December 2, 2021

Why Terror Won In Afghanistan

"The injection of this newly reconstituted Taliban back into Afghanistan represents something closer to an invasion by proxy than it does an insurgency." - Sarah Chayes, "Guest Blogger: Sarah Chayes on Negotiating with the Taliban" Bill Moyers Journal, December 19, 2008.

"Whether or not we agree that some wars were necessary and just, we should look straight at the grim reality that victory was most often achieved in the biggest and most important wars by attrition and mass slaughter – not by soldierly heroics or the genius of command. . . Losers of most major wars in modern history lost because they overestimated operational dexterity and failed to overcome the enemy’s strategic depth and capacity for endurance. Winners absorbed defeat after defeat yet kept fighting, overcoming initial surprise, terrible setbacks and the dash and daring of command ‘genius’. Celebration of genius generals encourages the delusion that modern wars will be short and won quickly, when they are most often long wars of attrition. Most people believe attrition is immoral. Yet it’s how most major wars are won, aggressors defeated, the world remade time and again." - Cathal J Nolan, "Wars are not won by military genius or decisive battles" Aeon, May 5, 2017.

Looking back on the war in Afghanistan it is easy to dismiss it as a hopeless and doomed endeavour from the start. But the people of Afghanistan were not originally hostile to the American and Western invasion of their country. They wanted their new government to succeed, and had high hopes that the Taliban would be erased from history.

The original, limited counter-terrorism mission was successful, but terrorism was hardly Afghanistan's biggest problem. 

Corruption and a drug economy were much bigger problems. And the United States, which has relied on global drug profits to shore up its evil banks and fiat currency, was not motivated to do anything to address those problems. It compounded them by bringing to power warlords and druglords who had no business running a country. 

A country, especially an unstable one like Afghanistan, needs a king, or its equivalent. And in 2001 Afghanistan had one, however old and frail he may have been at the time.

Abdul Haq, the anti-Soviet Afghan guerrilla commander who was assassinated twenty years ago, said Afghanistan's former king was ready to step in and lead an interim government. 

Haq had a workable political plan that would have saved a lot of lives and ensured stability in Afghanistan without American and NATO military presence. 

But the CIA had other ideas.

Instead of waging war on the Taliban and its state sponsors in Pakistan, the proponents of military intervention highlighted Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda as public enemy number one. They used the orchestrated 9/11 attacks to mobilize public support for their war but failed to ask one simple question: what does winning a war in Afghanistan look like?

Robert R. Fowler, a senior Canadian diplomat and advisor to numerous Prime Ministers, wrote in 2008 about NATO's fraught and unsustainable mission in Afghanistan in an article called, "Alice In Afghanistan." An excerpt:

I do not believe we can win in the conditions that inform NATO’s mission in Afghanistan. I do not believe that those conditions are likely to change substantially. And I do not believe that the Karzai government is worthy of our support. Afghanistan—as others have learned at such cost—is simply too far away, too complex and too difficult for poorly motivated, uncoordinated and insufficiently committed western governments to fix. We have neither the stamina nor the will to prevail in such circumstances. Certainly, NATO would suffer from defeat in a long, drawn-out insurgency for which it was never designed, but it would be a defeat of will rather than of arms, and thus perhaps more severe. Denying that deficiency of will can only enhance and prolong the pain for all concerned.

The war in Afghanistan was called the "long war" but its initial public support was limited to defeating the claimed perpetrators of 9/11. Once that happened, the impetus to continue the war was lost. 

The war effort from the beginning was based on fear and other base emotions like the need for revenge. President Bush famously said "we must fight them over there." What he forgot to say was who "them" were. If he defined "them" as the Pakistani ISI or the CIA rather than al-Qaeda then the "war on terror" might have gone better.

Wars can be fought with good and honourable intentions, but rarely in history do good wars last twenty years. There are examples of wars between royal houses and empires that go on for generations, with both sides exchanging victories, but wars of survival and revenge have a directness that lead to quick resolutions. 

The "war on terror" was a convenient excuse that allowed Western governments to benefit from the state powers that come with wartime.

Fighting a ghost of an enemy is a lot easier than actually prosecuting a successful war which requires a common and defined enemy, a sound military strategy, and mass sacrifice. 

Empires love fighting minor wars in distant lands because the consequences of defeat are rarely visible and the fruits of victory have the potential to be plentiful. 

History will record the war in Afghanistan and the other post-9/11 wars as minor wars whose biggest legacy turned out to be not the advancement of democracy but sectarianism and terrorism. 

A new generation of Islamist extremists has risen, backed by state power, and motivated not by a call for holy war but greed and malice. The rise and fall of ISIS was a foreshadowing of what's to come.

Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia have all backed terrorist groups and sectarian militias to claim territory and resources at the expense of unpopular national governments. These groups have committed mass atrocities, stolen property, and slaughtered women and children.

Washington’s preference might be to see them fight it out, and back one genocidal Islamist over another. It is a strategy that has worked in the past for them, and it will probably work again.