The expanding war in Afghanistan

By Richard Schmitt

Barack Obama won the Presidency with the promise of change. What kind of change?

It now appears that one change will consist of sending another 20,000 to 30,000 US troops to Afghanistan, more or less doubling the number of Americans fighting in that country.

What should we think about this?

Afghanistan is a country the size of Texas with a population of 32 million. Literacy is at 28%, average life expectancy 42 years. It is very different from any country we know. Infrastructure – roads, electric power supply, drinkable water, reliable communications and transport – hardly exists. The different parts of Afghanistan are not well knit together. Afghanistan is one country in name only. Different parts of the country are inhabited by different peoples who each speak their own languages. Each have strong loyalties to their own and deep distrust of the members of the other peoples.

There is a central government in the capital, Kabul, that controls the capital itself, more or less. But it does not control the rest of the country. There police and military power is in the hands of warlords – strongmen with their own armies that control a bit of territory and are frequently battling other strongmen. In addition there is the Taliban, a fundamentalist Islamic force. The Taliban was organized originally by the ISI (The Pakistani Internal Security Services) with the support of the US who groomed the Taliban to fight the Russians when they occupied Afghanistan in the 1970s and 80s.

Once the Russians left, the US lost interest in Afghanistan and left the Taliban to take over the country.

Why are we fighting in Afghanistan?

The official story is that after 9/11 the US government demanded that the Afghan government – then in the hands of the Taliban – hand over Osama Bin Laden. When they refused, we invaded to catch Osama and punish the Taliban. We seemed to have succeeded in the second goal because the Taliban collapsed after a brief war fought by US planes and Afghan warlord ground troops. But today the Taliban is daily growing in strength. They are said to be active in 72% of the country

The truth is more complex. The US government was pretty ready to attack Afghanistan even before 9/11, hoping to weaken Al Quaeda by expelling them from their sanctuary there. Nor is it true that the Taliban refused to hand over Osama bin Laden. They did refuse to hand him to the US but were willing to hand him over for trial to a third country. Our government rejected that offer.

We did not catch Osama. He is, people say, in Pakistan. So why fight in Afghanistan? That question is difficult to answer. Maybe it does not have an answer except that, having once started the war, we need to fight to victory. But we know where that kind of thinking leads. It added several years to the war in Vietnam and we lost it anyway. It is clear that the insistence on victory has needlessly cost a lot of lives – American as well as many more Iraqi ones – without bringing us any closer to victory in Iraq.

What are we fighting for?

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