Saturday, May 23, 2009
The United States has agreed to deploy at least 21,000, perhaps up to 30,000, additional American troops to Afghanistan. About 55,000 NATO soldiers currently serve in that country, about half of whom are Americans.
More recently, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced the appointment of Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, with extensive Special Operations command experience, to replace Gen. David McKiernan as U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan. At the same time, the Obama administration continues to review its overall strategy in the area. Although it has announced no consensus for future action, the President has made clear that his approach will involve more than just military force, and it will incorporate the entire region, with appropriate emphasis on Pakistan.
There are few more volatile areas in the world, and few with higher stakes. The reason for entering Afghanistan in the first place was to eliminate the Taliban-sponsored sanctuary for Al Qaeda. This mission failed, and once it did, the Bush administration offered little substantive guidance to improve the situation. Afghanistan became a backwater as the U.S. turned its attention to Iraq, and inadequate coalition resources facilitated a Taliban resurgence against an ineffectual Afghan military establishment, the spread of corruption apparently at every level of government, and the increased involvement of apparently ungovernable tribal areas in Northwest Pakistan. In 2008, the U.S. lost 155 Americans in combat, and the casualty totals undoubtedly will rise.
With the die cast in Iraq, President Obama rightly has turned attention to Afghanistan, an improbable source of frightening destabilization in South and West Asia. Afghanistan is a landlocked nation that suffers from extreme poverty in some of the most rugged terrain in the world, and the U.S., like it or not, has committed itself to a struggle there that could lead to long-term military and diplomatic frustration reminiscent of the Vietnam War.
No end is remotely in sight in Afghanistan, and plenty of U.S. observers know full well that success is far from certain. Memories of the Soviet Union’s failure to control the country are still fresh, and it is worth noting that Afghanis probably do not consider Soviet and U.S. motives to be very different. In fact, Afghanistan has never willingly accepted foreign intrusions. So, in addition to remembering the Soviet experience in Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989, I propose we also remember one person.
The gentleman in question is William Brydon. Dr. Brydon was the assistant surgeon of a British force marching 90 miles in January 1842 under the command of Major General William George Keith Elphinstone from Kabul to Jalalabad after an insurrection in the former city forced the evacuation of 16,500 British and British Raj soldiers and camp followers. A week after the march began, Dr. Brydon, horribly wounded, rode his exhausted horse through the gates of Jalalabad with Afghan riders in pursuit. When asked where the army was, he replied, “I am the army.” He was the only survivor of the entire force to reach safety. The rest surrendered or died in battle or of exposure during the march.
It is worth noting that the British Empire fought three wars in Afghanistan, losing the first in 1842, securing partial victory in the second by 1880 and inconclusively ending the third in 1919. The reason for all this conflict was to protect the Raj from Russian incursions through Afghanistan into India. It is worth noting that the Russians had even less success overall than the British with military and diplomatic forays that came to be known as “the Great Game.”
Of course, any romantic attachment to conflict has long since vanished in the world. Even a backwater war is nasty business, and the U.S. should, and I believe will, proceed with caution. Americans need not reach too far to conclude that U.S. lives and treasure lost in an inhospitable region with equally inhospitable people not remotely related to us through geography culture, politics, economics or religion could well be waste of the most egregious sort. If we remember Dr. Brydon, perhaps we can minimize the potential for damage.