An Afghan war cannot be won

by Judy Reynolds December 12 2009

We have been warned: The war in Afghanistan cannot be won militarily, while success is only possible through political means, including dialog among all relevant parties.

This recent warning was given by Kai Eide, the United Nations special envoy to Afghanistan. Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, the senior British commander in Afghanistan, was recently quoted as saying that decisive military victory there is impossible.

History supports these warnings. Alexander the Great was able to conquer Afghanistan (known then as Bactria), but only after a brutal slash and burn policy against Afghanistan's warlords that slogged on for several years and led to the known loss of up to 7,000 of his soldiers as well as the deaths of at least120,000 men, women and children.

His efforts against the warlords have been compared to cutting off the heads of the mythical serpent Hydra, each head being replaced by two others. When finally leaving Afghanistan for India, Alexander was forced to leave behind thousands of his soldiers to occupy the conquered areas. By the time the British set their sights on Afghanistan in the 1800's, many other conquerors had come and gone, leaving behind generations of strife and conflict.

Britain tried twice to control Afghanistan.. Its first Afghan war, which lasted from late 1838 to 1842, was an attempt to enact a regime change in favor of a ruler more in sync with British interests. This invasion began successfully, but ended in fierce resistance and failure. The second war against Afghanistan (1878-1880) ended with a warning from Lt. General Sir Frederick Roberts, considered a hero in that war, that Afghanistan should be left alone.

The Soviets brought more modern weapons to fight Afghanistan's tribal warlords. Their involvement, from 1979 to 1989, included American assistance in the form of billions of dollars of U.S. weaponry to help the mujahideen warlords fight the Soviets, including providing Stinger antiaircraft missiles. This aid undoubtedly helped the warlords defeat the Soviets.

But is modern U.S. weapons technology enough for the U.S. to succeed in Afghanistan in light of the newer players on the field -- al Qaida and the resurgent Taliban -- where so many others have failed?

Afghanistan has not changed. It remains a mountainous country dotted with remote villages that are hard to reach with large bodies of conventional military forces. The borders of Afghanistan are porous, allowing resistence groups to flow easily into neighboring countries. For centuries, warlords and bandits have struggled for control of the inhospitable territory along this border and continue to do so. Local warlords still effectively control the provinces.

If there is a single theme running through the failed attempts to control Afghanistan in the past, it would be that the resisters can ebb and flow, but can never be counted out. The Hydra effect continues to turn the invader's victory into defeat, thwarting the greatest of armies.

As noted recently in the Sacramento Bee, Militants that U.S. commanders once derided as ragtag amateurs have transformed into a fighting force advanced enough to mount massive conventional attacks. Suicide and roadside bombs have turned bigger and deadlier than ever.

These militant forces face a NATO alliance whose members are divided on whether to send combat forces to engage the Taliban, and decreasing support for the alliance among the civilian population as civilian casualties, the collateral damage of modern warfare, take their toll. Even U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has cautioned that the next president will have to weigh the size of a troop buildup given that the population does not readily welcome foreign forces.

Let us listen to the warnings of history and turn to negotiations, not war, to resolve U.S. differences with Afghanistan. In September, the government of Saudi Arabia hosted a secret high-level meeting with Taliban officials and members of the Afghan government to ultimately open the door to direct talks with the Taliban.

On October 28, leaders of Pakistan and Afghanistan reached a decision at the end of a two-day mini-tribal council attended by 50 officials and tribal elders to make contact with insurgent groups, including the Taliban, with the goal of ending bloodshed and violence on the border regions.

Several peace groups in Afghanistan -- including the National Peace Jirga of Afghanistan, an association of students, professors, lawyers, clerics and others, and the Afghanistan Women's Council, a leading non-governmental organization -- are speaking out against the war between the Afghan government and the Taliban. These positive steps toward peace are encouraging.

Unfortunately, the United States recently joined the Taliban in rejecting efforts by Afghan President Hamid Karzai to hold direct negotiations with Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban. History will be better served if the U.S. changes course and supports negotiated steps toward peace instead of pursuing a military solution in Afghanistan.