They don’t call Afghanistan the graveyard of empires for nothing

In January 1842 the British army suffered one of the most humiliating defeats in its history, a defeat memorialised in a painting entitled Remnants of an Army (shown above).  The British were massacred in retreating from Kabul in what is now known as the First Anglo-Afghan War, part of the ‘Great Game’ between Imperial Russia and England for influence over Afghanistan.  In part in light of this event Afghanistan has been called the ‘graveyard of empires’, even if some think this nickname is wildly inaccurate.  The much vaunted Soviet Army also left the country ignominiously after a failed decade long occupation beginning in 1979.

We in the West also have had our experience in Afghanistan, one that is still unfolding and which has not been going well so far.  In response to the attacks of 9/11, perpetrated by the Al Qaeda terrorist group using Afghanistan as a safe haven, the US (and Canada) decided to send tens of thousands of soldiers in to find and eliminate AQ, defeat the Taliban, and bring peace and stability to the Afghan people.  The cost to date, measured solely in US casualties, is 2,215 GIs  (Canadian military deaths have totalled 159), not to mention the many more wounded, both physically and psychologically.

Despite the clear lack of progress in achieving the original goals, let alone the many revised ones, the Trump Administration has announced a troop increase for Afghanistan, bringing the US footprint in the country to 15,000.  The President has stated that he wants to ‘finish what we started’ in Afghanistan and has expressed confidence in an eventual victory.

Whatever one thinks of the US President, his confidence in victory is ill-placed.  Here is a sample of earlier statements of ‘victory’ in Afghanistan:

  • November 17, 2001 – First Lady Laura Bush said “the Taliban is now in retreat across much of the country”.
  • 2002 – then National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice stated “the Taliban regime has been routed”.
  • May 1, 2003 – then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld confidently noted “We’re at a point where we have clearly moved from major combat activity to a period of stability”.
  • December 16, 2008 – President Bush told US troops at the Bagram Air Base “The Taliban is gone from power and it’s not coming back.”
  • November 2017 – US General John Nicholson noted that “the Taliban cannot win”.

Need I go on?  It is in this context that we must view President Trump’s boasting.  The simple truth is that security in Afghanistan is getting worse and not better.  In the past week alone, three terrorist attacks have killed and wounded hundreds.  Not only are we still battling the ‘routed’ Taliban but there is a new actor in Afghanistan, an Islamic State affiliate called IS in Khorasan Province that is growing in strength despite daily air and drone strikes against its strongholds in the eastern part of the country.

What then should the US – or Canada for that matter – do about Afghanistan?  Frankly we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t.  Recent history shows that the Afghan government cannot achieve victory on its own but neither can we through our military deployment.  At the same time many probably feel that we cannot abandon Afghanistan entirely for fear of allowing another terrorist state from forming, even if a 9/11-scale attack is unlikely.  We will thus muddle through until we decide to muddle through some more.

The 2001 US decision to invade made sense in the wake of 9/11 – it is hard to imagine a government that would not seek to punish the terrorist group responsible for the deaths of more than 3,000 of its citizens.  And yet almost two decades later we are no closer to our goal of making it impossible for terrorism to thrive in Afghanistan and helping the Afghan people create a stable, violence free country.  Call me a skeptic but I fail to see how yet one more troop surge is going to get us to those goals.  Afghanistan shows every sign of keeping its reputation of being a quagmire for foreign armies.  I wish I could say differently.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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