LONDON – U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ telling The New York Times what he learned under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama goes beyond satire: “I will always be an advocate in terms of wars of necessity. I am just much more cautious on wars of choice.”
Gosh, Bob, does that mean you wouldn’t invade Iraq next time?
Afghanistan, by contrast, was a “war of necessity” in Gates’ terms: official Washington believed that further bad things like 9/11 might happen to the United States if U.S. troops didn’t go to Afghanistan to root out the al-Qaida terrorists (mostly Arabs) who had been given bases there by the country’s Taliban leadership. It wasn’t a very subtle strategy, but it was certainly driven by perceived U.S. national interest.
Which was the point being made by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the man whom the U.S. put in power after the 2001 invasion: “[The Americans] are here for their own purposes, for their own goals, and they’re using our soil for that.”
Well, of course. The only other possible explanation for their presence would be that Washington had sent half a million young Americans to Afghanistan over the past ten years in some quixotic quest to raise the Afghan standard of living and the status of Afghan women. That’s ridiculous. Obviously, the motive was perceived U.S. national interest.
So how to explain the furiously emotional response of Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan? Speaking at Herat University, he raged: “When Americans … hear themselves described as occupiers, told that they are only here to advance their own interest … they are filled with confusion and grow weary of our effort here.”
“Mothers and fathers of fallen soldiers, spouses of soldiers who have lost arms and legs — they ask themselves about the meaning of their loved one’s sacrifice. When I hear some of your leaders call us occupiers, I cannot look these mourning parents, spouses and children in the eye and give them a comforting reply.”
Karl, they won’t be very comforted if you tell them that their loved ones died for Afghanistan. Tell them that they died defending America. Except, of course, that it may not have been a very useful way of defending America.
All the al-Qaida camps were quickly smashed after 9/11, and by the end of 2001 Osama bin Laden had escaped across the border into Pakistan, where he remained until his death last month. Most of the surviving al-Qaida cadres also fled to Pakistan, and U.S. intelligence says that there are only a couple of hundred left in Afghanistan.
So why have American troops been in Afghanistan for almost 10 years? To keep the Taliban from power, they say, but it’s unlikely that the Taliban leadership ever knew about al-Qaida’s plans for 9/11. Why would they support an action that was bound to provoke a U.S. invasion and drive them from power? Why would bin Laden risk letting them know about the attack in advance? The U.S. has probably been barking up the wrong tree for a long time.
Now the Taliban are back in force, and the war is all but lost. The U.S. may think it is about “terrorism” and al-Qaida, but for Afghans it is just a continuation of the civil war that had been raging for almost a decade before the U.S. invasion. The Taliban, almost entirely drawn from the Pashtun ethnic group, captured Kabul in 1996, but they never managed to conquer the other, smaller ethnic groups in northern Afghanistan.
The U.S. stumbled into this civil war under the delusion that it was fighting Islamist terrorists, but in fact it has simply ended up on the side of the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras. That’s who mans the “Afghan National Army” that the Western powers have been trying to build up with so little success: only three percent of its soldiers are Pashtun, although Pashtun account for 42 percent of the population.
So long as the U.S. forces remain, the Taliban can plausibly claim that they are fighting a jihad against the infidels, but once the Americans leave the war will probably return to its basic ethnic character. That means that the Pashtun are just as unlikely to conquer the north after the U.S. departure as they were before the invasion.
In the end, some deal that shares out the spoils among the various ethnic groups will be done: that is the Afghan political style. The Taliban will get a big share, but they won’t sweep the board. The American interlude will gradually fade from Afghan consciousness, and the Afghan experience will vanish from American memory a good deal faster.
But in the meantime, President Barack Obama has promised to start withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan next month, and that will be very tricky. Few Americans know much about Afghan realities, and they have been fed a steady diet of patriotic misinformation about the place for a decade.
If the U.S. ambassador to Kabul can get so emotional about a plain statement of fact, imagine how the folks at home will respond when U.S. troops leave Afghanistan without a “victory.” Obama will be lucky to pull this off without a serious backlash.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.