September 4, 2004

Afghanistan - Define the U.S. National Interest

As we approach the election in Afghanistan, it is instructive to remember some history. Afghanistan is a tribal society traditionally ruled by local warlords, each with his own militia. The British attempted to expand their empire into this region in the 19th century - they never really were able to subdue the Afghans. The edge of the empire never really extended past the Khyber Pass on the present border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The Soviets attempted to quell the country between 1979 and 1989. Although they were able to impose a government, politics of the Cold War prevailed and American support for the mujahidin led to the withdrawal of Soviet forces from the country. Once again the country returned to its traditional tribal/warloard structure.

The Taliban takeover of the country was an anomaly. Created by the Pakistani Interservice Intelligence Directorate (ISID) from Afghan refugees in Pakistan initially to protect Pakistani commercial convoys through Afghanistan, they became popular in Afghanistan as a counterbalance to the perceived corruption of the warlords. Eventually, the Taliban grew and were able to seize power. The Taliban's support of Usamah bin Ladin and his Al-Qa'idah organization - originally a group of Arabs who had fought alongside the Afghan mujahidin against the Soviets (sometimes referred to as the "Afghan Arabs") - eventually led to its demise. Afghanistan had become the main training and staging area for Al-Qa'idah operations, including the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

Faced with American demands to hand over Usamah bin Ladin, the Taliban refused. The subsequent American and Northern Alliance (a group of anti-Taliban Afghans - many say merely displaced warlord militias) removed the Taliban and destroyed much of Al-Qa'idah's leadership in the country

My position on Afghanistan: Go in (done), remove the Taliban from power (done), destroy Al-Qa'idah (in progress), warn whoever picked up the pieces that we won't tolerate resurgence of Al-Qa'idah, and get out.

Anyone who reads the British experience in the 19th century and the Soviet experience in the 1980s should conclude, as I have, that it is truly the no-win capital of the world. I mean, anyplace whose national sport is fighting over a calf or goat carcass. Here is a passage on buzkashi:

Traditionally, a calf is beheaded, the legs are cut off at the knee and its entrails are removed. The carcass of the calf is then soaked in cold water for 24 hours before the game so that it may be tough enough to withstand the tugging that takes place. When there is no calf available, a goat is used instead. Winners are awarded prizes of turbans, cash or rifles. According to unwritten rules of the game, nobody can tie the carcass to his saddle or hit his opponent on the hand to snatch the calf. Likewise, tripping an opponent by using the rope is forbidden. Buzkashi continues until a team is announced the winner.

Back to the point:

If there is no Al-Qa'idah in Afghanistan - even if there is the Taliban but no Al-Qa'idah - please define the U.S. national interest in involvement there. I can't.