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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Afghanistan- Gung Ho? Or No?

I stand as one of the few people who said after American forces invaded Afghanistan, "This is a bad idea." For as long as we have written history, attempts at occupying that country have come to naught. And for good reason. The country is as inviting as a Rush Limbaugh, post-show hug. When you're not dealing with impassable mountains you're stuck in flesh-melting heat. The great majority of the country has no running water or electricity. The New Republic this month provides a thorough examination of just what kind of mess President-elect Obama is hell-bent on entering.

That America's October 2001 invasion failed to impose peace and stability is not exactly a surprise. Afghanistan is like a Chinese finger trap: The harder you try to solve it, the more it constricts you. Ask the Russians. In 1979, the Soviet Union sent military forces to install a pro-Soviet government in Kabul. At its peak in the country, the Red Army numbered some 140,000. But, after ten years of inconclusive fighting, 15,000 dead, and tens of thousands more wounded, the battered Soviets mounted a humiliating retreat--one that probably helped speed the collapse of their empire. ("They've already repeated all of our mistakes," one former Soviet general from the Afghan campaign recently said to The New York Times of the U.S. occupation.) Or ask the British. More than a century earlier, the United Kingdom dispatched a huge army to Afghanistan from India to secure it against Russian influence. That adventure, too, was a disaster, ending in a retreat of 16,500 troops and civilians through the Khyber Pass into Pakistan. Only one survivor made it--his life spared by the Afghans so he could recount the ghastly tale for others.

From the beginning, experts with this historical perspective in mind warned that crushing the Taliban was impossible: "No matter how successful the U.S. campaign is," wrote the Council on Foreign Relations's Kimberly Marten Zisk in November 2001, "never will all the rebels defect to the winning side. The rebels who are left will not stop fighting, no matter how hard conditions get." The past seven years have made those words look prescient. Today, the Taliban is as bold--and as brutal--as it has been since the United States first drove it from power. The Pashtun Islamic radicals who controlled the country from 1996 to 2001, and provided safe harbor to Osama bin Laden before September 11, have found sanctuary and regrouped just across Afghanistan's eastern border, in Pakistan's self-governing northwestern tribal areas.

The Afghans know how to kill and maim, yo. Obama, you best watch it. They will fight forever because that is all they know. I don't think America is ready for an interminable occupation of Afghanistan. My advice-gather a regional council of NATO, Russia, China, India, and Pakistan. Collaborate on an infrastructure for Afghanistan that gets modern knowledge and sanitation for these people. Agree to spend what it would cost to house 300,000 troops there. Invest in the Afghanis- not the crooked tribal chiefs or warlords.

Success in Afghanistan would do much to make the world forget the Iraq debacle. But it can't be done by any repeat of an Iraq strategy. When in doubt, don't forget to ask the Russians.

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