History Overtakes Optimism in Afghanistan

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 3 Issue: 6

Every rule has an exception and Afghanistan seems to be the rock-solid exception to the rule that history never repeats itself. The increasingly emboldened insurgency now confronted by the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan is eerily similar to the insurgencies previously initiated, fought, and lost by Great Britain and the Soviet Union. Each of these three insurgencies saw the Western invaders win easy early victories, quickly occupy the major Afghan cities, and then find themselves increasingly ensnared in a prolonged campaign characterized by myriad vicious, hit-and-run skirmishes that proved costly in terms of morale, lives, military reputation, and treasure. The British and Soviets withdrew in clear and humiliating defeat, an end-state that now appears the U.S.-led coalition will have a hard time avoiding.

Five-Point Stocktaking

As recently as late last summer, Western leaders were pointing toward Afghanistan as the global war on terrorism’s one unqualified success story. The upbeat talk was of elections, foreign aid, rebuilding projects, and female parliamentary candidates. Yet, Afghan winters are notoriously harsh, and as spring approaches that harshness has begun to wring out the West’s premature optimism and to replace it with a picture that is at once more accurate and more properly pessimistic. It also is a picture recognizable to those familiar with Afghanistan’s war-filled history and the propensity of Afghan warriors for taking the long view of things and finding ways to ultimately defeat all the occupiers they have ever faced.

1. Fall 2005 Assertion: Two successful elections show democracy is taking root in Afghanistan.

Near-Spring Reality: After two nationwide elections, few of those who disagree with President Karzai have put their weapons away and decided to wait peaceably for the next election. Indeed, there has been an up-tick in violence after each election. While the Afghans are avaricious consumers and innovative users of the tools of modernity—be it ordnance or communications gear—they are steadfast opponents of “Westernization,” particularly of the variety that downplays religion, asserts women’s rights, ignores ethnic rivalries and hatreds, and seeks to undermine tribal politics and loyalties.

2. Fall 2005 Assertion: The U.S.-led coalition is mopping up the remnants of the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Near-Spring Reality: The U.S.-led coalition suffered more casualties in 2005 than in any of the previous three years of occupation. In addition, the overall pace of combat increased in the second half of 2005 and has continued to escalate so far in 2006. The geographic breadth of the attacks also shows that Taliban and al-Qaeda forces are growing in number and initiating activities outside the Taliban’s traditional stronghold in Kandahar and Uruzgan provinces. The first six weeks of 2006, for example, have seen attacks in Helmand, Nangarhar, Herat, and Konar provinces, as well as an intensification of fighting along both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border (Pajhwok Afghan News, February 10).

3. Fall 2005 Assertion: Most Afghans are moderate Muslims, not strident Islamists like the Taliban.

Near-Spring Reality: Each occupation of Afghanistan by “infidels” has caused a spike in the religious conservatism among Afghans; this increase does not subside but establishes a new, higher level of religiosity. Simply put, after nearly 30 years of continuous war against, and occupation by, Western infidels of one kind or another, Afghan Islam is decidedly more conservative and activist—in the jihadi sense—than it was before the 1979 Soviet invasion. Indeed, in 2005-06 Afghanistan’s so-called “moderate” Muslims have led the way in the Islamic world in protesting violently against such perceived Western affronts to Islam as the reported destruction of the Quran by U.S. guards at Guantanamo Bay and the publication of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. These protests suggest, moreover, that al-Qaeda and the Taliban will find no shortage of recruits among young Afghans, and no lack of logistical and financial support among the parents and families of those young men.

4. Fall 2005 Assertion: Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and his army have broken the back of al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan, thereby denying them safe haven from which to launch operations into Afghanistan.

Near-Spring Reality: Since 2003, Musharraf sent the Pakistani army into the country’s border regions—especially into Waziristan—to attack and eliminate al-Qaeda and the Taliban forces based there. The incursions, however, now appear to have yielded a more secure safe haven for Islamist forces despite the Pakistani army having suffered more casualties than has the U.S.-led coalition since 2001. The net impact of these unprecedented Pakistani military operations appears to have been to unify the Pashtun tribes that straddle the Pakistan-Afghanistan border against Islamabad. The overwhelmingly Pashtun Taliban, according to Pakistani and Afghan media, now controls areas on both sides of the border, and they and their allies have stepped up border-area attacks on Pakistani servicemen and border guards, infrastructure targets, and individuals who are believed to be cooperating with Islamabad or the U.S.-led coalition (Lahore Daily Times, February 11).

5. Fall 2005 Assertion: The war in Afghanistan is separate and unrelated to the war in Iraq.

Near-Spring Reality: It now appears that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are increasingly interrelated and symbiotic; as Taliban military commander Mullah Dadullah recently claimed, there are “contacts with the mujahideen in Iraq. We are one and the same mujahideen.” Although media reports that al-Qaeda sent some of its Afghanistan-based fighters to Iraq were at first disbelieved in the West, the identification of some of the Islamists captured and killed in Iraq has validated that reporting, as does the evidence that has surfaced since the invasion of Iraq about the existence of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s pre-war ties to al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

In Afghanistan, moreover, the insurgency led by the Taliban and al-Qaeda is clearly applying lessons learned from the insurgents in Iraq. The Afghans’ growing sophistication in the use of remotely detonated improvised explosive devices is one pertinent example. Others include the steady rise in the number of suicide attacks by individuals on foot or using vehicles, the increasing number of urban-warfare operations in Kabul, Kandahar, and other cities, the diversification of attacks to hit more of the non-U.S. members of the multi-national force, such as Canadians and Norwegian soldiers and Turkish and Indian civilian contractors, and the steady improvement in the quality and focus of the Taliban’s propaganda and media apparatus (Afghan Islamic Press, February 10 and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, January 17).


While it is too early to say that Afghanistan is again lost to the West, the trend lines are heading in the direction of another Western defeat and withdrawal. If such is the case, the result will be rightfully attributed to the failure of Western leaders—military, political, and media—to have read and assimilated the lessons of Afghan history before invading. One Westerner, the eminent British military historian Sir John Keegan, did read that history and offered a clear and early warning. “The Russians [1979-89]…foolishly did not try to punish rogue Afghans, as [Britain’s Lord] Robert’s did, but to rule the country,” Keegan wrote on September 14, 2001 in the Daily Telegraph. “Since Afghanistan is ungovernable, the failure of their effort was predictable….America should not seek to change the regime, but simply to find and kill the terrorists.” U.S. and Western leaders should heed Sir John’s prescient words.