Saving Civilians: Why the West Cannot “Win” in the Middle East, Part II Afghanistan

U.S Marine Master Sergeant Todd Boydstun of Weapons Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines takes a short break before going on patrol outside Camp Gorgak in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan, June 30, 2011. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov (AFGHANISTAN - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY) - RTR2OAT9

Dear Virtual Editor,

The usual reminder that I seek to lower the number of dead and displaced civilians by urging western powers—the only ones purporting to act in my name— to cease military action and devote their massive resources to humanitarian work.  Country by country, I am arguing the case that the West cannot “win” in the Middle East by making war.  In fact, the West has not won any war since 1945. It is not a coincidence that after that date warfare largely ceased to be a nation vs. nation activity.  As we will see, western powers have not fully recognized this shift and often continue to act as if drawing a line on a map can define a country. Examples are the artificial creation of Korea, Vietnam and earlier of Iraq.  It is even truer in the region we refer to as Afghanistan.

Afghanistan: Graveyard for Foreign Intervention

All that has been yet accomplished has been the disintegration of the state…the assumption of fresh and unwelcome liabilities in regards to one of its provinces, and the condition of anarchy throughout the rest of the country”.  British Diplomat commenting on his country’s invasions of Afghanistan in 1838 and 1878.

 Sound familiar? 

The British conducted the first western invasion in 1838 as part of an imperial contest with Russia. It was, of course, justified as a mission to civilize backward people. The invasion is always the easy part, but after initial success the British were forced into a bloody withdrawal in the dead of winter. In 1878, they tried again, this time gaining some concessions but having to buy their way out of another humiliation.

Before departing, the British persuaded the Afghan ruler of the day to sign the Duran Line Accord, establishing what the West mistakenly assumes today is the border with Pakistan. The line literally split tribes, clans and families.  When modern Pakistan came into existence in 1947, Afghanistan formally rejected the line.  The Afghan people have never paid any attention to it.

They’ve already repeated all our mistakes. Now they are making mistakes of their own, ones for which we do not own the copyright. Russian Diplomat, commenting in 2008 on his country’s failed 1973 invasion and U.S. failed 2001 invasion.

Unfortunately for the Afghan people, the area was drawn into the Cold War, giving the Russians their chance in 1973 to demonstrate their overconfidence and ignorance of Afghan society. A series of coups produced a resistance group called the Mujahedin. The West blindly supported this group with no attempt to examine its components or goals. Being against the Russians was enough.

Afghan tribes have a history of warring viciously with one another, but also of putting aside differences in order to repel foreign invaders. Using the flexibility and decentralized tactical command and control that powerful nations never seem to understand, they drove the Russians out in 1989. Tribal war promptly resumed and the Taliban, with a good contingent of former Mujahedin, emerged in 1996 to exert the limited authority available to a government in Afghanistan. They brought brutal religious zealotry, but also order.

A few years later, it was the turn of U.S. invaders to fail.  Following the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. demanded that the Taliban government surrender Osama Bin Laden. Consistent with a long Afghan tradition of negotiating, the Taliban asked for evidence of his guilt. The U.S. responded that its demands were not negotiable and issued an ultimatum.  The Taliban dropped the demand for evidence.  Instead they suggested negotiation about a trial for Bin Laden in a country other than the U.S.—perhaps his home country of Saudi Arabia, which had an extradition treaty with Washington.  On October 7, 2001 in violation of international law, the U.S. responded by bombing a place that had not attacked her, bringing the first civilian deaths in a war that would kill tens of thousands. In the words of Canadian journalist Linda McQuaig: “By what logic or moral code are the lives of these people worth less than those who perished at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon?”

Most of the allies the U.S. persuaded/cajoled/coerced into joining her in Afghanistan have left the field.  Meanwhile, for more than 15 years, the steady trickle of military and civilian blood has continued. On 6 July 2016, U.S. President Obama announced that 8,400 troops would remain in Afghanistan as part of the futile effort to prop up a corrupt government of warlords whose writ does not run beyond Kabul. His successor would be left to decide how long it will take to finally learn that this war will not be won, and has little or nothing to do with terrorism if it ever did. Meanwhile, ordinary Afghans die.

Long ago, the British invasions established the pattern for Russian and U.S. incursions:  1. Justifications. 2. Initial success. 3. Gradually widening resistance. 4. Stalemate. 5. Withdrawal.  At the moment, the U.S. is caught somewhere between 4 and 5.

The U.S. is the third major power to learn the futility of invading Afghanistan. It appears, however, that the lesson has not sunk in.  Sixteen years after invading, the U.S. slogs on, adding its part to the toll of military and civilian deaths and providing one side in a civil war with the valid assertion that the other side is backed by a foreign invader.

Mother and Child

Whether civilians are killed directly, or indirectly as a consequence of the war on foreign invaders, they die in significant numbers because the West does not learn.  Notwithstanding the pompous pontification of pundits who are apparently unconcerned about how wrong they have been how many times, there is no military, humanitarian, or even geopolitical reason to continue making war in Afghanistan. Get out.

Facebook Twitter Email

Comments are closed.