Ashes of Empire

Earlier this month Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned that time is running out in Afghanistan. Though emphasizing the need for reconstruction and noting that "we cannot kill our way to victory," he also announced that a new strategy would have to be pursued that would essentially consist of sending more soldiers, drawing them down from Iraq and sending them to Afghanistan. Both Barack Obama and John McCain have endorsed sending two more combat brigades to Afghanistan, less than the three that the Pentagon is seeking. The strategy for victory assumes, of course, that more soldiers alone will remedy what ails Afghanistan, turning the country around and making it into a stable, pluralistic democracy. No one questions that security is a fundamental issue if Afghanistan is to be stabilized, but the assumption that 10,000 more soldiers will make the crucial difference can and should be questioned by the American public, which is providing the soldiers and paying the costs of the war.

Reading history books may not be required at the Naval Academy, but Adm. Mullen should consider some historical analogies. Afghanistan has been the graveyard of empires ever since Alexander the Great had trouble crossing the Khyber Pass in 326 B.C. He wisely decided to pretty much leave the tribesmen alone and moved south to India. From the Middle Ages on, waves of invading Mongols, Moghul rulers of India, and Persians have swept through the area, but the Afghan tribes have always proved fractious and hard to rule.

Foreign domination ended in 1747 when the Persians were expelled from the western part of the country and a local dynasty was established that survived into the 20th century. For the following two centuries Britain and Russia vied to control the area because of its vital trade routes across Asia but found it largely indigestible. An entire British army was annihilated in the First Afghan War of 1839-1842. Britain did not trouble the Afghans again until 1878, when a modern army advancing on Kabul was ambushed and nearly overwhelmed at Ahmed Khel before British firepower gave the advantage to the invaders. The British chose to leave the Afghans alone, paying a large subsidy in gold to the country’s rulers while only stipulating that a British minister would have veto authority over Afghan foreign policy, a move designed to keep the Russians out. In 1919, the Afghans rose up, invading India before being driven back and defeated inside Afghanistan by an expeditionary force armed with field artillery and machine guns. The British wisely withdrew and, by the Treaty of Rawalpindi in 1919, the British Empire accepted complete Afghan independence.

The next great power that tried to occupy Afghanistan was the Soviet Union from 1979 to 1992. Moscow eventually sent 110,000 soldiers supported by tanks and helicopters to Afghanistan before withdrawing in failure with at least 10,000 dead. A Soviet-backed puppet regime survived for a short time before being replaced by the Taliban. Now there is a U.S.-backed puppet regime in Kabul headed by Hamid Karzai, sometimes referred to as the "Mayor of Kabul" because of the limits of his authority, who reportedly became president in the first place because he spoke good English. His government is largely ineffective and is extremely corrupt, with much of the corruption coming from drug money, which makes up the bulk of the country’s economy. There have been numerous attempts to kill Karzai, who is protected from assassination by a praetorian guard from Blackwater International.

In short, invaders who seek to control Afghanistan either directly or by proxy become involved in long, bloody wars, and they eventually decide the best choice is to depart and leave the Afghans to their own devices. That might be good advice in the current situation also. Afghanistan is as big as the state of Texas. It has nonexistent-to-poor roads, and its terrain is forbidding, with mountains in many parts and deserts in others. Its richest agricultural regions in the south are also the areas where the Taliban are dominant and where poppies are grown that provide more than 90 percent of the world’s heroin.

Washington is alarmed because violence in Afghanistan has been increasing dramatically over the past two years in all areas and by every metric. The Taliban now control or move freely in nearly a third of the country, mostly in the Pashtun-dominated south and along the border with Pakistan. In those areas, travel conditions are regarded as extremely hazardous and civilians from the UN or from NGOs cannot normally enter without large military escorts, which are themselves frequently attacked. In another third of the country there is a high and increasing level of violence, though some NGOs continue to operate in the better-protected areas. In the rest of the country, mostly in the Tajik- and Uzbek-dominated north, the situation is relatively secure. Kabul is on a fault line between relatively safe and unsafe areas and has recently seen a number of bombings and assassinations. Foreigners normally do not move around the city without an armed escort.

Because of the country’s size and geography, it has been estimated that something like 400,000 soldiers would be required to effectively secure Afghanistan. Lacking anything near those resources and given the profile of where the violence is concentrated, one would expect that there would be an intensified military effort to deal with the violence in the south and along the border, but that is only somewhat true. There are 54,000 NATO and U.S. soldiers in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Most are in and around Kabul or engaged in reconstruction and training in relatively safe areas. Of all the NATO troops, only the Canadians, British, and Dutch are allowed to operate in the dangerous south and actually fight. And even for those nations, the NATO mandate on Afghanistan expires in 2010, and there is every indication the parliaments in Europe, where the cause of Afghanistan is very unpopular, will refuse to extend the commitment, leaving only the U.S.

Washington currently has 31,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, half with NATO and half under independent command, and it might well add an additional three brigades or 10,000 soldiers by next year. That might seem like a large number of soldiers, but there are four times that many in Iraq, a much smaller country and one that does not have a second war to contend with. Neighboring Pakistan is both a safe haven for the Taliban and al-Qaeda and also itself a major front in the war in Afghanistan, because fighting along the border spills over into both countries. Also, the numbers of U.S. soldiers are deceptive as the Pentagon deploys far more support and staff soldiers than it does combat units. For example, the United States has 146,000 soldiers in Iraq but only 15 combat brigades. Brigades are roughly 3,000 soldiers, meaning that slightly less than one third of the Iraq deployment consists of soldiers who are actually trained in fighting. Of that one third, soldiers work in shifts and have administrative and training duties, and even combat units have their own staffs. That generally means that less than a quarter of the number of combat soldiers are actually operational at any given time. If you assume that the numbers for Afghanistan are roughly proportionate to those in Iraq, a surge of 10,000 more soldiers up to a 41,000 soldier total translates into 14,000 combat troops, only 3,500 of whom are patrolling or operating at any given time. To continue with the Texas analogy based on the size of Afghanistan, consider what 3,500 soldiers would be able to do if they were deployed to fight an insurgency and also maintain order in a geographic area as big as Texas, where the city of Houston alone has more than 4,000 policemen, if the population were hostile and heavily armed. A few thousand soldiers would be overwhelmed, which is precisely why in Afghanistan U.S. forces have had to rely on air power to maintain themselves, killing many civilians in the process. One might also return to the historical analogy, noting that the Russians had 110,000 soldiers, backed a regime that had considerable resources, and still lost.

Finally, there is the political argument for considering giving up Afghanistan as an unwinnable cause. The U.S. has occupied Afghanistan for seven years. Pacification of the country, which might have taken place if the Iraq war had not intervened, did not occur, and the security situation is now worse than it has been at any time since December 2001. Reconstruction has been mismanaged and plagued by corruption. Many potential donor countries have reasonably enough refused to give aid because the security situation is so bad. The U.S. persists in supporting President Karzai even though his government is corrupt and ineffective. Staying in Afghanistan to stop international terrorism is a fiction, as the presence of U.S. forces has, if anything, served as a magnet and recruiting tool for the insurgents. If it is being argued that an enhanced U.S. presence in Afghanistan will suddenly turn things around and make the world a better and safer place, it is the right of the American public, which is sending its sons and daughters into the meat grinder, to demand an explanation of why that is so. I do not believe that such a case has been or can be made. It is time to consider leaving Afghanistan.

Author: Philip Giraldi

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is a contributing editor to The American Conservative and executive director of the Council for the National Interest.