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Afghanistan: Anatomy Of A War That Couldn't Be Won

Op-Ed: By now, we can call the US intervention in Afghanistan a failure. It's what happens when you go to into a drawn-out conflict without a plan B...and other lessons to be learned before the next war.

A U.S. Marine at Ranje Bala village, Farah Province
A U.S. Marine at Ranje Bala village, Farah Province
Ansgar Graw

"In war, then, let your great object be victory, not lengthy campaigns," wrote legendary Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu in The Art of War. In Afghanistan, Western politicians should have heeded this two-and-a-half-thousand year old axiom from the oldest known book on the strategy of war.

As terrible as it was, the recent shooting spree by a U.S. army sergeant that killed 16 Afghan civilians is not the reason why the war in the Hindu Kush has been lost. The seed of defeat was already planted in the overblown political goals of a campaign without a plan B. Had the military engagement not been so naively overloaded, "Operation Enduring Freedom" wouldn't have dragged on for over ten years -- and the apparently severely disturbed American soldier wouldn't have had the opportunity to go on a nocturnal rampage slaughtering women and children.

The refusal of the Taliban government in Kabul to close al-Qaeda training facilities in Afghanistan and hand Osama Bin Laden over to the Americans in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks was bound to provoke a strong reaction from the U.S. However, George W. Bush, who a year before had announced a "humble" foreign policy with fewer commitments abroad, could have tried to find other ways of dealing with that refusal.

And indeed, three days after 9/11, Bush told security advisers that he didn't intend to "put a million-dollar missile on a five-dollar tent." But after getting the cold shoulder from the Taliban, the UN Security Council and NATO paved the way for military intervention.

Within a few weeks, the Taliban had been chased out of Kabul, and two months later out of their stronghold, Kandahar. It was to be expected that the U.S. would continue its hunt for Bin Laden, which ended up taking nearly a decade. The West just couldn't accept Afghanistan as an al-Qaeda command center.

Tribal truths

American Neo-Conservatives encouraged Bush to turn the fight against terrorists into a "war against terror." It was a war that couldn't be won: a terror-free world is as unlikely as a crime-free city. According to the Neocon scenario, not only would the effort defeat al-Qaeda in Afghanistan – it would usher in democracy. As a goal, that's as honorable as giving women their rights and opening schools for girls. But anybody's who's been to Afghanistan knows just how far removed such values are from this archaic tribal society.

The Neo-Cons may have been arrogant in their assumption that Western values would follow troop presence, although the accusation that the real reason for the war was to get first dibs on Afghanistan's rich natural resources is absurd. Others besides the U.S. have mainly benefitted from the partial stabilization of the country. In late 2011, China signed an agreement that will bring it 80 million barrels of oil from Amu Darya over the next 25 years. Development of the substantial copper mines in Aynak had also gone to Beijing, three years earlier. And India was successful in its bid to develop the Hajigak iron ore mines.

True, in 2011 J.P. Morgan investors signed a deal to tap the Qara Zaghan gold mine – precious little in the face of the 1,900 U.S. soldiers (and a further 1,000 ISAF members) who died in Afghanistan and the humongous cost to American taxpayers.

The withdrawal of troops by 2014 may be accelerated after the recent shooting spree. The situation is reminiscent of the American defeat in Vietnam: as with the escalation of the Vietnam war in a last-ditch attempt to win it, Barack Obama -- who wanted Bush's Afghanistan mission to succeed -- tripled the number of troops, and massively upped the use of drones in the border area with Pakistan.

Obama's biggest triumph took place in May 2011 when a Navy Seal operation took out Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan. But as the ranks of al-Qaeda leaders were being thinned, the number of young Islamists joining the equally violent Taliban continued to grow uninterrupted. And since Obama announced the withdrawal of forces in late 2010, the Taliban have known that they and the Afghans will be on their own soon again. That's when they'll try to regain power.

Illusions of democracy

A strategic partnership between Washington and Kabul looks very uncertain right now. Although Obama's intent was to leave some troops in the country, after the Koran burnings and the recent shooting spree, an Iraq-style refusal of a remaining military presence may well be in the cards.

The war should have been limited to its original purpose of destroying al-Qaeda structures. It would have been possible to hunt down Bin Laden without the 130,000 International Security Force (ISAF) soldiers. If American policymakers had taken out of the equation the goals of "nation building," and the illusion of democratization and the rule of law in one of the world's most corrupt nations, special commandos could have carried out the Bin Laden mission by themselves.

All this is easy to see in retrospect. But what now? The withdrawal is not likely to be called off even if the situation on the ground worsens. Focus now has to be on nuclear-armed Pakistan – on stopping extremists, supporting economic development, and stabilizing the government.

Read the original article in German

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