Tuesday in the Afghani city of Kandahar, five cars rigged with explosives detonated simultaneously, killing at least forty-one people and wounding at least 66. This is just one of the most recent and egregious incidents of terrorism in Afghanistan, which has recently seen a significant upturn in violence. In July, American casualties in Afghanistan reached forty-five, their highest monthly level ever. Great Britain also recently marked a sad milestone, suffering its 200th casualty in the Afghani Theater. The higher casualty rates recently is likely due to the presence of an additional 21,000 American troops in Afghanistan since President Obama took office, as well as a change of military strategy to root out the Taliban by moving our forces into areas they control.
If this strategy feels foreboding, it is because it eerily similar to what we did in Iraq, both years ago as well as very recently. At least in Iraq our troops are now largely out of harm’s way. The Iraqi government has had us move our soldiers out of their major cities. Our troop transports now move largely only at night. Coincidentally, American troop deaths in Iraq have plunged. Unfortunately, as much as the people of Iraq might wish it, their sectarian conflicts have not gone away. Recently, there have been renewed car bombings in Baghdad and elsewhere. Unsurprisingly, the same ethnic tensions that existed while Saddam Hussein ran the country remain and will likely continue for the foreseeable future.
From my perspective, we are repeating the same flawed strategy in Afghanistan that we used in Iraq. We are not learning from our mistakes. Granted when he assumed office President Obama was very careful qualifying what constituted success in Afghanistan. Nation building and instilling democracy are lofty goals, but are expendable if need be. Our new general in the Afghan theater Stanley McChrystal seems intent on winning through intense nation building facilitated by having American troops control Taliban occupied areas of the country. In addition to the 21,000 new American troops now in the theater, it appears McChrystal will soon be appealing for additional troops.
It seems reasonable to predict our future “success” in Afghanistan based on our “success” in Iraq using this strategy. Why do we need so many troops in Afghanistan? What is it that we are really trying to accomplish? In 2001, we went into Afghanistan because the Taliban were shielding Osama bin Laden and the core elements of al Qaeda. Our strategy then was quite effective. Al Qaeda did a quick tally ho across the border into Pakistan, where they did not have to deal with the hassle of our troops and exploding bunker bombs. According to experts, al Qaeda no longer exists in Afghanistan. What remains of the top al Qaeda leadership (and it is likely that it is a shell of its former self) now exists in tribal northwest Pakistan. In short, we succeeded in our stated mission in Afghanistan: al Qaeda can no longer use the country as a place of organization, training and refuge for attacks against the United States.
We have also tried to foster democracy in Afghanistan. New national elections for Afghan president are being tallied this week. As in neighboring Iran, the eventual results look like they might reflect substantial ballot box stuffing. Our initial presence did drive the Taliban, an admittedly thoroughly loathsome regime from power. Inattention has allowed the Taliban to regroup. Our presence in Afghanistan has brought many good but likely temporal things, including some semblance of national government, economic growth, some restoration of women’s rights and more education to the populace. What our presence did not do, and really can never do, is allow complete control over the country. Afghanistan is far too large to be controlled by any occupying army. Even if it could be, occupying it will prove financially ruinous, as it has in Iraq.
Our expanded mission seems to be ensuring that the Taliban do not return to power. Should the Taliban return to power, it is certainly possible that they will provide safe harbor to al Qaeda again. Most experts though do not believe the Taliban would be stupid enough to do this again. Al Qaeda’s goals have always been international. The Taliban has no such interests. It is a nationalist movement. It is interested in instituting a strict form of Muslim fundamentalism across all of Afghanistan.
Just as in Iraq, there has been a bad case of mission creep in Afghanistan. In this case, the American people seem to be saying that having been burned once in Iraq, we should not get burned again. A majority of Americans believe, as I do, that this war is not worth fighting. To the extent that we should have a role in the country, it should be to train Afghani troops, police and bureaucrats to secure, police and govern themselves, as we did with some success in Iraq. Regardless of whether democracy flourishes in Afghanistan in the future or not, Afghanistan is extremely unlikely to be part of a war aimed at the United States again.
Back in 2003, President Bush foolishly proclaimed Mission Accomplished on the deck of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln. The irony in Afghanistan is that President Obama could pull the same stunt and plausibly get away with it. We really have accomplished our mission in Afghanistan, at least as it was originally defined. Al Qaeda is gone and is unlikely to return. Even if they try to return, the Taliban are likely to throw them out, knowing they lost power by letting them in. In fact, our original mission in Afghanistan has been accomplished for several years now. We won this battle.
Granted, it might not make a great photo op proclaiming Mission Accomplished when Afghanistan seems to be teetering back toward anarchy. Violence today in Afghanistan may be as bad as it has ever been since we engaged our military there. However, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that most of this violence is a direct result of our troops being in the theater. It is evidenced, not just by these car bombings but also by the many roadside bombings that are killing our soldiers, just as they did in Iraq. In short, many Afghanis, many of whom are also friendly to the Taliban but certainly not all, simply do not like having their country occupied. They are doing what most nationalists do in such circumstances: resisting through force of arms.
Thinking we can succeed in nation building through force of arms in Afghanistan of all places is foolish. To the extent we succeed in this expanded mission, it will not be because of military action, but because we helped create and provided effective aid and advice to the shaky Afghani government. Afghanistan has a long history of attempts at foreign occupation and none succeeded in the end. The USSR was the most recent country to fail spectacularly in Afghanistan. So will we, if we think we can build a new nation though our occupation, however benign and temporal our stated intentions.
It is up to Afghanis to chart their own way forward. Fortunately, despotic regimes like The Taliban rarely stay in power long. Any government that oppresses for too long meets resistance. In time, balance will be restored to something that approximates natural governance in Afghanistan. In the end, it is unlikely to look like a western democracy.
The only question for the United States is how many more lives we want to waste on a flawed military strategy after we accomplished our original goals. If we had the right general in the theater, which apparently we do not, he would be advising that this war cannot be won militarily, so we should no longer try. Instead, we should provide money and advice only and use our military inside the country only when we know al Qaeda has returned.