The Hubris of American Exceptionalism

1842.  Afghanistan has been called the graveyard of empires.  1989.  The Persians, the Greeks (Macedonians), the Mongols, the British, the Soviets, the Americans.  The beat goes on.  2021.  All we had to have to avoid the current unpleasantness is to have someone in authority who remembered 1842.

At the end of the First Anglo-Afghan war (there were three of them), the British attempted to retreat from Kabul to Jalalabad, 90 miles away.  They were there to protect the British East India Company.  Much like we protected United Fruit in the first half of the Twentieth Century or Exxon in the later half.  Follow the money…

The British Army was very much defeated and needed to escape Kabul.  They hadn’t been able to subdue the local tribesman (what a surprise!) and were ordered to retreat during the winter through the Hindu Kush.  The tribesmen had a field day.  In the end, out of the 4500 soldiers and 12000 civilians (family members, interpreters, clerks, etc.) only one person survived, Assistant Surgeon William Brydon. 

Today, hopefully, we won’t repeat the horrors of 1842.  But the fact remains that the retreat out of Kabul in 2021 will continue to be messy.  As I have never been to Afghanistan (although I’ve had several acquaintances, some of whom died, who have been there), I’d like to share an assessment from someone who spent many years there.  My friend lived in Afghanistan setting up employment camps for Afghan women.  When the Taliban showed up, she even had a Fatwah directed against her.  I’ve told her that’s a badge of honor.  Three years ago she wrote this when asked about the situation at the time, when there were more than 100,000 American troops in country.  Here she is…

It is true Afghanistan was a stable, tolerant of religion and ethnicity, self-sustaining country until the Soviet invasion in 1979. The Soviets were influential prior to this time, but they were working together with the Afghans for the most part.

Then they invaded with tanks, troops, aircraft and carpet bombed the country. Educated and privileged people were jailed and killed. Refugees fled, first to the surrounding countries, and then on from there, leaving a brain drain and a vacuum in Afghanistan.

Two generations have known nothing but war, and there are no elders or is there an educational system to tell them what the country was. Infrastructure is destroyed.

The U.S. did help the Afghans win the war against the Soviets which was then the beginning of the death of the Soviet Union. Without Charlie Wilson and the military aid, they could not have won. However, when the Soviets left, we also left without staying to help nation build. That was our biggest mistake that we are still paying for.

By the way, the mujahideen were good people, who were trying to save their country. Osama bin Laden was a foreigner, a mercenary, who joined the fight from Saudi Arabia. He had plans, evidently (9/11), that no one was aware of. He was cagey, smart, and learned the people, the culture, and had it work to his advantage by giving him asylum (Puktunwali). I must say after all these years we still do not understand the people.

Then there was civil war.

In an attempt to bring peace to the area, the CIA helped the Taliban from Pakistan take over most of Afghanistan in 1996, imposing their fundamentalist brand of Islam. Now we are trying to take them out.

 No matter how many troops we send it will not rectify the political crisis in Kabul. In the absence of clear engagement with the Afghan government, more U.S. troops will only make things worse.

To continue seeing the conflict only through the prism of war and troop numbers as the U.S. does will only lead to continuing erosion of the government’s legitimacy and loss of territory. Taliban attacks will increase, there will be continued loss of territory, and the government may collapse. This is a recipe for failure.

 Afghanistan desperately needs an overarching political strategy.  So far, the U.S. has only come up with excessive use of force. The capacity of the military to create lasting change remains limited. How many more lives will have to be lost

The country is without a stable economy and is not even self-sustaining in food production. Most of the few jobs are dependent on servicing the foreign troops. When the troops withdraw, these workers, many of them young people, will be unemployed. These young people are part of a “pro-Democracy, pro-Western, educated” generation that could be a powerful resource and shouldn’t be alienated.

 Another domestic issue is the ethnic division within the country, which has been supported and exploited by the Taliban. The Taliban came mainly from the Pashtun areas in the south and the east of the country. The Pashtun ethnic group wants to reconcile with the Taliban and are opposed by other ethnic groups in the country.

The U.S. presence in Afghanistan cannot prevent future terrorist outrages. We have no actual strategic policy in Afghanistan — no plausible purpose other than using taxpayer money, the lives of American soldiers and the deaths of Afghan civilians caught in the crossfire to protect U.S. leaders against the possibility of future blame. America’s longest war should stop, and we need to focus on protecting ourselves against terrorism at home.

We think that we as Americans are a city on a hill.  We have received the mantle of making the world in our image.  We are exceptional.  And the beat goes on…