Prolonging Futility in Afghanistan

It's time to reassess America's presence in the country

On Oct. 7, 2001, the United States launched one of the most stunningly successful military operations in its history. Just four weeks after terrorists directed from Afghanistan killed nearly 3,000 people on American soil, we struck al-Qaida and Taliban government targets with aircraft, missiles, and Special Forces soldiers. By early December, the Taliban was out of power, al-Qaida had fled into the mountains, and victory was ours.

But that was eight years ago. Did anyone expect back then that we would still be in Afghanistan today, with more troops than ever? The war we thought we had won is not only dragging on but getting worse.

Already, 2009 has been the deadliest year of the war for American forces, and August was the deadliest month yet. Concludes Anthony Cordesman, an expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, "The U.S. is now losing the war against the Taliban."




Beyond toppling the Taliban regime, it's hard to see what we have accomplished. Despite the presence of more than 100,000 Western troops and foreign assistance totaling $32 billion since 2001, The Economist magazine says nearly two-thirds of the country "is considered too dangerous for aid agencies to reach."

In much of the country, the central government that we have done so much to bolster is about as relevant as the Confederate Air Force. When RAND Corp. scholar Seth Jones traveled in the country last year, he found "some villagers had never heard of President Hamid Karzai, who has led the country since 2001."

This week, U.S. and NATO commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal submitted a report to Defense Secretary Robert Gates asserting that "success is achievable" with "a revised implementation strategy." He is expected to request even more troops—even though the number of American military personnel has doubled in the past year, to more than 60,000.

How many more troops? The Washington Post reports that a senior military officer said recently that the U.S. would need a force of 100,000 to carry out a new strategy. That may not be easy to get from the Obama administration, since a majority of Americans now oppose a war that once had near-universal support.

Nor is 100,000 troops necessarily enough. The surge strategy in Iraq required 160,000 U.S. military personnel—in a country with fewer people and a third less land area than Afghanistan.

By now it's clear that eliminating the Taliban, creating a stable central government, and putting the country on the road to economic development is a project that will take many years, if it can be done at all. A report from the Washington-based Center for American Progress calling for a renewed U.S. commitment says withdrawal might be possible—a decade from now. So President Obama will have to decide if he plans to find a way to escape this bottomless bog or leave the decision to whoever is president in 2019.

The U.S. has remained in Afghanistan this long on the assumption that it was a war we had to win: Pull out and we would soon be back where we were on Sept. 10, 2001, with the Taliban in control and al-Qaida enjoying a refuge from which to launch attacks. But our safety does not require us to stay there to engage in the costly and open-ended projects known as nation-building, or even to defeat the extremists.

Before the attacks on New York and Washington, the U.S. government was averse to going after our enemies in Afghanistan. But no jihadist in the most remote reaches of Helmand province could possibly expect a repetition of that forbearance. Even if the Taliban were to regain power, they and al-Qaida would know that any attempt to strike American targets would assure another cataclysmic response.

Today's "safe haven" for terrorists actually lies in Pakistan, which the U.S. has not seen the need to invade. The threat to Pakistan from Islamic extremists is commonly offered as another rationale for our presence in Afghanistan. But as the war has continued, Pakistan has grown less stable and more vulnerable, suggesting that our efforts are either ineffectual or counterproductive.

The same could be said of our entire mission. The Soviets went into Afghanistan in 1979 in the mistaken belief that the invasion would enhance their security. Nine years later, they admitted failure and went home. Staying longer than they did doesn't mean we will be more successful.

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  • I call Bullshit!||

    "safe haven" for terrorists actually lies in Pakistan, which the U.S. has not seen the need to invade.



    I beg to differ. US has been if Pak permanently for at least 3 years.

  • ConHugeCo||

    I didnt know Ben Kingsley was president of Afghanistan

  • _^___^_||

    Problem is, we never know when to say "Mission Accomplished." And leave.

  • Art-P.O.G.||

    I didnt know Ben Kingsley was president of Afghanistan

    He'll have you know that it's Sir Ben Kingsley.

  • ConHugeCo||

    My sincerest apologies to His Majesty SIR Ben Kingsley

  • Fluffy||

    Did anyone expect back then that we would still be in Afghanistan today, with more troops than ever?

    Unfortunately, I supported the Afghanistan conquest [wrongly in retrospect], so I wasn't paying much attention to contrary voices at that time, but something tells me Lew Rockwell expected this. You know, in answer to your question.

  • Anonymous||

    The war we thought we had won is not only dragging on but getting worse.

    Isn't that what Democrats do? Or maybe he just studied LBJ.

  • Barry Loberfeld||

    From LETTER TO A CONSERVATIVE FRIEND:

    N., we pay taxes for our Suffolk County police to fight crime here in Suffolk, not to go fight robbery in Cairo, rape in New Delhi, and murder in Berlin. It is no less a dereliction of duty for our national forces to do anything other than defend American lives and liberties.

    But isn't establishing democracy in Iraq, which hopefully will then spread to all the Arab and Islamic countries, a way to do just that? Again, no. Not only was Germany surrounded by democracies, it was a democracy -- the Weimar Republic. That didn't stop the rise of such parties as the Communists and the National Socialists, who joined to destroy German democracy. Does it take much imagination to see how easily Iraqi democracy could vote itself into autocracy or theocracy? And the argument that we eventually "got it right" in Germany means what -- that we're already preparing for a re-invasion of Iraq (and/or Afghanistan)? This is what in the present age passes for a "strong national defense"?

    N., there is really only one thing to say to our president: "Sir, mind your beat!" He is this nation's policeman, not the world's.

  • ||

    However did we fall into the trap of thinking that we have to rebuild and re-mold a country after we whip its ass?!? What we should have done with Afghanistan (and Iraq, other than not invading in the first place) after displacing the bad old government is say, "We're leaving now. Set up whatever government you want, whatever kind of society you want. But don't make us come back here. You really won't like it." I think it likely that had we done this, the Taliban would probably have become re-established (as they are now, anyway) but would have ceased to fund, train, and coddle AQ and other terrorist groups. They wouldn't love the U.S., but they probably wouldn't hate us the way they do now. We wouldn't have as much debt and as many weary armed service members. And many fewer people would be dead.
    (In the case of Iraq, everyone says, "But then Iran would have moved in." So what? Let them get stuck in that tarpit. Let Iraq drain its treasury while rebuilding Iraq. Better them than us.)

  • Fluffy||

    I think it likely that had we done this, the Taliban would probably have become re-established (as they are now, anyway) but would have ceased to fund, train, and coddle AQ and other terrorist groups.

    Well, I don't know about that.

    In 1979, the United States was harboring a known mass murderer who had slaughtered uncounted thousands of Iranians, and when we refused to hand him over, the Iranians invaded our territory. Essentially this is exactly what took place between us and Afghanistan.

    But note, we went right back to our old ways as soon as the crisis was over. So it's likely that the Taliban would have done the same thing that we did.

  • ||

    Before the attacks on New York and Washington, the U.S. government was averse to going after our enemies in Afghanistan. But no jihadist in the most remote reaches of Helmand province could possibly expect a repetition of that forbearance. Even if the Taliban were to regain power, they and al-Qaida would know that any attempt to strike American targets would assure another cataclysmic response.

    Oh, I see. Instead of keeping the fight over there, we wait for them to bring it back to American shores and then, after a few thousands are mass murdered, we go back? Because they are afraid of committing suicide for Allah because of the impending "cataclysmic attacks"? We swear we will kill them if they commit suicide?

    Are murderous Jihadists even real? I thought they were a creation of Haliburton, or really not dangerous, or something. Either they are a real threat or they aren't. If they aren't, why mention or worry about what we would do when the phantom menace attacks?

  • ||

    Fluffy

    I'm not sure that harboring AQ was a necessary feature of the Taliban regime.

    As for funding and training, I believe that the Taliban got more from AQ, who were funded mainly from Saudi Arabia, than the other way around.

    Unfortunately, what should have been a short targetted punitive raid with the express purpose of capturing or killing OBL and as many of his lieutenants as possible, turned into a nation building exersise without end.

    Will we get pounded and worn down like the
    Soviets? Probably not. Without another superpower to arm them, as the US did for the Mujahadeen, the Taliban will pretty much continue to be a severe annoyance to NATO and Afghan troops. But it's unlikely that anything definitive will happen untill the US tires and withdraws, as it most certainly eventually will.

    At that point the Karzai regime, irreparably tainted as an agent of foreign occupiers, will likely be overthrown by either the Taliban or someone else waiting in the wings.

    But on the general point that "we" never seem to learn, I believe you are absolutely correct.

  • Fluffy||

    Oh, I see. Instead of keeping the fight over there, we wait for them to bring it back to American shores and then, after a few thousands are mass murdered, we go back?

    Well, no.

    We also walk away from our overseas entangling alliances, and return to the phase of our history where we never had to worry about being attacked unless we went out of our way to start a fight.

  • ||

    Interesting article overall, but as a point of fact, Afghanistan actually has a slightly smaller population than Iraq.

    See: http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/weo/2009/01/weodata/weorept.aspx?sy=2006&ey=2009&scsm=1&ssd=1&sort=country&ds=.&br=1&c=433&s=NGDPD%2CNGDPDPC%2CPPPGDP%2CPPPPC%2CLP&grp=0&a=&pr.x=83&pr.y=17

    and:

    http://www.un.org/esa/population/publications/wpp2008/wpp2008_text_tables.pdf

  • ||

    We also walk away from our overseas entangling alliances, and return to the phase of our history where we never had to worry about being attacked unless we went out of our way to start a fight.

    I don't disagree about entangling alliances at all, but would it really work? It wasn't entangling alliances that caused Jefferson to attack the Barbary Pirates but self-defense against Jihad.

    Even though it will never happen, would withdrawing behind our borders placate these people? Sure, they might spend more time "converting" Europe, for a while, and then what?

    Do you really believe that is all that motivates them, our presence? While it is on their list of grievances, for certain, would removing ourselves from their sight make them go away?

    Don't get me wrong. I don't have a clue what to do. It seems to me if we go back to treating terrorism like a police matter we will be attacked again, but I don't claim what is being done is the proper action, either. It seems to me the Saudis are mostly behind it. Until the American people decide to hold them responsible for funding terrorism there is no strategy that will be successful.

  • Fluffy||

    It wasn't entangling alliances that caused Jefferson to attack the Barbary Pirates but self-defense against Jihad.

    Come on, this is silly.

    The Barbary pirates weren't motivated by "jihad". They were muggers.

    Pirates operated from many shores in 1803. Was Jean Lafitte motivated by jihad of some kind? When the ink dried on the Louisiana Purchase, we had a major pirate fiefdom located on our own territory.

    Asserting the right of US ships to ply international waters freely is not the same as attempting to shepherd most of the world into one or another US-dominated alliance system.

  • JB||

    return to the phase of our history where we never had to worry about being attacked unless we went out of our way to start a fight.

    This is beyond delusional. There are still lots of crazies that do hate us for our freedoms and our interference (past and current).

    I'm in favor of pulling back troops from all over the place, but don't think for one minute this will do much to reduce the likelihood of the US being attacked. In fact, it will be seen as a sign of weakness and likely encourage attacks.

    Doesn't mean we shouldn't do it, but we better be ramping up other operations (intelligence, spying, etc.), and be ready for those attacks.

  • Fluffy||

    There are still lots of crazies that do hate us for our freedoms and our interference (past and current).

    Well, that's true.

    If there was a discrete point in time or a single day where we walked away from our foreign policies, on the following day there would be a lot of people looking for payback.

    So to a certain extent, unless we are willing to muddle through a difficult transition period, we're "riding the tiger" and have to continue to engage in outrages to defend ourselves against those we've angered in the past. In some cases, we were forced by circumstances [primarily by the superpower conflict of the Cold War] to abuse the citizens of a small nation in order to protect freedom on a global scale, and those people [or their descendants] are still pissed.

    But I still think we're in a better position to manage that transition if we pull back while we're strong than we will be if we ultimately have to pull back at some point in the future simply due to imperial exhaustion.

  • ||

    So to a certain extent, unless we are willing to muddle through a difficult transition period, we're "riding the tiger" and have to continue to engage in outrages to defend ourselves against those we've angered in the past. In some cases, we were forced by circumstances [primarily by the superpower conflict of the Cold War] to abuse the citizens of a small nation in order to protect freedom on a global scale, and those people [or their descendants] are still pissed.

    But I still think we're in a better position to manage that transition if we pull back while we're strong than we will be if we ultimately have to pull back at some point in the future simply due to imperial exhaustion.


    I don't really disagree with this, except it seems that you are placing all the blame upon us and ignoring the global expansion of Islam, by the sword, since it's inception. I am not advocating an expansion of action in Afghanistan. It just seems to me that fighting over there would be better than fighting here. Every billion dollars that the Saudis have to spend fighting there is a billion dollars that they didn't give to A Khan.

  • ||

    """Problem is, we never know when to say "Mission Accomplished." And leave."""

    That's because we've blurred the lines between war, policing actions, and nation building. It rooted in the concept of bringing democracy to other nations who are not serious enough to do it themselves.

  • ||

    """Will we get pounded and worn down like the
    Soviets? Probably not. Without another superpower to arm them, as the US did for the Mujahadeen,"""

    Really? Pounded, no. Worn down, we will discuss for years to come.

    I think the Russia/Afghan war was already a stalemate but the Russians were not ready to admit it until the helo's were getting shot down by US missiles.

  • ||

    The source of Jihad war aganst America is Saudi Arabia. That's were the money, people and evil ideology comes from. Afghanistan is a diversion that is being used to wear down our resources and resolve. We need to take the fight to the real enemy.

  • ||

    If you understood the history of afganistan, you knew that nation building would be impossible. I hope that people wake up to realize the true problems of u.s. empirial policies, so that sanity can enter the debate. I expect, however, the u.s. will not change at all until the empire collapses under its' own weight, like the former u.s.s.r.

  • ||

    I think it go a long way to making Afghanistan peaceful and stable if the opium and hashish trades were made legal.

  • ||

    Wake-up America.Most of the posters and the author must have failed physics 101 in School. 911 attacks were self inflictated-you morons. No middle east men had the means or acces to tons of explosives. All idiots ;^/

  • ||

    "Did anyone expect back then that we would still be in Afghanistan today, with more troops than ever?" Anyone who has even the slightest knowledge of the history of Afghanistan certainly did. Did those arrogant idiots in Washington learn nothing in their fancy private schools? Did their puerile little minds not wonder why Afghanistan is called the graveyard of Empires? The first and last time Afghanistan was conquered was in 323 BC by Alexander the great. He held it for 3 years. It hasn't been occupied successfully since. Did these American fools actually think they were going to somehow succeed where other empires had failed for 2000 years without even bothering to try and understand why they failed?? More than a dozen conquerers have tried in the last 20 centuries and all have failed. Some of the attempts were prosecuted for centuries. Are we prepared to be there losing blood and treasure for centuries? I think not. We have 2 choices and 2 choice only. We can leave now under our own steam or we ca leave when our economy collapses and we can no longer afford the cost. A "successful" occupation is not an option, and never was.

  • abercrombie milano||

    My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I'm sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane

  • nike shox||

    is good

  • Holiday packages||

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