Its name is Afghanistan, a country that became the primary focus of U. S. retaliation on Sept. 11, 2001. Only hours after attacks directed by Osama bin-Laden, American and British intelligence officials concurred that any counterattack should concentrate on Afghanistan. On Sept. 13, CIA officials presented to the White House a plan to hunt down bin-Laden, overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan and deal with al-Qaeda terrorist cells around the world.
On Oct. 20, the first American Special Forces units landed in Afghanistan. Under withering fire from the air and on the ground, the government in Kabul began to buckle. As bin-Laden and his henchmen made their way into Jalalabad, thousands of Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s forces fled as well, whereupon tribal warlords driven out by the Taliban in the early 90’s reclaimed control of northern Afghanistan. Despite fierce fighting in Tora Bora during late November, bin-Laden somehow escaped, presumably into Pakistan. By the end of December 2001, the Afghan war was done, and a new government led by Hamid Karzai had been installed. In the northern provinces, citizens celebrated the end of Taliban rule by planting a bumper crop of opium poppies.
On Sept. 11, 2009, the current top commander of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, told reporters, “I do not see indications of a large al-Qaeda presence in Afghanistan now.” Nevertheless, little more than a week later, published details of a memo authored by the very same General McChrystal stated that thousands more American troops must be deployed in Afghanistan soon lest there be “mission failure.”
Victory so glorious that we never shall win. Foreigners have fought to that result over and over throughout the centuries in the unforgiving terrain of Afghanistan. Mongol hordes, Indians, Persians, British and Russian forces have all tried and failed to subjugate the fierce Pashtun tribes, and now, seemingly heedless of history, American strategists believe they can effect a different outcome.
We didn’t capture Osama bin-Laden. We cannot install anything resembling Western democracy in this country (especially if the recent crooked re-election of Karzai, lacking only intervention by the Florida Secretary of State, is any indication). Why are we still in Afghanistan?
One looks in vain to the architects for rationalization. McChrystal, for example, cites three different insurgent outfits tied into the drug trade that pose a threat to domestic tranquility, but says, “eliminating insurgent access to narco-profits, even if possible... would not destroy their ability to operate so long as other funding sources remained intact.”
Barack Obama, who campaigned against the aims of the Iraq War, had no qualms about standing up for the Afghan adventure after taking office. In March, he became the latest commander-in-chief to get behind a counter-insurgency strategy, calling for more troop deployments, but also calling for more American civilian presence to train Afghan citizens to defend their own country — a so-called “civilian surge”. That effort, sluggish at best, caused Senator Susan Collins to blog from Afghanistan last month, “It appears to me we don’t have enough civilians from America and other countries to work with the Afghans to provide security, basic services and governance structures once the Marines clear out the Taliban.”
Add to the mix growing disenchantment among members of Congress, growing disengagement by the American people — many polls cite only 51 percent support of Afghan military aims — plus the growing cost of our involvement, currently up to $4 billion monthly, and it’s little wonder the ubiquitous Obama has started questioning his own efforts, as on Meet The Press last Sunday: “How does this advance America’s national security interests? How does it make sure that al-Qaeda and its extremist allies cannot attack the United States homeland?”
It doesn’t. It can’t. That’s why the President, who too often has shown reluctance to buck corporate inertia, must find the resolve to resist Beltway brigadiers who assert that the only way to win war is to wage more war. Glenn Greenwald succinctly observed online Monday, “The factions that exert the most dominant influence on our foreign policy have only one principle: a state of permanent warfare is necessary.” He also cited a quotation from James Madison worth our attention: “No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”
There will be debate over war in Afghanistan, waged by those struggling for political advantage, which will capture the attention of the press because it is convenient to cover. Meanwhile, those who wage the actual war in the hard place on our behalf do so in abysmal circumstances. I read e-mail sent by a platoon commander from Birmingham last week, terse and affecting: “My Marines and I are living like natives. No creature comforts... Got Marines out here bathing with baby wipes.” He said the embedded training team, whose location was undisclosed, would welcome anything from what he called “the real world.”
American Legion Post 134 in Homewood has stepped up to adopt this platoon, but if you’d like to kick in something to help make this crew’s tour of duty more tolerable, the Legionnaires would be glad to convey your offering. According to the e-mail, “Hygiene gear is always welcome. Vitamins, supplements, snacks, magazines, books, flags, anything you could fit in a box.”
Imagine serving half a world away in the steppes of central Asia. Then imagine what would make a Marine feel a little closer to home out there. Bring what you will to Post 134, under the giant flagpole at the intersection of U.S. 31 and Hollywood Boulevard. It’s catty-corner from the Piggly Wiggly, but if you need even more detailed directions, you can call the Post at (205) 870-9421.
Stop the war. Support the soldiers. We are only citizens, but we can still make some things happen.
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.