by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
March 9, 2002
THERE'S NO SUCH THING AS A QUICK AND EASY WAR by Randolph T. Holhut
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Remember back in December when the pro-war crowd was gloating over the quick and relatively painless rout of the Taliban? Remember the ridicule they heaped upon those who predicted a long andcostly struggle in Afghanistan?
As we're seeing from the deadly battle now raging in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, there's no such thing as a quick and relatively painless campaign in a nation that became a blood-soaked graveyard for the armies of two major empires.
Britain fought three wars in Afghanistan. The first war lasted 10 years, from 1838-1848, In January 1842, the decision was made to abandon the garrison in Kabul and attempt a tactical retreat to Jalalabad. About 17,000 soldiers and camp followers began the trek through the mountainous terrain. Only one person survived. The rest were slaughtered within less than three weeks by the Afghans. It was arguably the worst debacle inBritish military history.
British forces performed somewhat better in the second Afghan War, from 1878 to 1880, but they suffered high casualties and eventually withdrew in defeat. The last British war in Afghanistan, in 1919, was a pyrrhic victory; the British army won but it was so depleted by the carnage of World War I that England had no choice but to recognize Afghanistan's sovereignty.
The British were humbled in Afghanistan in three costly wars. The Soviet Union fared no better in its 10 year war.
The Soviets sent 642,000 troops into Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989. Nearly 15,000 ended up dead or missing and nearly 470,000 were wounded. Even though 1.3 million Afghans died in that war and 5.5 millionmore fled the country as refugees, the Afghans prevailed against one of themost powerful armies in the world.
The last military commanders to have any success in Afghanistan were Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan. While it doesn't seem likelythat the United States will meet with the same fate as the British and the Soviets, history shows that Afghanistan is not easily defeated in battle. The combination of religious zeal and the ability to fight fiercely against larger and better armed forces have been hallmarks of the Afghan warrior for centuries.
The Soviet invasion in 1979 began much like the American invasion in 2001, with quick strikes by Special Forces units that seized control ofthe key cities in a matter of weeks. The Soviets never expected that theAfghans would just as quickly mount a counterattack that ushered in adecade of bloody guerrilla war.
The U.S. forces have a better understanding of guerrilla warfare and the commanders were wise enough to realize that the initial success of the Afghan campaign was misleading. The Taliban may have fled the cities and surrendered control of what had passed for government in Afghanistan, but the Taliban and its al-Qaida allies were not finished as a fighting force. George Friedman, founder and chairman of STRATFOR, the global intelligence company, pointed this out in January, when he wrote that the press had overstated the success of initial U.S. victories without understanding that "the real issue is whether the Taliban might regroup over the winter, forge alliances with various warlords as they have in the past and re-emerge as force."
"Afghanistan is a work in progress," Friedman wrote on January 15. "Therefore the idea that what has happened there is replicable begs the question of whether there has been success in Afghanistan. Whether Afghanistan is replicable depends on three things: Does any other country in the world have conditions like Afghanistan? Is the outcome in Afghanistan satisfactory? And what of the endless countries like Singapore, where al-Qaida is present, but in which nothing that has happened in Afghanistan is even vaguely relevant?"
Fast forward two months, and we can see the answers to Friedman's three questions. There is no place on Earth comparable to Afghanistan in terms of fighting a war. The final outcome is still to be determined, and no one knows how many Americans will die before the Taliban and al-Qaida are defeated. And the nations where U.S. forces are now involved in anti-terrorism counter-insurgency campaigns - the Philippines, Yemen, Colombia, Georgia - have the potential to become as messy as the Afghan campaign is now becoming. And that doesn't even begin to take into account the war that virtually everyone in the Bush administration wants to see -toppling Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
Is the U.S. overplaying its hand? Are there clear and achievablegoals in the "war against terrorism," or is the U.S. on a course where wewill see -- to paraphrase Che Guevara -- "one, two, many Afghanistans" and get caught in a global quagmire that will drain an unacceptably high costof America's blood and treasure?
These are important questions that immediately need to be asked of the Bush administration. The path that President Bush is taking Americadown is filled with danger -- an unlimited and ill-defined campaign againstan amorphous and ill-defined enemy for an unlimited period of time in a global war that could ultimately bleed our nation dry. Does he understand this? Can he? Will he?
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books).