Peter Bergan Says: Though We Are Now Losing, Afghanistan Will Not Be Obama’s Vietnam

President Obama will make his speech this evening outlining his decisions to send 30,000 or more U.S. soldiers to Afghanistan.  Obama’s decision is a big disappointment to many of his supporters. Jennifer Brunner, for example, Ohio’s Democratic Secretary of State who wants to be elected to the U.S. Senate, writes, Time To Bring Home The Troops.

Michael Moore gives a good flavor of the disappointment over Obama’s Afghanistan decision.  In his open letter to Obama, Moore asks President Obama, “Do you really want to be the new ‘war president’?” Moore says to the President,“You know that nothing good can come from sending more troops halfway around the world to a place neither you nor they understand, to achieve an objective that neither you nor they understand, in a country that does not want us there.”

Peter Bergan

Peter Bergan

Moore makes a huge accusation.  After reading Moore, I did some Google research. I found two articles by Peter Bergan, who is a national security analyst for CNN. Bergan has been a frequent visitor to Afghanistan, and has written several books including “The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al Qaeda’s Leader.”

Bergen’s view is quite opposite of Moore’s and seems based on solid information, much of which I’ve not heard before.  He makes a good case and much of the information he writes, I’m sure, has been the type of information President Obama has been studying over the last few weeks. Here are excerpts from the two articles:

From The U.S. is losing Afghanistan on two fronts (published 10/26/09):

  1. We are losing in Afghanistan, on two fronts. The most important center of gravity of the conflict — as the Taliban well recognizes — is the American public. And now, most Americans are opposed to the war.
  2. The American public would be more likely to tolerate the losses of blood and treasure in Afghanistan if they saw real progress being made there. And right now, they don’t.
  3. The second front we’re losing is the Afghans themselves … (because we) are not providing large swaths of the Afghan population with the most basic public good, which is security.
  4. The last government to provide Afghans with real security was … the Taliban. When they ruled the country before 9/11, security came at a tremendous price: a brutal, theocratic regime that bankrupted the country and was a pariah on the world stage.
  5. But in the context of Afghan history, the Taliban bringing security was decisively important, since what had immediately preceded their iron rule was a nightmarish civil war during which you could be robbed or killed at will by gangs of roving ethnic and tribal militias.
  6. A glaring symbol of the collapse of security in the country is the 300-mile Kabul-to-Kandahar highway, economically and politically the most important road in the country, which is now too dangerous to drive on.
  7. If President Obama is serious about securing the country and rolling back the Taliban, he really doesn’t have much choice but to put significant numbers of more troops on the ground. That way, he can start winning the war: win back the American public, roll back the Taliban — who have melded ideologically and tactically with al Qaeda — and provide real security to the Afghan people.
  8. In one of the most important strategic shifts since 9/11, the Pakistani military and government are now getting serious about wiping out large elements of the Taliban and allied groups on their territory and, most importantly, are doing it with the support of their population.
  9. No longer are Pakistani military operations against militants in Swat and Waziristan seen by Pakistanis as “America’s war”: they are now seen as being in the vital interests of the Pakistani state because the Pakistani Taliban and other jihadist groups have made major strategic errors since early 2009, including marching close to Islamabad, attacking Pakistan’s equivalent of the Pentagon and killing hundreds of Pakistani soldiers and policemen.

From Winning the Good War:  Why Afghanistan is not Obama’s Vietnam (Published in August, 2009, in Washington Monthly.)

  1. The growing skepticism about Obama’s chances for success in Afghanistan is largely based on deep misreadings of both the country’s history and the views of its people, which are often compounded by facile comparisons to the United States’s misadventures of past decades in Southeast Asia and the Middle East.
  2. Afghanistan will not be Obama’s Vietnam, nor will it be his Iraq. Rather, the renewed and better resourced American effort in Afghanistan will, in time, produce a relatively stable and prosperous Central Asian state….The graveyard of empires metaphor belongs in the graveyard of clichés.
  3. The Soviet army killed more than a million Afghans and forced some five million more to flee the country, creating what was then the world’s largest refugee population. The Soviets also sowed millions of mines (including some that resembled toys), making Afghanistan one of the most heavily mined countries in the world. And Soviet soldiers were a largely unprofessional rabble of conscripts who drank heavily, used drugs, and consistently engaged in looting. The Soviets’ strategy, tactics, and behavior were, in short, the exact opposite of those used in successful counterinsurgency campaigns.
  4. Even the most generous estimates of the size of the Taliban force hold it to be no more than 20,000 men, while authoritative estimates of the numbers of Afghans on the battlefield at any given moment in the war against the Soviets range up to 250,000. The Taliban insurgency today is only around 10 percent the size of what the Soviets faced.
  5. Certainly endemic low-level warfare is embedded in Pashtun society—the words for cousin and enemy in Pashtu, for instance, are the same. But the level of violence in Afghanistan is actually far lower than most Americans believe. In 2008 more than 2,000 Afghan civilians died at the hands of the Taliban or coalition forces; this is too many, but it is also less than a quarter of the deaths last year in Iraq, a country that is both more sparsely populated and often assumed to be easier to govern. (At the height of the violence in Iraq, 3,200 civilians were dying every month, making the country around twenty times more violent than Afghanistan is today.)
  6. Afghanistan is a much older nation-state than, say, Italy or Germany, both of which were only unified in the late nineteenth century. Modern Afghanistan is considered to have emerged with the first Afghan empire under Ahmad Shah Durrani in 1747, and so has been a nation for decades longer than the United States. Accordingly, Afghans have a strong sense of nationhood.
  7. The similarities between the Taliban and the Vietcong end with their mutual hostility toward the U.S. military. The some 20,000 Taliban fighters are too few to hold even small Afghan towns, let alone mount a Tet-style offensive on Kabul. As a military force, they are armed lightly enough to constitute a tactical problem, not a strategic threat. By contrast, the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese Army at the height of the Vietnam War numbered more than half a million men who were equipped with artillery and tanks, and were well supplied by both the Soviet Union and Mao’s China.
  8. Skeptics of Obama’s Afghanistan policy say that the right approach is to either reduce American commitments there or just get out entirely. The short explanation of why this won’t work is that the United States has tried this already—twice. In 1989, after the most successful covert program in the history of the CIA helped to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan, the George H. W. Bush administration closed the U.S. embassy in Kabul. The Clinton administration subsequently effectively zeroed out aid to the country, one of the poorest in the world.
  9. Out of the chaos of the Afghan civil war in the early 1990s emerged the Taliban, who then gave sanctuary to al Qaeda. In 2001, the next Bush administration returned to topple the Taliban, but because of its ideological aversion to nation building it ensured that Afghanistan was the least-resourced per capita reconstruction effort the United States has engaged in since World War II. An indication of how desultory those efforts were was the puny size of the Afghan army, which two years after the fall of the Taliban numbered only 5,000 men, around the same size as the police department of an American city like Houston.
  10. The Afghan people themselves, the center of gravity in a counterinsurgency, are rooting for us to win. BBC/ABC polling found that 58 percent of Afghans named the Taliban—who only 7 percent of Afghans view favorably—as the greatest threat to their nation; only 8 percent said it was the United States.
  11. Refugees don’t return to places they don’t think have a future, and more than four million Afghan refugees have returned home since the fall of the Taliban. (By contrast, about the same number of Iraqi refugees fled their homes after the American-led invasion of their country in 2003, and few have returned.) There are also more than two million Afghan kids in schools, including, of course, many girls. Music, kites, movies, independent newspapers, and TV stations—all of which were banned under the Taliban—are now ubiquitous. One in six Afghans now has a cell phone, in a country that didn’t have a phone system under the Taliban. And, according to the World Bank, the 2007 GDP growth rate for Afghanistan was 14 percent. Under Taliban rule the country was so poor that the World Bank didn’t even bother to measure its economic indicators.
  12. Another possible objection to the introduction of more U.S. soldiers into Afghanistan is that, inevitably, they will kill more civilians, the main issue that angers Afghans about the foreign military presence. In fact, the presence of more boots on the ground is likely to reduce civilian casualties, because historically it has been the overreliance on American air strikes—as a result of too few ground forces—which has been the key cause of civilian deaths. According to the U.S. Air Force, between January and August 2008 there were almost 2,400 air strikes in Afghanistan, fully three times as many as in Iraq. And the United Nations concluded that it was air strikes, rather than action on the ground, which were responsible for the largest percentage—64 percent—of civilian deaths attributed to pro-government forces in 2008.
  13. The Obama administration’s Afghan policy represent a distinct break from the Bush administration’s sputtering efforts. One is a shifting emphasis within the attempt to curtail the opium trade, from poppy eradication to going after the drug lords. This is a no-brainer—poppy eradication penalizes poor Afghan farmers who can’t pay the bribes to ensure their fields are not eradicated, and who are then easy marks for Taliban recruitment.
  14. T he United States can neither precipitously withdraw from Afghanistan nor help foster the emergence of a stable Afghan state by doing it on the cheap; the consequence would be the return of the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
  15. The United States overthrew the Taliban in the winter of 2001. It has a moral obligation to ensure that when it does leave Afghanistan it does so secure in the knowledge that the country will never again be a launching pad for the world’s deadliest terrorist groups, and that the country is on the way to a measure of stability and prosperity. When that happens, it is not too fanciful to think that Afghanistan’s majestic mountains, verdant valleys, and jasmine-scented gardens may once again draw the tourists that once flocked there.
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2 Responses to Peter Bergan Says: Though We Are Now Losing, Afghanistan Will Not Be Obama’s Vietnam

  1. Stan Hirtle says:

    “6. Afghanistan is a much older nation-state than, say, Italy or Germany, both of which were only unified in the late nineteenth century. Modern Afghanistan is considered to have emerged with the first Afghan empire under Ahmad Shah Durrani in 1747, and so has been a nation for decades longer than the United States. Accordingly, Afghans have a strong sense of nationhood.”

    It’s hard to know here how strong a sense of nationhood Afghans have (conventional wisdom here is to the contrary and that tribal loyalties control over national ones), but Wikipedia’s histories of Afghanistan and of Ahmad Shah Durrani sound a lot different than US History. Ahmad Shah Durrani was a Pashtun who conquered a huge Empire centered in Kandahar and invaded India several times, but the Empire quickly fell apart after his death.”By 1818, Ahmad Shah heirs controlled little more than Kabul and the surrounding territory. They not only lost the outlying territories but also alienated other Pashtun tribes and those of other Durrani lineages. Until Dost Mohammad Khan’s ascendancy in 1826, chaos reigned in Afghanistan, which effectively ceased to exist as a single entity, disintegrating into a fragmented collection of small units.” Ahmad Shah Durrani is considered the founder of “modern Afghanistan” in that the term was first used during his reign. His relatives were kings of the region throughout the 1800s but were buffeted by repeated invasions and wars with the British, Russians and Persians. The Russians and British defined the boundaries of Afghanistan in 1886, dividing the Pashtun tribes. Afghanistan became independent of Britain in 1919. A series of kingdoms followed, followed by a Republic in the early 1970s, some coups leading to the Soviet intervention in the late 1970s, and the US backing of Afghans and bin Ladin against them in the 1980s. When the Soviets withdrew there was a period of civil war, the takeover of the Taliban and its eventual overthrow by the US after 9/11.

    It is clear that Afghanistan has a history of resisting foreign invaders. Whether this idea should go to the graveyard of cliches remains to be seen. Other than that, we Americans know little about Afghanistan, and its dangerous neighbor Pakistan. Are the Taliban as small, unpopular and under Pakistani siege as Bergan suggests? If so why is the Kabul to Kandhar road so dangerous to drive on? Are the Taliban really “melded ideologically and tactically with al Qaeda” or are they interested in different things, local power v. world jihad? Will the US really go after the drug lords, or are the Karzai government and its warlord allies the drug lords? We don’t eliminate that many drug lords here in the US, let alone there. Would more American soldiers make the Afghan happier than all the bombings and drones that have been killing so many civilians? Or will the soldiers just become targets? Are Afghans now so full of girls in school, kites and cell phones that they will reject the Taliban and join the modern world? Or is that like when we expected the Iraqis to throw flowers after we invaded?

    We don’t know a lot about Afghanistan, or Pakistan, and how their people will view the world. It is hard to know whether Bergan will prove to be right, or the people who say that we face an open neded commitment to an expensive struggle where we are the foreign invader, and which can not be worth the cost, will be right. Wars often start with optimism that is almost always unfounded. Bergman’s argument about how Afghanistan is an older nation than Italy, Germany and the US may be academically defensible in some way, but it seems more likely to be misleading as to why it is supposed to motivate us to support the war. And that is cause for suspicion.

  2. Mike Bock says:

    Stan, Thanks for the information. I also am suspicious about Bergan’s saying that Afgahanistan is an older nation that Italy, Germany and the U.S. I really don’t know what to think.

    This article, “Meet the Commanded-in-Chief,” by Tom Englehardt argues that Obama has simply given into the military and makes a lot of the fact that his speech was made at West Point.

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