Politics & Policy

Afghan Mythologies

We have everything we need to defeat the Taliban.

As President Obama decides whether to send more troops to Afghanistan, we should remember that most of the conventional pessimism about Afghanistan is only half-truth. 

Remember the mantra that the region is the “graveyard of empires,” where Alexander the Great, the British in the 19th century, and the Soviets only three decades ago inevitably met their doom?

In fact, Alexander conquered most of Bactria and its environs (which included present-day Afghanistan). After his death, the area that is now Afghanistan became part of the Seleucid Empire.

Centuries later, outnumbered British-led troops and civilians were initially ambushed, and suffered many casualties, in the first Afghan war. But the British were not defeated in their subsequent two Afghan wars between 1878 and 1919. 

The Soviets did give up in 1989 their nine-year effort to create out of Afghanistan a Communist buffer state — but only because the Arab world, the United States, Pakistan, and China combined to provide the Afghan mujahideen resistance with billions of dollars in aid, not to mention state-of-the-art anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons.

While Afghans have been traditionally fierce resistance fighters and made occupations difficult, they have rarely for long defeated invaders — and never without outside assistance.

Other myths about Afghanistan abound.

Is the country ungovernable? No more so than any of the region’s other rough countries. After the founding of the modern state in 1919, Afghanistan enjoyed a relatively stable succession of constitutional monarchs until 1973. The country was once considered generally secure, tolerant, and hospitable to foreigners.

Did we really take our eye off the “good” war in Afghanistan to fight the optional bad one in Iraq? Not quite. After our brilliant campaign to remove the Taliban in 2001, the relatively stable Karzai government saw little violence until 2007. Between 2001 and 2006, no more than 100 American soldiers were killed in any given year.

In fact, American casualties increased after Iraq became quiet — as Islamists, defeated in Iraq’s Anbar province, refocused their efforts on the dominant Afghan theater.

Is Afghanistan the new Vietnam? Hardly. In the three bloodiest years, 2007 through 2009 so far, the United States has suffered a total of 553 fatalities — tragic, but less than 1 percent of the 58,159 Americans killed in Vietnam. What is astounding is the ability of the U.S. military to inflict damage on the enemy, protect the constitutional government, and keep our losses to a minimum.

Our military is the most experienced in both counterterrorism and counterinsurgency warfare in the world. The maverick savior of Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, now oversees operations in the Mideast and Central Asia. His experienced lieutenant, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, is a successful veteran of the worst fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Unlike past foreign interventions, our U.N.-approved aim is not to create a puppet state, but a consensual government able to defend itself against the Taliban and al-Qaeda — while preventing more strikes against the United States.

With Iraq relatively stabilized, jihadists have no choice but to commit their resources to prevent a second defeat. Meanwhile, Pakistan at last is cracking down on terrorist enclaves.

Unlike the case of the unpopular Bush decision to surge troops in Iraq, President Obama does not face a hostile political opposition at home. Many Americans are undecided rather than against continuing the war.

Republicans in Congress will support the administration’s efforts to secure the country. There are no conservative counterparts to Michael Moore and Cindy Sheehan. Even most anti-war Democrats became quiet once Barack Obama was elected. European NATO commanders want the U.S. to lead them to victory.

What, then, prevents President Obama from sending more troops to secure the country?

Mostly problems of presidential indecision and confusion. Candidate Obama ran on the theme of Afghanistan as the necessary war, Iraq the optional one. But he assumed the then-quiet front in Afghanistan would stay that way, while Americans would withdraw from what he deemed a hopeless effort in Iraq.

Just the opposite ensued. The surge worked. But Afghanistan heated up. So now the president finds himself increasingly trapped by his campaign rhetoric. He is on record as committed to defeating the Taliban and winning the “necessary” war. But the president is now also a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who apparently does not want what has become a messy conflict with Islamists on his watch.

We have experienced soldiers and military leadership, a just cause, and Western unity. In other words, we have everything we need to defeat the Taliban — except a commander-in-chief as confident about fighting and winning as he once was as a candidate.

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