H.D.S. Greenway

No more troops to Afghanistan

By H.D.S. Greenway
September 22, 2009

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ON AN AUTUMN night in 1415, in their anxiety-filled camp on the “vasty fields of France,’’ the English waited for the dawn that would bring them to battle at Agincourt “upon St. Crispin’s day.’’

The king’s generals feared they could not win without more troops. Shakespeare has the earl of Westmoreland say: “O that we now had here/ But one ten thousand of those men in England/ That do no work today!’’

But Henry V answers: “No my fair cousin . . . God’s will I pray thee, wish not one man more.’’

The king, in the most memorable call to war in all literature, says he does not want his “happy few,’’ his “band of brothers,’’ to have to share the glory, but the truth was he hadn’t more troops to spare.

Henry’s admonishment to the earl was recalled some five-and-a-half centuries after Agincourt when another general, William Westmoreland, wanted to throw more soldiers into Vietnam. He, too, was turned down.

With General Stanley A. McChrystal’s report calling for additional troops now public, President Obama will soon have his King Henry moment; whether or not to send more troops into the ever-worsening war in Afghanistan. Much depends on his definition of the mission. Is it to defeat the Taliban in battle as Henry defeated the flower of French chivalry? There will be no famous victories in the irregular warfare that has so marked Afghanistan over the centuries.

Is it to create a viable, democratic, centralized state on a Western model? When he came to power, Obama seemed to realize that the mission of his predecessor, George W. Bush, was too ambitious and that he should settle for simply making Afghanistan inhospitable to Al Qaeda. In the meantime, however, “mission creep’’ - the tendency of any mission to expand and grow if it is not carefully pruned - has been the order of the day. Obama runs the risk of turning Afghanistan into a full-fledged dependency of the United States.

Recently, when asked if he risked the fate of Lyndon Johnson whose presidency was consumed by a war started by his predecessors, but which he chose to reinforce, Obama replied: “You have to learn lessons from history. On the other hand, each historical moment is different. You never step into the same river twice. And so Afghanistan is not Vietnam.’’

Afghanistan may not be Vietnam, but it has its own river of history that Obama is stepping into. Centuries of conquerors have found that river too swift and the currents too confusing to navigate.

In the 19th century, the British, having conquered India, looked upon Afghanistan “as a menace, shadowy, but none the less formidable to the peace and security of their North Western territories,’’ as W.K. Fraser-Tytler wrote 60 years ago. The description could fit America’s view of Afghanistan if you substitute North America for North Western territories. But it wasn’t so much the threat of Afghan hordes pouring through the Khyber Pass that finally alarmed the British. It was political disintegration and chaos in Afghanistan at the time. Who might fill the vacuum?

For 200 years the essential fact about Western intervention in Afghanistan has been fear of what other foreigners might do there, not Afghanistan itself.

In the period known as the “Great Game,’’ it was Britain’s fear of Russian influence that led it to invade Afghanistan, often with disastrous results. In 1842 it lost an entire army, save one man, and was still intervening in Afghan affairs until well into the 20th century. The British were dropping bombs in Kabul as late as 1919.

When the Russians fulfilled Britain’s nightmare and invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to ensure a pro-Soviet regime, the Americans took up the Great Game, arming holy warriors to harry the Russians out. It took nine years before the defeated Russians left, and Afghanistan sank back into chaos.

In this century it was another group of foreigners, this time the mostly Arab al Qaeda, that brought Afghanistan to the world’s attention. The Americans invaded because of Al Qaeda and 9/11, not because of Afghanistan.

Obama may have been right that Afghanistan was a war of necessity after 9/11, and he was certainly right that Iraq was an unnecessary diversion. But that was 2001, and Al Qaeda leaders were allowed to slip away into Pakistan, where it has proved impossible to find them, much less destroy them. Eight years later, Al Qaeda no longer needs Afghanistan. It’s better off in Pakistan.

As it was for the British and the Russians before them, Americans found invading Afghanistan was a pushover. In Afghanistan, the trouble has always been getting out, not in.

The capital, Kabul, was not liberated from the Taliban by American tanks, but by Afghans of the Northern Alliance. When I visited the country in 2003, the Afghans did not feel like an occupied people. But as the American footprint grows larger and heavier, and as civilian casualties mount, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates isn’t alone in worrying that the United States will be seen more and more as an occupying power.

America’s new strategy focuses on protecting the population, which is all well and good, but a pacification program as envisioned will cost billions, take decades, and even then might not work.

In 30 years of war, Afghanistan is much worse off now in terms of literacy and social cohesion than it was before. There are few institutions on which to build a stable democracy. Afghanistan is a tribal society in which people feel less connected to the state than their own local leaders. We see the Taliban as bad and government forces as good. But Afghans see Tajiks with perhaps too much power in the capital, Uzbeks and Hazaras too with their own interests, while Pashtuns, who form the largest group, feel somewhat disenfranchised. Too many Pashtuns see the Taliban as representing their interests.

Americans disapprove of war lords because we want to see the state have a monopoly on violence, but to many Afghans, war lords are tribal, regional, and ethnic leaders for whom loyalty seems more deserving than the government in Kabul.

The recent and ludicrously corrupt elections show how hard it will be to instill a sense of what we call democracy for those who say that the traditional loya jirga, or shura, a meeting of tribal elders, is a better way of expressing government by the people and of the people than our style of elections.

When you commit ever more troops to a theater, “force protection’’ - the need to protect your own soldiers - becomes a dominant factor regardless of what those soldiers were supposed to achieve by being there. You could hear this in Senator McCain’s statement that failure to send more troops would put “young American lives in danger.’’

But when Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked if Afghans could stand on their own, his answer was: “No, sir.’’ One has to ask why, after eight years, our Afghans cannot stand up to the Taliban, any more than Russia’s Afghans could stand up to the Mujahedeen in the 1980s. For that matter, why could our Vietnamese not stand up to Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnamese? Could it be that our Afghans are being increasingly perceived as puppets?

Obama should not abandon Afghanistan. International efforts to develop the country should continue, and force levels should be kept to the level necessary to keep Al Qaeda from regaining a foothold.

But we stand at a crossroads. We can keep a sustainable military and civilian effort in play in Afghanistan, or we can basically take over the country and face down the growing civil and holy wars that have little to do with the reason we invaded Afghanistan in the first place. This decision is more important than the number of troops.

Rather than becoming the new Russians who found themselves hated foreigners, we should accept more modest goals.

The history of Afghanistan suggests that we are not equipped to make over the country to our liking, and the history of the United States suggests that Americans give up these efforts sooner rather than later.

King Henry had technology on his side at Agincourt. The long bow was the Predator Drone of its day. But Americans are not interested in hundred-year wars, which is what the English were engaged in on that St. Crispin’s Day.

H.D.S. Greenway’s column appears regularly in the Globe.

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