Between the formation of a post-Taliban government in Afghanistan in December 2001 and the spring of 2006, a typical American observer could have been excused for thinking that all was going well in that benighted country. There seemed to be little armed resistance to the government of President Hamid Karzai. The United States had more international support for both political and economic reconstruction in that country than in Iraq. Indeed, even NATO found a new vocation there, a positive sign of a new working relationship between the United States and its European allies.
But as is often the case, appearances were deceiving. Just before the U.S.-led October 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, the brilliant British historian and great friend of America, Sir John Keegan, twice advised the people and government of the United States that Afghanistan cannot be ruled in any Western sense of that word; the country, he wrote, is “unstable, fractious and ultimately ungovernable.” Keegan urged the “avoidance of general war and of policies designed to change society or government in Afghanistan.”1 After pointing to Britain’s own disastrous failure to occupy and govern Afghanistan in the 1840s, Keegan noted that the best that a foreign army can do there is to annihilate its enemies and then leave. “Efforts to occupy and rule [Afghanistan] usually ended in disaster. But straightforward punitive expeditions . . . were successful on more than one occasion”, Sir John wrote. He added:
It should be remembered that, in 1878, the British did succeed in bringing the Afghans to heel [with a punitive expedition]. Lord Roberts’ march from ‘Kabul to Khandahar’ was one of Victoria’s most celebrated wars. The Russians, moreover, foolishly did not try to punish rogue Afghans, as Roberts did, but to rule the country. Since Afghanistan is ungovernable, the failure of their [1979–92] effort was predictable. . . . America should not seek to change the regime, but simply to find and kill the terrorists. It should do so without pity.2
At bottom, what Keegan told America was that Afghanistan is the exception which proves the rule that history never repeats itself. Having worked on Afghan-related issues for nearly all my 22 years at the CIA, I can honestly say that no truer words than Keegan’s were ever spoken. I never encountered a people and a culture more enduring, patient, stubborn, proud and resilient than the Afghan. Matters will be arranged to the Afghans’ satisfaction no matter what any other party wants, be that party American, British, Russian, Pakistani or Iranian. The Afghans’ iron will for self-determination is more powerful than anything America’s Wilsonian neoconservatives can imagine.
We are these days watching the slow-motion demise of an ill-fated and willfully uninformed American adventure in Afghanistan that aims to construct a liberal democratic state on the banks of the Kabul River. I say this because, unfortunately, U.S. failure was predictable before the first CIA officer arrived in northern Afghanistan after 9/11. Before the invasion, I argued against an intrusive and ambitious U.S. attempt at political engineering in Afghanistan. My arguments were fueled by nothing more than reading history, assimilating a decade’s worth of experience supporting the Afghans in their anti-Soviet jihad, and reading the analysis of Agency officers with even more experience on Afghanistan than me. “As a rule”, Milton Bearden, a former CIA chief in Islamabad, wrote weeks after the October 7, 2001, invasion,
set-piece battles for major urban centers are not the way of combat in Afghanistan, especially when a foreign element as prominent as U.S. air support in the current fighting is involved. Getting into Afghan cities, particularly for foreign armies, has always been pretty easy; it took the Soviets less than two weeks to take most of the cities. . . . The hard part has always been what comes next. . . . So, to call the Taliban down for the count because a string of urban centers has fallen, while possibly true, would be needlessly pushing our luck.3
Again, as time has shown, truer words were never spoken, except perhaps for the following words drawn from the Soviet General Staff’s after-action analysis of the Soviet military’s Afghan debacle. When the Red Army invaded in 1979, Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev confidently told his Politburo chums not to worry; victory would come easily. “It will”, he said, “be over in three or four weeks.”4< The General Staff’s report, however, suggests that Brezhnev and company had not a clue what they were getting the USSR into.
When the highest political leaders of the USSR sent its forces into war, they did not consider historic, religious, and national peculiarities in Afghanistan. After entering [Afghanistan], these peculiarities proved the most important factors as they foreordained the long and very difficult nature of the armed conflict. . . . It is now clear that the Afghans, whose history involves many centuries of warfare with various warring groups, could not see these armed strangers as anything but armed invaders. And since these strangers were not Muslims, a religious factor was added to the national enmity. Both of these factors were enough to trigger a large mass resistance among the people, which various warriors throughout history have been unable to overcome and which the Soviet forces met when they arrived in Afghanistan.5
Seven Pillars, Afghan-Style
Having ignored much sage advice, Washington’s Afghan policies are now circling the same drain through which Moscow’s misadventure was flushed. Borrowing a phrase from T. E. Lawrence, I predicted failure two and a half years ago through what I called “The Seven Pillars of Truth about Afghanistan.”6 If the seven categories seemed reasonable then, they seem tragically even more reasonable now.
The first pillar is, “Minorities can rule in Kabul—but not for long.” If ever there was a minority-dominated government in Kabul, it is the one led by Hamid Karzai. In its ranks are Tajiks, Uzbeks, a few Turkmens and a large number of detribalized and Westernized Pashtuns—like Karzai himself. Credible Islamist leaders from the Pashtun tribes that have governed from Kabul for three centuries—and played the lead in defeating the Soviets—are largely absent from the capital’s precincts. They are, however, increasingly found in the growing anti-Karzai, anti-U.S. insurgency led by Mullah Omar’s Taliban and bin Laden’s al-Qaeda. The current Afghan situation starkly validates Bearden’s late-2001 warning against empowering a minorities-based regime in Kabul. “[T]he more likely consequences of a U.S. alliance with the late Masood’s fighters”, said Bearden, “would be the coalition of Afghanistan’s majority Pashtun tribes around their Taliban leaders and the rekindling of a brutal, general civil war that would continue until the United States simply gave up.”7
In essence, we have made the same mistake we made from 1989 to 1995. Although many in the West, and many Afghans who opted out of the anti-Soviet jihad and the first Taliban era by living abroad, have long whined that the United States abandoned Afghanistan after the Red Army left in February 1989, nothing could be further from the truth. In the post-Soviet period, the West, under U.S. and UN auspices, tried to install a government in Kabul that pleased and made sense to—yes, you guessed it—the West. We recruited detribalized and usually non-bearded, suit-wearing Pashtuns; lots of northern Afghan minorities, especially those working for the sainted Ahmed Shah Masood; technocrats who had worked for the Soviets or fled the country; secular or nominal Muslims; and even former Afghan Communists like the butcher Najibullah. Indeed, we pressed everyone who did not count in the post-Soviet, Afghan political environment to join a Western-style parliamentary government in Kabul.
The motivation of the West’s efforts in the 1990s and today are identical: Empower those who think and look like us, and ensure that the bearded lads with the guns—the guys who beat the Red Army—do not get a share of power. To this day, it is unfathomable why America, the West and the UN believed that brave, ruthless Afghan leaders like Ismail Khan, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Jallaluddin Haqqani and Abdul Rasul Sayyaf would simply shrug, accept secularist rule, acknowledge that more than a million Afghans died in vain, and go home and shelve their guns. And no surer sign of this self-defeating continuity can be found than in the fact that U.S. diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad presided over U.S. nation-building efforts in Afghanistan in both 1992 and 2002. In retrospect, the quintessence of the West’s make-a-regime-that-suits-us formula may be the decision in early 2002 to install as governor of the most mujaheddin-dominated eastern Afghan provinces an Afghan-American who left his country as a youngster and had been living the life of a wealthy California vintner. This ignorant-of-Afghan-history approach brought the Pashtun-dominated Taliban to power in 1995 and 1996, and it is now driving a process that will return it to power in due course.
The second pillar is, “The Afghans who matter are conservative Muslims and tribal xenophobes.” For Westerners, this should be one of Afghan history’s most obvious lessons. Afghans do not like foreigners who try to rule them or direct their activities. They have never liked such foreigners. Today, they still don’t like such foreigners.
From Alexander’s invasion four centuries before Christ, to two invasions and occupations by the British Empire, to the Soviet Union’s decade-long empire-killing misadventure, the Afghans—who among themselves agree on little or nothing—have all agreed to hate foreigners. And the longer the occupation, the broader and deeper the hatred grows across all ethnic groups. In Afghanistan, as perhaps nowhere else on earth, familiarity breeds contempt and unfailingly generates armed resistance. After completing the punitive expedition Keegan referred to above, Lord Roberts advised his government that the best course of action for British interests was to simply leave Afghanistan alone. “It may not be very flattering to our amour propre”, Roberts wrote,
but I feel sure that I am right when I say that the less the Afghans see of us the less they will dislike us. Should Russia in future years attempt to conquer Afghanistan, or invade India through it, we should have a better chance of attaching the Afghans to our interests if we avoid all interference with them in the meantime.8
Today we see evidence of xenophobia and armed resistance intensifying across Afghanistan. Much is said about the insurgency in the Pashtun-dominated southern provinces, but little is being written about the guerrilla operations occurring in Herat, Mazar-e Sharif, the Konar Valley and Nuristan. These areas are not dominated by Pahstuns, but rather by our purported allies and Karzai’s main source of military manpower—Uzbeks, Tajiks and others. The fighting outside the Pashtun south and east strongly suggests that some fighters formerly loyal to Masood have made a typical Afghan decision: The foreigners have stayed too long, they’re dictating Afghanistan’s internal affairs, and we want them out. Masood himself eventually would have decided that Afghans did not fight for a decade to rid themselves of atheist Soviet control only to welcome a foreign occupation by Christian Americans and a rag-tag assortment of religiously challenged Europeans.
The third pillar is, “Afghans cannot be bought.” If providing absurd analysis that encouraged fantasy-filled expectations was a hanging offense, former-DCI George Tenet and his senior Afghanistan-challenged lieutenants would have long since been swinging smartly by the neck for telling President Bush and his cabinet delusions of Homeric dimension. From the start, what Bob Woodward in Bush at War (2002) called the “Tenet Plan”—that is, the idea that a few CIA officers, a smattering of Special Forces and truckloads of dollars, pounds and euros would carry the day and bring lasting victory in Afghanistan—had not even the most tenuous of contact points with Afghan reality.
The CIA ran the U.S. government’s extraordinarily successful Afghan covert action program from 1979 until late in 1992. I was fortunate to work on it from late 1985 until February 1992. All told, according to Steve Coll in his book Ghost Wars (2004), that program spent billions of dollars in U.S. and Saudi funds to support the Afghan jihad, and on no important occasion can I recall the Afghan insurgents ever doing anything we—the CIA or the U.S. government—asked them to do. The Afghans often would agree to do something we wanted done, take the proffered funding and arms, and then do exactly as they pleased. Indeed, if an Afghan commander had planned to do something that turned out to be what we wanted done, he was likely to abandon the plan so we did not think he was doing America’s bidding. And Masood, the brilliant Tajik insurgent commander whose legend—built by the French journalists and scholars he deceived—portrays him as a saintly, pro-Western, almost flower-power mujahid, was by far the worst offender in this regard.
There is, of course, no such thing as altruistic covert action, but the Agency’s Afghan program was a close approximation. At the end of the day, our major contribution to defeating the Soviets was to ensure that Russians could be killed with AK-47s rather than 19th-century Lee-Enfield rifles. This is the lesson that Tenet and his colleagues ignored. As a result, the U.S. military subcontracted the job of capturing bin Laden at Tora Bora to Afghan commanders who had fought the Red Army with bin Laden. Needless to say, the Afghans took our money, and then made sure to arrive a day late. Thus, bin Laden bedevils us to this day.
Should someone ever confront you with the “common wisdom” which claims that Afghans are so avaricious that they will sell you their mother for a piddling sum, ask that person to reflect on this fact: In a country ranked the fifth poorest of the planet’s 178 countries, there is more than $100 million in outstanding U.S. reward money for bin Laden, Mullah Omar and their lieutenants. And yet, in five years, not a single person has come forward with the information needed to claim any part of it.
The fourth pillar is, “Strong governments in Kabul cause war.” The key to modern Afghan politics is to recognize that the central government’s only acceptable roles are to govern and provide public services in Kabul, conduct ceremonies for visiting foreign dignitaries, serve as the distribution point for foreign aid, and field an army that has a national look but little punch outside the capital. In short, the central government’s main task, if it wants to survive, is to pay monetary and material tribute to regional warlords and tribal leaders and not interfere in their affairs. The last regime to try to govern the country from Kabul—that is, before Mr. Karzai’s—was the USSR-backed Communist regime, whose centralizing, secularizing and pro-feminist policies sparked 15 years of war.
Karzai’s modest efforts to govern the country are again showing that Kabul’s involvement in the provinces—aside from the role of divvying-up foreign-provided swag—is unwelcome and stimulates violent resistance. Kabul’s unsuccessful but intrusive and alienating anti-narcotics efforts, disarmament programs, feminist agenda and secularly oriented Islamic-lite education policies all trespass on regional, local and clerical prerogatives, as well as on tribal and religious mores. These actions are vaguely reminiscent of the Afghan Communists’ social policies and, together with the U.S.-led coalition’s failure to install a reliable law-and-order regime, have not only reinvigorated the Taliban-led insurgency, but have made Afghans outside Kabul long for the security Mullah Omar once maintained over much of Afghanistan.
The fifth pillar is, “Afghanistan is an international cockpit, not an insular backwater.” There is something peculiarly obtuse about Washington’s desire to treat Afghanistan (and Iraq, for that matter) as if it were hermetically sealed off from the world, as well as to believe that if we got internal Afghan affairs just right, Afghanistan’s neighbors would abide by the final product and not interfere when we leave. U.S. officials behave as if India, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Iran are sincere when they express a desire for a “peaceful and secure Afghanistan.” Washington also seems to believe that each nation’s definition of “peaceful and secure” is the same as America’s. Such a conclusion can be attributed to one of only two things: ignorance or dementia.
Each of these countries has been angling for advantage since the U.S. military arrived in Afghanistan in 2001, and each is now a full, if unannounced, player in the country’s affairs. India, having invested $750 million dollars, has deployed what appears to be half of its diplomatic corps and moved commandos in to protect its nationals. India clearly envisions an Afghanistan that is pro-New Delhi, is perceived by Islamabad as an Indian vassal, and provides a platform for Indian intelligence operations into Pakistan.
Meanwhile, Russia continues to arm Muhammad Fahim, Karzai’s former defense minister. Ongoing Uzbek (and probably Russian) support for current Defense Minister Rashid Dostam also gives him a private power base to operate independently of Kabul if and when an occasion warrants. Iran seeks to provide whatever protection it can for Afghan Shi‘a—who take it in the neck no matter who rules in Kabul—and fights a bloody and losing battle against narcotics traffickers selling heroin in Iran or transiting the country on the way to Turkey and Europe. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf partners continue to covertly support the Taliban and its allies. Riyadh and company did not spend two decades and billions of dollars to see the permanent ouster of a Sunni Islamist Afghan government, and the installation of a Westernized secular government not inclined to stop the flow of the Shi‘i heresy into Central Asia.
And that leaves Pakistan. For President Pervez Musharraf and his generals, contemporary Afghanistan is nothing less than a national security nightmare, which provides a nice segue to the sixth pillar: “Pakistan must have an Islamic, Pashtun-dominated regime in Kabul.”
In Pakistan’s now half-century-plus history, the stars of national security have only once lined up perfectly, and that was in May 1998. In that month, the Kashmiri insurgency had hundreds of thousands of Indian troops tied down in Jammu and Kashmir State; Pakistan detonated a deliverable nuclear weapon, thereby gaining rough nuclear parity with India; and the Taliban ruled most of Afghanistan, giving Pakistan unprecedented confidence in Kabul’s anti-India orientation and in the security of its Pashtun-dominated western border regions. All was right with the world. Pakistan’s generals could at last offer an intense, heartfelt cry of “Allahu Akbar!” because such an extraordinary improvement in the country’s strategic interests could only have been divinely ordained.
Musharraf and his general staff now behold a world that has gone to hell as far as Pakistan is concerned. Kabul is ruled by the Indian-educated and beholden-to-Delhi Karzai; the Afghan side of Pakistan’s western border is dotted for most of its length with Indian diplomatic missions and economic projects—raising Pakistani paranoia about cross-border, India-sponsored sabotage—and the regrouped, al-Qaeda-backed Taliban is seeking to kill Musharraf for facilitating America’s invasion and occupation. The Pakistani president has barely escaped two al-Qaeda-backed assassination attempts.
In addition, Musharraf now lives the reality of that old saw which says “no good deed goes unpunished.” Musharraf has done more than anyone could have expected to assist the United States against al-Qaeda. Pakistani police and intelligence services have helped capture senior al-Qaeda leaders—such as Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Tawfiq bin Attash and Abu Zubaydah, and Islamabad has given the U.S. military forces overflight rights and other favors that aid the U.S.-led Afghan campaign. Most astonishing, and for the first time since 1947, Musharraf has sent Pakistani army divisions into the Pashtun-dominated border provinces to fight al-Qaeda and the Taliban. As of this writing, Pakistan has about 80,000 troops in the border area, a number that unavoidably and publicly reduces by a corps-size formation the strength of Pakistani forces defending the country’s eastern border with India.
For Musharraf and his general staff, the costs of this massive pro-U.S. effort have been very high. The Pakistani military has incurred far more casualties than the U.S.-led Afghan coalition, and its operations have driven Pakistan’s Pashtun tribes into the arms of their Taliban-dominated Afghan brothers and nearly into open revolt. Indeed, Musharraf’s quasi-invasion of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and the North West Frontier Province has revived the dormant “Pashtunistan” issue, always a lethal threat to Pakistan’s viability as a nation.
In 1893 the British, in their blithely capricious imperial way, drew the border between Afghanistan and what was then northern India through the middle of the homogenous Pashtun homeland. In the century since the Durand Line was drawn, there have been periodic surges of Pashtun irredentism. Before the partition, the British used their Indian Army to smash the Pashtun firebrands on the snout and subdue their ambitions. For Britain, however, this was never a life-and-death matter; the vastness of the British Raj, its massive military power, and London’s willingness to apply force to whatever degree necessary ensured that Pashtun troublemakers were always lethal nuisances but never national security threats.
For Pakistan, on the other hand, the specter of a new campaign to create Pashtunistan could threaten the nation’s survival. Pashtuns on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border are numerous, well-armed and combat-experienced and, if united, their ability to destroy Pakistan’s geographic integrity should not be underestimated. The tribesmen are led, moreover, by men who have nothing but contempt for the rulers in Islamabad. The attitude of Pashtun tribal leaders was summed up by an elder who in 2000 told Robert D. Kaplan that the tribes were independent, well-armed and self-sufficient, and that “only the army needs Pakistan.”9 By conducting prolonged military operations in Pashtun territory, Musharraf has brought his country to the brink of a civil war, the result of which, if it came to pass, could well leave Pakistan an insignificant geographical expression of Islam—a long sliver of relatively flat land across which Indian forces could drive between dawn and dusk.
And for taking these destabilizing risks and paying such costs—all of which run counter to Pakistan’s core national interests—what has Musharraf gained? Well, several hundred million dollars, a handful of F-16 aircraft and some other military equipment. More than offsetting these payoffs, however, is the fact that Musharraf has not escaped the two questions always put by American presidents to their uniformed Pakistani counterparts: “What have you done for me lately?” and “Why aren’t you putting Pakistan’s civilian thieves back in power so they can resume fleecing the country?” In addition, Musharraf must try to explain to his generals the almost surreal image of seeing his U.S. partner declare a “strategic partnership” with New Delhi, offer India aid for its nuclear program, and then tell Islamabad that Pakistan does not merit the goodies America is dispensing to its mortal enemy.
President Musharraf is today about one step ahead of locomotives driven by al-Qaeda and the Taliban, Pakistan’s domestic Islamists, Pashtun tribal leaders and coup-minded generals. Reading the writing on the wall, Musharraf will soon—if he has not done so already—order his military and intelligence services to resume supporting forces that can return a Pashtun-dominated, Islamist government to Kabul and Pakistani national security to the halcyon days of May 1998. In doing so, Musharraf also will reassert common cause with the Pakistani military and nuclear establishment’s long-time, indispensable and increasingly cash-flush Saudi benefactors.
The seventh and final pillar is, “There will be an Islamist regime in Kabul.” If there is a sure bet in South Asia, it is that there ultimately will be a mainly Pashtun-dominated Islamist regime in Kabul. Why so?
First, the faith of Islamist fighters, hand-in-hand with the traditions of Pashtun tribal society, defeated the Red Army and freed Afghanistan. For Afghanistan, Islam is, was and ever shall be truly the way to freedom, and that faith will set the parameters for how Afghanistan is governed after the U.S.-led coalition scurries home and the well-meaning Karzai and his cohorts flee.
Second, Afghan society has been the target of Salafist and Wahhabist proselytizing by Saudi and Pakistani clerics since before the Soviet invasion. Afghan Islam today is much closer to the Middle East’s most militant strains of Sunni Islam than ever before.
Third, between three and four million Afghans fled the brutal Soviet occupation for refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran. Their children and their children’s children were educated there by decidedly anti-Western and anti-secular Sunni and Shi‘a clerics. Many have now returned to Afghanistan, thereby strengthening the country’s always conservative Islamic traditions.
Fourth, Afghans remember that, for all the harshness and brutality of the Taliban’s rule, the governing clerics applied sharia in a manner that provided law and order, respected tribal traditions and brought peace to most of the country—none of which has been attained under the auspices of Karzai and the U.S.-led coalition.
Fifth, though less quantifiable, the history of Afghanistan is a 2,000-year story of epic battles between Afghan underdogs and vastly more powerful invaders. Each battle ends the same way: Armed with deep faith and ample small arms, the Afghans defeat the infidels, be they the armies of Alexander, the Queen Empress of India, the Politburo or the “Great Satan.”
This confluence of intense faith, abundant weaponry, extraordinary patience, a clueless infidel enemy, and the powerful, romantic stimulus of an ever-victorious martial history make restored Islamist rule in Kabul, as the saying goes, an odds-on bet. Recognizing the exorbitant price America would pay for its ill-informed Afghan strategy, Taliban chief Mullah Omar said in 2002, “Today the United States in Afghanistan deludes itself with the vanity of apparent power and imagines that its fate will be better than the fate of earlier invaders. . . . Apparently it has not properly read Afghanistan’s history.”10 Or perhaps John Wayne’s famous line from The Sands of Iwo Jima says it better: “Life is tough. It’s tougher if you’re stupid.”
All of this does not necessarily mean that a new Islamist government in Kabul would wish or allow Afghan territory to be used again by terrorists plotting the mass murder of Americans. But then again, such a government might wish it, or at least allow it, or find itself with no real choice. What then?
We have failed in Afghanistan not because there was no way to achieve the only goals essential to U.S. national security—annihilating the Taliban and al-Qaeda manpower and killing bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri—but because our leaders assumed that the lessons from two millennia of Afghan history did not apply to the United States. Like Sinatra, we could do it our way and win because—well, because we are the world’s only superpower, and so whatever befell others in Afghanistan cannot possibly apply or even be of interest to us.
The disaster America now confronts in Afghanistan did not have to be. In an extraordinarily pertinent book, Into the Land of Bones: Alexander the Great in Afghanistan, the eminent classicist Frank L. Holt captures the predicament Alexander faced, as well as the one the United States faces today. “Alexander’s reputation as a military genius, though richly deserved”, Professor Holt writes,
cannot mask some of the miscalculations he pioneered in Bactria [the Greek name for Afghanistan]. . . . Alexander’s soldiers had been trained to wage and win major battles, but the king now shifted them into new and uncomfortable roles. One minute they were asked to kill with ruthless and indiscriminate intensity, the next they were expected to show deference to survivors. . . .The mythical Hydra provides a defining image of Afghan warfare through the years. The ability of the foe to regenerate itself demoralizes even the most self-assured invaders. This kind of hydra-like warfare exacts a heavy toll on everyone, and its effects are psychological as well as physical. The smashing victories of Alexander’s troops against the armies of Darius had occurred years earlier, closer to home. . . . In those campaigns, the veterans with Alexander had grown accustomed to a comforting expectation: when they fought someone, they absolutely prevailed, and the defeated enemy always stayed defeated. This arrogance of power, as so often since, lost its punch in Afghanistan. The place and its people took no heed of recent history, ignored the strength and sophisticated modernity of the invaders, and cared little for the time-honored conventions of treaties and truces. They fled like bandits if confronted with overwhelming force, then attacked whenever the odds were better. You could never tell if you were winning the war or not.11
Holt points out that history describes only two options for foreign armies once they have become mired in warfare with the Afghans: They can evacuate as the British and Soviets did, with “staggering losses”, or they can follow Alexander’s model by permanently settling a “large army of occupation” in Afghanistan in an effort at pacification. There seems little doubt that America will travel the former path.
There is, of course, a third option that Alexander, the British and the Soviets did not have: Massive, unconstrained and unbalanced military power. The U.S. military clearly possesses the power to win in Afghanistan by destroying the insurgents and the civilian support networks that are their lifeblood, and no other power on the planet could prevent it from doing so. We could, as Sir John Keegan has written, concentrate forces and “launch massive retaliation and persist relentlessly until the raiders [the Taliban, al-Qaeda and their allies] have either been eliminated or so cowed by the violence inflicted that they relapse into inactivity.”12
But America’s governing elite no longer goes to war to win. America has not won a war since September 1945, largely because U.S. politicians care more for what the world thinks of them than for protecting Americans. Our servicemen and servicewomen are sent overseas with rules of engagement that make them targets, not killers, and our enemies always survive to fight another day. Parts of the post-Cold War world are slowly but surely slipping into a new age of almost pre-medieval barbarism, and American leaders are pushing us ever closer to that abyss by refusing to use the full military power Americans bought and paid for to protect themselves. There is no surer way to speed the proliferation of barbarism than by failing to use U.S. military power with whatever savagery is required to definitively destroy a barbaric enemy. If once again we have to deal militarily with Afghanistan, that is how we should deal.
Keegan, “If America decides to take on the Afghans, this is how to do it”, Telegraph, September 20, 2001.
Keegan, “How America can wreak vengeance”, Telegraph, September 14, 2001.
Bearden, “As the War Turns”, Los Angeles Times, November 18, 2001.
Frank L. Holt, Into the Land of Bones: Alexander the Great in Afghanistan (University of California Press, 2005), p. 5.
Lester A. Grau and Michael A. Gress, eds. and trans., The Soviet-Afghan War: How a Superpower Fought and Lost (University of Kansas Press, 2002), pp. 304–5.
Anonymous (Scheuer), Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terrorism (Potomac Books, 2004).
Bearden, “Afghanistan, Graveyard of Empires”, Foreign Affairs (November/December 2001), p. 17.
Holt, Into the Land of Bones, pp. 4–5.
Kaplan, “The Lawless Frontier”, Atlantic Monthly (September 2000).
“Interview with Mullah Muhammad Omar”, Jihad Online News Network, September 13, 2002.
Holt, Into the Land of Bones, pp. 19–20, 76–7.
Keegan, “In this war of civilizations, the West will prevail”, Telegraph, October 8, 2001.