Monday, September 21, 2009

The Afghan graveyard: America's turn?

The NYT's Robert Mackey lays it out, as have quite a few other over recent years: foreign invaders tend to leave Afghanistan defeated, and diminished.  Nota bene:

In February 1989, when the Soviets finally withdrew from the country a report in The Times by Bill Keller noted:

Today’s final departure is the end of a steady process of withdrawal since last spring, when Moscow says, there were 100,300 Soviet troops in Afghanistan. At the height of the Soviet commitment, according to Western intelligence estimates, there were 115,000 troops deployed.

On Monday, my colleagues Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker reported that the largest troop increase currently under consideration would bring the total number of American troops there to 113,000 — almost exactly the same size as the Soviet force:

Pentagon and military officials involved in Afghanistan policy say General McChrystal is expected to propose a range of options for additional troops beyond the 68,000 American forces already approved, from 10,000 more troops to as many as 45,000.

As The Lede noted in March, when Mullah Omar issued a call for help from Pakistani militants, there are an estimated 15,000 Taliban fighters on each side of the exceedingly porous border. On the day the Soviets departed in 1989, the BBC reported that “Kabul is surrounded by a mujahedeen force of around 30,000.”
Mackey also asks his readers to look at it another way:

Instead of looking just at failed occupations of Afghanistan, it might be worth looking at what how many troops were deployed during the successful occupation of postwar Germany in the 1940s. According to a Rand corporation study called “America’s Role in Nation-Building: From Germany to Iraq,” the U.S. peacekeeping force in the one-quarter of postwar Germany it controlled in 1945 (an area that then had a population of about 17 million people and no active insurgency) included more than 290,000 soldiers and “a constabulary or police-type occupation force” of 38,000.

Looking closer to home, consider that there are nearly 38,000 police officers in New York City, patrolling an area of just 300 square miles, with a population of 8.3 million. Given that, it is no wonder that Gen. McChrystal thinks it might be tough to provide security to 30 million Afghans and police 250,000 square miles of mostly mountainous terrain with even 100,000 troops.

Then again, it is also possible that too large a force, rather than subduing Afghanistan, could serve to provoke the Afghan people.

One man who has suggested that more American troops are not the answer is Russia’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, who was a K.G.B. agent in Kabul during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. Last October Mr. Kabulov told my colleague John Burns that the U.S. had “already repeated all of our mistakes,” and moved on to “making mistakes of their own, ones for which we do not own the copyright.” One of the biggest mistakes the Soviets made, Mr. Kabulov said, was letting the force grow too large. “The more foreign troops you have roaming the country,” he said, “the more the irritative allergy toward them is going to be provoked.”

Of course, the Kagan clan and other of the usual suspects (john McCain) will perhaps respond, "Well, yes, but . . . we're Americans!  We're better than all those others!  And anyway, we can't lose.  Otherwise, civilization as we know it will come to an end."

That's the kind of John-Wayne stuff I too was raised on, and fervently clung to, until Vietnam happened, and then over the years, so much else. 

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