Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Soviet/American Defeat in Afghanistan

Events marking 20th anniversary of Soviet troops' withdrawal from Afghanistan

Once upon a time Afghanistan was a metaphor for remoteness. Even with our American capacity for forgetting the past, how is it that we find ourselves trying to outdo the Soviets in terms of conquering Afghanistan? Two decades ago, the possibility of winning a war in Afghanistan was a punch-line in a movie (The Prince’s Bride). Yet now, two American presidents have apparently decided that there is no war America cannot win, and no war American should not try to win.

When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, American foreign policy and military analysts insisted that Russia would now threaten nations in the Persian Gulf as well as the Indian subcontinent. Russia maintained the largest and strongest army in the world, and everyone knew that Communism had never before been known to surrender territory to the free world or even non-aligned world. Jimmy Carter launched a feeble protest, cancelled grain sales to Russia, and withdrew America from the Olympics.

Of course, with the assistance of U.S. funds, Russia was eventually defeated. The Soviet Union’s border with Afghanistan didn’t help ensure Russian victory. Neither did the Kremlin’s total immunity from an inquisitive press, popular protests, or the possibility of electoral defeat. Now America thinks it can do better. (And better than the British Raj by the way).

It’s remarkable that Americans believe they can dominate mountainous terrain so far from home. It’s even more remarkable that Americans think it’s worthwhile to try. If Gorbachev thought Afghanistan wasn’t worth a prolonged war despite the shared border and possible impact on the Soviet Union’s enormous Muslim population, why is Afghanistan worth so much American treasure and so many American lives?

Both Bush and Obama would no doubt point to 9-11. But responding to stateless actors or quasi state actors with a declaration of war seems like a very bad strategic choice and public relations strategy. For America puts its own forces on equal footing with a distant enemy on the worst possible geopolitical and military terrain. Moreover, America demonstrates to declared enemies and potential enemies in the region that we are not as formidable as many might have expected a superpower to be.

The symbolism of Afghanistan cannot be lost on the Muslim world. Here, at least one superpower has already experienced humiliating defeat at the hands of disorganized irregular guerrilla forces. The catastrophe of Afghanistan is an extension of the disastrous Iraq policy. But sadly, even Obama feels obligated to fight the Afghan enemy as that enemy would no doubt choose to be fought, by occupation, and at a distance. Obama already made Afghanistan an issue in his campaign against McCain. He said the real war against terrorism needed to be fought there, and in Pakistan. Yet stateless terrorists hardly need Afghanistan to launch assaults against Americans. They can kill Americans in India, in Indonesia, near Yemen, in East Africa, and in dozens of other locations.

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