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Ten more years in Afghanistan?



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

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October 11, 2011

The First World War lasted four years, the Second World War six years, the Vietnam war eight years, the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan nine years and thus far the American war in Afghanistan ten years.  
Last Friday General Stanley McChrystal, who commanded US troops in Afghanistan between 2009 and 2010 and who was hailed as the master soldier who could bring victory over the Taliban and Al Qaeda if anybody could, said that the US and its NATO allies were “a little better than half way to achieving their military goals”. He went on to make the most searing self-criticism ever heard from a top military officer engaged in Afghanistan: “We didn’t know enough and we still don’t know enough. Most of us - me included - had a very superficial understanding of the situation and history, and we had a frighteningly simplistic view of recent history, the last 50 years.”
This is almost word for word the self-criticism made by the ex US Secretary of Defence, Robert McNamara, when he later talked about the US role in the Vietnam war. Many of us of the Vietnam generation could hardly believe his 180 degree change of mind and hung on his every word, absorbing the mea culpa we had never dreamt we would hear from the man we regarded as the warmonger-in-chief.
McNamara spent the second half of his life trying to expiate his guilt and educate people, especially those who had the responsibility for making life and death decisions, of the dangers of ignorance about a country- its social, religious and political systems and the shades of local opinion on each of these things.
One serious problem is that many of those in power today from US President Barack Obama to British Prime Minister David Cameron are all too young to either remember this or that much interested in what a disillusioned old Cold War warrior had to say.
If, as McChrystal now says, the US and NATO are only half way through the war in Afghanistan, where do we go next?
It would be a big step forward if we could end the lazy attitude of conflating Al Qaeda and the Taliban. This goes back to the origins of the war when President George W. Bush decided that the 9/11 attack  had to be dealt with by a deadly onslaught on Al Qaeda and the people who were hosting Osama bin Laden and his men, the Taliban.
Reading the almost verbatim transcript of key White House meetings in Bob Woodward’s “Bush at War” it is clear that the senior advisers saw the Taliban and Al Qaeda as one and the same thing. Moreover, as Bush argued, it was difficult to find the Al Qaeda men who lived in caves and tents - “Are going to use a million dollar missile on a $5 tent?” he remarked at one point.
So with only a cursory knowledge of the history of the Taliban the decision was made to blast away at the Taliban. Now 10,000 Afghani deaths later we are being warned that we are only half way there.
Ironically, in one closed high level meeting, Vice President Dick Cheney, a hawk among hawks, interjected that they would be better off sending “hunter-killer” teams to stalk down the terrorists. Maybe he had some inkling that a massive war might bi-pass the main target, bin Laden. In the end under Obama, after 9 years of war, the US did exactly that and in a lightening raid killed bin Laden in his hideaway in Pakistan. (One regrets that they didn’t arrest him and put him on trial at the International Criminal Court and set an example to the world about how to implement justice.)

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Instead of a tightly focussed effort to isolate and capture Al Qaeda members, the US and NATO blanketed an attack against the whole Taliban movement. They were so myopic that they didn’t seem to realise that the Taliban in the round were not clones of Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Taliban chief and personal protector of Al Qaeda. There were independent leaders and fiefdoms, shades of militancy and tens of thousands of Taliban soldiers who had never heard of bin Laden. Negotiated with without fear of bombardment their cooperation may well have been forthcoming.
Too tightly focussed on a mass war the US and NATO leaders made a very costly mistake. Henry Crumpton, the CIA’s chief of counter-terrorism, later argued that because of  the lack of coordination with Pakistan at the time they allowed bin Laden on or around December 16 (three months after 9/11) to walk or ride a mule into Pakistan with a group of about  dozen followers.
The first law of holes is that when one is in a hole stop digging. Another 10 years, the implication of General McChrystal’s remark, is 10 years impossibly long.

Copyright © 2011 Jonathan Power


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Jonathan Power can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172
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Jonathan Power 2007 Book
Conundrums of Humanity
The Quest for Global Justice

“Conundrums of Humanity” poses eleven questions for our future progress, ranging from “Can we diminish War?” to “How far and fast can we push forward the frontiers of Human Rights?” to “Will China dominate the century?”
The answers to these questions, the author believes, growing out of his long experience as a foreign correspondent and columnist for the International Herald Tribune, are largely positive ones, despite the hurdles yet to be overcome. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, London, 2007.

William Pfaff, September 17, 2007
Jonathan Power's book "Conundrums" - A Review
"His is a powerful and comprehensive statement of ways to make the world better.
Is that worth the Nobel Prize?
I say, why not?"


Jonathan Power's 2001 book

Like Water on Stone
The Story of Amnesty International

Follow this link to read about - and order - Jonathan Power's book written for the 40th Anniversary of Amnesty International



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