There’s a reason they call Afghanistan the “graveyard of empires.” Alexander the Great himself was wounded in a failed attempt at conquest, and 16,000 British troops were slaughtered following an Afghan rebellion against their occupation in 1842; only one survived to tell the tale.
In 1895, following a second Anglo-Afghan war, the British imperial poet Rudyard Kipling wrote:
When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.
The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and ultimately sent as many as 115,000 troops there in a vain attempt to secure this wild and rugged land. An unholy alliance of the CIA, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan’s ISI intelligence agency armed and financed a ragtag band of mujaheddin rebels, one of whom was Osama bin Laden, to fight the Communist occupiers.
After nearly a decade of brutal warfare, the Soviets left with their tails between their legs. Some 15,000 of their comrades had been killed and another 30,000 wounded. Maybe a million Afghans lost their lives. Not long after, the Soviet Union itself crumbled, and two offshoots of the mujaheddin, Al Qaeda and the Taliban, ruled in Kabul.
Following September 11th, the US invaded Afghanistan with three goals: destroy Al Qaeda, defeat the Taliban, and build a functioning democracy. After a decade, we’ve accomplished only the first. We fought the Afghan war on the cheap with fewer than 20,000 US troops as late as 2008. The colossally inept Bush Administration was focused on prosecuting the catastrophic Iraq war while the Taliban slowly regained its strength.
They now seem on the verge of re-establishing their brutal reign. President Hamid Karzai leads a hopelessly corrupt “government” in Kabul that has little popular support. The 2010 surge that brought US troop strength to 100,000 and our coalition to 140,000 was too late to reverse the tide. The damage had been done long ago.
So, now we’re in the endgame of a war no one believes we can win. All we have now is a timetable and a ticking clock and a patient enemy waiting its turn.
That’s when incidents like the burning of Korans and the horrid massacre of Afghan civilians near Kandahar take place, as war winds down to its finish, like a cigarette butt squeezed between charred, brown fingertips. While the overwhelming majority of US soldiers serve with professionalism and distinction, a few snap under the ambiguity and pressure, and the damage they do is incalculable.
We were able to leave Iraq—an infinitely more reckless war—with at least a figleaf of accomplishment, though no one in his right mind could call it victory.
I don’t think we’ll be able to say the same of Afghanistan. According to the Defense Department, nearly 1,800 US military people have lost their lives there, and more than 15,000 have been wounded. At this point, every day we stay is another day we’re risking the lives of the men and women who serve our country .
The flacks and diplomats need to figure out some pretty words to give us a semblance of face to save. But a clear majority of Americans favors getting out of Afghanistan now. Unlike Iraq, this war was justified and our goals were worthy. But you know what they say about good intentions and the road to hell.
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