America’s Afghanistan Odyssey: When will Enough be Enough? (Stevenson)

Jack Stevenson writes in a guest column for Informed Comment:

The US has been involved, covertly or openly, in military actions in Afghanistan since 1979, with no end in sight. Nor, after all these decades, is the news very good. A Taliban assassination attempt has put Afghanistan’s chief intelligence and security official in the hospital. A recent Pentagon review found that only one of the Afghanistan National Army’s 23 brigades can conduct operations independently of NATO. Violence is higher now than in 2009 before the “surge” ordered by President Barack Obama. And the Obama administration is negotiating for a 6,000 to 9,000-strong US troop presence in the country after the bulk of the American military withdraws by the end of 2014.

How long is long enough for this mission in a country that is not even as important to US security as the Congo?

Christmas Eve 1979. The Russians— the enemy America loved to hate— invaded Afghanistan. Jimmy Carter’s troubled presidency had one year remaining. President Carter signed a “presidential finding” authorizing the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to jump from intelligence gathering to an “operational” role in Afghanistan.

President Reagan reauthorized the Carter finding in 1981. Thus began 32 years of U.S. involvement in a belligerency in Afghanistan. The presidential finding authorized the CIA to ship weapons and other war materiel to the guerrillas and warlords who were willing to fight the Russians. Because America lacked direct access to Russian occupied Afghanistan and because the U.S. wanted to hide its involvement, American aid had to be delivered through Pakistan. The Pakistani military intelligence service (ISI) had extensive knowledge of Afghanistan, and the ISI routed the deliveries to the Afghan guerrillas.

A Communist faction had seized control of the Afghan government in 1978. The Russians sent advisors to the new government. One of Russia’s objectives was to modernize Afghanistan. The Russian-advised government required girls to attend school, and attempted land reform, and engaged in many policies that angered the rural population, especially in Pashtun areas. Several Russians were murdered, and the rebellion spread across the country. In late December 1979, Russia sent its Fortieth Army to Afghanistan to maintain control.

Afghanistan, the world’s leading producer of opium and heroin, is beset by feuding tribes and factions. The Afghan boundary with Pakistan was arbitrarily drawn by a British colonial agent. The boundary splits the influential Pashtun tribal group leaving some Pashtuns in Pakistan and some in Afghanistan. Both Afghanistan and Pakistan have vital interests that differ from U.S. interests.

During the Reagan Presidency (1981-89), the U.S. sent large quantities of weapons to the several factions fighting the Russians. Money flowed freely from the U.S., from Saudi Arabia, and from numerous Muslim countries and charities. America warmly embraced Muslim radicals because they were willing to fight the Russians. We called the Muslim radicals “freedom fighters”. Muslim volunteers came from 43 countries to fight the Russians in Afghanistan including Osama bin Laden who recruited his own radical followers.

After 10 years of bitter and futile experience, the Russians withdrew from Afghanistan. They were gone by early 1989. President Herbert Walker Bush administration (1989-93) honored the US commitment to abandon the Mujahidin once the Russians were out, and saw no further US strategic interest in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan fell into chaos. Warlords struggled for power. A Pakistan-backed organization calling themselves the Taliban (means religious students) began to ruthlessly restore order. They were motivated by radical religious beliefs and imposed harsh rules, but the Taliban were grudgingly respected precisely because they were able to establish order.

After Osama bin Laden’s September 11, 2001, attack on the United States from Afghanistan, where the Taliban had given him refuge, President George W. Bush administration (2001-2009) sent U.S. military forces into Afghanistan and drove the Taliban out of Kabul, the capital. The Taliban were providing protection for Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda followers.

But then, forgetting bin Laden, the Bush administration shifted its military assets out of Afghanistan to facilitate the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Iraq had nothing to do with the attack on the United States. America’s reputation and democratic processes suffered a setback. The Afghan Taliban revived.

President Obama’s administration (2009- ) sent tens of thousands of additional U.S. military forces to Afghanistan, in a Pentagon-backed “surge” intended to accomplish a wide-ranging counter-insurgency mission .

Afghanistan poses no military threat to the United States. They have no army, air force, or navy with which they could invade the United States. It takes a champion propagandist to make people believe that Afghans constitute a serious military threat to the United States. (The 19 Egyptians and Saudis who attacked the Trade Towers in New York in 2001 were relatively sophisticated. They were financed by a wealthy Saudi. They entered the United States legally. They brought no military weapons with them. That does not describe a military operation. They should have been a problem for intelligence agencies and police.)

Guerrillas attempt to provoke government forces to react inappropriately or to overreact. The all-time high achiever on that score is Osama bin Laden. Our massively expensive response in the Middle East and Africa isn’t going to solve security problems in the United States. We spend $400 a gallon for fuel for our military vehicles in Afghanistan. We sent shrink-wrapped pallets of U.S. money to Iraq, and billions of dollars disappeared without accountability. If we were to change our policy and spend our money in the United States for the benefit of American citizens, including grievously wounded veterans, it would be a great Christmas gift.

Christmas Eve 2012. Thirty-two years and counting.


Jack Stevenson is a retired Civil Service employee. He worked in Egypt as an employee of the former Radio Corporation of America (RCA held a contract to provide technical advice to the Egyptian General Syndicate for Land Transport. During the Vietnam era, he served two years in Vietnam as an infantry officer, and he taught insurgency/counterinsurgency three years at the U.S. Army Infantry School.

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8 Responses

  1. Despite the hoopla to the contrary, the US Army’s counterinsurgency doctrine hasn’t changed much since the 1920’s. And no, a fellow with no knowledge or experience in that area did not rewrite the Army Manual on Counterinsurgency in 2004.

    I went through Army SF Phase Training (the “Q” Course) in the mid-1970’s. That was not at Fort Benning (USAIS,) but at the JFK Center (Fort Bragg and Camp Mackall.) Back then, SF only had 3 core missions, UW, DA and IDAD. UW is instigating and supporting insurgency; DA is raids, hits and snatches; IDAD is counterinsurgency.
    I also later went through Branch Basic and the Advanced Course at USAIS.

    Now, the only SF doctrine I ever influenced was in a rewrite of a manual on alpine operations, so I only know a couple times as much as David Petraeus about counterinsurgency doctrine. Still, I gotta point out some basics.

    First, the actions of the “Puking Buzzards” (Petraeus’ unit in the Iraq invasion) were not counterinsurgency in this important technical sense — indigenous forces fighting the US Army were not fighting the legitimate government of Iraq. This deeply affects the relationships between all parties, but especially how amenable the local civilians might be to collaboration with the foreign invaders. In educated circles, these folks are called “resistance.” Makes a huge difference.

    Second, the Soviet Army was not occupying Kabul when Najibullah came to power. He was not installed by the USSR the way Karzai was installed by the USA.
    Afghans fighting against the communist government of A’stan could well be portrayed as insurgents, in the battle for the perceptions of the locals who were not invested in the fight.
    There are no Afghans today who think that the Taliban are insurgents. Even their sworn enemies acknowledge that they are a legitimate resistance to a colonial invader and the puppet government the colonizers installed.

    So, applying counterinsurgency doctrine against a Resistance is a bad misreading of the potential to win over hearts and minds.
    Pashtuns who do not belong to the Popalzai tribe can never be persuaded to support the hegemony of the Americans, or their “Northern Alliance / National Front” Vichy government.

    Plain and simple, the US Army is in the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan to crush a Resistance we call the Taliban. We force self-respecting Pashtuns to ally with the actual Taliban. Our aim is to force Pashtuns into subjugation under the boot heels of Hazara, Tadjik and Uzbek masters.
    There is NO POSSIBILITY of winning over the locals, when the locals are Pashtun.

    Finally, the “Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan,” the “Afghan National Army” and the “Afghan National Police” are not “Afghan” in the sense of incorporating all Afghans, including the 45% who are Pashtun. These 3 entities are controlled and staffed overwhelmingly by non-Pashtuns, who the Pashtuns consider to be foreigners.

    • It’s a good point you raise about the legitimacy of the Afghan government among Afghans. Might a comparison with Iraq be useful here? The same Malaki government that was a “colonial puppet,” lacking legitimacy and sinking under the attacks of the “resistance,” became a legitimate government, and the Sadrists and large parts of the Sunni “resistance” made peace with it, once we announced and demonstrated our intention to stop occupying the country. The lesson I learn from this is that the legitimacy of such a government is not eternal and unchanging, and neither are its relations with the people in the “resistance.”

      We’ve announced a timeline to end the occupation of Afghanistan, and we’ve been drawing down forces for months. Will something similar happen in Afghan politics that happened in Iraqi politics in 2008-2010? Here’s hoping.

    • Actually it was Babrak Karmal that was in power when the Soviet Union, acting under the “Brezhnev Doctrine”, arrived in December of 1979 to save the Marxist regime on the brink of collapse; the Afghan army was rife with defections and Afghans had to be kidnapped off the streets to replace those who defected; some Afghan soldiers actually turned their artillery pieces on their own comrades.

      American Cold Warriors such as President Reagan ardently embraced the warlords and supplied them with the anti-aircraft rockets and anti-tank guns needed to defeat the Red Army. Osama Bin Laden was among the “Afghan Arabs” that fought the Soviets and returned to Saudi Arabia as a national hero following the collapse of the pro-Soviet government in Kabul.

      The Red Army was long gone when Dr. Najibullah’s government was overthrown and he was executed in the 1990s.

  2. So, American has been involved covertly in Afghanistan for 32 straight years, except for that decade when we weren’t.

    Also, while it would, no doubt, take “a champion propagandist to make people believe that Afghans constitute a serious military threat to the United States,” we can’t say for sure, because neither the Bush nor Obama administrations have ever made any attempt to claim that our actions there are based on a military threat posed to us by Afghans.

    Finally, I would be very interested to hear how “our intelligence and police” would have dealt with the 9/11 hijackers and their backers in Afghanistan while it was being run by an al Qaeda-allied government led by Osama bin Laden’s father-in-law…while also not involving any of that nasty CIA activity in Afghanistan.

  3. We need to hear more from infantrymen at the decision table. Thanks for posting. Many questions; though I will ask only two:

    Q: Did the war being on 9/11 or earlier with attacks in VA in ’93, World Trade in ’94, Embassy in Kenya, USS Cole?

    Q: How would you prevent Afg fall into AQ/Taliban control again funded by opium trade and resources to attack Europe and the US?

    Thanks for good comments and post; helpful. -T

  4. Great article but I have to quibble with this paragraph:

    “After Osama bin Laden’s September 11, 2001, attack on the United States from Afghanistan, where the Taliban had given him refuge, President George W. Bush administration (2001-2009) sent U.S. military forces into Afghanistan and drove the Taliban out of Kabul, the capital. The Taliban were providing protection for Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda followers.”

    In what sense was the United States attacked _from_ Afghanistan? The attackers (as the author notes) were Egyptian and Saudi. The operation was planned in Germany. The financing came from the gulf states. The training took place in Florida. No one has ever offered any evidence that the activities in Afghanistan provided essential or even substantial support to the attack. Far from sheltering Osama Bin Laden after 9/11, the Taliban offered to extradite him to the United States if provided evidence of his guilt.

    The bottom line is that no one has presented a serious case
    for how military success in Afghanistan (whatever that means) would do anything to prevent future attacks on the U.S. Instead all we get is hand-waving and flag-waving while people die.

  5. I would add that Carter’s plan was to bait the Soviets into occupying Christian Afghanistan. US involvement didn’t begin as a reaction to Soviet actions. Soviets were reacting to provocation, just as was hoped.

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