Afghanistan: The Argument for Continuing America’s Longest War

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Brian Glyn Williams is Associate Professor of Islamic History at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. He is the author of Afghanistan Declassified: A Guide to America’s Longest War, which was adapted from a field manual he wrote for the U.S. Army based on fieldwork he conducted in Afghanistan. For more information, visit his website at

In the fall of 2006 I was quietly contacted by the CIA and asked if I would travel to Afghanistan and track Taliban and Al Qaeda suicide bombers for their Counter Terrorism Center. A year later I was asked to write up a field manual for the U.S. Army’s Joint Information Operations Warfare Command (I have published a civilian version of it which came out in January 2012 with University of Pennsylvania Press). I believe I was chosen because I am perhaps the only historian in America who has been regularly going to Afghanistan to carry out fieldwork. My on-the-ground experiences, combined with my efforts to historicize the on-going conflict and place it in its historical context, have given me a unique perspective on this controversial war that currently costs the U.S. $100 billion a year and scores of soldiers’ lives. What follows here is a layman’s historical overview of the on-going war which will serve as an explanation for why it is crucial for America to remain engaged in this Central Asian country.

Afghanistan 2001-2009: The “Other War”

The roots to the increasingly virulent Taliban insurgency today lay in U.S. Central Command’s unexpected success in 2001’s Operation Enduring Freedom and Bush administration policies regarding Afghanistan. In the 2001 “light footprint” campaign, approximately 300 U.S. Green Berets and CIA operatives liaised with Afghan anti-Taliban fighters belonging to the opposition Northern Alliance to overthrow the Taliban regime in just two months of fighting. As the horse-mounted U.S. Special Forces rode alongside their indigenous Afghan allies (members of the Uzbek, Tajik and Hazara ethnic groups, who are blood enemies of the Pashtun Taliban) calling in satellite-guided bombs on the enemy, the Taliban “house of cards” unexpectedly collapsed. Afghanistan, the “Graveyard of Empires” that had cost the Soviets 14,000 lives and the nineteenth-century British 16,000 lives had been conquered with the loss of less than a dozen U.S. lives.

Now was the time to A) Flood this Texas-sized third-world country with U.S. troops to keep the down-but-not-out Taliban who were hiding in the Pashtun tribal regions in neighboring Pakistan from re-infiltrating and B) Infuse this undeveloped nation with funds to rebuild it and win over the hearts and minds of its people.

Those two steps were exactly what the Bush administration did not do. This was largely due to the Bush White House’s stated policy of avoiding the anathema of nation building and the shifting focus to Ba’athist Iraq in 2002 and 2003. Bush summed up his views on nation building saying "If we don't stop extending our troops all around the world in nation-building missions, then we're going to have a serious problem coming down the road. And I'm going to prevent that."

In following this policy the Bush administration kept the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, which is one-third larger in land area than Iraq, to under 10,000 from 2002-2007 (post-invasion Iraq, by contrast, received 170,000 troops). As for international investment in the war-shattered country which had a 90 percent illiteracy rate, one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world, and an average life expectancy of just over forty years, it was kept to a minimum. While the average yearly international aid to post-war Bosnia (a comparatively advanced European country) was $275 per person, in Afghanistan it was $80.

At this time Afghanistan became known in the West as the “Forgotten War” as the American media and the president focused on the effort to dismantle Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq in search of non-existent weapons of mass destruction. But not everyone, it seemed, had forgotten Afghanistan as the original theater of action win the war on terror. The revitalized Taliban took advantage of the U.S. engagement in Iraq’s Sunni triangle to reinfiltrate the Pashtun belt in southern and eastern Afghanistan. By 2006 they had essentially re-conquered the countryside in about one-third of Afghanistan. There they burnt newly build girls’ schools, killed pro-American chieftains, enforced strict shariah law and began using Iraqi-inspired IEDS (improvised explosive devices) and suicide bombings to kill U.S. and Coalition troops. By 2007 the Taliban had moved to within a hour’s drive from Kabul and were killing President Karzai’s governors and ruling through their own shadow courts. If this were not bad enough, the Taliban had also conquered the Pashtun tribal lands in neighboring Pakistan and had moved to within a hundred miles of the Pakistani capital. By now Americans were dying in greater numbers in Afghanistan than Iraq.

It was at this time that candidate Barak Obama promised voters that if he was elected president he would end the war in Iraq, which had begun to die down after the loss of over 100,000 Iraqi lives and the eventual loss of almost 4,500 American lives. Obama famously called the war on Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime a “war of choice” while the war in Afghanistan was described as a “war of necessity.” But many anti-war Democrats—and even some Republicans like Rand Paul, who found the trillion dollar cost of the war in Iraq to be staggering at a time of economic crises in America—were against both wars. It remained to be seen what Obama would do when he was inaugurated in January 2009.

Afghanistan 2009-2012: Obama’s War

Within a year Obama had put his money where his mouth was and disappointed many Democrats by launching a troop surge of over 60,000 soldiers to Afghanistan. While there were just over 30,000 troops in Afghanistan when he assumed the presidency it swiftly rose to 100,000. These desperately needed troops were used to go into the countryside in the Pashtun belt provinces of Helmand and Kandahar and push the Taliban out of their newly seized territory. Major Taliban centers such as their unofficial capital of Marjah were captured and thousands of Taliban were killed in Special Forces night raids and Army and Marine offensives.
But the surge could not last forever. The war in Afghanistan was costing US taxpayers $1 million per soldier per year. Many Democrats and even Republicans had grown tired of the “War on Terror” and felt that that money could be better spent nation building at home. There have been calls from members of both parties to end the war in Afghanistan as well as the one in Iraq (Obama fulfilled his promised and the last U.S. troops were withdrawn from Iraq in December 2011).

It would, however, be a mistake to withdraw American troops entirely from Afghanistan. While some have suggested that the rationale for invading Afghanistan in the first place, Al Qaeda, has been removed through drone strikes in Pakistan and the killing of Osama bin Laden, this is hardly the case. Although Al Qaeda has suffered some body blows, it is still alive and protected by its Taliban host. There is no daylight between Al Qaeda and the Taliban as some anti-war activists have argued. Al Qaeda amirs (commanders) sit in on Taliban shuras (council meetings), Al Qaeda trains, supports and fights alongside the Taliban insurgents, and the Al Qaeda leadership, including its new leader Ayman al Zawaheri, are protected by the Taliban. Should the U.S. carry out a precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan, Al Qaeda will quickly reestablish a “state within a state” in Afghanistan. There have already been several mass casualty terrorism cases tied to the Taliban’s tribal areas (most notably the 7/7 bombings in London and the Madrid bombings of 2004), and these sorts of attacks would increase if Al Qaeda once again had a protected sanctuary to plot and train.

As for the Afghans who have benefited tremendously from the presence of American troops, especially the women who are now in parliament, can work and attend school, they would once again be cast into a brutal Taliban-controlled religious prison camp. All of the progress the U.S. and its allies have made in rebuilding Eurasia’s most war-torn country and giving its people hope in their struggle against the fanatics would be overturned. This would have a tremendously destabilizing effect in neighboring Pakistan. The emboldened Afghan Taliban would lose no time in assisting their Pakistani Taliban allies in carving out a larger zone in that country once they were freed up from being attacked by the Americans in Afghanistan. The world would thus be faced with a fundamentalist Afghan terrorist state that exports opium, oppresses women and ethnically cleanses non-Pashtun minorities, openly sponsors Al Qaeda, and invades the unstable nuclear country of Pakistan. Should any new 9/11 be traced to the Afghan Taliban “Amirate,” Central Command would have to reinvade it to destroy the terrorists’ sanctuaries and the U.S. president who withdrew the troops would face a certain electoral defeat.

The solution to this conundrum is to give the U.S. military more time to train up the Afghan Army and National Police so that they can at least defend the cities and towns. While 20,000 troops are coming home in 2012 and tens of thousands more in 2014 when Obama plans to withdraw the majority of US forces, it would be foolish to withdraw completely as we have done in Iraq. The Afghan parliament has voted to request a continued U.S. troop presence and the majority of Afghans want us in their country. We could continue to bolster our Afghan democratic allies by keeping a smaller lighter force of, say, 30,000 in Bagram, Kandahar and other key bases in the country. U.S. rapid reaction troops could be dispatched from these bases to support Afghan troops in fighting Taliban swarm attacks on smaller towns and key positions and drones could continued to be flown from Jalalabad Airfield to keep up their relentless assassination campaign against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in the tribal areas of Pakistan. The U.S./Afghan force would thus act as a hammer to the Pakistani army anvil in destabilizing the Taliban in their tribal sanctuary in Pakistan.

We have already abandoned Afghanistan once in the 1990s after the Soviet withdrawal, and it would be a strategic disaster to do so again. As President Bush himself belatedly put it, "Allowing the extremists to reclaim power would betray all the gains of the past nine years. It would also endanger our security...To forget that lesson would be a dreadful mistake."

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