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.


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We went into this war in the right way at first by supporting the faction that looked like it would bring freedom to the Afghan people and help us kill or capture the masterminds of the September 11 attack on America. Most Americans supported President Bush on the original action and were proud of how quickly the initial objectives were achieved.
The war is dragging on for us because we are now doing the same thing Soviets did in the seventies, that is propping up a government that we helped get set up. We need to define victory, achieve it, and start an exit strategy. If we don’t do this; Afghanistan will become Obama’s Viet Nam and instead of him becoming the new FDR he will find himself the new Lyndon Johnson with a war he can’t win and doesn’t want.

Posted by Craig Coal | Report as abusive

Comparing the Soviet-era fighting forces to the modern US warfighting machine is not an apples to apples comparison. ’nuff said

I think Debussman also errs in legitimizing the Taliban. Does he think its appropriate to consider the opinions of a bunch of people trained to kill innocents in the Madrassas of Pakistan? The common Afghani would wish to see the Taliban ousted.

And let’s not forget what this is really all about: encircling Iran. Iran’s emerging nuclear influence directed by (deranged, fanatical, delusional, confused, or just insensitive if you lean left) Ayatollahs.

See, anyone can put words on paper.

Posted by Luke | Report as abusive

What all we have learnt from the history? Why can’t we apply that? I think I have a non-military option which can achieve the same US goal without investing heavily on military. It might cost even less than one tenth of the current cost, which we are spending right now — A success that would last for a long time. I can’t tell it all in one sentence. I volunteered with the obama team during the election for change. But the question is would the Obama team give ear to any suggestions? Would they care to know about it? There are achievable solutions in a shorter period of time.

Posted by Arjumand Akhtar | Report as abusive

The Soviet Union’s reasons for being in Afghanistan were territorial ambition and a concern about the spread of Islamic terrorism. The US has a slightly different reason for being there. Osama was trained there – with indirect help by the US, and used this country as his launching pad for his ambitious goal of building a Caliphate. A reasonable goal of the US is to prevent this country from becoming that Caliphate. This is similar to our apparently eternal presence in Germany, Japan and South Korea. The difference being that actual combat takes place in Afghanistan. Call it what you will, but the moment we leave, the Taliban take over and Osama or someone like him resumes a more frontal assault on the Western World. We cannot leave.

Posted by Guy Thompto | Report as abusive

Exit strategy? What exit strategy? There’s none, if you don’t count that proverbial last chopper lifting off from the US Embassy as one. And the next day thereafter, Osama bin Laden will be holding a press conference in Kabul.
Staying strategy? Again there’s none, at least within the realm of current rules of engagement. It’s either US/NATO force will keep taking unacceptable casualties, or inflicting casualties on such a scale that recent Israeli incursion to Gaza (aka Cast Lead) would look like child’s play in comparison. The problem is the same that dogged the Russians in the Eighties. There’s no defined enemy the regular army can engage and defeat. AK-47 is now as much a common detail of local costume as pants. The same “peaceful local peasant” that brought out tea and sweets when his village was visited by a large convoy with armor and helicopters buzzing overhead, would pull an RPG launcher from a hiding place when a lone Humvee passes by. The only way to secure an area is to carpet bomb it, then burn whatever remains with napalm, and then seed with land mines for a good measure. But this scorched earth approach proved too much even for not-so-scrupulous Soviets, and can’t be imagined under current NATO leadership.
Actually Russians were very close to making it when they deployed enough attack helicopters to patrol at least the major roads during daytime. But then Mr. Gates supplied Afghan insurgents with Stinger SAMs, and choppers became too vulnerable. Fixed wing aircrafts are not as vulnerable, but they are just too fast and fly too high up to spot insurgents hidden in the vegetation that is abundant in the mountains there. Most of those Stingers are unaccounted for and still pose a threat to NATO aircraft. Besides, if you have money you can buy Stingers or their Russian equivalent from illegal arms dealers, and the border control in Afghanistan is non-existent. And the money is literally growing in Afghan poppy fields.
In other words, Obama is in lose-lose circumstances. Bush could’ve solved it, but he blew his chance. If only on 9/12/2001 he issued an unconditional surrender ultimatum (that would’ve been surely immediately rejected by Taliban), and on 9/13/2001 nuked Afghanistan into one big smoldering hole in the ground, no one in the whole world would’ve said a word against it, given the fact that the WTC ruins were still smoldering. But that option is not available anymore. Whatever options exist now are all losing options.

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

I’m starting to think that we need to be more aware of the overlapping issues that carry across the area from Egypt to India. The good news is that every strategic success will have positive knock-on effect. The bad news is that blunders will have similar negative reverberations. Now if we could just have a clear strategic success…

Posted by Winchester73 | Report as abusive


America needs to wake up, stop believeing what your told by your TVs & newspapers.
Sept 11 was arranged internally by the CIA and FBI etc, to further establish your dept of homeland security (just like hitler) and to remove the taliban from the afgan office as they had abolished the US run opium trade. Since then Afgan now supplies 80% of the worlds herion whith profits going to US based companies. And we all know about the WMDs…so they are not there? why are you still there inflaming the sectarian violence and the oil companies getting back no-bid contracts for the iraq oil.

Now you mention the cost of all this???
160 billion on 1 year worth of war on terror…Hoe many american civilians die each year as a result of this? less than 100….No heart disease kills nearly half a million americans a year. And your government spends 3 billion on it.

We all need to wake up to this empire that rules the world via debt. It all starts with the american people breaking away. Once your leaders loose their popular opinion from their uneducated population the empire will fail.
At the moment you all have no trouble supporting the killing of innocent persons, children and even your own people.
Most of the people in the world know this bar americans, and you are the people with the power at hand to save everyone including yourselves and your children and so on.
All we ask is that you learn to think for yourselves. Its not a big ask, you are always emergent and knowledge will set you free, not in the propaganda/democatic sense, it is the divine principal of our species and it is up to you and you only to grasp it.

Posted by Pete | Report as abusive

As Bush said take the war to the enemy and keep the enemy busy there. The moment we leave, the Jihadists will take over and they, regardless of survival of Osama, with the help of Iran and other groups (indirectly funded by Saudis) prepare attacks on US and other secular nations. They will embolden fundamentalist elements in muslim countries. Currently, Iraq and Afghanistan are the two playgrounds which are like beehives for jihadists, the moment they become unemployed they will be sent out on new missions: may it be in Thailand/Philippines or Spain/France, not to mention UK/ US. Pakistan will be Talibanized if Afghanistan falls (in the hands of Taliban).

This is a new global reality, no easy way out of this quagmire. Global sacrifices are needed to live with and ultimately root out the fundamentalism and terrorism. No quick bilateral agreements will help any one country out of this abyss, ‘unless, one changes ones way of life’. A collective, sustained and multipronged attack will yield results, that too after a prolonged effort. Glad Russia wants to help.

Mr. Debusmann: Alexander to America everyone invaded had won the wars with Afghanistan- however,they could not live here with this civilization that had embraced stone age irreversibly.You are right 20 yrs later they remain same.

people should not be afraid of afghanistan or pakistan or iran . No onne wants to go out and kill anyone . Everyone wants to live in a peaceful world and enjoy prosperity . We need to help these countries that have been in turmoil with education and financial assistance and bring them industrial solution thus providing them with jobs and a sustainable economy. We do not need people like AzadDP spreading fear and hate towards these countires and alienating them . We need to unit as human race and help one another not attack and kill . We need more love and time . We need to welcome everyone into global village regardless of race, culture and religion . Not everyone will be the same and we should not anticipate same colours . AzadDP you need to be banned from here for spreading hate against humanity.

Posted by vancity | Report as abusive

It’s interesting to read Muslim viewpoints of the war in Afghanistan. I welcome their comments. That is part of living in a free society. It is regrettable that there is a war, and that innocent people are hurt, but America is not an easily defeated power once we have been dragged into a conflict. Muslims do not understand what a terrible and committed enemy America can be once properly motivated. We do not go away without a few million deaths on the part of the “winner” (ask Vietnamese people if they feel like they “won”).

The Taliban and Al Qaida are pure evil and need to be destroyed whatever the cost. We have the same capacity for total commitment to military action as the Soviets did. We will stay in Afghanistan for another decade or two to straighten the place out.

Buying up all the opium and destroying it or sending it to the legitimate market would be helpful. Building a real border with Pakistan would also be a good idea. Another good idea would be putting some kind of chemical sensors in place in satellites or predator drones that could detect the labs used to make heroin so we could bomb them. Getting rid of Karzai and his cronies would also be helpful.

I hope Obama reads this.

Posted by Bob Johnson | Report as abusive

C’mon Bob!!!
Think for one second about what you are saying! It is the very reason there is so much disproportional hatred toward Muslims, and disproportional hatred towards the US! While some of the things you said are entirely valid (I don’t support people or groups who kill innocents to make a political statement), Al Qaida and the Taliban ARE NOT AT ALL representative of the Muslim people. That is equivalent of saying that Billy Graham and Timothy McVeigh are representative of Christianity as a whole! And to those people who believe that the Afghan people hate us or love us, you are just as guilty! Not all of America supports this war, just as some people support it. Opinion is divided among the people. I’m not saying what options are best, or even that there is a good option, but recognize that blanket statements like these are what causes and ads to the existing tensions.

Posted by C'mon Bob! | Report as abusive

There were multiple reasons for entering Afghanistan.
1. al Qaeda was being protected by the Taliban
2. The Taliban was reducing opium production
3. Afghanistan is strategically located for many reasons
4. It was the prelude to Iraq.

It has been shown that al Qaeda was involved with 9/11. How far covert entities of the US black world were involved, I do not know. The Fact the US has not captured Osama and broken the back of al Qaeda tells me the US was not really that interested in doing that and has other motivations. A big one is the CIA Opium revenues. The other was access to Iraq, Syria, and Iran oil fields. I think it was very convenient that we dropped Afghanistan and marched into Iraq on the segue Saddam Hussein was in league with al Qaeda and to make this worse he had WMDs. Both of which were proven later to be false. But the US was instrumental in getting BP, Exxon and Chevron access to Iraq oil fields and a side bonus was we freed up the opium pipeline through Iraq that was controlled by the Hussein boys. Now Afghan opium up 600% could flow freely out of the Middle East. To date Bush didn’t fulfill his promise to bring in Osama and now the US is left with a military debacle in the Middle East. Generals hate admitting they couldn’t get it done so more reasonable heads need to look at the costs of continuing this blunt force approach. The CIA have not deemed it necessary to remove Osama and the only people who know about the $25M on his head are those that can’t get at him. Maybe $50M would inspire someone to take action?

I am still of the opinion that the costs of continuing this operation are to high. If you want to stop Islamic terrorist groups, you take away their funding. When the US gets serious about these Islamic terrorists, they won’t be able to by a bb gun much less stinger rockets and will no longer be a threat. The War on Terror is a sham. It should be the War on Terror Support. Take away the Drug, Oil and Protection money they get and you bankrupt them. They have no resources they can draw on. The have no country where they can mine ore and build military weapons. They are thugs and like the thugs of early 20th century US can be taken down by cutting off their funding. Obama does not need to send more troops. We need to change tactics.

Posted by B.Free | Report as abusive

Fact! The USSR did not invade Afghanistan because of Imperialism or even to prop up a puppet Communist government in Kabul. Sorry, that is simply not true.

The primary Soviet objective was to prevent the spread of Muslim Fundamentalism to it’s southern Islamic Republics (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan).

The ‘Stans’ loyalty to the Central Soviet had traditionally been a source of doubt for Soviet politicians, and they were concerned about how the Stans could interpret the overthrow of a Communist Regime in Kabul by Muslim Fundamentalists.

One could even argue that, deplorable as the invasion was, the USSR never really had any options other than to invade Afghanistan. And even here, we need to tread carefully. It was not an invasion, per se. The Kabul Government requested assistance from the USSR.

At this stage, your Western value system will compel you to burst into a response, but wait…

It would be wrong to apply the Western notion of ‘goverment’ and ‘society’ to Afghanistan… then, and now. The Afghanistani’s simply do not deliberate these concepts in the same way as we do.

So, that means that Petraeus is right: “You can’t kill or capture your way out of a complex insurgency.” This is not a continuation of the “hearts and minds” axiom of common insurgencies. Here, we need to *change* the hearts and minds. That doesn’t mean that Afghanistan should become the next State of America, but that we should assist the Afghanistanis in finding a viable and and stable social structure that works for them.

That means… less soldiers and more engineers, doctors, teachers, consultants. We need to build, not bomb. We need to give them access to information, health, prosperity. We need to give them alternatives. Afghanistan MUST become a political nation… not this fragmented anomaly based on religion, where borders count for nothing.

We must turn life in Afghanistan into something that the Taliban cannot compete with.

Regarding Iran (and the ‘encirclement’ of it)… Iran have drawn a dividend from the War on Terror. So far, we have cunningly removed it’s competition for regional supremacy by ousting the Taliban and invading Iraq. We will be done in the region when both of these countries (Afghanistan and Iraq), can act as natural counter-balances to Iran’s regional aspirations. If we don’t, the future instabilities in this region will make our past experiences look tame by comparison.

Posted by Quintin | Report as abusive

This is for Luke, AzadDP and others who seem utterly ignorant. Have you ever been in that part of the world for any period of time? Met the locals, talked to them, and seen how they live their lives?

Saying that “modern US warfighting machine” cannot be compared to the “Soviet-era fighting forces” misses the comparison from Alexander the great through all invaders to the Soviets. None of them survived for long in terms of ruling the Afghans. What makes us think that we will be the first?

First and foremost, no one likes foreign invaders, not the US, not the Russians, not the British, not the Vietnamese, not the Iraqis, more so not the Afghans etc. Secondly, most people get up in the morning the world over to go to work to provide for their families, and want betterment for their children. Now, there are nuts everywhere, and it is insane to treat a whole society or a religious group based on the actions of a few nuts. For instance, the US prisons are full of about 2 million Christian killers, rapists, pedophiles, drug dealers, financial crooks etc. That means 1 in 142 is in a US prison according to official data ( tistic/a/aaprisonpop.htm). But, that doesn’t make all US Christians bad, and most people want to live their lives peacefully. Thirdly, the US has to stop this notion of trying to control everything in the world, and stationing its troops in scores of countries. The ideals of justice, freedom, self-determination and self-preservation are universal, and not a monopoly of the US or Europe. We must not attempt to take them away from others.

In terms of alternative strategies, I look at the $10 billion a month we are spending in Iraq for keeping our troops alive and out of harm’s way as “eating, s***ting and shooting money”. All this money is going pretty much to waste, other than feeding the military-industrial complex and the Haliburtons and Blackwaters of the world. If we used the same money for development projects, such as for roads, electricity, water, hospitals and schools etc., we would make a tremendous difference in the lives of the locals. Just like everywhere else in the world, once people have economic opportunities they get focused on building their lives and bettering the future of their families. Similarly, the tens of billions wasted in Afghanistan and Pakistan could have been easily spent on development projects, say building roads, schools, hospitals and communication infrastructure in the tribal areas. These basic enablers of human dignity and commerce can do wonders. We simply cannot kill every last opponent in the world. There are more born every day.

Posted by Imran | Report as abusive

Amazing that no one wants to look into the root cause of this issue. Everyone is jumping in to treat the symptoms. Debusman is absolutely right on, foreign policy issues in US have become short term and policatical. Bush started the wars without analyzing the long term impact. They (al qaeda) hurt us, so we’ll hurt them back….and hence this cat and mouse game started. No one wants to back out for egomaniacal reasons. We are the most powerful nation on the earth and the president is the most powerful man in the world, so we cannot backoff and must continue to fight. What no one cares about is that the innocents on both sides are the losers. Al Qaeda hurt us, but we are going after Afghan population, innocents and culprits alike, no time to think, just bomb anything that moves and can be seen from the satellites. When we do kill innocents, first deny it, erase the proof and if caught make a story that it was a “Collateral damage” of fighting the bad guys as stated by Albright once.

I think it is time to take a step back and really think about “why do they hate us”. Its not that 1.5 billion Muslims are crazy and just want to hate America. In fact on the contrary most of the 1.5 billion are peace loving and only a fringe minority is violent. US government is spending most of the funds on fighting this fringe minority instead of building relationship with the peace loving majority.

Muslims are stupid nor dumb, they fully understand what is happening and why it is happening. Once US government addresses these three critical issues, I think majority of the Muslim population will change their view of America.

a. Our unequivocal support of Israel. Even though we all know very well the state of Israel is formed by stealing the lands from Palestenians. So we should either become sincere broker of peace or stop supporting all abuses by Israelis
b. Our support of dictators in all Muslim countries, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, etc. You name a Muslim country we have dictator propped up as our puppet. We have got to stop, let the people take care of them.
c. Respect democratically elected governments as people’s will. We want people to elect governments based on our likes. For example Hamas was elected by Palestinians, but we don’t recognize them..same thing with Iran, etc
d. Stop medeling in other’s affairs, just like we don’t accept anyone commenting or influencing in our affairs we should respect boundaries and get our nose out of other’s businesses

Lastly, I don’t think Muslims hate Americans. Muslims hate American ruthless American governments. Irrespective of who the president is in recent times, all of them have one thing in common, they all have bombed and killed innocent Muslims around the world using a flimsy excuse.

Posted by Ram Gupta | Report as abusive

Three step plan to american victory: 1. Stop calling it the “war on terror.” Terror is tactic, not an enemy.
2. Quit pretending God is on your side. The Taliban know better.
3. Suffer the children. Every child killed or maimed is a dragon’s tooth sowed in tomorrow’s battlefield.

Posted by GJ Tryon | Report as abusive

I do not disagree with Quintin & Imran, but, how do you intend to protect these people? Prior to making big money these thugs depended on kidnappings and protection rackets to fund their little operations. All these educated people come to move this country into the 21st century would be prime targets. And what about the common people themselves. We open schools and as the girls walk to school some fanatic throws battery acid in their faces. That is just one example of the way fundamental Islamic society feels about the equality of women. How do you bring such a fundamentally different culture into the modern world? I agree, it is not at the end of a rifle. However, it is a daunting task. Western Freedom ideology does not even resemble what these societies call freedom. I admit I have not lived or ever visited anywhere in this region. I read and try to understand. Am I wrong? Would the common person in Afghanistan embrace a secular government, a republic, whose purpose is to protect basic fundamental rights while granting all the freedom to practice their religion as long as it didn’t infringe upon another’s basic rights while it handled matters of local and foreign interest?

Posted by B.Free | Report as abusive

No wonder the soviets were in Afghanistan for territorial purpose.I don’t believe we had any cause other than Bush’s scaring the American people and prolonging its grips on the power.

After 5 yrs, with just concluded election, there is a ray of hope for Iraq’s political process to travel a steady path. This is what needed in Afghanistan: stable government and security to its citizens’ physical well being (from violence), then the war will be over for US. Country building will follow in a peaceful manner. On the other hand if the successful political process becomes a short lived honeymoon making way for radical take over, the war will resume for Iraqis/ Afghans and others in the neighborhood…