In the six months since the publication of our book, Invisible History: Afghanistan's Untold Story, we've had the opportunity to address dozens of forums about Afghanistan. It has been a revealing exercise, not so much in terms of what Americans understand about Afghanistan (which unfortunately isn't very much) but by the way it reveals how Americans are struggling to catch up with a world that seems to have left them behind.
One well informed brave soul who admitted to being involved in politics since Adlai Stevenson's day, went so far as to admit last February at the Cambridge forum, "I realize tonight how totally ignorant I am of the Afghan history, of the role of our country there. Nothing you told me tonight surprised me except how ignorant I was of all of this..."
The very next soul at the microphone, former cold war practitioner and region chief for South Asia and the Near East for the CIA's Directorate of Operations, Charles Cogan, took the opportunity to dispel some of that ignorance, "In the interest of full disclosure," by admitting that our analysis of "the Soviet invasion and afterwards," was "quite authentic."
Despite those acknowledgments, most of our encounters continue to reflect the frustration and confusion of an American public wondering how it once again finds itself in the middle of another in an endless series of foreign wars without the tools to decipher why they should even care. Others express anger and resentment, denying any responsibility for the Afghan fiasco while clinging defiantly to burned out allusions to Vietnam that apply neither to Afghanistan nor America's role in it.
When we are asked why the U.S. is in Afghanistan, we explain that the U.S. has been actively involved in Afghanistan since 1973, following a palace coup by the King's cousin Mohammed Daoud and communist faction leader Babrak Karmal that deposed King Zahir Shah. At that moment in time the CIA's secret mission became entangled with Pakistan's support for Afghanistan's small core of foreign-trained right wing Islamic extremists. Thanks to national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, this entanglement blossomed into a marriage following the 1978 Marxist coup and a full blown support for holy war and the Islamization of Pakistan -- long before the Soviet invasion of 1979. The United States continued to support the right wing extremists all through the 1980's and beyond. According to a recent interview on "Meet the Press" with Pakistan's president Asif Ali Zardari, the CIA then helped Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) to establish the Taliban. This combined effort was intended to eliminate the corrupted Mujihadeen warlords, grind down any remnant of Afghanistan's progressive nationalists and set the stage for a Pakistani client state constructed to serve the interests of Pakistan's military and Saudi/American oil conglomerates. The Taliban's inability to totally conquer Afghanistan and their close relationship with the Arab extremists known as Al Qaeda challenged this American relationship. But it was the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Nairobi and the near sinking of the U.S.S. Cole in Aden harbor in 2000 that strained U.S./Taliban relations to the breaking point.
We then explain that for very much the same reasons that the Soviet Union reacted to extremist provocations on their southern border in December 1979, the United States invaded Afghanistan following the events of 9/11. The intention was to drive the Taliban out of power and root out, intercept, kill or capture Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the reputed 9/11 architect.
This information then provokes the question, why has none of this happened? We reply that the Bush administration diverted the necessary resources and attention away from where Al Qaeda was, into Iraq where Al Qaeda wasn't. The administration then continued for seven years to under-finance the Afghan war, perform a hurricane Katrina-like Afghan reconstruction charade while hiring Afghan warlords and Pakistani General Pervez Musharraf to do the job for it. Confident that a friendly and embedded American media wouldn't challenge its authority, Washington then proceeded to forget about Afghanistan for seven years, ignore a deteriorating security situation and the resurgence of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, while pretending to believe General Musharraf as he pretended to hunt down terrorists.
This information usually produces audible groans and looks of profound despair.
We then explain that even if the administration had wanted to solve Afghanistan with a military solution in 2001 it would have required a commitment it would not have been capable of meeting. We point out that Germany at the end of World War II required 89.3 U.S. soldiers per thousand inhabitants, Bosnia required 17.5, Eastern Slavonia 35.3 and Kosovo 19.3. The U.S. occupation of Japan was massive and lasted two decades. In addition to troops, it involved teachers, lawyers engineers and missionaries. In Afghanistan the United States and NATO forces combined never amounted to more than 1.6 soldiers per thousand inhabitants. There was little to no coordination or even shared objectives between the American military, the embassy and the White House let alone NATO and American military operations. There was no effort to protect the local population from the depredations of U.S. sponsored criminal warlords and no coordinated, systemic effort to hold onto territory once it had been reclaimed. According to current counter insurgency doctrine given Afghanistan's population, Afghanistan required some 400,000 to 450,000 soldiers to establish stability and it should have been established early on.
These startling facts are usually greeted with looks of increasing concern and confusion and are followed by the next logical question. So why are we sending another 17,000 troops into this?
That answer, we believe is simple. The Obama administration is buying time to save face, redefine its commitment and reorganize its priorities before the roof on America's burning empire falls in. What is not certain is whether Washington can shed its own illusions of its past in order to do it.
The British conducted three wars against Afghanistan and failed, although they did succeed in reshaping its boundaries. But, like the artificial border between Afghanistan and Pakistan known as the Durand line, these boundaries also set the stage for endless war. The colonial organization in the tribal areas of India known as the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR), continue today to deliberately maintain Pakistan's tribal region of the North West Frontier and Baluchistan as lawless backwaters. Islamabad maintains a system that thwarts the growth of political organizations, secular education and social development. Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid writes that after 1947, "Pakistani political parties were banned from operating in the area, thereby giving the mullahs and religious parties a monopoly of influence under the guise of religion."
Under these regulations Pakistan's mullahs recruited and fired up the Muslim extremist network that tormented the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. But that dysfunctional incubator for terror that served American needs so well in the 1980's has now comes full circle.
When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Washington's beltway experts filled the airwaves with anti-communist propaganda, the virtues of fiercely religious freedom fighters and the perpetual evils of the Russian empire. We were told that Afghanistan was the Russian springboard for a conquest of the Middle East and eventually even Europe. We know today that that this misreading of Soviet intentions was designed by Jimmy Carter's national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski to give the Soviets their own Vietnam in Afghanistan and steer the U.S. back toward an acceptance of the cold war.
Today our audiences hear many complaints from the beltway experts about Afghanistan; that it is a tribal society not ready for western style democracy, that never in its history did it have a "legitimate," government. We have even been informed by former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski on national TV that "the Taliban is a medieval movement... but it is an Afghan movement." But none of these are the case.
Afghanistan had made significant strides in its efforts to modernize and construct a civilian democracy long before Pakistan was even invented. Afghanistan's progressive monarch gave women the right to vote in the 1920's while the rights guaranteed under its Constitution were debated openly and freely prior to the Soviet invasion. The very same Charles Cogan who appeared at our Cambridge forum in February stated in an article in the World Policy Journal on September 22, 2008, that "The Taliban, a postwar phenomenon, was created initially as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Pakistani ISI in 1992, with the purpose of having a friendly regime in Afghanistan and thereby assuring Pakistan's strategic depth." Since this has been stated by Brzezinski's own CIA region chief from 1979, how then can the Taliban be an Afghan movement?
Whether it realizes it or not, Washington has placed itself in a fight for its life in Afghanistan, just the way the Soviets did. Both its political and its military credibility are on the line and neither can tolerate another failure. Obama's 17,000 troopers will make little difference without a reorganization of Washington's priorities away from its unyielding support for a dysfunctional Pakistani military. But unless it convinces the Afghan people that it supports Afghan nationalism, there will soon be no face to save.