Boomer Opinion: Afghanistan is going nowhere

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.

Aftermath of suicide attack in Kabul. (photo credit: Reuters)

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.

Greg Dobbs

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.

Afghanistan — America’s longest war.

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.

Greg Dobbs, left, with his camera crew at Poli Charki, a political prisoner prison, about 15 miles from Kabul.

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.

U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.

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.

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5 Comments

  1. Well said!
    Sadly, I am not sure if we or the rest of the world has learned much of anything thus far. The world watched as the Taliban took over, they watched as young women were treated as less than literally dogs, and they watched and railed and wrung their hands as religious artifacts of other religions were deliberately desecrated and destroyed. And they watched and did nothing as terror groups were given sanctuary where assaults like 9/11 could be planned and unleashed. All of the points you raised are valid and I believe correct. The only way an “Afghanistan” can be vanquished, if that is the goal, is for the entire world to rise up and crush its government and power base. But the world is not there yet, hopefully humanity will eventually realize it is important to work together against “evil,” but we are not there yet. The US cannot do it alone, or with just a few allies or “friends,” unless we want to entirely annihilate a country and its people, which we can do. And Let us hope that day never comes.
    Thanks,
    Eric

  2. I agree with Eric. This is one of Greg’s best pieces, I believe.
    History is a greatest teacher, and the series of wars and defeats of great nations in Afghanistan is an excellent example of that.
    Britain was brutally run out of Afghanistan … Russian was brought to its knees as a nation over Afghanistan … and, now, the United States is bleeding American lives and resources on a war is simply cannot win. In some cases, history will foretell the future.

  3. Greg and Eric are both correct. In their tribal world, “the enemy of my enemy is still my enemy.” Alliances are very temporary and very disposable. There is no “program handout” to tell the teams apart worth the paper it’s printed on. And even, as Eric postulates, “the entire world to rise up and crush its government and power base”, the problem becomes what now? Democracy will never take hold there, that must be educated into a people over some generations. The UN can’t govern a shattered country, nor can we. Nor should we try. No one knows what would happen if Afghanistan were crushed. I suspect endless civil war would follow.

    1. Greg, if I may offer my two cents: I believe the reason a ragtag colonial militia made up primarily of peasants won the Revolutionary War against the world’s then most powerful military force–England– was because those Americans were fighting for their land, home and a way of life they believed in. I believe the reason we, the most powerful military force the world has ever known, lost the Vietnam war against a bunch of seemingly ragtag Vietnamese peasants was because those peasants were fighting for their land, homes and a way of life they believed in.

      In short, like you, I don’t think Afghanistan, or Iraq for that matter, are winnable military endeavors. I don’t know what the answer is, and I don’t believe anyone else does either. As General Patreus once rhetorically asked: “Tell me how this ends.” I certainly don’t believe we can kill our way out. The Afghans see us as evil invaders not saviors of democracy.

  4. Sadly another Viet Nam just not as many deaths. As a retired mental health Social Worker for the VA I had a few patients who were combat veterans with PTSD. Neither of them had any positive comments about their tours of duty in this country. They could not connect to the people. If you cannot connect you cannot “win”, whatever that means. Plus 911 wasn’t done by the Afgans or the Iraqis. Is it a wonder we have such little faith in Washington. Is this how our fearless draft dodger president makes America great again?

    US Army Reserve Veteran 12th Special Forces

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