Henningsen: Obama and Afghanistan

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(HOST) Despite his best efforts at persuasion, President Obama could muster only lukewarm European support for the current conflict in Afghanistan. Commentator Vic Henningsen thinks he knows the reason why.

(HENNINGSEN)  Recently, I came across a letter from a young officer serving on the edge of that contested borderland between Afghanistan and Pakistan where today Al Queda finds refuge.  Superbly trained, he led his troops with skill and daring, confident in the rightness of his cause.  Yet, for all his satisfaction at serving with distinction, the young lieutenant confided to paper his misgivings about the overall enterprise:

"I wonder," he wrote, "if people [at home] have any idea of the warfare that is being carried on here… The picture is a terrible one… I wish I could come to the conclusion that all this barbarity – all these losses – all this expenditure – had resulted in a permanent settlement being obtained. I do not think however that anything has been done – that will not have to be done again."

Although these sentiments may sound current, they were written in 1897 by a 23-year-old cavalry officer battling tribesmen on British India’s legendary Northwest Frontier.
His name was Winston Churchill.

Churchill was merely the latest in a long line of warriors who found battle in the Afghan mountains an exercise in futility.  From the time that Alexander the Great led his armies through the Khyber Pass, soldiers have despaired of controlling the world’s most rugged terrain. Its fractiously independent tribesmen barely tolerate each other, let alone bow to the power of an outside force.  Genghis Khan did his best, but gave it up as a bad job.  In the 1840’s a British attempt to dominate Afghanistan resulted in the total destruction of their army of 16,000 – only one man survived. In the 20th century the Soviet Union gave it a try with its 1979 invasion. That adventure led to what some historians have called "Russia’s Vietnam" whose manpower and resource costs contributed significantly to the collapse of the Soviet Union.  

And, of course, American aid to tribesmen resisting the Soviets – the so called "mujahaddin" –  helped start the career of  a young Islamist firebrand named Osama bin Laden.

Metaphors for dealing with Afghanistan are numerous:  nailing jello to the wall, picking up mercury with a fork, or putting socks on an octopus.  Afghanistan, one pundit noted, can’t be owned – only rented for a short time.  Even in today’s era of predator drones and other remote-control weaponry, success in Afghanistan  seems to come only from taking and holding ground – which requires committing men and resources for an extended period of time.  Our predecessors in the region, going back centuries, could not sustain the massive commitment necessary for success.

President Obama is an advocate of challenging conventional wisdom.  So was young Winston Churchill, who went on, of course, to become the Prime Minister who led Britain to victory in World War II.  

But even Churchill drew the line at Afghanistan.

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