Escaping the Graveyard of Empires: it’s time to get out of Afghanistan.

On Monday night (August 21, 2017), President Donald Trump gave a major address on the continuing U.S. war in Afghanistan. The details are not so different than various other proposals on Afghanistan that have been floated in the last few years, including under the Obama administration, but it’s clear that the major features of Trump’s policy are an increase in troop strength, and making vague noises–without any accompanying action–about “defeating ISIS.” This comes just two months before American military involvement in Afghanistan turns an incredible 16 years old. A child born on October 7, 2001, the day the U.S. military campaign began, will soon be old enough to drive. And still the war drags on with nothing even resembling a clear endpoint in sight. Trump’s address shows, as have many of his statements and actions, an ignorance of the facts of history: that Afghanistan truly is “the graveyard of empires,” and that no major power who has engaged there has come out better for it.

After 16 years of this war, I think it’s time for somebody to say unequivocally: it is time to get out of Afghanistan. It’s time to end this war, if not by negotiation, then by withdrawal.

Very few people, so far as I can tell, are talking about the real issues in Afghanistan. Right now, for us, the issues are: is it worth it for us to continue fighting there? Are the lives of the Americans and Afghans who will continue to die if this war continues being expended in some responsible way, to achieve a tangible goal? After 16 years, is there anything more we’re likely to accomplish there that we haven’t already done? I believe the answer to all three questions is a firm no.

A U.S. soldier at work in Afghanistan. How many like her will die in the years to come? As of this writing, 2,403 American soldiers have already lost their lives.

There is a lot to say about why we’re supposedly in Afghanistan now–propping up a friendly government, preventing the country from collapsing into a terrorist haven (as it was before we invaded in 2001), etc. But I want to talk about one aspect of the conflict that almost no one talks about: that the Afghan war was specifically designed for us to be an unwinnable trap, a quagmire from which we would be unable, or unwilling, to extricate ourselves, and which, our enemies hope, will slow-bleed us to the point of fatal weakness. This was the vision of Osama bin Laden, and it’s why he masterminded the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001: to provoke a U.S. military response that, he hoped, would cripple the United States the way the Soviet war in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989 crippled the USSR. If bin Laden was looking up from Hell on Monday night, surely he was applauding Trump for helping him accomplish his long-term goal.

To understand this, you must understand a bit about how bin Laden developed his twisted worldview. Al Qaeda’s roots go back to the 1940s, before bin Laden was born, but in the 1980s, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to prop up a failing regime there with no popular support (sound familiar?), the Afghan war gave him his opportunity to fight against the hated superpowers. Contrary to popular belief, bin Laden was never funded by the CIA. He had his own money, and channeled it toward the Afghan resistance. When the USSR withdrew in February 1989, and more importantly when it collapsed in 1991, bin Laden took from it a simple cause-and-effect lesson: fighting in Afghanistan caused the USSR’s dissolution. After 1991, he sought a way to bring down the other empire he hated, the United States, by the same means. That was ultimately the impetus for 9/11. If he had safe harbor in Afghanistan and struck the U.S. hard, the inevitable retaliation would draw the Americans into a war they could not win.

This was done, in part, to draw the United States into a conflict in Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden conceived the attack for precisely that purpose.

Bin Laden’s historical understanding of the fall of the Soviet Union was shallow, but you can see how he got there. Afghanistan has been the “graveyard of empires” for centuries. Despite numerous battles and recalibrations of their sphere of influence there, the British could never really control it in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the Russians were even less successful. Afghanistan defies great power control: it’s a pile of rocks, devoid of significant natural resources, and its society and loose-knit clan structure is difficult for Western powers to interface with. Militarily, fighting there is an nightmare. Supply lines are long, bases vulnerable and enemies have plenty of places to hide. No more perfect trap for unwary Western foreign policy exists anywhere on Earth.

In a way, Bush II couldn’t help stepping into that trap in 2001. He had to retaliate for 9/11, and at least, unlike the disastrous invasion of Iraq, Afghanistan was the right enemy. Bush II, in his naivete, can almost be forgiven for getting drawn into the inevitable “nation-building” project that followed the collapse of the Taliban government in November 2001, just six weeks into the war. But what’s Barack Obama’s excuse? He killed bin Laden in 2011, albeit in Pakistan, not Afghanistan. But the war and the nation-building went on. Trump, far more ignorant and naive even than Bush II, has even less excuse than Obama did. None of these three men understood Afghanistan’s history. And thousands of American troops have paid the ultimate price for that misunderstanding of history.

The Soviet Union fought a war in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989. We’ve arguably done a little better than they did, but their experience still provides plenty of sobering examples.

Bin Laden was certainly wrong that the Afghanistan war would bring about the collapse of the U.S., as he thought the Soviet-Afghan war brought about the collapse of the USSR. But he seems to have been right that, once we got there, we would be unable–or, more precisely, unwilling–to leave. So far as I can tell, withdrawal from Afghanistan is not even being seriously considered. Foreign policy and military experts dismiss it as “irresponsible” and then refuse to think about it further. But isn’t continuing an unwinnable war, continuing to send back American coffins and American soldiers physically and mentally disabled forever–is that not also irresponsible? The U.S. war there has already lasted 16 years. How is committing to extend this war for another decade, or another 20, 30, 40 or 50 years, not also irresponsible?

It is time–long past time–for us to get out of Afghanistan. Whatever we once thought we were doing there, we’re not accomplishing it. More time and more troops won’t change that. After 16 years the Afghan government can ask no more of us, and at some point we have to honor the duty we have to our servicepeople by not continuing to throw their lives away in a conflict which is likely to accomplish no more than we already have to show for it. We crushed the Taliban and killed bin Laden. Is that not enough of a victory to call it good? Let us avoid the graveyard of empires. Let’s get out. Now.

THE PHOTO OF 9/11 IS BY FLICKR USER ROBERT J. FISCH AND IS USED UNDER CREATIVE COMMONS 2.0 (ATTRIBUTION) LICENSE. The photo from the Soviet war is by Sergey Novikov and is used under Creative Commons 3.0 license. All other illustrations are public domain, so far as I know.
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4 Comments

  1. I grew up during Eisenhower, but I was too young to hear whatever he had to say about Korea. I remember the story on Vietnam from Kennedy, then Johnson, then Nixon. I don’t think Carter started a war, but there was all that Central American stuff under Reagan, an ungodly number of wars, warlets, and other kind of military belligerence under Bush 1, Clinton, Bush 2 and Obama. The speech Trump gave was remarkably similar to another made by Obama. I can’t even remember how many times I’ve heard that speech. Name the location, but otherwise, it’s the same rap every time.

  2. A repeat bad dream, a repeat establishment speech, a repeat mistake. Totally irresponsible. This is a real issue. There are kids in the military right now who were 2 yr old when we started this war. Fuck no, it’s not worth it.

  3. It’s not true the Afghanistan is “a rock”. Before the war, Afghanistan was planned to be a major thoroughfare for Turkmenistan oil. Unocal was supposed to get the contract, but the deal got derailed after bin Laden’s bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi. It’s been on hold ever since because of instability. The Clinton Administration was perfectly willing to work with the “terrorist” Taliban to get that oil pipeline built, as was the Bush Administration before 9/11. To my knowledge, Unocal still holds the contract for that pipeline. In the meantime, trillions of dollars worth of untapped mineral deposits, including rare earth minerals, have been discovered. China is already making inroads to tap rare earth mining in Afghanistan. The president of Afghanistan is wary of opening this market because of the potential for corruption. There are opportunities for some to profit from war in Afghanistan. it won’t be us, but that’s never been relevant.

    The bin Laden “master plan” thesis is a bit shaky.

    1. Bin Laden’s plans are documented in Lawrence Wright’s book on the ideology of Al Qaeda, “The Looming Tower,” which I highly recommend if you haven’t read it. It makes sense when one considers that bin Laden’s formative political experience was the Soviet-Afghan war, and he desired to recreate that experience except with the US instead of the USSR cast as the pathetic giant.

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