Beware the Afghan trap

Beware the Afghan trap

Posted: Tuesday, July 29, 2008 10:11 pm
By: Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

By DOUGLAS COHN and ELEANOR CLIFT WASHINGTON — Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., says Afghanistan is the central front in the war on terror. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., disagrees. He’s sticking with Iraq as the central front. Even so, the two men agree that more U.S. troops should be sent to Afghanistan. Obama calls the situation “urgent and precarious,” and proposes sending two additional brigades. McCain wants to send three brigades, a tacit admission that the war in Iraq may be winding down while American involvement in Afghanistan is deepening. Both candidates are wrong. The last outsider to conquer Afghanistan with military force was Alexander the Great more than 2300 years ago. Other conquerors have come and gone, including Genghis Khan, but no invader has seriously occupied Afghanistan since the days of Alexander. His legacy can be found in the name of one of the cities he built. Kandahar means Alexander. Everyone since then has failed. From the British in the 1870’s to the Soviets in 1979, Afghanistan has proved a humbling experience. When Soviet tanks rolled into Kabul in December of ‘79, heating up the Cold War, national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski predicted the Soviet adventurism would backfire. He told President Carter Afghanistan would be the Soviets’ Vietnam, a long and costly war draining of resources that would end in defeat. He was right. After the 9/11 attacks, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld lamented the lack of meaningful targets in a country as under-developed as Afghanistan, one of the reasons the administration shifted its sights to regime change in Iraq. The only nation that truly coveted Afghanistan was Russia, which sought a warm water port and saw the country as a path to the sea. The British weren’t about to let Russia expand and fought the Afghan wars rather than let that happen. President Bush ignored the lessons of history when he plunged into Iraq. Let’s hope his successor, whether it’s President Obama or President McCain, will carefully define the U.S. objective in Afghanistan before sending more young men and women into what has historically been a no-win war. Is the U.S. objective nation building? Is it about building democracy? Or is it about fighting Al-Qaeda and destroying the Taliban? Developing the war-torn country and building a civil society are worthy efforts, but not the central reason for increased U.S. involvement. The objective should be to prevent the Taliban and Al-Qaeda from taking over and turning Afghanistan into the safe haven for Osama bin Laden that it was before 9/11. That requires placing troops only in those areas where the Taliban and Al-Qaeda are active — and then only in a supporting role. After that, what goes on in Afghanistan is between President Karzai and his people. When the Taliban was defeated in the months after 9/11, it was done by the Northern Alliance, an Afghani insurgent army with 15,000 fighters taking the lead. How did 15,000 men oust the Taliban and conquer a country? They did it because it is their country and because they got help from a small number of covert U.S. troops on the ground coupled with significant U.S. air support from above. President Karzai, a reform-minded leader, was installed and for a time it appeared as though the Taliban had been routed. Now the Taliban and Al-Qaeda are resurgent and McCain is calling for a surge of U.S. troops to quell the growing violence. Obama is falling into the same trap. Afghanistan is not a mini-Iraq. It is not the job of American troops to patrol Afghanistan and keep the peace. Any additional troops should focus on countering the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Leave the rest to Karzai. No amount of troops can do what the Afghan people don’t want to do for themselves. Published in The Messenger 7.29.08

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