Andrew J. Bacevich: Can the U.S. Military Bring Lasting Change in Afghanistan?





[Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University, is completing a Lannan Writing Residency Fellowship in Marfa, Texas.]

What you see depends on where you sit. My seat at present is in Marfa, a small town in rural West Texas. Yet Marfa turns out to be an oddly instructive vantage point from which to contemplate the latest developments in far-off Afghanistan.

On Saturday, U.S. Marines and other coalition troops launched the largest allied offensive since Operation Enduring Freedom began nearly nine years ago. The target of that assault is Marja, a mostly Pashtun city in the heart of Helmand province. The senior Marine commander on the ground promised "to go in big, strong and fast."...

The purpose of Operation Moshtarak (Dari for "together") is to clear the Taliban from the city and then to fix the place, winning the hearts and minds of the local population. Toward that end, said Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of Western forces in Afghanistan, "We've got a government in a box, ready to roll in." As government arrives on the coattails of the Marines, it will ensure law and order, set up schools and clinics, repair roads, revitalize the irrigation system and cajole farmers into cultivating something other than opium poppies. The successful transformation of Marja will demonstrate the viability of McChrystal's plan to transform Afghanistan as a whole. At least that's the idea....

What presumably promises to produce a different outcome this time around -- the factor that will make change stick -- is the direct involvement of the United States military. The unstated assumption: The sustained presence of U.S. troops implies real and lasting results. What worked in Germany and Japan after 1945 ought to work in Afghanistan today.

Yet the very rich military history of Marfa, Texas, suggests another possibility. American soldiers arrived here on the arid, high plains of the Big Bend region in 1911 to help secure the Mexican border, then the site of considerable violence. They remained for decades, first at Ft. D.A. Russell, a cavalry post erected on the outskirts of town, and then at Marfa Army Airfield, a training complex built during World War II.

While it lasted, that military presence loomed large in the town's daily life. The cavalry troopers of the prewar army and the hordes of draftees passing through during the war underwrote the local economy. Their paychecks kept afloat movie theaters, restaurants, saloons and other establishments catering to the needs of young men.

With the end of World War II, however, the army abruptly pulled up stakes and left. The military's impact proved strikingly ephemeral. Today the prairie has long since reclaimed the old runways....

Melodramatic news reports frequently refer to Afghanistan as "the graveyard of empires." But you don't need a graduate degree in Central Asian history to know how Operation Moshtarak is likely to end. It's enough to know the history of small American towns where soldiers came, stayed awhile and then moved on, leaving hardly a trace....




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