Eugene Robinson. “In Afghanistan, Downsize.” Real Clear Politics. September 22, 2009: “As if on cue, the leader of the Taliban, Mohammad Omar, issued a taunting statement reminding Obama that for more than a millennium, would-be conquerors have tried and failed to subdue the mountain fastness known as the ‘graveyard of empires’ — Alexander the Great in the 4th century B.C., the British in the 1800s, the Soviets from 1979 to 1989. […] ‘The invaders should study the history of Afghanistan,’ Omar said in a message marking the end of Ramadan, reported the Financial Times. ‘The more the enemy resorts to increasing forces, the more they will face an unequivocal defeat.’ […] As galling as it is to accept tutelage from one of Osama bin Laden’s key enablers, this does seem to be what history teaches. Pouring forces into Afghanistan has always proved counterproductive. The presence of large numbers of foreign troops is the one thing that reliably unites Afghans — if only for long enough to drive the foreigners out.”
H.D.S Greenway. “No more troops to Afghanistan.” Boston Globe. September 22, 2009: “Recently, when asked if he risked the fate of Lyndon Johnson whose presidency was consumed by a war started by his predecessors, but which he chose to reinforce, Obama replied: “You have to learn lessons from history. On the other hand, each historical moment is different. You never step into the same river twice. And so Afghanistan is not Vietnam.’’
Afghanistan may not be Vietnam, but it has its own river of history that Obama is stepping into. Centuries of conquerors have found that river too swift and the currents too confusing to navigate.
In the 19th century, the British, having conquered India, looked upon Afghanistan “as a menace, shadowy, but none the less formidable to the peace and security of their North Western territories,’’ as W.K. Fraser-Tytler wrote 60 years ago. The description could fit America’s view of Afghanistan if you substitute North America for North Western territories. But it wasn’t so much the threat of Afghan hordes pouring through the Khyber Pass that finally alarmed the British. It was political disintegration and chaos in Afghanistan at the time. Who might fill the vacuum?
For 200 years the essential fact about Western intervention in Afghanistan has been fear of what other foreigners might do there, not Afghanistan itself.
In the period known as the “Great Game,’’ it was Britain’s fear of Russian influence that led it to invade Afghanistan, often with disastrous results. In 1842 it lost an entire army, save one man, and was still intervening in Afghan affairs until well into the 20th century. The British were dropping bombs in Kabul as late as 1919.
When the Russians fulfilled Britain’s nightmare and invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to ensure a pro-Soviet regime, the Americans took up the Great Game, arming holy warriors to harry the Russians out. It took nine years before the defeated Russians left, and Afghanistan sank back into chaos.
In this century it was another group of foreigners, this time the mostly Arab al Qaeda, that brought Afghanistan to the world’s attention. The Americans invaded because of Al Qaeda and 9/11, not because of Afghanistan.
Obama may have been right that Afghanistan was a war of necessity after 9/11, and he was certainly right that Iraq was an unnecessary diversion. But that was 2001, and Al Qaeda leaders were allowed to slip away into Pakistan, where it has proved impossible to find them, much less destroy them. Eight years later, Al Qaeda no longer needs Afghanistan. It’s better off in Pakistan.
As it was for the British and the Russians before them, Americans found invading Afghanistan was a pushover. In Afghanistan, the trouble has always been getting out, not in.”
Katrina Vanden Heuvel. “Don’t bleed resources in Afghanistan.” The Nation. February 17, 2009: “Today, President Obama announced the deployment of 17,000 additional US troops to Afghanistan.
Two decades and two days after the Soviet army withdrew from its disastrous occupation in Afghanistan, it saddens me that we’re heading down a path that has ensnared the British empire and the former Soviet Union.”