by Randolph T. Holhut
Chief of American Reporter Correspondents
October 22, 2015
WE BROKE THE MIDDLE EAST. WE NEED TO GET BUSY FIXING IT.
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Fourteen years ago this month, U.S. bombs started falling on Afghanistan.
In those days after 9/11, Americans wanted to avenge the deaths of thousands who died in the terror attacks that hit New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania.
Although I was against it at the time, I could see why some thought there was a modicum of logic in attacking Afghanistan, the country run by the Taliban that harbored Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda training camp where the 9/11 hijackers were schooled.
But Afghanistan has been the graveyard of empires. From Alexander the Great to the British to the Soviet Union, the Afghans have fought off foreign armies for more than two millennia.
Unfortunately, few in Washington remembered the dismal fate that awaited every military force that set foot in Afghanistan, and too many were focused on invading Iraq, a nation that had nothing to do with 9/11.
Those with foresight at the time gave the warning to the Bush Administration that by overreacting in Afghanstan and also committing to a needless war in Iraq, the U.S. would do far more harm than good in the Middle East and Central Asia. Joint Chiefs Chairman Powell told President Bush about Iraq, "If you break it, you own it."
Now, 14 years later, U.S. forces are still in Afghanistan, and President Obama is walking back the pledge he made back in early 2013 to end combat operations by the end of 2014. Iraq and Syria are in shambles; millions of refugees are fleeing the fighting in those nations, and the threat of wider chaos from Istanbul to Teheran increases by the week. One of the most recent reports from the region is that ISIS and Taliban leaders are meeting there to plan a joint campaign in both their country and Iraq.
There are about 10,000 American soldiers in Afghanistan, and they are still mostly there in a combat role. And it now looks like they'll stay in Afghanistan for years to come.
The longest war in American history is set to continue indefinitely, and Afghanistan is still a chaotic mess, despite the years of U.S. intervention.
The most recent illustration of that point came late last month, when a few hundred Taliban fighters overwhelmed about 7,000 members of the U.S.-trained and -equipped Afghan security forces and captured the northern provincial capital of Kunduz.
And, to compound the failure, a U.S. AC-130 gunship strafed and bombed a hospital in Kunduz operated by Doctors Without Borders, killing 12 staffers and at least 10 patients, and wounding 37 others.
Think about it. About 30,000 Taliban fighters - with no air force, no navy, no armored division, and no heavy weapons - have fought 300,000 members of the Afghan army and police and more than 100,000 U.S. soldiers to a stalemate after more than a decade of combat.
So far, the butcher's bill comes to 2,350 American soldiers dead and more than 20,000 wounded, more than 26,000 Afghan civilians killed, and a price tag to the U.S. treasury of nearly $1 trillion-and-counting.
Sticking around longer is not going to bring the U.S. any closer to victory.
After spending trillions of dollars on empire-building, the Middle East is in flames. Insurgents are active not only Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq, but also in Yemen, Somalia, and Libya, thanks to the indiscriminate use of U.S. force.
In short, the United States broke the Middle East with overt wars and covert interventions since 2001.
It is our nation's obligation to fix it.
In Afghanistan, we've known for years that the only way peace will come is when all the various factions, including the Taliban, sit down together and reach an agreement to share power.
As for Syria, the U.S. seems not to have learned the lesson it should have learned from invading Iraq in 2003 and bombing Libya in 2011: It is easy to use force to remove a dictator like Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi, but you had better be ready to help the people you liberated to create the government they want.
It will take an international diplomatic effort as vigorous as the process that yielded an agreement on Iran's nuclear enrichment program, but it is possible, especially if Russia and China are willing to pitch in with the U.S., Great Britain, France, and Germany to bring the various chieftains and warlords to the bargaining table in Afghanistan as well as the sundry factions - including the Islamic State and Syrian rebel leaders - fighting in Syria and Iraq.
Diplomacy, not bombs, is what's needed now.
Iran needs to be part of this process, as do other regional players such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, because they too have a common interest in de-escalating the violence, providing adequate humanitarian aid to deal with the refugee crisis, and defeating the Islamic State.
It won't be quick, and won't be easy, but diplomacy offers an alternative to continued war and chaos and the insane idea that more war and more chaos will deliver a good result.
AR's Chief of Correspondents, Randolph T. Holhut, holds an M.P.A. from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and has been an award-winning journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.