In Afghanistan, history rhymes

June 29, 2010

The faltering war in Afghanistan brings to mind a famous quote attributed to Mark Twain and a less famous one by Robert Gates, the U.S. Secretary of Defense. Twain: “History does not repeat itself but it rhymes.” Gates: “Tough decisions: … how to get out, when, and without losing face.”

The Gates quote, in his 1996 memoir (From the Shadows), refers to the Soviet leadership which by the mid-1980s had decided to end its disastrous occupation of Afghanistan but had not figured out exactly how to do that.

The last Russian soldier left Afghanistan in February 1989, at the end of an exit strategy which began with a sharp increase in the number of troops and centered on building up government forces to fight an insurgency rapidly gathering momentum.

Sound familiar? Since taking office, President Barack Obama has ordered an additional 51,000 troops into Afghanistan “to provide the time and the space for the Afghan government to build up its security capacity, to clear and hold population centers that are critical, to drive back the Taliban to break their momentum.”

Next, a transition phase, beginning in July 2011, “in which the Afghan government is taking more and more responsibility for its own security.”

That rhymes with the way then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev extricated his country from Afghanistan. Not long after taking power in 1985, he ordered the deployment of thousands of additional troops and told his generals they had a year to crush the U.S.-backed opposition. Failing that, they would have to pull out. They did, after four years, not one.

By the end of this year, the length of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan will exceed that of the Soviet Union. U.S. and NATO troops already outnumber the 115,000 soldiers Moscow deployed at the height of the Soviet involvement. By the end of summer, 105,000 U.S. troops will be in place, plus around 40,000 NATO soldiers.

When to withdraw substantial numbers of American forces is a tough decision still to be made by Obama and his new commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, America’s most celebrated soldier. He replaced Stanley McChrystal, who was fired on June 22, the second four-star general to lose his job as top commander in Afghanistan in just over a year. They were removed for very different reasons but their cases speak volumes about disarray in Obama’s Afghan policy.


No hard-and-fast date has been set for the end of the transition and there is no shortage of experts who think U.S. troops will still be in Afghanistan by 2020 or beyond. Their eventual departure will cause America to lose face in the volatile region, as did the Soviet Union.

There are many verses in the Soviet and American adventures in Afghanistan that do not rhyme but here are two more that do: foreign invaders backing corrupt governments lacking legitimacy, and insurgents more motivated than government forces.

A key difference: the Soviets were fighting insurgents across the entire country, the Americans and their allies are focused on the south, where the Taliban are strongest.

The two wars also differ in tactics and the number of casualties. In a campaign in which 14,500 Soviet soldiers died, the Russians employed scorched-earth tactics that leveled entire villages and by some estimates killed more than a million civilians. In contrast, the NATO death toll stood at 1,879 (1,139 of them Americans) at the end of June. The number of Afghan civilians killed since the invasion, in October 2001, has been estimated at between around 10,000 and 13,000.

In the casualty-averse democracies that make up the coalition, the war is so unpopular that key members are beginning to set their own withdrawal timelines, regardless of what the United States is doing.

The Netherlands is set to withdraw its 2,000 troops by the end of this year, Canada is scheduled to pull out by next summer, Poland said this week it would bring home its forces by 2012 and Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain, which provides the second-largest contingent in the coalition, says he wants British troops out of Afghanistan by the time of the next general elections in 2015.

That shows limited faith in the ability of the world’s only superpower to turn the tide in a war that is going from bad to worse. Or to come to a decision on how to get out, when, and without losing face.


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the AfPak war will end when the sociopaths conducting it clearly see that the American people cannot, or flat will not, pay for it anymore..I suspect the latter is coming very soon..

Posted by gramps | Report as abusive

It would be truly refreshing to know exactly WHY we’re still at war in Afghanistan. Bin Laden is not there. He hasn’t been there for years.

Is the only reason for the war in Afghanistan to create a pipeline to the Caspian Sea? Are we there because the Taliban will some how topple the U.S. if they aren’t brought under control? Why do we still send our loved ones to that place to kill and be killed? What is it that lies in Afghanistan that requires the blood of our people to secure? Our troops need to come back home. Let Karzai fend for himself. He cares nothing for his Western protectors.

Posted by Benny_Acosta | Report as abusive

If the Taliban succeeds, they will take the country back to medieval times, a Dark Age of oppression. They did so last time, and they will do it again. Bt one thng is different, which upsets the “rhyme” of history. Great mineral riches have been found in Afghanistan, which will take lots of capital to exploit. Why not use this as a bargaining chip?

Posted by Jerboa | Report as abusive


Militarily until 1950, the United States of America had not not won a war since the one of 1812 against the British. Since 1950, in one undeclared war after another, she has courted defeat by weaker nations and other foreign adversaries. These enemies have had the resolve; Americans have not. Their people have been willing to die; Americans hardly have been willing even to fight.

Some observers attribute this lack of will to a corruption of the American spirit, in the broadest sense. Spiritually, they say, Americans have become self-absorbed in immediate gratification of their basest, their most animalistic lusts. They’ve lost the strength and the sense of certainty that characterized the days of Manifest Destiny (e.g., under President James K. Polk) during the 19th-century. Worse, that spiritual loss is illustrated most vividly by Americans’ conflicted attitude toward their own military.

Some observers accuse the socialistic trans-nationalists, including Mr. Obama, of rationalizing American weakness by characterizing physical attacks against the USA as if they were crimes committed by misunderstood victims of Western tyranny. These apologists for the enemy go so far as to protect that enemy even in actual battle; for example, in Afghanistan, expressing a self-defeating concern for the welfare of the enemy superceding concern for the lives of the troops. Their concern empowers lawyers, not soldiers, to define rules of engagement during the heat of battle; thereby, exposing the troops to potentially needless slaughter. Adding insult to injury, after the battle, what one might term these “radical maternalists” ignore the real, selfless heroes who fought in combat at the front while honoring, for purely socio-political purposes, selected phonies unworthy of such recognition who stayed far behind the lines.

In 1787, the Founding Fathers created a new nation. They wove a new fabric; binding together thirteen, semi-independent states that had been thirteen, British colonies. That fabric was the U.S. Constitution.

The new nation was Anglo-Christian, trusting in God and basing itself on Judeo-Christian values as well as English traditions and language. It promoted individual liberty, individual rights, and individual responsibility. Its character was paternalistic in that it combined justice with mercy but placed justice before mercy. Its stated policy was to remain free of foreign entanglements while defending its own legitimate interests. It recognized other governments, good and evil, as they were, not as it wished them to be.

Their vision was paternalistic not maternalistic. Toward the end of the 19th-century with the rise of so-called Progressivism, the fabric binding America together began to fray. The firm resolve of paternalism began to dissolve into the soft ambivalence of maternalism.

Optimally, society tempers paternalism with maternalism to achieve a balance of justice tempered by mercy; strength tempered by compassion. A paternalistic society without maternalism is strong but harsh. A maternalistic society without paternalism is compassionate but weak.

During the first part of the 20th-century, American society and government began to embrace maternalism with the federal government increasingly playing the role of mother. In the latter part of the century, America began to surrender to the demands of radical feminism, if not to embrace them.

One should not confuse radical feminism with genuine maternalism. They are antithetical. Genuine maternalism does not kill babies about to be born; radical feminism does. Over the years, increasingly radical feminism contaminated genuine maternalism, transforming it into what one might call “radical maternalism”, giving the world the worst of the worst in the form of weakness with an attitude.

The strength and certainty of Manifest Destiny increasingly wilted into the weakness and uncertainty of a society increasingly turned against itself. Domestically, the radical maternalists may view themselves as strident and strong. Internationally, enemies view them as strident but weak. Americans’ embrace of radical maternalism has emboldened these enemies; the Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan is but one consequence.

Without going into detail, there is an easy-to-understand, scientific description for this chain of events. It involves a phenomenon termed “satiation”, a condition that allows behavior increasingly to come under the control of adventitious reinforcement. Militarily, the inescapable consequence of satiation is the kind of certain defeat apparently envisioned by the recently-fired General Stanley McChrystal.

Is there a remedy? Yes. It is comprehensive, scientifically-based, and scientifically-driven. [See Moss GR: Inescapable Consequences. Beverly Hills CA: LifeMAX Press (2009)]. The question, however, is whether the American public retains the capability to embrace such a remedy, or has it crossed the line over which there is no return. If the latter, will this latest undeclared war (Korea, Viet Nam, Grenada, Panama, Iraq, and Afghanistan) mark the end of the American Era?

Posted by Moss_GR | Report as abusive

Let the Afghan people decide by referendum. There answer will be “GET OUT!!!”

Posted by qualsdad | Report as abusive

Continuing to engage in hopeless battles and serious losss of american soldiers is a painful and unending history of blindness and pointless involvement. We are not the saviors of the globe and unfortunately, even when we do good we are criticized and condemned. Let’s focus on healing our internal wounds and making the USA the finest and strongest country in the world.

Posted by erato | Report as abusive

No one can deny this fact that one day U.S and European military will leave Afghanistan. Anyone who does not believe this has his head in sand. Just look at the history of that country and its geography. Afghanistan has been a country by name only with tribal culture divided on ethnic, religious and drug and goods trading interests. It goes like this: I am ruler of my tribe on this side of a mountain and you are on the other side. If you kill someone from my tribe, I will kill two from yours. Revenge will be taken even after seven years; it is normal saying in that culture.
Prepare Afghan army to defend it from insurgents? How can you even think of raising an army? It goes like this, soldier will be a Pushtoon, and a Tajik will hold bullets and a Hazara will order to fire the gun.
Next door Pakistan in last 60 years did not control the border area knowing very will not to get into this mess. It let local tribes set up their own councils/ jerga and self rule. Than came Russians. They wanted to use warm Indian Ocean beaches, outlet to south of than USSR. We had to stop them justifiably and put them in their place. But it effects and aftermath was totally mismanaged. Millions of refugees, over 5 million, cross the border into neighboring Pakistan. They spread arms, drugs and worst of all their version of Islam. At the same time U.S. imposed sanctions against Pakistan sighting its nuclear program while paying no attention to India’s similar program. It infuriate people of that country, result was joining China and company. To date people of that country has very little trust in U.S. policies no matter what we say. Plus we reward them with drone attacks, a public relation disaster.
So, what is the solution? Very simple, bring back our soldiers and quit spending our money there. Why, no matter how long we are there only Afghans can decide among themselves how to live their lives. Yes, they will decide over barrel of gun, a repeat of civil war after Russian departure. No one can deny this fact and we will see it, sad and painful but it will happen.

Posted by Barnala | Report as abusive

[…] found this quote at Reuters. In Afghanistan, history rhymes | Analysis & Opinion | […]

Posted by How many people have you (or your friends) killed? | Report as abusive

The US was attacked from Afghanistan. So I would claim that this is different from the past history cited above.

A second claim is that a US pull-out will not change the incentives for the Taliban or other radical groups to train and attack the US in the future.

I hope a better approach is that we can help the majority of Afghan people to learn to read, and learn what the Koran really says. Along the way, perhaps we can help them build a better economy in which Afghans can find a way to feed their families with out growing poppies.

But we continue to see that the Taliban and other radical groups use murderous means to fight public education (ignorance and violence are their keys to power). And hence, military action is required on the part of the US if we want to change the current flow of history for the better (coupled with economic assistance and supporting local, regional, and/or national governance).

I apologize for getting a little off topic, but I will point out that there is also a Taliban problem in Pakistan, and radical groups fighting in the Kashmir region of India. Given the presence of nuclear weapons in this region of the world, I think it is in the best interest of hundreds of millions of people (including us in the US) to stay involved in this region. The world just isn’t big enough for the US to try and run from these problems. Again, this is different from past history.

I have no connection with the Central Asia Institute and/or Greg Mortenson, but a simple web search, or a visit to your local library will give you insight into my hope for the power of education.

PS. Thanks to the US forces serving the interests of the US and Afghan people!

Posted by Rumphius | Report as abusive

@qalsdad: second your motion! But you need to be aware that it would be a referendum by AK47, not by marking ballot papers

Posted by Komment | Report as abusive

To anybody with smart brain, the Afghan war is a futile disaster. Aid money is flowing out in suitcases. Since 2001 we have given the corrupt warlords tens of billions for nothing. Laden is not worth $1000 bucks.

The sad part is the US did not learn a damn thing about the humiliating defeat in Vietnam costing 55k lives. All stupid empires in the past went bankrupt due to relentless wars. Look at the Roman and Napoleon

Posted by kingcrab | Report as abusive

Hello Bernd,

There is no problem to conquer and secure Afghanistan. Russia did just that. Their surge strategy was working just fine thanks to scorched-earth tactics and playing different ethnic groups against each another. At the end Afghanistan National Army was able to continue wth atrocities on its own and Russians involvement was reduced to pin-point ‘spechnaz’ operations and blanket air bombing using vacuum bombs.

After pullout Russia kept on supplying President Najibullah with resources so he was able hold the power for another 4 yrs.

Yep, whole Afghanistan regiments were changing sides. General Dostum from of North Alliance one was General of President Najibullah. But Najibullah regime was holding strong.

Finally Pr. Reagan pressed Pr. Gorbachev to withdraw support and Najibullah regime collapsed in 3 months.

The key for Russian ‘success’ was unconditional cruelty and reuse of existing social structure based on tribal and clan relations. Russia quickly abandoned experiment with building socialism on top of tribal society. Instead Najibullah was given carte blanche to hold power with his favorite methods.

I cannot believe that any amount of money and arms can propel 30,000,000 people from tribal society with 100’s strong men and chiefs into democratic nation with central government in 12 months, it should take decades. Don’t be mistaken by Iraq that was put together by bloody monster… Saddam.

But another bloody monster can put Afghanistan together in couple months and forge it in nation in couple decades. Just let Karzai grow up to the challenges :(. The day-after-day reality would by horrible.

Unfortunately, all nations are forged in blood.

Posted by sk_usa | Report as abusive

Might’ve been better if James Cameron, David McChrystal and Bill Gates were the ones involved… well, with the exception of Bill Gates.

Posted by HBC | Report as abusive

HBC: Point taken. Ooops!! But then, to err is human…

Posted by BDebusmann | Report as abusive

So if I understand correctly, the ideas being promoted by Mr Debusmann and most comments to this article is for the US to bug out.

This leaves Afghanistan for the Taliban who have learned from Iraq, North Korea, and Iran that conventional arms will not protect them from US remote attacks. To preserve their power they need nuclear weapons. Given the safe haven of Afghanistan, they can continue their work to destabilize Pakistan, and have an excellent shot at gaining what they seek. Of course, other regional powers will be forced to react…

Isn’t the above scenario a likely outcome of a US bug-out? Doesn’t this outcome cost the US a lot more than $100 to $200 billion/year working on the thankless task of nation building? Given the historical fact that the US did invade Afghanistan, it seems we now have a potential tiger by the tail…

Posted by Rumphius | Report as abusive

Bring US army back home, This war is endless and worth nothing only cost our lives and money to make more enemy or terrolists.

Posted by oldba | Report as abusive

As long as the PNACs and GWOTs pull the puppet strings
of the Mad Hatters McCain, Lieberman and Graham on SAFS,
and as long as Congress declares this a ‘contingency
action’ and not a ‘war’, with the $160 billion a year in
so-called ’emergency funding’ nee unfunded Fed deficit,
the American people can march in circles and rooty-toot-
toot, the war merchants in WADC don’t give a gosh darn.
$160B a year is the most profitable Corp since time began.

Posted by Chip_H | Report as abusive

Hi Oldba,

I agree with your goals to minimize the cost in lives and money, I just do not believe these goals can be achieved longer term through the “bug-out” strategy being proposed in this article, or in the majority of comments.

Recent history tells us that two US presidents (Reagan and Bush II) got the US involved in Afghanistan, presumably to address “vital American interests.” Many Afghans and historians believe that the way the US left (abandoned?) Afghanistan after our first involvement in part enabled the subsequent rise of the Taliban. I ask you to consider the possibility that the “bug-out” strategy may result in history repeating itself, and trigger more undesirable outcomes. Perhaps even the nightmare scenario I describe in earlier postings.

If you are looking for reasons to hope for a better future for Afghanistan, and US prospects of avoiding history repeating itself, know that the *vast majority* of Afghans love their children and are tired of war (just like us). Know that they are desperate for ways to feed, and care for their families (just like us). Know that they would welcome culturally appropriate help recovering from the ravages of war and violence. It is not the people of Afghanistan we need fear, but ignorance and want.

Mr Debusmann, would you care to comment on what you think will happen in 2020 or 2025 if the US gives up and leaves Afghanistan in the next year or two? Any downside risks/costs that the US should worry about in the 10-20 year time frame with this “bug-out” strategy? Or is it all peaches and cream?

Posted by Rumphius | Report as abusive

what we see in Afghanistan is a small reflection of what is happening in the rest of the world. The tribes there hate each other. And each fights constantly to hold power over the other.

This is how it is all over the world. We hate each other. We seek constantly to hold power over others and use them for our own purposes. No one that has ever invaded that country has ever had any intentions that were favorable to the native people. That includes us. Before any changes can be made, we have to get passed this hate that we all have for each other. We have to view the other as part of ourselves and accept that. Then we can improve our situation. But not before. And our suffering will only continue until we realize this and change.

Posted by Benny_Acosta | Report as abusive

Rumphius: To quote Petraeus, I don’t have a crystal ball. But I’m pretty sure there will be no substantial withdrawal in the next year or two. I also think that the present counterinsurgency strategy (or nation-building exercise) has very little chance of succeeding in the absence of a legitimate Afghan government.

Posted by BDebusmann | Report as abusive

Out of Afghanistan now. No more collaboration with the heroin dealers of the “Northern Alliance”. Hey, we cannot maintain freedom in our own country, which we presume to understand better than we do Afghanistan.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

Hi Mr Debusmann,

Thank you for your reply.

In the Afghan context, I am not sure what constitutes a “legitimate” government, but I believe that local/tribal/regional governance bodies that work fairly (from the Afghan cultural perspective) for the people they represent has been in place for centuries. So might it be sufficient for a limited national (confederation? federal?) government to be able to better communicate with the regional governing bodies, serve as an honest broker in determining shared interests, promote the “common good” in commerce/resource distribution, and coordinate the common defense of all Afghans? If so, some near future version of the Karzai government, minus the corruption, plus more communication and better regional representation, might give nation building a chance. Such a government might not be “legitimate”, but it could be effective.

At any rate, if the US policy acknowledges that that there is no military solution, and instead uses military action as a means to shield nation building work from the violence of the Taliban and other radical extremist groups, we will leave the path of prior history (i.e. the British empire or the Soviet invasion). I can’t predict if this would be enough, but it can be a new history.

It is also possible that a significant majority of the Afghan people might regain hope and seize the chance to save their children from the years of war and destruction that they have suffered. The Afghan people have plenty of good reasons to not trust the US to stay, but the years of Taliban rule were not well liked by the majority of the Afghan people. And contrary to comments above, the vast majority of the Afghan people are not driven by hate, any more than the hard working, well intentioned US service people are. I thank the US military for their professionalism, and for representing our country so well.

Sorry for my long winded comments and questions. I just fear that a “bug-out” strategy will have the US back in Afghanistan around 2020, but under even more terrible circumstances. I think the lowest cost solution is to keep trying. Let’s not put this problem on our kids too!

Posted by Rumphius | Report as abusive

The adage “never start a war you can’t end” applies only to wars with a chance of being won. And it’s old school, only for people with a common cause, a winning attitude and a greater desire for living than death.

The school now in session is about setting loose wars that can only last and last, seemingly, forever. Those who start and fund – more precisely, invest in selling materiel for – America’s numerous failed modern wars aren’t the ones fighting them. They’re the ones laughing all the way to the bank – louder, the longer the wars last.

Afghanistan is just such a case in point. It should never have been started to begin with, so don’t bother even trying to reason why. The longer it lasts, the worse it keeps getting, and the hollower its proponents’ excuses.

Posted by HBC | Report as abusive

Samuel Clemens also stated “What we learn from History is that we learn absolutely nothing from History.” Do Alexander, Great Britain and the U.S.S.R. ring a bell?

Posted by coyotle | Report as abusive

The sad part of the story is that the Afghans have never in their history had such a weak military intrusion in their land. Perhaps a general with prostrate cancer can turn the events around in favour of the invaders. the old general is also the first who received appreciation from the enemy. No wonder how could he work and take orders from the clowns?
Rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive