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A Graveyard of Empires

"I've never seen anything remotely resembling the mess we've inherited..." Richard Holbrooke, US special envoy for Afghanistan

"Afghanistan has been known over the years as the graveyard of empires. We cannot take that history lightly." Gen. David Petraeus

February 9, 2009
by Rob Lafferty

Now there's a harsh reality check about our presence in Afghanistan for you, and it comes to us fresh today, right from the top two people on the scene. Petraeus, who is charged with making a success of the vague and thankless task of nation-rebuilding, also said the security situation for the US troops "has deteriorated markedly in the past two years."

President Obama seems to understand his first task in regard to Afghanistan; during the past week he said the US military "needs a clear mission" and warned of "mission creep without clear parameters." Obama also spoke of the need to move beyond a military solution to the presence of Taliban and Al-Queda fanatics within the general population.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has spoken strongly on record of his desire for a non-military approach, saying that the country won't be stable and secure until the government can negotiate some kind of co-existence with the Taliban. But the central government has no real presence or influence in Pashtun country, the mountainous regions where extreme religious beliefs run strong.

Last week on PBS's Journal, former Pentagon official Pierre Sprey drew upon recent history as he offered a grim assessment of what the future may hold for American troops in Afghanistan.

"You know, the Russians at the peak of their invasion brought in over 150,000 troops and trained a 250,000 man Afghan army," Sprey said. "And they lost."

Sprey was speaking of the futility of trying to fight a war against the Pashtun, the major ethnic group in Afghanistan. There are perhaps sixty Pashtun tribes with each occupying its own territory within the Afghan-Pakistan border region where Taliban and Al-Queda members are present in most communities and Osama bin Laden is believed to be living.

"The Pashtun are very ancient people," Sprey said. "It's not a tribe; it's a nation of 40 million people spread across Afghanistan and Pakistan who don't even recognize that border. It's their land. Within it are tribal groupings but they all speak the common language."

Sprey also believes that conventional warfare is the wrong way to deal with the architects and sympathizers of the 9/11 attacks on New York City.

"9/11 was not an act of war," he insisted. "It was a criminal act by a bunch of lunatic fanatic violent people who needed to be tracked down and apprehended and tried exactly as you would with any other lunatic violent person, like we do with our own domestic terrorists, like the guy who bombed the Oklahoma federal building."

Sprey's perspective isn't shared by the Pentagon or the Obama administration, at least not yet. Another year or two of killing innocent civilians by mistake or circumstance might change their point of view, but not before the Afghan Surge of 30,000 more soldiers being planned for this spring. That'll give us 60,000 troops on the ground, but much of the fighting will continue to be missile strikes and bombing raids on the suspected location of suspected enemy targets.

When rockets, missiles and bombs are used in towns and villages and housing compounds, innocent women and children will be killed. It's just a question of how many will die, and the answer is always bad for everyone.

It's been going on now for nearly seven years. During 2007 and 2008, NATO airstrikes conducted mostly by US planes dropped over a million pounds of heavy weapons each year on Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the summer of 2002, US Special Forces fired rockets and dropped bombs on what they thought was a high-value Taliban target, but discovered too late that they had targeted an engagement party. More than 40 Afghans were killed directly, and nearly a hundred people were wounded.

For many Afghanis there will be no forgiveness towards America for those deaths and injuries. The memory will be strong to all Afghanis for decades, but it will live on as just one among dozens of similar tragedies that have happened since that day. Some of those memories will spawn a hatred for America that will continue as long as we keep killing innocent people over there in the hope of protecting ourselves here at home.

Meanwhile, during the past five months more than three dozen US missile strikes have killed at least 146 people in Pakistan. We violate Pakistan's sovereignty each time we cross the border in pursuit of Taliban fighters, which puts the Pakistani government in a difficult position. When we mistakenly kill innocent Pakistani children, we put their government in an impossible position.

It's not a very stable government in the best of times, and the risk a populist overthrow by Islamist extremists is always present. There's been a lot of rhetoric from the US lately about preventing Iran's hard-liners from acquiring nuclear weapons, but we may end up helping hand the keys of Pakistan's existing nuclear arsenal to people who hold an more fanatic ideology than the Iranian mullahs at the heart of what remains of the Persian Empire.

So, yes, President Obama, a very clear mission is indeed critical to the safety of our soldiers and ourselves and perhaps to the future of the world itself. The stakes are that high...