Monday, November 30, 2009

Mr. President, It's Time to Stop Meddling in the Middle East


Dear Mr. President:

First, a truism: You can end this unpopular, undeclared war, but you cannot win it. Unfortunately, it's another in the long succession of wars that we have waged since 1941 in contravention of the Constitution, which gives Congress the sole power to wage war.

Don’t let anyone kid you. This war is about oil. And every other clash in the Middle East has been about oil. The current scramble to scoop up leases for exploratory drilling in Iraq confirms this. But whether a nation has oil or not, oil has been at the root of the trouble. Afghanistan is one of the "have-not" nations. It is rich in minerals such as copper, iron, coal, molybdenum and gold, but produces no oil or natural gas.

Afghanistan has something even more valuable than oil or minerals: A strategic position between the rich oil and gas fields of Central Asia and a warm-water port in the sliver of Pakistan on the Arabian Sea. In 1995, Unocal (Union Oil Company of California) began negotiations for a pipeline across Afghanistan, but was deterred by the continuing civil war in Afghanistan.

Ask the average American to point out Afghanistan on an outline map of the world. Ask them to recite one significant fact from Afghanistan’s history. Ask them to tell you how large is Afghanistan or its population. Ask what languages are spoken there. Ask them to define the difference between the Taliban and al-Qaida. In every case, total ignorance will be evident. Yet we have been fighting a bloody was in that benighted country for the past eight years with little or nothing to show for it other than a rapidly growing casualty list and increasing discontent back home.

There are many reasons to extricate ourselves from the quagmire of Afghanistan. The fact that we have no national interest at stake is perhaps the single most important reason. It has prompted Americans of every political stripe to wonder about the sincerity of your pre-election comments about Iraq and Afghanistan and to begin asking questions. Here are seven questions crucial to any decision making:

1. Exactly what do you hope to achieve by sending more troops to Afghanistan? Speaking before the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention on August 17, you defended U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, saying, "This is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity. Those who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again. If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which al-Qaida would plot to kill more Americans." Yet your own national security adviser estimates the number of al-Qaida members now in Afghanistan as about 100. Attempting to destroy al-Qaida and its adherents by evicting them from Afghanistan is a futile goal. They are now active in a more than a dozen other countries from which they pose an even greater threat.

2. Does it make any sense for us to be spending more dollars each year on Afghanistan than its gross national product? Mr. President, in March you ordered in 21,000 troops, doubling the overall American deployment in Afghanistan. It costs a million dollars to send a soldier to Afghanistan. Talk has it that 10,000, 20,000 or 40,000 troops may be sent there next. At those prices, I would remind you that every thousand soldiers, sailors or marines (or combination thereof) equates to another billion dollars of debt that future generations will have to shoulder. We are talking about adding ten, twenty or forty billion dollars to an already monstrous bill for the war in Iraq and the mounting bill for the war in Afghanistan.

3. Are you aware of the enormity of the problems in Afghanistan? Iraq was a tough nut to crack, and we are far from being able to declare a victory in that misguided misadventure and bring our troops home. Let me cite a few statistics comparing Afghanistan and Iraq: Both have populations of about 28 million. Afghanistan, slightly smaller than Texas, is half again as large as Iraq, and is mainly mountainous as compared with Iraq’s relative flatness. Gen. Shinseki’s estimate that it would take several hundred thousand troops to occupy and pacify Iraq will have to be made larger in Afghanistan because of its inhospitable mountainous landscape, poor communications and inherent hostility. Both countries are predominantly Muslim. Iraq has twice as many Shia as Sunni, and we supported the majority Shia. Afghanistan has four times as many Sunni as Shia. The Taliban we are fighting in Afghanistan are Sunni. Why do we insist on getting involved in Islam’s factional religious frictions?

The Taliban developed in madrasas, religious schools in Pakistan teaching Islamic theology and religious law. (Talib is the Arabic/Persian/Pashtun word for "student.") In these schools, students were mostly young, poorly educated Pashtuns, many of whom had lost their fathers and uncles in the struggle against the Soviets. The Taliban fought off rival mujaheddin and other warlords, and went on to take the city of Kandahar, beginning a successful campaign that ended with their capture of Kabul in September of 1996. Their success was largely due to their ability to restore civil order that the central government was not providing after the chaos of the preceding war years. They did this by imposing extreme interpretations of Islamic law, with severe restrictions on the activities of women. Measures were enforced with public floggings and stoning, practices condoned by the Christian Bible.

Counterinsurgency doctrine calls for some 560,000 troops to control a population the size of Afghanistan’s--28 million. As for increasing the number of troops on the ground, the more ambitious the operations we have to undertake, the more sure you can be that our enemy is winning--a lesson one would have thought we had learned in Vietnam. The one mistake of Vietnam you must not repeat is to succumb to the military’s continuing requests for "more troops." President Johnson fell under the spell of that mantra. Before he knew it, there were more than 500,000 Americans fighting in Vietnam. A black granite wall in Washington with more than 58,000 names on it reveals the awful toll that senseless war levied.

General Stanley McChrystal has asked for 40,000 more American troops to undertake the ambitious decades-long nation-building program outlined in his leaked memorandum. That would bring the number of American stationed there to 108,000. Are you aware that the total number of Soviet troops in Afghanistan at the height of the Russian invasion was 120,000—and they had to withdraw and concede defeat?

If 120,000 Russians could not prevail, how can we possibly believe that 108,000 American troops make a difference or achieve success? Is this tiny number expected to usher this giant corrupt nation out of its eighth-century feudal tribal culture and its violent warlords into a modernity more substantial than the ubiquitous AK-47s and Toyota pickup trucks? If every future military adventure is to include pinning our fortunes on pulling backward nations out of the mire of ignorance, in Afghanistan we are setting ourselves up for colossal national failure.

Your military advisers will tell you that counterinsurgencies have traditionally been defeated and cite historical successes in Greece, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Bolivia and Peru. This is true. These defeats have occurred in countries with comparatively stable national governments--and Afghanistan’s government is a joke. But in wars of national liberation (and the war in Afghanistan is such a war) in which guerrilla forces clash with occupying forces, the guerrillas always win. Britain left Malaya, Kenya, Palestine, Cyprus and Aden. Portugal left Angola and Mozambique, France left Vietnam, the Soviets left Afghanistan and the Russians left Chechnya, and Israel left Lebanon.

4. What do you know about Afghanistan’s history? Everyone familiar with the long history of Afghanistan knows that Afghans have traditionally fought to expel invaders since the beginning of time. That fact alone should make it evident that any war in Afghanistan will be unendurably long and unwinnable.

The tenacity of the ancestors of these people caused Alexander the Great’s army to refuse to continue the march eastward and to return home. Afghans fought the British to a standstill in three Anglo-Afghan wars--1838-1842, 1878-1880 and 1919. They repelled the Soviet occupation between 1980 and 1989.

The Pashtuns are the key to understanding Afghanistan. They make up almost half of its population and are the ethnic majority. For them, warfare is a way of life. There are 12.5 million Pashtuns in Afghanistan, but an even greater number, 27 million, in Pakistan. The boundaries of Afghanistan bear no relationship to natural features, but were set by other nations to suit their own interests. The Pashtuns pay little attention to borders and move with impunity between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

When historians caution against optimism in battle against the Afghans, it is the Pashtuns they have in mind. The "Afghans" that the British futilely battled in the 19th century were the Pashtuns. The majority of the mujaheddin ("warriors in a holy war") who ultimately drove the Soviets out of Afghanistan were Pashtuns.

Pashtuns are fierce fighters and are known for their marksmanship, as American troops are discovering in Afghanistan right now. They are accustomed to hardship and poverty, are undeterred by an imbalance in the size of opposing forces, and can prevail in conditions that would easily defeat others. Following the Russian Revolution, Afghanistan became the first nation to recognize the Soviet Union with ratification of a. Soviet-Afghan treaty in 1928. This was ironic, for Pashtuns would later unite and drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan in the 1980-1989 Soviet-Afghan war.

Hospitality is extremely important to the Pashtuns. The sanctity of protecting a guest is crucial to the honor of a Pashtun. This principle was behind the Taliban’s refusal to hand over Osama bin Laden to the United States after the attacks of 9/11. In 1996, the Taliban granted safe haven in Afghanistan to Osama bin Laden, who had returned to Saudi Arabia to work in the family construction business after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan. Bin Laden then called for a jihad against the United States.

Al-Qaida, the terrorist organization formed and headed by bin Laden, was identified as the organization behind terrorist acts against the United States, the most destructive being the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington. The United States demanded the surrender of bin Laden for his part in 9/11, but the Taliban refused to give him up, claiming that Pashtunwali (specifically, their concept of hospitality and the responsibility of a host to protect a guest) did not allow them to do so.

Pashtuns can reconcile themselves to poverty, but cannot tolerate foreign rule. The Greeks, Persians, Arabs, British, and Russians have learned the historical truth the hard way. When a foreign invader invades Afghanistan all tribal feuds are temporarily suspended. A ceremony may even mark the armistice; however, once the invader has been driven from Afghanistan feuds may resume where they left off.

Mr. President, you could mobilize every unit in the National Guard and Reserve components and move them to Afghanistan with every available member of the armed forces. You would bankrupt the country to do it, but you still could not win this unwinnable undeclared war.

5. Are you aware that our war-fighting tactics have been wrong? We have been fighting a Fourth Generation War with Second Generation tactics. For much of the past eight years, we have depended on air power in the form of piloted bombing planes and pilotless drone aircraft to wage war against the Taliban. But air power is counterproductive, killing people who were not our enemies, inciting their relatives, friends, and fellow tribesmen to acts of violence in blood feuds as newly made foes. In this kind of war, bombing planes make as much sense as long-range field artillery.

The Taliban are light infantry, carrying food and water and little in the way of heavy equipment. The American soldier may be burdened with as much as one hundred pounds of body armor and special devices. The Taliban are not interested in capturing and holding terrritory, but in striking the enemy hard and pulling back quickly. Combining the Second Generation warfare’s traditional massive thrusts, heavy with men and machines, with lots of softening-up bombing in Pashtun-controlled Afghanistan means we wind up fighting most, if not all of the Pashtuns. For every Pahtun killed, purposely or accidentally, we make enemies of their cousins, their uncles and their aunts, not to mention their other tribal members. In Afghan wars, the Pashtuns have always won in the end by sheer perseverance and unwillingness to quit.

Our repeated big, noisy offensives, launched with boastful advance publicity have achieved nothing. The enemy merely buries their guns, ammunition and explosives and allows our troops pass through an area. They will resurface and still be there after we are gone. Body counts so beloved by generals are embarrassing, for they always include substantial numbers of innocents and noncombatants.

The present state of our futile war in Afghanistan is best summed up in a little joke making its way around in military circles: American soldier to Afghan farmer: "Seen any enemy around here?" Afghan farmer: "Yes, you."

6. Does it make sense for us to support an American puppet government headed by President Hamid Karzai? Elected fraudulently, he heads a government rife with graft and corruption from top to bottom, including officials at every level and the police. Put into office in a glaringly embarrassing stolen election, Karzai controls Kabul and little else, Like all Quisling governments, this one is bound to fail because it can never achieve legitimacy.

Afghanistan supplies more than 90 percent of the world’s opium. Its economy is totally dominated by opium farming that feeds the world’s appetite for heroin. As one of the planet’s largest consumers of heroin, the United States could help by curbing its own use of this product. Last year Afghanistan’s government revenue was $715 million. Illicit poppy production yielded $4 billion. Imagine an entire country run by the Mafia, and you have Afghanistan.

7. How will we know when we have achieved victory in Afghanistan? No one has ever been able to define what we mean when we speak of victory in Afghanistan. To win this war, we must achieve something that we can call "victory," but our guerrilla enemies do not. They not only can fight on until the end of time, they intend to do just that--if not against us, then against anyone and everyone else foolish to try to remake Afghanistan into a modern state.

Common sense should tell us that we have neither the national interest, the financial means, the domestic support, the NATO partners, nor an Afghan government worth saving to warrant expending another American life. Instead of nation-building in a land whose people do not want us there, let us rebuild our collapsing infrastructure at home. As a friend with whom I served in the Army during World War Two wrote to me recently, "Why the hell are we filling pot holes in roads in Afghanistan and neglecting to fill them here at home?"

Our history of meddling in the Middle East cannot be a source of national pride. In 1951, the Iranian parliament nationalized Iran's oil industry and elected Mohammed Mossadegh to be prime minister. Since 1913, the oil industry in Iran had been controlled exclusively by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, controlled by the British government.. In 1951 the British tried to retaliate by planning a coup, but American President Harry S. Truman wisely refused to participate. His successor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, however, was not as astute and allowed the CIA to undertake its first covert operation by overthrowing the government of Iran.

The 1953 coup d'état engineered by the CIA deposed the democratically elected Mossadegh government and allowed an heir to the ancient Iranian throne to become an authoritarian monarch who would rule for 26 years. US support and funding continued with the CIA training the SAVAK, the Shah's feared secret police. The coup significantly contributed to the Iranian Revolution of 1979, which deposed the Shah, seized our embassy and replaced the pro-western monarchy with the theocratic Islamic Republic of Iran in power today. It should come as no surprise that U.S. companies were granted the majority of the oil concessions from the Shah's government after the coup.

Similarly, in 1979, President Jimmy Carter signed a secret directive calling for the CIA to aid opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. This action caused the Soviet Union to invade Afghanistan. Desiring to increase US regional influence, the CIA worked with wealthy Saudi contractor Osama bin Laden to recruit and train Saudis, Egyptians and other nationalities and send them to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets. Osama bin Laden's group, known as al-Qaida ("the base") successfully caused the Soviet invaders to withdraw in 1989.

After throwing away an opportunity to capture Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, in Afghanistan by letting him slip away in Tora Bora in 2001, two years later our nation was conned into invading Iraq with deception and falsehoods about weapons of mass destruction. Once again we have reached a crucial moment of decision. Instead of recognizing the realities of Afghanistan and the bitter lessons of its long history, we are on the brink of expanding our foolish attempt to do the impossible. If ever there was a cause and a country not worth asking a single American to die for, that cause is nation-building and that country is Afghanistan.

In the meantime, we face mounting costs of conducting a full-scale war in an inhospitable country against a people who have never been defeated and who do not want us there. At the same time, money is running out. Back home, people are getting edgy about the vast sums of printing-press money being churned out. And China, India and al-Qaida are all smiling at our debilitating preoccupation with expending blood and treasure uselessly in the Middle East. Uncle Sam has truly become Uncle Sap, seemingly bent on proving the wisdom of the adage that Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires. We need nation-building here at home. Our infrastructure and economy are in tatters. We've got our work cut out for us. Let’s make America strong again.

Robert Scott
Editor of Postscripts


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