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.