Afghanistan has been known, for good reason, as “The Graveyard of Empires.” Alexander the Great managed to conquer most of the known world, but was stopped in Afghanistan. The sun never set on Britain’s 19th century Empire, but it went down over an Afghanistan that remained free. Soviet Russia too, encountered such difficulties when they invaded. Mikhail Gorbachev gave up trying to use the Soviet military to enforce Communism anywhere else, leading to the swift end of Communism in East Europe and eventually the Soviet Union itself.
Now the United States thinks it can pacify this same country. Our willingness to think we can succeed would be comical if it weren’t coming at the price of billions of dollars and dead Americans and Afghans. Nine years after we initially attacked, there is really no meaningful sense in which we can say things are any better than they were immediately after we invaded. The Kazari government has been officially designated the most corrupt government in the world. More soldiers are dying than at the beginning of the war, and the Afghan security forces are utterly incapable of enforcing law and order without NATO forces guiding them every step of the way. It is worth noting the Soviets were also in Afghanistan for nine years and when they withdrew, the government they put in place survived for just over one hundred days. Can we honestly say we are doing any better?
The first step is admitting that this is a war we cannot win. The only successful anti-insurgency campaigns in history (Greece after World War II, Malaysia in the 50s and a few others) share several traits that Afghanistan completely lacks: a small insurgency that was cut off from outside supply against an overwhelming anti-insurgent force with the support of most of the local population. Given that the head of the Senate Armed Forces committee estimates we would need 600,000 troops to quell the insurgency (we currently have 94,000, along with a NATO contingent of several thousand more), and the border with Pakistan is a free transit zone for the insurgency, history gives us no indication we will ever succeed. We can continue with our current bluster about denying terrorist safe havens and keeping the Taliban out of power, but they can wait us out. They know that we will not wait another ten years, whereas they are perfectly willing to do so if that is what it takes. Vietnam, Somalia, Lebanon and other American interventions have shown insurgents around the world that they can simply wait us out. There is no reason to think the Taliban will not do the same.
Are we really making ourselves any safer with this war? The last few notable terrorist attacks attempted against the United States, including the Times Square Bomber, the Fort Hood Shooter and the Christmas Day Bomber, did not originate in Afghanistan. The real action in the War on Terror has moved to locations such as Yemen and Somalia, along with Westerners who became radicalized. Fighting them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here might make a catchy slogan, but is utterly untrue. Even if we withdrew and the Taliban re-established control, al-Qaeda would be unlikely to set up shop again. First, they already have their new hideouts in new countries and second, the Taliban will have learned the West will leave them alone if they do not provide sanctuary to terrorists.
Our choice is clear: continue to have our soldiers die and our tax dollars wasted to maintain a pointlessly brave face for a world audience that is not impressed, or to admit objective reality and devote our resources to anti-terrorist efforts that actually stand a chance of making us safer. Failure to make the right choice means that the United States becomes another name on the list of empires that did not get out of Afghanistan before it was too late.