Afghanistan: The Principles of Defeat

by Anwaar Hussain
Monday, 18 October 2010


America’s exit from Afghanistan is around the corner. Anyone with his ear to the ground and an eye cocked on the horizon can tell as much. As American military philosophers will be averse to identify the causes of the rout for some time yet, this scribe helps them in advance.

For any foreign venture to be successful, be it military or otherwise, one must have a national purpose that has a policy from which flows a mission with an aim. One then draws up an action plan which is implemented to achieve the aim. That’s how it works.

George Bush started out in reverse order in Afghanistan. He embarked upon an action plan that was a knee jerk response to 9/11 which became the mission with the hazy aim of destroying Al-Qaeda that became the policy which, come Obama’s appearance on the scene, had turned into a full blown national purpose. By the time Bush rifled through the Afghan body politic, having initially entered through the bullet sized hole of his reflex action, all that he succeeded in doing was to turn Afghanistan into a wasteland of missed opportunities with the beast of counterinsurgency, read war of liberation for the Afghan resistance fighters, roaring full throated in its farthest reaches. Not only that, Pakistan, America’s reluctant ally next door, enyoked by the dead weight of third rate leadership, too lurches from crisis to crisis in the debris as if choosing the spot for the final fall.

In the nine long years that the Americans have been in Afghanistan, they have committed enormous amounts of treasure, drew a lot of Afghan blood and shed quite a bit of their own. Now these many years down the war path, the Americans have slowly realized that the Taliban have imperceptibly replaced the original enemy i.e. Al-Qaeda. And that this enemy, with makeshift bombs, rusty Kalashnikovs and often faulty grenade launchers, comes waves upon waves at them caring a naught for their lives. Unable to beat this new foe, enthralled by their tenacity, dazzled by their willingness to die for their cause, the Americans have now begun to ask, are they really our enemies, in the sense that al-Qaeda was? Is this really what we had initially set out to do?

For the luckless Obama the biggest problem in succeeding a nincompoop is that he has inherited one of the worst economic and national security nightmares of any President in American history. He started out in a huge deficit. In Afghanistan he began in a milieu in which the Pathan Afghans, the alma mater of the Taliban, actually see the Americans as invaders and occupiers. Not only that, while Obama finds America encumbered with some NATO allies that are increasingly indisposed to continue as members of the war party, the Taliban on the other hand, rather than diminishing, are actually multiplying in numbers. Long queues of applicants are lining up to join the ‘Jihad against the infidels’. So empowering is their ideology that they are willing to take up primitive arms and fight against the most powerful military in history knowing well the odds against them. Add to this the increasing radicalization that the Afghan and Iraq jaunts have sprung upon the Muslim world and the consequent insecurity of the American people that has no parallel in history, and one begins to form up a picture of America’s problems in Afghanistan. That certain other stake holders, i.e. China and Russia, too are slowly beginning to look at the fracas next door as their legitimate concern is only the icing on the cake.

But that is not all. The Afghan army and police remain the fantasy that was long suspected by the locals of the region. The few of them that can be called somewhat regular troops or police are not willing to die for the thoroughly crooked and inept government of Hamid Karzai. It is no wonder thus that the Americans are finally fed up with having to either go into battle alone or to watch over their shoulders to see if the Afghan officials with them are going to desert them or shoot them in the back. That can be a really draining exercise. Plus, fatigued by the constant ‘war on terra’ harangue of the previous administration, many American soldiers have now begun to ask how many of them should die for the government of Hamid Karzai?

Perhaps a hushed realization seems to have finally sunk in that the Americans cannot make an Afghan think like an American, want like an American and live like an American. Many after all remember that at the peak of Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, there were 140,000 Russian troops, 300,000 Afghan troops with tanks, helicopters and weapons to boot and tens of thousands of civilian advisers in the country who spoke all the native languages. And the Russians just did not kill only as the popular propaganda would have us believe. They built hundreds of clinics, schools, factories, roads and bridges. But in the end they lost. They lost for the single overriding reason that the Soviets failed to make the Afghan people want what the Soviets wanted them to want. Before them the British too had had similar experiences. As a matter of fact, every foreign intruder in the past couple of centuries has lost out in Afghanistan. Why the Americans should be an exception, they ask. You cannot, after all, build a nation out of unwilling disparate tribes and give them institutions they do not want. Period.

Unheeded though it was, long ago, when the Americans had initially invaded Afghanistan, this scribe had this to say to them. “Afghanistan is a land of mountains, ferocious warriors, uncompromising Islam, vicious tribal rivalries and a political complexity that entwines bloodlines, chivalry, religion and history into a mix as unfathomable to the outsider today as it has ever been. In the early 19th century it was a land of great mystery, at the dawn of twenty-first it remains only more so. It should have been left alone to find its own natural equilibrium.” And that, “though their loyalty to Islam is fierce, yet the Pathan culture often seems to supersede Islamic orthodoxy. The rise and fall of Taliban is but one brief twist of history in this rugged part of the world. Taliban or no Taliban, resisting foreign occupation of their lands is a way of life for them. After the exit of the Soviets from Afghanistan, the Taliban phenomenon could hold their interest for only as long. If there were no foreign occupiers soon enough, the Pathans would have had to invent some to go on with their way of life. Their tussle with the Northern Alliance was nothing but a poor substitute of this fact. The Americans should have known.”

This fact will be reinforced when the Americans do finally leave Afghanistan. Before long the world will see these same Afghan tribes getting down to their old ways of internal blood letting and living happily thereafter. They will only change when they decide to change and not a day before that.

Perhaps by far the biggest single mistake that the Americans made in Afghanistan can be summed up in what Ralph Peters recently said. He noted, “why did we go to Afghanistan in 2001? Because of al-Qaeda. To punish them, to smash them, and to punish those who harbored them. Afghanistan was a low-budget terrorist motel. So the feds raid the motel, kill some of the bad guys, capture some, and others escape. And instead of going after the ones who escaped, we decided to renovate the motel.”

Now as the empire slinks back, perhaps its soldiers will take along some snapshots of the ruins in their duffel bags as mementos of their stay in Motel Kandahar.

Anwaar Hussain

Copyright 2010 by Anwaar Hussain. The writer, a former officer of the Pakistan Air Force, is now based in Canada. This story was originally published in Truth Spring, Mr. Hussain's blog, and is republished in the Baltimore Chronicle with the author's permission. Mr. Hussain may be reached by email at

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This story was published on October 18, 2010.