. The professional cadre of experts at the State Department are order-takers under new management who answer to the political advisers in the White House. In Afghanistan and elsewhere, the U.S. is reaping what it sowed many years ago by teaming up with the Islamic militants in order to counter Soviet power in Central Asia and protect access to energy supplies.

Posted by Steve Davies | Report as abusive

Simply put: we must remove the straw in our own eye before trying to remove the straw from other people’s eyes’. By bringing our troops back we save billions of dollars, a portion of these we can use for humanitarian purposes on those same nations and win their hearts not their hatred.
But let’s recreate the haven that we were for the freedom lovers of around the world. We have come to a day and age that we are not even free in our own country, subject to security and safety laws that are ludicrous. How far have we come that we can not even bring a nail filer or mouthwash for travel, but over a million illegal immigrants, not counting smugglers cross the border each year full of drugs and guns.
The US Government have lost their focus, or are focusing on the pockets of a few people that do not control the economy, remember that a dollar in a million homes moves more people than a million dollars in a single home.

Let’s be smart….

Posted by Vincent | Report as abusive

This is in answer to jjmk4546,8th Feb 8, 9.52pm who asked ‘Pakistan is in this game for money; it will take money and yet do nothing.Can any of reuter’s readers
tell where all that money given to Musharaf ended up?

Here is the answer:
USA & Nato has spend $2-4Billion/month in Afghanistan in the last 100 months, that is $2.4 to $4 Trillion, for ZERO output.

According to General Musharraf in his interview on CNN he gave accounting of $ 10B over the last 8 years or so.
1. $5B over 100 months ($1M/month for rental of 3 airfields in Pakistan for exclusive use of US).
2. $2.5B over 100 months for transport of ALL supplies from Karachi to Afghanistan for US and NATO forces.
3. $2.5B over 100 months for misc others which includes I assume payments for all people captured in Pakistan who were Al-Qaida as we call them, including less then 50 helicopter gunships used to fighting ($5M/piece).

So US has NOT done any favor to Pakistan, instead Bush’s ‘War-on-terror” has destroyed Pakistan and bought the Afghan war into Pakistan’s central towns.Remember:
1. Afghan-USSR war send in 5 Million refugees into Pakistan.
2. 5000 Pakistan military soldiers including Generals have been killed fighting the combined insurgencies in Tribal areasm which are run-off of the Afghan war that Pakistan has nothing to do with.
3. Taking US lead, India has put over 20000 agents on Afghan border who with Hamid Karzai’s government have destabalized Pakistan by creating insurgencies in Baluchistan through Baluch Liberation Army, Head Quartered in Tel-Aviv (check it out on Goggle).
4. Pakistan corrupt political leadership and Gen Musharraf were blackmailed after 9/11 into supporting US war, that has created mess in Pakistan, as the Pakistan forces are not “mercenaries”. They know they are fighting a un-just war against their own brothers and families in FATA and Waziristan.

Do you know what is the cost for each US solider fighting in Afghanistan ($25,000/piece!). Would to like to pay Pakistan for 100,000 soliders deployed on borders the same amount. Mathematically that comes to $25B/month or 2.4 Trillion/year?

So since now we know the accounting of $10B given to Pakistan, and also what it costs to fight in Afghanistan, it is for US public to decide, what to do to force Omaba, to un-do what Bush did.

By the way some senator asked why does Pakistan needs F-16′s? The answer is for the same reasons Israel used in Gaza just 25 miles from their airbases!

Our analyst have estimated that US/Nato needs 525,000 soliders to control Afghanistan. First is do we have 525,000 soliders? By that estimate the body bags will also increase statistically to 52,500. DO we want our children to die for there ZERO-SUM cause launched for some-one else.

Logically, why are we fighting in Afghanistan? For Al-Qaida and 9/11 that the world seems to believe was a false-flag operation created by one of our most trusted allies in Middle-East (Go to You-tube and look for 9/11 video’s and debates).

Please do remember this war is the unfinished war of Aghan-USSR days. Its time to stop saber rattling. All it costs is $20B-50B in 5 years to stabilize Afganistan. You do the maths its 50B Vs $10 Trillion over next 5 years.

Posted by Tariq J Qureshi | Report as abusive

Hi, from Moscow. Yesterday I saw RAMBO in Afganistan film. It is so interesting how people’s perception changes. Look at the episode when RAMBO was saved by brave Madzhahets from bad bad Soviets. Looks a little strange now, isn’t it. Good luck, guys! You certainly better than Soviets and succed in Afgan. By the way you don’t need any advise…You smarter!

Posted by Nikolay | Report as abusive

We all know its going to be the next viet nam, there is atleast 5 more years there.
All the best to the army and the civilians.

I strongly doubt the US will have much, if any, success in Afghanistan. I would expect within 2yrs they should pretty much be fighting their losing battle alone. They have now been in Afghanistan for 1oyrs and counting, and what has happened? Some 3,000 people – not all American – died on September 11, 2001. That was 9yrs ago but the US is still trying to “avenge” itself upon…who? The Afghan peasants whose livelihoods have been destroyed, towns bombed, infrastructure shattered and life expectancy greatly reduced? First the Soviets and then the Americans…it would be funny were it not so utterly saddening.

Of greater concern is the ongoing destabilization of Pakistan and the very strong possibility that jihadists may get their hands upon nuclear weapons. This seems to escape everyone. There is a greater possibility of this happening than the US bringing lasting peace to Afghanistan, but then who listens to us? We’re just voices in comment boxes on articles strung across the ether of the internet. What’s more, even when American citizens complain against these wars which are now entering a decade, their government does not listen to them.

One more thing concerns me: that a once-great nation like the United States has become just another Empire-building enterprise running roughshod over others because it values competition over co-operation. This translates to: “We have the power. We simply must use it. It is our GOD-given right to use it, therefore however we use it is also right. We are gods.” I assure you dear readers, la ilaha illallah, there is no god but GOD. I am reminded of the song October by the Irish band U2 whose lyrics run as follows:

“October, and the trees are stripped bare, from all they wear, what do I care?

October, and kingdoms rise and kingdoms fall, but you go on…”

May GOD deliver us from evil. Mashallah