Thoughts on the Afghanistan War: Can it be "Won"?

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The war in Afghanistan: a big, broad topic that can’t be covered in one forum post. Over the past few years, particularly in conjunction with the Iraq War, the United States’ presence in Afghanistan has become more and more controversial. The root of this seems to be, primarily, confusion: many people tend to inextricably link the Iraq and Afghanistan wars when, really, they are two utterly separate enterprises. Before we get into details and debate regarding this decade’s Afghanistan war, though, let’s look briefly at the history of US involvement in Afghanistan (with the Taliban and Osama bin Laden). In the 1980s, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan; the Taliban, who had an extremely large presence in the country, fought back (they took control of the government in 1996 and were later overthrown). At the time, the United States’ relationship with the Soviet Union was still very much estranged – the Cold War was still tapering out, really. It seemed to make sense, then, for the US to back the Taliban in fighting the Soviets. The US armed and supplied the Taliban; after all, isn’t the enemy of our enemy our friend? Anyway, once the Soviet Union retreated, so did the US: we stopped the funds and supplies, but never bothered to really keep track of the sub-machine guns, grenades, and rocket launchers we gave to the Taliban. (Bit of an oversight there, I feel, though it would have been impossible to thoroughly do so.) As was previously mentioned, in 1996, the Taliban took control of the Afghani government; however, in November 2001, Kabul fell and the Taliban régime was officially over. Fighting continued, obviously, as an interim government was established; we all know that fighting still continues there today.

Right. Having given that small history, now we can discuss the Afghanistan war today. We went there after 9/11 for obvious reasons: retaliation against attack and a commitment to tracking down and eliminating terrorists. This action was deemed justifiable and reasonable by both the nation and the world; the nation gave Bush an approval rating of about 85 percent in November 2001, and Canada, France, Germany, and Australia pledged future support in Afghanistan. (According to NATO, in 2009, 42 countries had active troops in Afghanistan.) The US’s invasion of Afghanistan, at the time, was viewed as a necessary violent response: had we not responded as such, other terrorist attacks may have occurred. So in that sense, certainly, the Afghanistan war is rightly justified.

The trouble (confusion) arises when people forget that the US invaded Afghanistan for a reason; or, alternatively, that Iraq was responsible for 9/11. It is imperative that they be kept separate: Afghanistan was invaded as a reaction to 9/11, and Iraq was invaded to destroy weapons of mass destruction (which, we later discovered, didn’t technically exist).

So, having clarified all this, today’s Afghanistan War can be addressed to a slightly better degree. Now that troops are being pulled out of Iraq, there seem to be two major views on Afghanistan: one, that we should not be there now – that we’re not doing any good and that the Afghanis don’t want us there – and two, that we should stay in Afghanistan long enough. How long is long enough, though? Until the baby democracy really takes root and begins to sprout of its own accord, as any beginning government should? Until the Taliban is put down once and for all? Until peace is established?

It comes down to what our goals are, militaristically and politically, for the “new” Afghanistan. It seems incredibly unlikely that the Taliban will suddenly be snuffed out and peace will be established; on the contrary, the Taliban is probably the most resilient, determined group in that region – even the world. It would be unrealistic to believe that the world will ever fully be rid of them. As long as there is a Taliban presence in an area, though, any government established by an outside force (i.e. the US or the Soviet Union) is likely to teeter for a while before either being actively overthrown or simply crumbling; with either of those two results, one outcome is constant and that is a reigning chaos. The Taliban thrives is chaos; it is how they derives their power. As long as there is no central pillar (a powerful, dependable government) for the people to turn to, they are easily manipulated by insurgent forces like the Taliban.

This cycle is the true root of the seemingly insurmountable problems in Afghanistan. Despite having had a presence of one sort or another there for nearly three decades, the United States has not managed to make too much permanent, deep-seated change. Certainly, some good has been done, but the fact remains that despite attempts by the US (or any military, foreign or Afghani), the Taliban will retain their order and reform. Today, they’ve all but vacated Afghanistan (to some extent), but they’re not disbanded – they’ve simply moved next door to Pakistan (talk about the neighbors from hell!)

The big question being asked today, then, is whether or not we should still be in Afghanistan. A nation only supports a war as long as they feel it is both justifiable and, more importantly, winnable. Vietnam is the classic example for this: a war that dragged on and on, seemingly endless, sucking away at America’s youth, economy, and enthusiasm. There were troops overseas for years on end, and what did they have to show for it? Nothing. Nothing except a miserable defeat at the bitter end, a defeat which both the veterans and the country may have chosen to forget. No one wants a repeat of Vietnam; however, it seems to be that we’re well on our way to just that.

So will the Afghanistan war be “won”? It depends on perspective. “What the troop-contributing countries want to see is progress…” Gen. Petraeus says in the MSNBC clip. “I didn’t come out here to carry out a graceful exit or something like that; I came out here committed to achieving our objectives and doing everything can to do that.” Which means: we’ll have troops here until our objectives are reached. But what, the public wants to know, are those objectives, exactly? If it’s totally ousting the Taliban and their influence, removing Karzai and his corrupted government and replacing it, and bringing Afghanistan into the twenty-first century, there doesn’t seem to be much hope for that.

Afghanistan hasn’t been totally negative; we did go there with a purpose in the beginning. Once we branched out into Iraq, though, things got fuzzy – to say the least. The US experience in Iraq has definitely negatively affected the public perception of the Afghanistan war, and in situations like this, public perception is a large part of how things get played out. If the people want to leave Afghanistan and we don’t, then the country seems much more likely to turn to a Vietnam feeling of hopeless rage and, eventually (hopefully), protest.

For as long as my – our – generation can remember, Afghanistan has been synonymous with war, chaos, horror, and tyranny. Generations before us have known that and the generations to follow will know that. In the short-term view of things – say, the next decade or so – some positive progress may be made in terms of quelling the Taliban’s influence in the region and installing some semblance of a democratic government. However, in the long run, it seems inevitable that the country will fall back to its former ways – to the despair of the public and the world. Is this victory?





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