In the fall of 2009 General Stanley McChrystal, the top US commander in Afghanistan, requested 40,000 additional troops to help fight an increasingly aggressive Taliban insurgency. President Obama agreed in December to send 30,000 troops as part of an Afghan ‘surge.’ Below are three reasons why Democrats who have soured to the war should support his request.
1. The Long Suffering Afghan People.
In the 1980s America fought the Soviets using our Afghan allies as proxies. In essence, we fought the Soviets to the last drop of Afghan blood. And bleed they did. As many as 1.5 million Afghans died in the war that helped bring down our Communist enemy. In other words, in the 1980s this small population lost more people than America has lost in all its wars combined. But when the war was over the US did not offer the Afghans anything similar to the Marshall Plan that was used to rebuild post-World War II Europe. On the contrary the US turned off all aid to this devastated land and left the Afghans to suffer in isolation. As a result, another 60,000 Afghans died in the post-Soviet Civil War in which the previously-preserved Afghan capital was utterly destroyed. Many others died from starvation and wounds in refugee camps in Pakistan. Not surprisingly, many Afghans feel used and abandoned by their American Cold War allies.
But not everyone abandoned the Afghans. The Saudi extremist charities and fundamentalist Pakistani political parties pumped in millions of dollars to building madrassas (seminaries) that acted as de facto orphanages and jihadi incubators for a new generation of Afghan war orphans. In the 1990s this generation of Talibs (religious students) formed the Taliban regime which turned Afghanistan into a fundamentalist prison camp. The once-free Afghans were horribly abused in this Medieval time warp.
What eventually caught the US’s attention was not the fact that the misogynistic Taliban treated half the population (the women) as thralls and closed girls schools and hospitals, it was the fact that they harbored Al Qaeda terrorists. When these terrorists attacked the US on 9/11, President Bush and his wife Laura belatedly spoke of a noble project to free Afghan women from the Taliban’s oppression. They also spoke of making up for lost time and rebuilding this war torn land as an antidote to future extremism. It was the sort of far-sighted vision that led the US to rebuild post-World War II Europe as an antidote to Communism.
Despite the fact that Bush was distracted by his invasion of Baathist Iraq, much has been achieved in succeeding years. Eight years on Afghanistan is a changed place. I have traveled through roughly half of Afghanistan’s provinces and have seen de-mining teams hard at work, beautiful bridges and paved roads that put the ones I drive on in Boston to shame, laughing school children (including girls! See here http://www.brianglynwilliams.com/afghanistan3/pict_58.html and here http://www.brianglynwilliams.com/afghanistan3/pict_12.html) studying in US-built schools, a bustling capital seemingly with more cell phones per person than we have in the USA, and women tentatively going about without burqas on for the first time in years. In the majority of the country a new generation is growing up without war and more than two thirds of Afghanistan is experiencing peace.
This is because the insurgency is largely located in the tribal belt of the ethnic Pashtuns (the Taliban are Pashtuns). The other ethnic groups who make up the majority, such as the Hazaras, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Turkmen, Aimaqs, belonged to the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance and want us there. Over and over again during my travels through their lands, and even in the Pashtun tribal lands, I was told to tell my fellow Americans not to abandon Afghanistan. If we left, the Afghans I met feared the Taliban thugs would come back throwing acid in un-veiled women’s’ faces, burning schools, amputating hands, and stoning women for adultery (i.e. being caught out on the street with a male who was not family or husband). All we have achieved at a cost in blood and gold would be overturned and the Afghans would be right where we left them back in 1991 when they fell prey to the extremists. We would be abandoning them all over again.
The peace and stability that we have brought to two thirds of Afghanistan is fragile and takes a military presence to maintain. We need time to train the tens of thousands of Afghan police and military to keep the peace and fight the Taliban insurgents in the Pashtun south. The Afghans desperately need breathing room. We have a window of opportunity in Afghanistan to act. In other words, compassionate, global-minded Democrats who supported President Bill Clinton’s humanitarian interventions in places like Kosovo, Bosnia, Hati and Somalia owe it to the Afghan people to be patient and do the same for Afghanistan.
2. Al Qaeda and the Taliban are One
In the Fall Vice President Joe Biden offered an alternative plan for Afghanistan that could be summarized as “fight Al Qaeda terrorists not local Taliban insurgents.” Instead of sending US general Stanley McChrystal the 40,000 troops he has requested to wage a full blown counter-insurgency against the Taliban, this “limited” strategy calls for waging a counter-terrorism campaign against Al Qaeda. Rather than slug it out with the local Taliban, we should focus on the Al Qaeda terrorists who attacked the US on 9/11. And since Al Qaeda is in Pakistan, American forces should simply rely on unmanned aerial drones to kill them there (for more on the drone campaign see: http://www.jamestown.org/single/?no_cache=1&tx_ttnewstt_news=35542&tx_ttnewsbackPid=7&cHash=d5a68181e6). Republican writer and strategist George Will summed up this strategy by stating American forces should be “substantially reduced to serve a comprehensively revised policy: America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, air strikes and small, potent Special Forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/08/31/AR2009083102912.html).
Putting aside the assertion that Afghanistan somehow does not “matter,” this call for monitoring a 1,500 mile “porous” border using less than 200 Predator and Reaper drones overlooks the logistic limitations of such a campaign. If America cannot stop Mexicans from infiltrating America in the millions, how can it monitor the mountainous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan from afar…with drones? Most importantly, how can we look the Pakistanis in the eye after calling on them to go after the Taliban and Al Qaeda on their own side of the border when we talk of withdrawing “offshore” to fight them on our side of the border? For the hammer (the US in Afghanistan) and anvil (the Pakistani army) approach to work to prevent cross border raids the US-led Coalition needs to hit the Taliban from the Afghan side of the border while our Pakistani allies pressure them from their side.
But the biggest flaw with calls for waging a more limited counter-terrorism campaign (as opposed to a full blown counter-insurgency), is that is rests upon the flawed assertion that there is daylight between the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Those in support of the limited approach have begun to retroactively argue that the Taliban are a local outfit that did not attack America on 9/11 and we should not be fighting them. This theory posits that the Taliban are unlikely to stand by the Al Qaeda lightning rod which caused the overthrow of their regime in 2001.
But that is exactly what the Taliban have done so far. When President Bush called upon the Taliban to turn over Bin Laden and dismantle Al Qaeda’s terrorist camps in Afghanistan after 9/11, Taliban leader Mullah Omar drew a line in the sand and dared the Americans to come and meet their fate in the killing mountains of Afghanistan. Did the Taliban learn their lesson and subsequently break their ties with their dangerous allies?
On the contrary. In 2001 Al Qaeda fled to the Pashtun tribal provinces of Pakistan and there they were offered sanctuary by the Taliban. Taliban commanders such as Nek Muhammad, Mullah Dadullah, Baitullah Mehsud, Jalaluddin Haqqani, and Hakeemullah Mehsud, not only protected Al Qaeda but actively worked to disseminate their brand of terrorism throughout Pakistan and Afghanistan. Under Al Qaeda influence, the down-but-not-out Taliban began to radicalize. By 2006 the Taliban had become the world’s second most pervasive users of suicide terrorism after the Iraqis. They had also begun to behead their victims on video and to assassinate their enemies. It was the Taliban that were blamed for killing former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and who tried killing Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf. Al Qaeda amirs (commander) sit in on the Taliban shuras (councils) in Quetta and Waziristan, they fight alongside the Taliban insurgents, and they fund and train their Taliban allies. The Taliban and Al Qaeda have essentially morphed into one since 2001. Under Al Qaeda influence the Taliban have even threatened to attack the West on numerous occasions.
For those who seek to de-link the Taliban from Al Qaeda in order to rationalize a more limited war, Al Qaeda has a response. In a recent Al Qaeda internet posting picked up by the Long War Journal, Al Qaeda emphatically states:
All praise is for Allah, Al-Qaeda and Taliban all are Muslims and we are united by the brotherhood of Islam. We do not see any difference between Taliban and Al Qaeda, for we all belong to the religion of Islam. Sheikh Osama has pledged allegiance to Amir Al-Mumineen (Mullah Muhammad Omar) and has reassured his leadership again and again. There is no difference between us, for we are united by Islam and the Sharia governs us. Just as the infidels are one people, so are the Muslims, and they will never succeed in disuniting the Mujahideen, saying that there is Al- Qaeda and Taliban, and that Al-Qaeda are terrorists and extremists. They use many such words, but by the Grace of Allah, it will not affect our brotherly relationship.
There is a reason why no one has been able to get the 25 million dollar bounties on Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda number two Ayman al Zawaheri, and that is because the Taliban protect them. There is nothing to indicate that this would change if the Americans withdrew from the counter-insurgency and let the Taliban sweep back across southern Afghanistan. Far from it. Recent history would indicate that the Taliban would continue to offer sanctuary to the terrorists who attacked London, Madrid, Istanbul, New York, Bali and Washington from their Taliban-protected bases in Pakistan and Afghanistan. If the Taliban are allowed to regroup they will be more radical than they were in 2001, more distrustful of the Americans who toppled them, and filled with arrogance over their perceived victory. From such a position of strength why would they suddenly change and turn on their Al Qaeda allies/sponsors?
3. History is Not Necessarily Against Us
Over the summer Democrats began to turn against the war in Afghanistan. At the time it became conventional wisdom that history was not on the US-led Coalition’s side. One such voice recently opined “Afghanistan is a 40,000 rural, rugged village fortress and thus a graveyard of empires since Alexander the Great – unconquered by Romans, Medians, Persians, Turks, Mongols, British, Soviets and our shrinking “Coalition” forces.”
Overlooking the fact that the Romans never came anywhere near Afghanistan and that many village fortresses are Northern Alliance and therefore pro-American, the truth is that all of the above people except for the Soviets actually succeeded in conquering the Afghans! A perusal of maps of bygone empires will show that Alexander, the Persians, the Turks, the Mongols and even the British succeeded in conquering Afghanistan (the British absorbed the tribal territories of the North West Frontier Province from Afghanistan into their Indian empire in what later became Pakistan).
As for the Soviets, their experience actually has very little in common with that of the US. The Soviets fought a mujahideen ‘freedom fighter’ army of 250,000 men. The Taliban insurgency by contrast is limited to 20,000 men. If this were not enough, the CIA funded the mujahideen insurgents and the Pakistanis, and, far from attacking the mujahideen as they are with the Taliban today, actually trained and equipped them.
If this were not enough, the Soviets were forced to fight all Afghanistan’s ethnic groups to varying degrees. In particular, the Tajiks led by the indomitable Massoud the Lion of Panjsher killed two thirds of Soviet soldiers. Today the Tajiks are fully with the US led Coalition as are the Uzbeks, Turkmen, Aimaqs, and Hazaras. It is only the Pashtuns that support the Taliban (and many of them are actually on the US side, including the Pashtun president Hamid Karzai). It should also be stated the anti-Soviet freedom fighters were armed with Stinger ground-to-air missiles something the Taliban do not have. In addition, the Soviets were trying to bolster Communism in this conservative land via a 100,000 man conscript army. The US and its NATO allies are professionals who have total air superiority and the support of millions of Afghans. By contrast they are trying to support something the Afghans seem to genuinely want, democracy.
As for those who make glib comparisons to the US quagmire in Vietnam, the US lost 58,000 troops in that war. In eight years of fighting in the Texas-sized country of Afghanistan the US has by contrast lost just over 900 troops. The two wars are very different and have even less points of comparison than the US-Soviet experiences in Afghanistan.
History would indicate that a war can be won in Afghanistan and that numerous empires such as the Persians, Medes, Alexander, Arabs, Turks, Mongols, Safavids, and Moghuls did conquer and rule this land. Those Cassandras who call Afghanistan the “Graveyard of Empires” prove the maxim that a little knowledge is worse than none.