As our leaders now discuss the terms and timetable of our withdrawal from Afghanistan, it is time for a discussion of history that would have been useful before we marched in.
The British invaded Afghanistan twice in the 19th century. The first time, in 1838, ended with the massacre of 16,000 fleeing Britons in January 1842. The second time, in 1878, the British achieved their goal of requiring Afghanistan to accept a diplomatic mission, but at the cost of 10,000 British lives. Both invasions were, generally, for the purpose of limiting foreign influence and quelling local tribal leaders.
The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. That ended in a humiliating retreat 9 years later, after the loss of 15,000 Soviet lives and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Afghans. It should be noted that the Soviet forces were authorized, and willing to go to far greater extremes of force and brutality than US forces in the present conflict would even consider. They were right next door, and after hundreds of years of trying to increase their influence in Afghanistan, slunk away with their frozen tails between their frozen legs. Some analysts believe that the failed war in Afghanistan contributed significantly to the soon-to-follow implosion of the Soviet Union.
America’s decade-long Afghan war, which has cost more than 2,000 American lives, has now come down to two issues. First, when and how will we withdraw, and second, what can be invented as the “mission” that was “accomplished” to avoid our 10-year misadventure from being labeled as what it was. That will be a challenge, since the death of Osama bin Laden (in Pakistan, we may remember) has been a while now, and if the “mission” was for us to establish a stable democracy in a place that does not even know what that means, or build a nation in a country that has never been a nation, nor anything more than a geographical description of a place where warring tribes have engaged in non-stop conflict for all of recorded history, we will have to admit that the “mission” was not “accomplished,” and never will be accomplished by a the intervention of a foreign power unless it is done so by killing the entire population, which I do not think we are really up for doing.
Our national leaders learned nothing from the experiences of our great friends in London or our great “enemies” in Moscow. They learned nothing from our “accomplished mission” in Vietnam. An attempt to govern a nation by people who are unable or unwilling to comprehend history will only and always lead to folly.