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Commentary: Hard lessons in Southwest Asia

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 17, 2010 - The quote accompanying this column is properly attributed to Rudyard Kipling. I first came across it in a St. Louis Post-Dispatch commentary about the American campaign in Afghanistan that ran a couple of years ago. If memory serves, that piece was authored by Kevin Horrigan.

When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains,

and the women come out to cut up what remains,

jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains,

and go to your gawd like a soldier.

— Rudyard Kipling

I resort to a kind of 2nd degree plagiarism by re-appropriating Kipling's words because I can find no more succinct summation to describe the savage futility of our military plight in that forlorn land.

When America invaded Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001, the goals of the mission were straightforward: to destroy the al-Qaeda network behind the 9/11 attacks and to unseat the ruling Taliban regime that had afforded that lethal cabal safe haven within its borders. Our foes would be taken "dead or alive." To mitigate any appearance of imperialistic aggression, there was also some talk of modernizing the country, thus rendering it a less attractive place for future terrorists to do business.

Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld elected to wage a new kind of war. He deployed a swift, light, mobile force heavily reliant upon special forces and airpower, devoid of the large troop concentrations necessary for overwhelming dominance.

Rumsfeld's strategy yielded the desirable results of limiting initial American casualties while quickly dispatching the Taliban's rule. Unfortunately, it failed to provide adequate manpower to close the back door on the trap at Tora Bora. Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and Taliban chieftain Mullah Mohammad Omar were able to escape with the remnants of their respective organizations into the wilds along the Afghan-Pakistan border where they presumably remain to this day.

Once the prime suspects had slipped the noose, there was little left for the military to do but set about the task of nation-building -- an enterprise that candidate George W. Bush had correctly dismissed as a waste of time while campaigning for office in 2000.

By late summer of 2002, the Bush administration seemed to tire of the effort and began to focus on Iraq. Bob Woodward describes Rumsfeld complaining that there was nothing "worth bombing" on the barren Afghan plains. Indeed, if the administration was going to produce a decisive and memorable victory of arms in response to 9/11, richer targets were needed.

The fact that the secular Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, had nothing to do with the attacks was not seen as an insurmountable obstacle. Ironically, the unlucky tyrant and the al-Qaeda leader were actually mortal adversaries.

At the time of the original Gulf War, bin Laden had sought to raise an all-Arab, Muslim army to run Hussein out of Kuwait. The House of Saud, however, preferred to let its American friends rescue its Kuwaiti cousins and his plans were nixed. At any rate, once the military focus -- along with a large conventional force -- shifted to Iraq, Afghanistan became the "forgotten war." It would remain that way until Barack Obama remembered it.

Because of spatial limitations, I will not attempt to detail the misadventure in Iraq. Suffice it to say that it was quick victory ("Mission Accomplished") followed by protracted defeat. One hundred thirty-nine Americans died to unseat Saddam Hussein; 4,270 have died in Iraq since he left power.

By the end of 2006, Bush found himself an unpopular president waging an even less popular war. Having been spanked rather badly in the off-year elections that returned control of Congress to the Democrats, he made one last, desperate gamble to pull his Iraqi fortunes from the flames by ordering his now-famous "surge" in troop levels to quell the endemic violence. That effort has been widely -- and mistakenly -- portrayed as a triumph ("Mission Re-Accomplished").

Barack Obama, an early and vocal opponent of the Iraq invasion, hit the campaign trail as a peace candidate. Perhaps to reassure mainstream voters that he was not indifferent to the mandate of national defense, he often cited the Afghan expedition as a justifiable exercise of force and argued that the nation would have been better served had we finished the job there rather than divert to Iraq.

While most voters -- the present author included -- agreed with his assessment, his remedy was more suspect. Seeking to replicate Bush's success, he subsequently mounted a surge of his own in Afghanistan. The problem with that approach was two-fold: 1) the "success" in Iraq he sought to emulate was largely illusionary and 2) the time for a big win in Afghanistan was long past.

The Iraqi surge put more boots on the ground but it also entailed the new strategy of paying off hostile tribal chieftains. With U.S. tax dollars regularly deposited into the pockets of the people who were formerly killing our troops, there were suddenly fewer attacks to repel. Further, as the plan unfolded, the American role shifted from combatant to trainer. Patrol of the streets was largely turned over to domestic military and police. With fewer GIs in circulation, there were fewer GIs to attack.

Press reports routinely recount ongoing suicide bombings against Iraqi police and civilian targets. When at long last we do withdraw completely, the region figures to devolve into full-blown sectarian violence until one factor finally establishes a ruthless suzerainty over its rivals.

If the surge was a flawed model to copy, the timing of the current effort was worse. During the years of neglect of the military effort in Afghanistan, our "not dead and all too alive" adversaries there managed to reconstitute their forces. And our continued abrasive presence as an army of occupation that every now and then accidentally blows up a wedding party or a civilian convoy has driven thousands of new recruits into their ranks. It's hard to win a man's friendship with Hershey bars and text books after you've killed his family.

The conflict in Afghanistan is now the longest foreign war in American history. Our casualties there are presently surging along with our troop levels while we slowly learn a lesson originally taught to Alexander the Great.

In the words of the always quotable Mr. Kipling, Asia is not going to be civilized after the methods of the West. There is too much Asia, and she is too old.

M.W. Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon.

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