As baby boomers we were all fairly young when Afghanistan first entered our consciousness: it was when the Soviet Union invaded the country at the end of 1979 — long before Americans knew that the U.S. would get trapped there itself — and got stuck in a long, fruitless war. BoomerCafé co-founder and executive editor Greg Dobbs covered the Soviet invasion and the subsequent war in Afghanistan as a TV war correspondent, and writes this Boomer Opinion piece about lessons that the United States evidently has failed to learn there. This column first appeared on HuffPost.com.
If by now we haven’t won the war in Afghanistan, we’re not going to.
And heaven knows, even if our politicians and generals don’t, that while we haven’t conclusively lost the war, we surely haven’t won it. Which was hammered home — not for the first time — late last month. In four attacks over just nine days, more than 130 people were killed by terrorists. Some by the Taliban, some by ISIS. As if it matters.
They struck inside Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel, they struck at an Afghan military complex, they struck in Save The Children’s offices in Jalalabad, and in the most lethal of the lot, they struck with a bomb-packed ambulance inside Kabul’s “ring of steel,” supposedly the most secure sector of the city.
But “most secure” in Afghanistan is only relative. Nothing there is secure. Not the capital, not the population, not the government. And not the U.S. mission, whatever it actually is today. That is the terrorists’ intent: to prove that nothing is secure, even after 16-plus years of costly American efforts— with a hundred-thousand troops there at the peak — to exterminate the terrorists and pacify the nation.
Who knows what President Trump might have said about Afghanistan in his State of the Union if not for those four murderous attacks, right on the eve of his address? As it turned out, although it now is America’s longest war ever, and although the president is shoring up the U.S. force back to about 15,000 troops, America’s longest and currently its biggest war rated just 34 words. Stirring words about “our warriors in Afghanistan” and “their heroic Afghan partners,” but none that actually pointed toward victory. That’s because victory is no closer now than it was at the outset. Yet for reasons that defy me, few in Washington are talking about us pulling out and going home.
They ought to examine the evidence instead of their egos. It is there, for all the world to see. Many just aren’t looking.
Exhibit A is simply Afghanistan’s anything-but-simple history. It has been invaded time and time again, beginning before the birth of Christ with Alexander the Great. Then Arabs, Mongols, the British, the Soviets. All swept through and for the most part, all were swept away. Now, with more than 2,200 American deaths already, it’s our turn.
Exhibit B is our own history, a history of mission creep. The original mission was noble, and necessary: we attacked in November, 2001, to rid Afghanistan of the vermin who attacked us on September 11th. The strategy? Annihilate the Taliban who were hosting al-Qaeda and leave Osama bin Laden’s savage soldiers without the safe haven from which they had planned the anti-American attacks. But that mission has come and gone. The latest intelligence concludes that terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, and ISIS, and others, now have safe havens in parts of more than two dozen countries on several continents. Whatever we eventually might accomplish in Afghanistan is now moot.
Exhibit C is what we should have learned in earlier wars about alien terrain: no matter how smart we are and how strong we feel, when we’re fighting in the enemy’s neighborhood, he has the advantage. That helps explain why we didn’t win in Vietnam or Iraq. The enemy has survived in his harsh environment since the beginning of time, he knows every nook and cranny when he has to hide, and he has friends around every corner. That is something basic training at Fort Benning can’t equal.
Exhibit D is what we should have learned in earlier wars about counterfeit confidence, which conjures up shades of Vietnam: “Peace is at hand” (except it wasn’t). And shades of Iraq: “Mission accomplished” (except it wasn’t). Now it’s President Trump saying of Afghanistan, “What nobody else has been able to finish, we’re going to be able to do it.” And, in the wake of last month’s terrorist attacks, the general who leads U.S. Central Command being asked by reporters if victory in Afghanistan is still a possibility. His chillingly predictable answer? “Absolutely, absolutely.” Trouble is, previous presidents and previous commanding generals have been telling us that for 16 years now.
Exhibit E is something more personal, evidence I saw of the enemy’s culture and perseverance the very first time I set foot as a reporter in Afghanistan. It was December, 1979, just days after the Soviets invaded. For all the resistance I eventually saw the Mujahideen — the anti-Soviet guerrilla fighters — show against a superior Soviet military force, it was not as potent as what I learned one of those first few days on the ground. I watched two teams playing polo, swinging their mallets and galloping toward their opponents’ goals. But they weren’t swatting at a ball. They were swatting at the severed head of an enemy. It is an adulteration of an otherwise civilized game that dates back to Genghis Khan. And a metaphor that convinces you, the Afghans aren’t soft.
The Taliban today are from that same stock. They are tough, they are vicious, and they can bide their time. Like ISIS in other parts of the world, they don’t have to hold territory to win. They just have to hold a nation in the grips of their terror. The more than 130 people killed late last month are only the latest piece of proof that it works.
The other proof is, we’ve been fighting there for almost a generation. Yet still, nothing is secure. We haven’t lost, but we haven’t won. And positive public pronouncements notwithstanding, there’s no convincing sign that we ever will.