The U.S. War in Afghanistan (Essay)

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At the time of my writing, the NATO war in Afghanistan has just become the longest war in U.S. history, a status it seems likely to retain for some time. It has been, and remains, a very strange war, all the stranger now that General Stanley McChrystal has been fired as commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan following the lamest Douglas MacArthur impression on record. He has been replaced by General David Petraeus, the father and executor of the doctrine that lay behind the eventual U.S. military success in Iraq, a version of which is now being applied in Afghanistan. The notion that his appointment will lead to substantial changes in the Afghan mission is hence overblown, especially as up until a week ago he was the one telling McChrystal what to do in his role as the latter's boss.

So, not a time for radical change, but a time to reflect.

American involvement in Afghanistan began in 1979, when the Soviets invaded the country. The U.S. wanted to get the Soviets bogged down in a demoralizing war, they wanted to discourage this sort of Soviet adventurism, and they especially wanted to make sure the Red Army didn't march on through to the Middle East. So, with the help of a host of other countries, the U.S. funelled money and weapons to anti-Soviet forces, and they didn't ask too many questions about the politics of the recipients. This strategy worked, and the Soviets eventually left Afghanistan and shortly afterwards exited the pages of history for good.

What the U.S. did next wasn't so canny though: they decided they could live with the anti-Soviet groups ruling Afghanistan, and promptly lost interest. A giant civil war proceeded to rage among the anti-Soviet factions, of which there were literally thousands. In 1994, a devout and dedicated religious movement calling itself the Taliban (which means student) began a rapid rise to power. The group comes from the Pashtun ethnic group, which lives in a broad swathe from southern Afghanistan across the Durand Line into Pakistan. They quickly overcame smaller armed groups, and they had a certain ideological appeal in the country's south, but most of all they had a strong influx of foreign manpower from Pakistan. By 1996, they had conquered the capital Kabul. They were brutal and not popular, and Afghans (especially non-Pashtuns) have still not forgotten how the rest of the world did nothing to contain their rise.

This current war began, as everyone knows, after 9/11, which was carried out by al-Qaeda, who were sheltered by the Taliban. Those attacks were planned in southern Afghanistan and carried out by people who were trained and financed there, and the idea of the ensuing war was to ensure this could not happen again. The war itself was mainly carried out by Afghans themselves, with U.S. support; these Afghans were the Taliban's enemies, the people who had lost the Afghan civil war and were still fighting from their northern redoubts. In what I personally refuse to believe was a coincidence, their leader Ahmed Shah Massood was killed by the Taliban just two days before 9/11. These people weren't liberal democrats, but traditional Afghan tribalists, a problem to which I will return below.

The Northern Alliance were only able to take over Kabul with the help of U.S. airpower; after all, they had lost the civil war against the Taliban. But once their conquest was complete, the U.S. had very little to do with them, or with most of Afghanistan. With the Taliban regime in Kabul no more, the Bush administration turned its eyes elsewhere. U.S. forces remained in the south of the country to battle Taliban and al-Qaeda holdouts, while development and the training of new Afghan security forces was left to a NATO (i.e. European) mission in Kabul. For a long time, this NATO mission only actually had authority in Kabul, and the policing and defence of the rest of Afghanistan was tasked to Afghan security forces that did not exist yet. This wasn't a strategy for the...
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