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Afghanistan and the lessons of history

Sometimes, when it comes to war and global politics, it seems as if the present and the past have a way of overlapping.  Recently, on a trip to Scotland’s Capitol, Edinburgh, I was walking across the North Bridge which links the older part of the city with its new town. In the middle of the bridge there is a memorial to the sacrifices of a Scottish Regiment and all its campaigns. One of the most prominent was the Regiment’s deployment to Afghanistan. However, this wasn’t in the 21st century, but rather, covered their service between 1881 and 1883. For a moment, at least for me, past and present were indeed overlapping.

The war in Afghanistan represents one of the longest commitments of U.S. forces in our history. Following the attacks on September 11, 2001, with amazing efficiency and military daring, our forces routed Osama Bin Laden’s hosts, the Taliban, and for awhile, it seemed that we had them licked. Then we dropped the ball. Our invasion of Iraq in 2003 diverted our attention and our efforts to stabilize Afghanistan faltered. For awhile, several years actually, this theater of operations became a backwater. Unfortunately, this allowed the Taliban plenty of time to rebuild their forces. Now, it’s the Taliban that seem to have the upper hand.
The President, to his credit, has refocused our efforts on defeating the Taliban and stabilizing the Afghan government. However, this could be too big an order to fill. We may, unfortunately, be repeating a long cycle of unsuccessful foreign intervention. The British for example, now our partners in fighting to stabilize the country, have been there twice before. The first time was between 1839 and 1842. This intervention proved disastrous. Later in the same century, with a bit more success, but not much, they fought a bloody conflict to gain at least a modicum of control over the country. However, they were happy enough to leave when the opportunity presented itself early in the 20th century.  
The Russians, long before their ill fated, tragic, and terribly costly invasion of 1979, also dabbled in Afghanistan during the 19th century. In 1885 Tsarist forces, anxious to tweak the noses of the British, invaded a section of Afghanistan.  Just as they would find a little less than a century later, they weren’t particularly welcomed.
This is the history that’s behind our current involvement in Afghanistan.  Foreign armies don’t do well. And indeed, no one, so far, has been successful in trying to impose their will on Afghanistan. The President, after considerable thought and discussion, decided that the United States was in it for the long haul. He got his increase in troops, developed a Congressional Coalition to back the continued U.S. presence, worked to hold together the international alliance, and hoped that in a reasonable period of time the situation would stabilize.
Unfortunately, it hasn’t proven that easy. Afghanistan isn’t like other countries. In some respects, it’s hard to call it a country at all. Before their national identity, Afghans often identify themselves by their ethnic origins -  Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, to name just a few groups. Most don’t get along with one another, and they’re always in competition for influence and power. However, while lacking the ability to collaborate in forming a workable centralized government, they do have one overriding passion and that’s a long standing disdain for foreigners attempting to assert control over their business. Tribes, ethnic groups, and factions will readily combine in the interest of expelling a foreign presence.
This is the predicament we’re in now. The Taliban, and their allies, are capitalizing on this animosity, and no matter how noble our motives, it’s working. This isn’t Vietnam, and this isn’t Iraq. Afghanistan has a long history of dealing with foreign intervention. While we think we can stabilize the situation, establish a central government, and what we would call a “civil society,” the history books are against us. So is the clock. The insurgency knows that all they have to do is wait us out and that eventually the western nations, having expended enough blood and treasure, will simply go home. Just as they have before.
This lesson isn’t new. It’s cut in stone on that now all but forgotten memorial to the sacrifices of those Scottish Soldiers nearly 130 years ago. Maybe it’s time, as hard as it is, that we heeded this lesson of history, and perhaps, when it comes to Afghanistan, readjusted our expectations, limited our expectations, and call it a day.
You may reach David Kerr at
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