Jewish World Review
May 20, 2009
/ 26 Iyar 5769
Bloody mission goes awry
It may seem a little paradoxical for a journalist to say, but I reallllly hope Robert Gates was lying to us earlier this month when he explained what he's learned about Afghanistan over the last 30 years. "If there's one lesson I draw from the past, it is the importance of our staying engaged," the defense secretary told reporters while visiting an American military base in the country's north. "And if there's a lesson for Americans and the international community, it's that we don't dare turn our backs on Afghanistan. This will work if we stay engaged."
I hope that was just another case of the marvelous creativity in language arts that has enabled Gates to work on the national-security teams of both Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama without ever encountering philosophical contradiction. Because, in the eighth year of U.S. military occupation, the lesson any sensible person would draw is that it's time to think about getting out.
Somehow the original U.S. mission in Afghanistan — eliminating a state sponsor for al-Qaeda — has morphed into an attempt at nation-building. And though the conventional Washington wisdom is that the Bush administration took its eye off the Afghan ball while going to war in Iraq, the reality is that the world has lavished an incredible amount of resources on the rickety Kabul regime.
Forty-two countries are sending aid to Afghanistan. So are hundreds of NGOs and development banks. More than $15 billion has flowed into the country since the Taliban was toppled, which may sound like a pittance compared to the money the Obama administration is hurling around in its daily industry bailouts, but nonetheless represents more than a year of Afghanistan's GDP. Imagine the impact of spending the equivalent sum — upward of $16 trillion — in the United States. Meanwhile, a multinational force of 75,000 troops patrols the country, with another 21,000 American soldiers on the way.
What have we gotten for that? A country that's a festering sore of corruption inside the capital, and a shooting gallery outside it. Afghanistan's No. 1 industry is stealing foreign aid; No. 2, exporting opium to supply the world heroin trade.
The problem is that we're trying to create a stable democracy in something that isn't even really a country, just a collection of arbitrary borders drawn for the convenience of British colonialists, populated by a random collection of tribal warlords whose bloodlust is exceeded only by their proclivity for betrayal.
Afghanistan's culture of ethnic violence and political dysfunction makes Iraq look positively utopian by comparison.
In his book "The Great Gamble," NPR Moscow correspondent Gregory Feifer recounts how KGB officers sent to advise the pro-Soviet Afghan regime of the late 1970s were horrified when the troops they trained used their skills not to assassinate counterrevolutionary rebels but one another. The KGB men weren't the first foreigners confounded by the sanguinary impulses of Afghan tribes. "Their system of ethics, which regards treachery and violence as virtues rather than vices," wrote Winston Churchill while working as a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, "has produced a code of honor so strange and inconsistent that it is incomprehensible to a logical mind."
Churchill was covering one of several 19th-century British attempts to pacify Afghanistan and create "one grand community under one law and one rule." Instead, they all ended in the slaughter of the British troops and the elephants they rode in on. The sole unifying principle in the whole history of Afghanistan is a fierce desire to kill armed foreigners, a discovery eventually made by everyone from Alexander the Great to Leonid Brezhnev.
Must we learn the same lesson the same bloody way? Our intent in Afghanistan was to destroy the Taliban government and deny al Qaeda a state platform for terrorism, and we achieved those goals mostly by using local warlords as our proxies. If there's a Taliban resurgence, we can do so again.
By staying, we merely paint a target on our backs, one that gets broader every day. The 1,500-mile supply line to U.S. troops in Afghanistan runs through Pakistan. What will we do if the government there falls? Strike a deal with Russia and Vladimir Putin? Or Iran? What will that cost? CIA doctors recently told a bemused team of agency officers that the dust swirling through their facilities at Bagram Air Base is 90-percent composed of dried feces. Soon enough, the same will be said of our military mission in Afghanistan.
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Glenn Garvin is a columnist for the Miami Herald
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