If you had asked Americans about Afghanistan before 1979, it’s a reasonable bet that most of us wouldn’t have known much about that country or even been able to locate it on a map. Perhaps only to the “freaks” of that era, in search of a superb hashish high, would its name have rung a special bell. It was, after all, a key stop — considered particularly friendly and welcoming — on what was then called “the hippy trail.” In those years, you would have been taken for either an idiot or a mad person if you had told any American, freak or not, that between 1979 and 2017, the United States would engage in two wars in that country, the first against the Soviet Union and the second against the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other terror outfits; that Washington would be at war there for more than a quarter of a century (with a decade-plus off during a brutal Afghan civil war and the rise of the Taliban); and that almost 16 years into its second Afghan War, its generals would be considering how many more U.S. troops to recommend that a new president send in to continue the conflict into the distant future.
And yet that’s a perfectly reasonable summary of the situation from the moment Washington dispatched the CIA (and piles of money) to that region to give the Soviet Union, which had sent the Red Army into Kabul in 1979, a “bloody nose” and its own “Vietnam.” The irony: they succeeded. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev called his country’s war there “the bleeding wound” and when the Red Army finally limped out of Afghanistan in 1989, the Soviet Union itself was at the edge of implosion. From that experience, the political leadership in Washington seemed to draw only one lesson: it could never happen to us. Sending an American army of occupation into Kabul and then, like the Soviets, pouring money into the military and the wars that followed would never result in a “bleeding wound,” not for the “sole superpower” on planet Earth. The result, as TomDispatch regular and retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel William Astore writes today, has been a bloody wound par excellence or at least one hell of a bloody nose. As once again an American commander there calls for yet more U.S. troops and Defense Secretary James Mattis, who as the head of Central Command once oversaw the Afghan War, considers just what Washington’s next steps should be, rest assured of one thing: based on the record to date, they’re not likely to be steps in the direction the Russians took in 1989 — not yet, anyway. Tom
Losing a War One Bad Metaphor at a Time
Thrashing About in the Afghan Petri Dish
By William J. Astore
America’s war in Afghanistan is now in its 16th year, the longest foreign war in our history. The phrase “no end in sight” barely covers the situation. Prospects of victory — if victory is defined as eliminating that country as a haven for Islamist terrorists while creating a representative government in Kabul — are arguably more tenuous today than at any point since the U.S. military invaded in 2001 and routed the Taliban. Such “progress” has, over the years, invariably proven “fragile” and “reversible,” to use the weasel words of General David Petraeus who oversaw the Afghan “surge” of 2010-2011 under President Obama. To cite just one recent data point: the Taliban now controls 15% more territory than it did in 2015.
That statistic came up in recent Senate testimony by the U.S. commanding general in Afghanistan, John “Mick” Nicholson Jr., who is (to give no-end-in-sight further context) the 12th U.S. commander since the war began. Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, he called for several thousand more U.S. troops to break what he optimistically described as a “stalemate.” Those troops would, he added, serve mainly as advisers and trainers to Afghan forces, facilitating what he labeled “hold-fight-disrupt” operations.