Afghanistan is a land locked country that is in reality a country in name only. It has vast mineral wealth which has never been exploited because this pseudo-country is peopled with tribes and clans still living in the seventh century. These tribes and clans are thoroughly anchored in Islam and dominated by frictions, revenge, and issues of honor going back hundreds if not thousands of years. They have little interest in the outside world or its technology – unless that technology is military in nature. Yet America has been obsessed with Afghanistan for 30 years and directly and indirectly engaged in war there for all of that time. There is an American obsession with Afghanistan and the war there never seems to get better and never seems to end – it just expands and contracts.
The first phase of the Afghan War began with the Soviet invasion in December 1979. At the time it seemed to be in the strategic interest of America to thwart the Soviets and to keep them distracted from other activities more strategically valuable to the US. So the US with the support of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan organized resistance to the Soviets in the form of the Mujahedeen. These fighters were fighting the Soviets so little attention was given to the fact that they were motivated by Islam and fighting the Infidels – not so much the Soviets. All that America cared about was that they were fighting the Soviets and blocking them from creating a base for further expansion in the area. Plus these fighters were keeping the Soviets bogged down in a guerilla war, which the US gleefully aided and abetted. This first phase of the Afghan War lasted roughly ten years and ended in 1989 with the withdrawal of Soviet Troops.
The second phase of the Afghan War really was more like a civil war with the US and our allies observing as the local clans and tribes – armed and trained by the US went back to their favorite past time – fighting each other. Although the US did not actively take part in this war it did exert some influence through third parties – primarily Pakistan. More importantly the US was willing to accept that some group of the Mujahedeen—whom they had trained and armed – would govern Afghanistan. Eventually with Pakistani support a group called the Taliban took power in 1996 and established an Islamic State. But the Taliban were not just Islamic they were fundamentalist who were determined to rule according to the Koran. With the Taliban in power Afghanistan became a sanctuary for the extreme Jihadists in general and Al Qaeda in particular, which created tensions with the US since Al Qaeda had been attacking US facilities. With the arrival of Bin Laden in Afghanistan phase two of the Afghan War ended and the third phase began.
The third phase began with the attack by Al Qaeda on the World Trade Center which was in fact an act of war between Al Qaeda and the US. Although Al Qaeda is not a country it is Islamic in nature and in Islam there is no distinction made between Islam and a nation. Given that Bin Laden and Al Qaeda had established their headquarters in Afghanistan, the US launched military operations intended to destroy Al Qaeda and dislodge the Taliban from power. This operation began within 30 days of the attack by Al Qaeda and it can be argued that this was not enough time to effectively develop a long range strategy. Instead the US drew on allied support both internationally and within Afghanistan itself – such as the Northern Alliance. It also included other Afghan groups who remained close to the Iranians, Pakistani’s, plus others. This was a rather unsteady alliance whose main unifying factor – in typical Afghan fashion – was hatred of the Taliban or due to substantial bribes paid by the US.
Once the war started it escalated as the US deployed more ground forces and significant air power. But Al Qaeda is not a country and the Taliban had no more legitimate claim to Afghanistan that any other group, so both the Taliban and Al Qaeda simply melted away into the countryside. Historically the cities in Afghanistan do not control the countryside it is the tribes and clans in the countryside that allow the cities to exist.
Militarily what happened is the US was prepared to fight a war which the Taliban refused to fight on the US terms. Instead they dispersed, regrouped, and moved into the countryside which they could control and isolate the cities which has been the historical precedent. The result has been a war without any end in sight but the Taliban has been weakened and Al Qaeda has no longer been capable of launching any attack of significant size. The US then attempted to establish a government which has increasingly been exposed as almost a comic opera version of a government. It is corrupt and has very limited power over the country primarily because there really is no country of Afghanistan – just a group of tribes and clans heavily infiltrated by the Taliban.
These first three phases of the American obsession with Afghanistan first relied on the Mujahedeen to fight the Russians, the second phase relied on Pakistan to oversee the Afghan civil war as the tribes and clans fought for control. In the third phase the US relied on the Afghan forces to fight the Taliban but that proved to be a poor strategy which dragged the US into what has become the Afghan War. But this was a war with limited objectives other than maintaining the Afghan government and containing Al Qaeda.
The fourth phase of the Afghan War began when the new Obama administration shifted priorities away from Iraq and onto Afghanistan. The argument for this shift in strategy was that the Iraqi war was a mistake because there was never any strong connection to Al Qaeda in Iraq and that Afghanistan was the home base of Al Qaeda. With this shift in strategy the US became the main force in Afghanistan whose initial focus of defeating Al Qaeda and the Taliban has become increasingly fuzzy and of questionable value.
This is a land locked country of no real strategic value in and of itself. Al Qaeda has dispersed and fragmented into local groups affiliated with Al Qaeda but no longer under any central command. Al Qaeda is not a country it is an organization like any multi-national corporation and due to American actions in Afghanistan it has moved on to Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia. The Taliban is the old Mujahedeen with a new name. Whether they rule Afghanistan or some other clan or tribe is of little consequence to America. While Islam continues to be at war with America this is really a war against Infidels being waged by Muslims but the Taliban have not been actively engaged outside of Afghanistan. The most they have done is to tolerate Al Qaeda and give them a safe harbor. But somehow America has let Al Qaeda move out of Afghanistan and left us fighting the Taliban without any purpose other than to support a shaky government in a country that has never actually been a country in any real sense of the word.
At this point it seems that the current administration is trying to turn over the fighting to the Afghan military with an objective of reaching a coalition government between the Karzai government, the Taliban, and the Northern Alliance and then to exit as gracefully as possible. Perhaps that is the best anyone can hope for or expect. President Obama has been criticized for establishing 2011 as the date of withdrawal for American Troops. This was probably intended to motivate the Karzai government to ramp up its military but it has also given the Taliban a reason to not negotiate any coalition government. The problem is the Afghan Army is composed of men from the various tribes and clans and as those tribes and clans go – so goes the Afghan Army. The Obama government seems faced with the same decisions that faced Richard Nixon as he brought the Viet Nam War to a close. Hopefully, the Obama Administration will be able to withdraw from Afghanistan with some dignity and end America’s obsession with it.