Eighth-Century Afghanistan a No-Win Situation

Tuesday, 14 Jul 2009 03:01 PM

By Phil Brennan

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“When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains

And the women come out to cut up what remains

Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains

An' go to your Gawd like a soldier

Go, go, go like a soldier ...”

Rudyard Kipling "The Young British Soldier"

In the winter of 1841 after being badly beaten by savage Afghan tribesmen, 16,000 British soldiers were butchered by the Afghani tribesmen while trying to flee the accursed region. And that was only the beginning. It took two more humiliating defeats before the Brits learned the lethal lesson a rag-tag collection of Afghanis kept teaching them.

Next to go to the academy of doomed efforts to subdue the Afghanis were the Soviet invaders who numbered 120,000 men when they finally threw in the towel and skedaddled, their tails between their legs having lost more than 8,000 men a year from 1980-1985.

Now it's our turn.

Like most of our misadventures in trying to remake various areas of the world into carbon copies of ourselves, this war in Afghanistan may yet end with us running for the borders with our own tails between our legs.

It is said that those who refuse to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it. That's especially true of our involvement in Afghanistan. Most Americans don't know beans about this place. Few realize that there is no such nation as Afghanistan, that the alleged national government in Kabul actually governs only with the sufferance of the tribes and clans who are the real power.

Afghanistan is a collection of tribal areas, each insanely jealous of its independence from the rest of this geographical monstrosity. That's not to say they won't join together to oust any foreign entity foolish enough to meddle with their cherished eighth-century lifestyle. They like things as they are and will unite and fight the kind of guerrilla warfare in which they excel when anyone attempts to subdue them.

That's best described in the 2006 book "Insurgents, Terrorists and Militias — The Warriors of Contemporary Combat" Columbia University Press, by Richard H. Schultz Jr. and Andrea J. Dew.

The authors describe the pattern of warfare that evolved during the British occupation, noting that when the cities fell to the Brits, "the tribal warriors, often mounted on horseback, melted into the craggy landscape," and their native hills where they were "unreachable and undefeatable."

According to the authors, while the British envoy was "puffing up success in Kabul" for the folks back home, the British military "was locked in an unending struggle" with the tribes in the south "and in the terrain west of Kabul, Uzbeks and Baluchi warriors roamed unchecked."

Now I acknowledge that the Brits lacked such luxuries as air cover and helicopters and tanks and all the modern conveniences of warfare we have at our convenience. But the Soviets had them, and a lot of good it did them. And most of the advantages they give us are apt to dissolve in the reality of what amounts to tribal warfare in areas where the enemy knows every inch of the ground and how to use it to their advantage, and where our vaunted technology is all but useless. Just as it was with the Soviets.

It's a case of finally defeating them with superior fire power in one area only to have them melt into the hills and valleys to pop up in another valley elsewhere. In short, without the kind of staying power we have shown to lack in such places as Vietnam, all they have to do is wait us out and we'll be headed for the exits, hopefully in better shape that the Brits in 1841.

Ahmed Jalali and Lester Grau, authors of the book "Afghan Guerrilla Warfare in the Words of the Mujahadeen Fighters," asked a Mujahideen commander what helped the Mujahideen defeat the mighty Soviet forces. “We intended to fight to the last man and they didn't," he replied.

Our best advantage is the nature of the enemy, the Taliban, which is as brutal to the Afghani people as it wants to be with us. Our worst disadvantage may be that they will fight to the last man and based on our past performances, we won't.

Our current strategy is largely a replay of the strategy that finally worked in Iraq — drive the enemy out and occupy the towns and villages until local armed forces and police can be trained to take over. But the Afghani tribesman are very much unlike the Iraqis, who are to some extent Westernized. Does anybody really believe that the tribes and clans of Afghanistan can be successfully dragged out of the eighth century in our lifetimes?

Schultz and Dew describe today's Afghanistan as "a society with strong tribal elements in which centralized power has at best been only tolerated as a necessary stabilizing presence. Secondary to clan and tribal identification and loyalty."

The present day tribes and clans trace their lineage to ancestors who lived 3,000 years ago. Not much has changed since then. The place is a maze of tribal groups and loyalties and has little resemblance to the societies we are accustomed to deal with except for the poppy trade that supplies much of the heroin modern societies are consuming. Their drug lords are as up to date as our own.

My point is that unless we are willing to pay the steep price in blood and treasure what an eventual victory in Afghanistan demands, that is being willing to fight to the last man, maybe we should give serious thought to folding up our tents and going home as fast as we can.

Phil Brennan writes for Newsmax.com. He is editor and publisher of Wednesday on the Web (http://www.pvbr.com) and was Washington columnist (Cato) for National Review magazine in the 1960s. He is a trustee of the Lincoln Heritage Institute and a member of the Association For Intelligence Officers. He can be reached at pvb@pvbr.com.

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