The United States in Afghanistan: Eight Years Later

The United States scarcely knew what a complex disaster it was confronting when it went to war in Afghanistan on October 7, 2001. It will eventually — perhaps years from now — suffer the same fate as Alexander the Great, the British, and the now-defunct Soviet Union: defeat. 

What is called "Afghanistan" is really a collection of tribes and ethnic groups: Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, and more. There are seven major ethnic groups, each with their own language. There are 30 minor languages. Pashtuns are 42 percent of the population and the Taliban comes from them. Its borders are contested and highly porous, and al-Qaeda is most powerful in the Pashtun regions of northern Pakistan as well as Afghanistan. "The fate of Afghanistan and Pakistan are inextricably tied," President George Bush declared in December 2007. This fact makes the war far more complicated, not the least because enormous quantities of military aid sent to Pakistan is mostly wasted.

Worse yet, Pakistan possesses about 70 to 90 nuclear weapons and the U.S. fears some may fall into the hands of Islamic extremists.  At least three-quarters of the supplies essential for America’s and its allies’ war effort flow through Pakistan, and they are often assaulted. Moreover, a large and growing majority of the Pakistanis distrust U.S. motives. The U.S.’s tilt to New Delhi after 2007, which greatly augmented Indian nuclear power, made Pakistan far more reticent to do Washington’s bidding.

Afghanistan is a mess, complex beyond description with mountainous terrain to match. Its principal problems are political, social, and cultural — in large part because Great Britain concocted it arbitrarily. There is no durable military solution to its many problems. As in Vietnam, the U.S. will win battles but it has no strategy for winning this war. 

Above all, the regional geo-political context is decisive, involving India-Pakistan relations — a factor that will prevail whatever the United States and its allies do. Pakistan’s most vital interest is seeing a friendly government rule Afghanistan — no matter who it is. They will not waver on this principle. The Pakistani military is adamant about making India its key focus, and while it is opposed to al-Qaeda and the Arab membership, it maintains good relations with the anti-Karzai Taliban — with whom it worked when it fought the Soviets.

The power of Afghanistan’s nominal president, Hamid Karzai, barely extends beyond Kabul, and his inefficiency and corruption shocks many U.S. leaders — most of whom, as in South Vietnam, are ultimately prepared to tolerate it. The Pakistanis regard Karzai as an Indian puppet, and however much many of its leaders dislike Pashtun separatism or the Taliban, they fear India far more. Their military is structured to fight India, not a counterinsurgency against the Taliban and its allies who operate within its borders.  

Karzai, a Pashtun who nonetheless is far closer to Tajiks and Uzbeks, is indeed very cordial to India. Indian foreign aid to his government has amounted to over a billion dollars. His "re-election" earlier this month — at a time when he is increasingly unpopular — has been attacked as based on fraud. Former President Jimmy Carter declared "Hamid Karzai has stolen the election." 

This is only part of the context in which the U.S. has been mired for eight years, and Obama’s strategy of escalation will confront growing resistance both in Afghanistan and among the U.S. Congress and public. There are now over 100,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, mainly American, and more will not change the situation.  Fifty-eight percent of the American population was against the Afghan war in September this year, and in some NATO nations — particularly Germany, Great Britain, and Italy — opposition to the war is increasing. These countries will not send significantly more troops to fight there.  Influential U.S. Senators — who are still a small minority but an indication the war is becoming increasingly unpopular within the U.S. — are questioning Obama’s strategy.  

Obama’s approach to winning the war is far too convoluted to succeed and it is dependent on factors over which he has scant control — not the least being the advice of one of his key advisers, Bruce Riedel, that "the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the central all-consuming issue for al-Qaeda." This issue must finally be settled; the chances of that happening are close to non-existent. Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, has warned Obama on several occasions that "we are running the risk of replicating … the fate of the Soviets." As the author of Moscow’s "Afghan trap," he should know. 

Still, Obama is likely to escalate.  Apart from the "credibility" of American power being involved, most key American officers think, to quote chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, that "the main effort in our strategic focus from a military perspective must now shift to Afghanistan."  A few officers, mostly lacking influence, believe it will lead to disaster, and the American military commander in Afghanistan at the end of last September warned that unless there is a rapid escalation of troops within a year the war "will likely result in failure."   

Meanwhile, Obama thinks he will win the war by escalation — an illusion that also marked the futile war in Vietnam. He also believes he can "Afghanisize" the war — like Nixon thought he could "Vietnamize" that conflict — even though recruits for Karzai’s army have little motivation apart from collecting their salary, and are scarcely a match for the Taliban — a quite divided, complex organization which today dominates much of the country.     

A growing majority of the Afghan population now oppose the U.S. effort because they have led to frightful civilian casualties without attaining decisive military successes. "The mission is on the verge of failing," a writer in the U.S. Army’s quarterly, Parameters, concluded last spring.  

That, indeed, may be an understatement.

Author: Gabriel Kolko

Gabriel Kolko, a historian, is the author of The Age of War: The United States Confronts the World and The Anatomy of War.