Foreign Policy

The Tragedies of Afghanistan

Will America's new strategy work?

|

If Shakespeare had ever written a play about Afghanistan, it would have been a tragedy, not a comedy. For the United States, Afghanistan has been one tragedy after another, with more looming ahead.

In that part of the world, the only thing more dangerous than failure is success. It was America's success in helping the mujahedeen rebels defeat the Soviet Union that spawned later troubles. In the vacuum left by the departure of the Red Army, civil war broke out among competing factions, with the fanatical Taliban coming out on top.

Their theocratic regime eventually found common cause with al-Qaida after it moved from Sudan to Afghanistan. From that safe refuge, Osama bin Laden plotted and carried out attacks on American targets, but the Clinton administration and the Bush administration failed to respond effectively. The failure led to the 9/11 catastrophe.

After nearly 3,000 people were slaughtered on American soil, the United States invaded Afghanistan. Critics warned it was plunging into a quagmire, but they were proved wrong. In just two months, the Taliban were smashed, al-Qaida was on the run, and victory was ours.

It was a heady moment. In his State of the Union speech in January 2002, President Bush waxed triumphant, asserting that we had "saved a people from starvation and freed a country from brutal oppression."

But as any student of tragedy knows, it is moments of triumph that carry the greatest risk. Emboldened by our stunning victory in Afghanistan, Bush and his advisers concluded we could win just as easily and quickly in Iraq. The Pentagon figured the U.S. presence would stay no more than six months, with a spokesman saying, "The plan is to get it done as quickly as possible and get out."

Having been drawn into that blunder, the administration proceeded to make another one: shortchanging the mission in Afghanistan to avert defeat in Iraq. Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently told a Senate Committee, "We very badly under-resourced Afghanistan for the better part of four or five years."

The Bush administration, through hubris or incompetence, acted as though that war were not very important or already won. For the average American, it was easy to forget it was still going on. Few people ever expected that after routing our enemies in 2001, we would still be fighting eight years later—and faring worse all the time.

But now that the war in Iraq has turned up, its longtime supporters think they have found the magic formula for Afghanistan. A big boost in troops, combined with a new strategy aimed less at killing the enemy than winning over the populace, is supposed to produce victory there just as it did in Iraq.

Actually, it has yet to produce victory in Iraq. It did reduce the level of violence considerably, but if that amounts to victory, why do we have 130,000 troops still there, the same number we had before the surge began nearly three years ago? Why are we planning to stay until the end of 2011, a timetable that looks optimistic?

We have improved our position since the worst months of the war. But hundreds of Iraqis are still dying every month, with attacks running at 20 a day. And the country has yet to overcome its basic divisions.

Even that modest success has many people, including some in the administration, thinking we can win in Afghanistan. U.S. commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal wants to bring our total strength to 108,000 troops—more than triple the number we had last year.

Could such a force, with a new strategy, succeed in bringing peace and stability? New York Times columnist David Brooks recently argued for escalation by citing a study indicating that, historically, "counterinsurgency efforts that put population protection at their core have succeeded nearly 70 percent of the time."

But the authors, Andrew Enterline and Joseph Magagnoli of the University of North Texas, also note that after an outside power shifts to a hearts-and-minds approach, the war typically goes on for nearly a decade. More important, they say, "Our analysis indicates that all foreign states that shifted to a hearts-and-minds strategy after eight years of counterinsurgency ultimately failed to defeat the insurgents."

President Obama might keep in mind how Shakespearean tragedies often end: the hero destroyed, and the stage littered with corpses.

COPYRIGHT 2009 CREATORS.COM

NEXT: Inflation and You: Partners in freedom

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. So, let’s overwhelm them with massive force, win and leave.

    1. Because “overwhelming” force requires “overwhelming” civilian casualties. And then when we “leave”, there’s a power vacuum, filled by AQ, promising vengeance for the Americans’ unrestrained brutality.

      Please try not to be permanently stuck on stupid.

  2. Shut the fuck up, Underzog.

    Note to staff: seriously, you should think about adding a “Shut the fuck up” button. Srsly.

  3. Godspeed to the troops.

  4. Oh wow, no way dude that is just too cool!

    RT
    http://www.complete-privacy.net.tc

  5. Oh wow, no way dude that is just too cool!

    RT
    http://www.complete-privacy.net.tc

  6. “Actually, it has yet to produce victory in Iraq. It did reduce the level of violence considerably, but if that amounts to victory, why do we have 130,000 troops still there, the same number we had before the surge began nearly three years ago? Why are we planning to stay until the end of 2011, a timetable that looks optimistic?”

    So we can’t claim victory because we still have troops in Iraq. Well then what about WWII? I was stationed in the Army in Germany in 1973 and when I left there were still plenty of troops there. What about Japan? We are still there also. Maybe you can argue we were there for different reasons (the cold war in the case of Germany) but we are still in Korea and N. Korea still posses a threat (and once in a while we still get into skirmishes). The idea that we only have victory when all the troops are gone seems a very narrow view of victory. I am not arguing we should do the same in Afghanastan as we did in Iraq but at least be willing to give the armed forces some credit.

  7. The problem with the troop surge in Iraq is that is not what reduced the violence. What reduced the violence is two things, most of the various faction in Iraq had successfully ethnically cleansed their neighborhoods so the violence dropped because there was less people who were available to be killed. The second reason is because we bribed many of the insurgents to stop fighting, these are the “Sons of Iraq”. Whether or not they will stayed bribed is still a big question

    So to bring Iraq’s “success” to Afghanistan we need a lot more ethnic cleansing and a lot more bribing.

    Or we could just bring our troops home and let the Afghanis and the Iraqs do whatever they want as long as they don’t come to the US. Seems that banning people who come from Afghanistan and Iraq is a lot cheaper and easier then trying to run those countries. But that goes against the globalist ideology that all borders must be open to anyone, even if they are crazy suicide bombers

    1. I’ll just go ahead and say “Citation needed” on every single claim in your reply. Do you have any evidence of “completed” ethnic cleansing? Would you characterize the induction of troubled youth into the American Army “bribing?”

      Are you just talking out of your ass? It’s pretty obvious.

      1. Godspeed to the troops.

      2. This new format underwhelms.

        Well, I’m amused by the ditching of the preview button. Apparently, none of the regulars ever use it. But the “remember me” check box was kind of handy.

      3. Let’s see if this post sticks and returns me to this page.

      4. Space Fiend,

        I think he’s talking about paying off some of the mercenary groups who split with still-hostile (to the West) insurgent groups.

        As to the “ethnic cleansing” claim, yeah, a citation would be nice.

        1. This new format underwhelms. What do you think Warty?

        2. Glad I wasn’t the only one thinking “huh?”

        3. “”””As to the “ethnic cleansing” claim, yeah, a citation would be nice. “””

          Where have you people been living, under a rock. There have been huge number of reports of entire neighborhood which used to have Sunni, Shiite, Kurds and Christians in them now having only the winners left. Who do you think the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds were killing?

          Here is one story but all you have to do is use your search engine and find lots more

          http://www.reuters.com/article…..6020080919

      5. I think he’s referring to the walls that were buit to split up neighborhoods by ethnicity. Segragating the groups was key to reducing violence. They will, or have started, tearing the walls down, which may result in more ethnic violence.

        Here’s an article about the wall, or use google and search walls of baghdad. I read an article recently how the walls became targets for artists.

        http://www.indianexpress.com/n…..dad/491963

        1. Wow, HTML codeing not necessary to create a link. Cool

          I’m still trying to adapt to the look though.

      1. What happens when I select “Reply to this”?

        1. I must of screwed up to being with.

        2. Actually in Iraq it is not so much an ethnic divide so much as it is a religious divide (with the exception being the Kurds). Shia vs. Sunni Muslims (think Roman Catholic vs. Eastern Orthdox). In Afghanistan ethnicity is a much larger factor.

          Due to the fact that Afghanistan was a major trade crossroads prior to the introduction of reliable trans-oceanic transport (think Marco Polo), there is a mixed bag of ethnic and linguistic influences.

          The major ethnic groups are Pashtun and Tajik.

          The Pashtun are far and away the largest grouping in Afghanistan, they are traditionally centered in Southern and Eastern Afghanistan and the tribal areas in Pakistan. Most of the insurgent organizations (Taliban, Haqqani etc) are mostly Pashtun.

          The Tajiks are most of what was known as the “Northern Alliance,” the Tajik center of mass is primarly in Northern Afghanistan and scattered around Central Asia.

          These two groups traditionally do not like each other very much. This is why it was a bad thing that the Northern Alliance marched on Kabul (against our wishes), the Pashtuns saw it as a power play on the part of the Tajiks.

          There are a multitude of other ethnic influences in Afghanistan, Hazras, Dari (Persian influence in Western Afghanistan), Nuristani, Balkh (Greek descendants from Alexander the Great’s campaigns in the area). Add that to the layers of tribes underneath each of these ethnic groups, and further complicate it with differing religious traditions and you have a very complicated picture.

    2. Most of your claims are patently false. It is true that cash-infusions played a part, but the Baghdad Security Plan (aka the Surge) really did work. Once the 3ID was in place in the new MND-C, there was a marked drop-off in attacks, casualties and fatalities.

      1. “”””Most of your claims are patently false””””

        Are you claiming that there are not millions of Iraqis who have had to flee their homes both internally in Iraq and outside? What do you think was happening when Shiite, Sunni and Kurds were murdering each other if not ethnic cleansing?

        As to your “cash infusions” why not call it what it was, tribute to terrorists. They were killing Americans so the US government paid them off. No different then paying off the Barbary Pirates 200 years ago

  8. I see now

  9. I could swear I left a comment in here. It was good comment.

  10. Libertymike, I am literally angry with rage.

    1. Tautology alert!

  11. TAO, the walls are credited with much of the violence reduction in baghdad. It wasn’t the volume of troops from the surge, it was the restriction of movement.

    “Once one of the most dangerous areas in Iraq, Rashid has seen violence drop dramatically in the past year and a half, a trend both Iraqis and Americans credit to walling off certain neighborhoods and shopping areas and adding many checkpoints. The stepped-up security effort began in the spring of 2007 and almost immediately violence began to drop, bottoming out in August when there were only 24 attacks.”

    http://www.stripes.com/article…..icle=59041

  12. The idea that Obama has anything resembling a “new plan” — or any plan at all for that matter — is a joke to begin with.

    Walling off neighborhoods in Iraq helped. Getting the Iranians to agree to stop instigating shit in Iraq helped even more (a frequently ignored little detail — Iran is a bigger lever in Iraq that is commonly recognized).

    Afghanistan is very different. The problem in Afghanistan is that Taliban “recruiting” tactics are very much like Viet Cong “recruiting” tactics were in Vietnam (which is about where the comparison starts and ends). Our chances of winning against that are slim to none.

    OTOH, they’ve already got terrorist training camps set up in northern Pakistan. We pull out of Afghanistan and it becomes, again, what it was before 9/11.

    How long before another 9/11 after we pull out of Afghanistan?

    I don’t see any options that make any sense in this picture. Unless you’re willing to nuke half of Afghanistan, then leave with the promise to come back and nuke the other half it they allow training camps to exist on their territory.

    We aren’t going to do that. Because no matter how many 9/11’s they pull off, we aren’t going to be willing to fight a total war — which includes wiping out some “innocent civilians” (a genuinely bizarre concept in the context of what’s going on, but one the Western brain cannot figure out how to digest properly).

    1. “””””OTOH, they’ve already got terrorist training camps set up in northern Pakistan. We pull out of Afghanistan and it becomes, again, what it was before 9/11.
      How long before another 9/11 after we pull out of Afghanistan? “””””

      Yeah it becomes another backwater which is no real threat to the US.

      None of the 9/11 terrorists were Afghanis’. All were recruited outside of Afghanistan. They got their most helpful training in the USA. Any planning in Afghanistan could easily be done in someone living room. The problem with the terrorists is not that they are in Afghanistan or Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, its that we let them into the USA. If they are sitting in Afghanistan they can blow themselves up all day long and it does not bother me a bit, its when the open border types decide that anyone and everyone can come to the USA and then they blow themselves up, that is the problem.

  13. Overwhelm who?

  14. “Or we could just bring our troops home and let the Afghanis and the Iraqs do whatever they want as long as they don’t come to the US”

    This sounds good, to bad it doesn’t work. Remember, they do in fact come over here, that’s why we went over there in the first place.

    1. We went there in the first place because Afghanis and Iraqis came over here? When was this? And what did they do to make us invade their counties?

  15. Yeah it becomes another backwater which is no real threat to the US.

    Yeah. Because 9/11 was no real threat to the US.

    They were trained over there. Or did you forget that little teeny tiny little inconvenient detail?

    You think you can keep them out of the US? You’re on drugs boy.

    You couldn’t keep a thief out of your house if he wanted to get in bad enough. And you’re going to sit here and pretend we can keep them out of the continental US?

    1. “”””You think you can keep them out of the US? You’re on drugs boy. “””

      And you think that you can stop anyone, anyplace around the world from coming up with a terrorist plot? Your idea requires controlling every square foot of the world and all its people, I just want to keep foreign terrorists out of the US. I think you are using the stronger drugs “boy”. At least in the US we know the language, people, customs, laws, etc etc. In Afghanistan most of our people can’t even speak the language

      “”””They were trained over there. Or did you forget that little teeny tiny little inconvenient detail? “””

      And you missed the detail that using box cutters requires little training and the big training of flying an airplane they learned in the USA. And motivating them to terrorist acts does not require training bases, you can do the motivation in someones living room as seen by most of the terrorist attacks around the world

      “””You couldn’t keep a thief out of your house if he wanted to get in bad enough. And you’re going to sit here and pretend we can keep them out of the continental US? “””

      And you pretend to be capable of controlling the entire world

  16. We went there in the first place because Afghanis and Iraqis came over here? When was this? And what did they do to make us invade their counties?

    What I want to know is, when will the fools in this country (both left and right) get their heads out of their proverbial back ends?

    We aren’t going to build a stable nation in a third world hell-hole Muslim country.

    And it’s long past time to stop denying that they did in fact attack us — and there’s every indication they’ll do it again if they get half a chance.

    Bush was right about one thing. If terrorists have a safe haven to train in, we will never be able to stop them from attacking us.

    I don’t know what the solution to Afghanistan is, but denying reality in the ways that both Left and Right do, isn’t getting us anywhere good.

    1. And it’s long past time to stop denying that they did in fact attack us — and there’s every indication they’ll do it again if they get half a chance.

      Who attacked us? It certainly wasn’t Iraqis and Afghanis.

      Bush was right about one thing. If terrorists have a safe haven to train in, we will never be able to stop them from attacking us.

      So, we should invade every country that has terrorist training camps? Really?

  17. “””How long before another 9/11 after we pull out of Afghanistan? “””

    That’s stupid, we almost had another while still in Afghanistan. Our troops in Afghanistan didn’t prevent the recent plot.

    Besides, Afghanistan isn’t the only place AQ operates and/or plans attacks. Somalia anyone?

  18. “””Yeah. Because 9/11 was no real threat to the US. “””

    If it is, we should remove it from the calander.

  19. “””If terrorists have a safe haven to train in, we will never be able to stop them from attacking us.””

    If you were big on details you would remember that much of the training for 9/11 was done here in the U.S. They did learn to make bombs, they learned how to fly planes.

  20. Short answer: No.

  21. Who attacked us? It certainly wasn’t Iraqis and Afghanis.

    It certainly was coordinated by people who were in Afghanistan.

    So, we should invade every country that has terrorist training camps? Really?

    If you had paid any attention to my post above, you would know I didn’t say we should. On contrare.

    1. It certainly was coordinated by people who were in Afghanistan.

      Sure, at one time. But you said:

      And it’s long past time to stop denying that they did in fact attack us —

      So, again, who is “they?” Not Iraqis. Not Afghanis.

      If you had paid any attention to my post above, you would know I didn’t say we should. On contrare.

      So, what then? You assert that if they have save haven to train, we can’t stop them from attacking us, so what do you propose?

  22. That’s stupid, we almost had another while still in Afghanistan. Our troops in Afghanistan didn’t prevent the recent plot.

    Because now they’ve set up shop in Pakistan.

    If you were big on details you would remember that much of the training for 9/11 was done here in the U.S. They did learn to make bombs, they learned how to fly planes.

    Nice way to miss the point. But so did Les.

    CIA agents pull off jobs outside the US for decades. They frequently have had to learn things in the countries they were in.

    But do you really think they’d be able to do what they do, if CIA headquarters didn’t exist here state-side? I hope you’re intelligent enough to see the answer.

    If they’ve got a safe haven to put headquarters down on — where ever that is — then they’re going to be able to ramp up their level of operations by orders of magnitude.

    1. Nice way to miss the point. But so did Les.

      Perhaps your communications skills are playing a part in this misunderstanding?

    2. “””””But do you really think they’d be able to do what they do, if CIA headquarters didn’t exist here state-side? I hope you’re intelligent enough to see the answer. “””

      I would hope that you are intelligent enough to know the difference between a government spy agency funded by a large central government and the terrorists. They are not a centralized bureaucracy, they are at best a franchise operation with few a contacts between groups.

      I hope you did not also buy into the Osama’s Maginot line underground fortress story too

      http://www.edwardjayepstein.co…..n/cave.htm

  23. Is it possible to get people out of the Left-Right ruts that have been worn into the dirt?

    Invading everybody isn’t a solution, though the Right pushes for it.

    Doing little of nothing is also not an acceptable answer, though the Left pushes for it.

    We need a better answer. But we’ll never have it if nobody is asking the hard questions and looking for solutions. Instead what we have is “my team-your team” bullshit flying through the air. It’s enough to make you wonder how far above monkeys we’ve really evolved.

  24. Is it possible to get people out of the Left-Right ruts that have been worn into the dirt?

    I’m not sure what you’re talking about. Tricky and I haven’t said a single thing that has anything to do with “Left” or “Right” or “my team-your team.”

    It’s not a position of “the Right” or “the Left” that we shouldn’t have bases in countries that don’t want us or that we should consider foreign civilians expendable in ways American civilians aren’t or that our actions invite terrorism more than deter it. There are some people from both sides of the political spectrum who believe that.

    We need a better answer. But we’ll never have it if nobody is asking the hard questions…

    What is a “hard question?” Can you give an example?

  25. shouldn’t consider foreign civilians expendable…

  26. I could. But you wouldn’t be able get it.

    …shouldn’t consider foreign civilians expendable…

    Got any justification for that, other than “it’s just how I feel about it you know and my feelings are really strong…..”

    Glad to know you have feelings.

    Now, if you could only learn to think.

    1. If you think that we have to get past the stale arguments of the past and that we need to look at the problem in different ways, then you need people to listen to your ideas. But people won’t want to listen to your ideas if you act like a condescending asshole.

      If you’d still like to give me an example of a “hard question” you think needs asking, that would be great.

      And it’s rather apparent that foreign civilians are considered expendable in ways that American civilians aren’t when you consider how many foreign civilians we’ve blown up just in the last year and what the reaction would be if it was happening in the U.S..

  27. Much like the invasion of Mexico in 1848, it is better to pull out that try to win the hearts and minds of factional peoples.

  28. This is really a great stuff for sharing.keep it up .mens tiffany necklacesThanks for sharing,

  29. 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. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there’s more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I’m not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It’s just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight…the Bible’s books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on…the Bible’s books were written by people with very different mindsets…in order to really get the Books of the Bible, you have to cultivate such a mindset, it’s literally a labyrinth, that’s no joke

  30. 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.

  31. Here you can choose more new products, enjoy more discounts, so you get favorite products while saving money.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.