History’s Muse Prepares to Ring the Closing Bell on the West’s War in Afghanistan

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 5 Issue: 23

So far this year, we have seen U.S. and Western leaders continuing to deal with Afghanistan in an ahistorical manner, as if their Afghan problem can easily wait until they can finally work our correct levels of troop strength and funding to solve it. For example, a June meeting in Europe between President Bush and other world leaders pledged another $20-plus billion in aid to Kabul—if Karzai’s regime becomes much less corrupt—while Australian Defense Minister Joel Fitzgibbon called for an additional 10,000 NATO troops for Afghanistan and said that the war against the Taliban and its allies—including al-Qaeda—would take another 10 years (Reuters, June 12; AP, June 5).

Such talk signals how deeply mired Western leaders remain in Cold War thinking; they are trying to manage the Afghan war—not win it—and speak almost as if there was no aggressive, thinking and adaptable enemy opposing them. It is as if they are saying: “If we just get funding levels right, curtail corruption, increase troop strength marginally, and be patient, we will win. After all, the enemy is only a few unreconstructed ‘Taliban and al-Qaeda remnants’ and they will oblige us by giving us time to get our house in order.”

Well, no. The truth is that time is about up for the United States, and NATO in Afghanistan; they will soon have to choose between massively reinforcing their Afghan garrison—Minister Fitzgibbon’s 10,000 soldiers might be a one-twenty-fifth step toward a workable total—or withdraw ignominiously. The idea that the West is confronting only the remnants of the Taliban and al-Qaeda is a beloved figment of the official Western imagination. The United States and NATO are facing nearly all the Taliban and al-Qaeda insurgents who remained after the first phase of Afghan fighting ended in March 2002; Western politicians and military commanders did not want the bad media attendant to annihilating the enemy and did not even try to close the border to prevent their escape to Pakistan or elsewhere. Today, the U.S.-led coalition is not only facing a refit, retrained and rearmed Taliban and al-Qaeda operating out of Pakistani and Afghan safe havens—in Afghanistan, for example, the Taliban control 20 districts in three southern provinces—but also the forces of many of the old, anti-Soviet mujahideen chiefs, like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani, as well as armed fighters answering to the masters of the heroin trade (Khaleej Times, June 15). To make matters worse, after the new civilian government in Islamabad makes peace with the Pashtun tribes in Pakistan’s border region, U.S. and NATO commanders will have to deal with the forces of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mahsud, who has said that his fighters will aid their Taliban brothers and that his men “are proud that we are the enemies of Jews and Christians, and we are also proud that we are fighting them with all possible strength” (al-Jazeera TV, June 10). It seems unlikely, moreover, that Mahsud will be dissuaded from helping the Taliban by President Karzai’s threat to send his Afghan legions after Mahsud and his men inside Pakistan and even to “hit him in his house” (AP, June 15).

Washington and its allies are now paying dearly for having knowingly and fatally violated the one rule history has established for fighting successfully in Afghanistan: “Get in with overpowering force; annihilate as much of the enemy as you can find; do not try to rule the country or create a friendly surrogate regime; and get out quickly and completely” [1]. The distinguished British soldier, Field Marshal Lord Roberts of Kandahar, designed and led such a brutally successful punitive expedition in 1878 and thereby quieted the warlike Afghan tribes for 20 years. Sadly, most Western officials and generals seem not to have studied Lord Roberts’s campaign or, for that matter, even heard of him. U.S. and Western forces have been in Afghanistan for nearly seven years and, as noted above, believe 10 more are needed; they have never had adequate—let alone overwhelming—military power; they have annihilated none of their Islamist enemies; and, according to NATO’s secretary general, they are determined to install “democratization and good governance” in Afghanistan (Khaleej Times, June 15). The West is therefore following the path toward humiliating defeat carved out by Britain in 1842 and the Soviet Union between 1979 and 1989. Parenthetically, the only other temporarily successful Western military operation in Afghanistan—Alexander the Great’s permanent settlement of a significant number of Greek soldiers and civilians there four centuries before Christ—does not seem a viable option for the West.

So the crunch point for Washington and the West in Afghanistan is creeping into view. The loss of the 100th British serviceman in Afghanistan last week and May 2008’s total of 23 dead coalition troops—the highest total since August 2007—highlights the rising tempo of the Taliban-led insurgency (The Times, June 15). The successful June 13 Taliban suicide and truck-bomb attack on a large, well-guarded prison in Kandahar city—in which 1,100 prisoners were freed, including 400 Taliban leaders and fighters—also suggests, like earlier attacks in Kabul, that urban security in Afghanistan is not much better than in the rural areas that are the Taliban’s homeland (AFP, June 14).

Aside from the insurgents’ growing power and reach, Washington and its coalition partners are now running up against the highly negative impact of the West’s insistence on the return of democracy in Pakistan. Having via popular elections knowingly neutered President Pervez Musharraf—the West’s best counter-terrorism ally and the man Ayman al-Zawahiri assessed as the most dangerous foe of al-Qaeda and the Taliban—the West now faces a scenario in which the newly elected civilian government in Islamabad is seeking peace with the Pashtun border tribes; has exchanged prisoners with the Afghan Taliban; and is considering the withdrawal of the country’s army from the border region.

In addition, the U.S. air strike on a Frontier Corps post in Pakistan’s Mohmand tribal agency last week—which is reported to have killed up to 13 Pakistani soldiers—has increased the pressure from Pashtun tribal leaders and Pakistani politicians on the weak central government to distance itself from supporting the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan. Responding to the attack, Pakistan’s military issued a statement describing the attack as “completely unprovoked and cowardly,” and the council of elders of the Mohmand Agency’s Pashtun tribes announced they “are ready to fight for our homeland” and will raise forces to do so (Frontier Post, June 14; The News [Islamabad], June 14; AP, June 12; Times of India, June 14). The sum of these developments is that the U.S.-led coalition: a) Can no longer expect anywhere near the level of military and intelligence assistance Musharraf provided; b) Is burdened by a massively corrupt and largely ineffective government in Kabul; and c) Has neither the military forces nor the willingness to sustain the casualties that will be needed to defeat the Taliban and its allies in the absence of the level of aid provided by Musharraf-era Islamabad.

At the moment, then, Clio, history’s muse, appears ready to teach a lesson to the Westerners who have ignored the past. History, of course, seldom teaches a nation what to do, but it does very often teach a nation what not to do. Writing in 2005, the American classicist Frank L. Holt reminded his countrymen of the lessons that can be learned from mistakes made by Afghanistan’s previous occupiers. After reading Dr. Holt’s words, the reader can decide how well Western leaders have done in educating themselves on the basis of past errors. In his brilliant book, Into the Land of Bones: Alexander the Great in Afghanistan, Holt wrote:

“We must acknowledge that the wars waged in Afghanistan by Alexander, Britain, and the Soviet Union, and now the United States share some salient features that may not bode well for our future. For example, all these invasions of Afghanistan went well at first, but so far no superpower has found a workable alternative to what might be called the recipe for ruin in Afghanistan.

1.) Estimate the time and resources necessary to conquer and control the region.

2.) Double the estimates.

3.) Repeat as needed.

“Afghanistan cannot be subdued by half measures. Invaders must consider the deadly demands of winter warfare, since all gains from seasonal campaigns are erased at every lull. Invaders must resolve to hunt down every warlord, for the one exception will surely rot the fruits of all other victories. Invaders cannot succeed by avoiding cross-border warfare, since the mobile insurgents can otherwise hide and reinforce with impunity. Invaders must calculate where to draw the decisive line between killing and conciliation, for too much of either means interminable conflict. Finally, all invaders so far have had to face one more difficult choice: once mired in a winless situation, they have tried to cut their losses through one of two exit strategies:

1.) Retreat, as did the British and Soviets, with staggering losses.

2.) Leave a large army of occupation permanently settled in the area, as Alexander did.

“Neither option seems acceptable to the United States, which must therefore learn from its predecessors’ mistakes and seek another path” [2].


1. This quite sound advice was given to the West by the British historian Sir John Keegan in September 2001. See Keegan’s articles in the Daily Telegraph, September 14 & 20, 2001.

2. Frank L. Holt, Into the Land of Bones. Alexander the Great in Afghanistan. Berkeley, CA., 2005, pp. 18-19