I had a brief conversation this morning that may well leave me depressed and slightly aggravated for the rest of the day. The subject was Afghanistan and the individual I spoke with is regarded as a defense expert… a genuine smart guy with a long military career, more degrees than any one person should have and a keen ability to use lots of big words.
Here’s how the conversation went:
Me: “One thing that has me worried is the similarities to the Soviet experience in Afghanistan… they were there for almost ten years and for the last four were trying to figure out how to leave.” I shifted in my seat and paused for dramatic effect. “One of their key problems was an inability to create any semblance of a stable or strong central government that could hold the country together after their departure.”
Smart guy (let’s call him Spenkman): “Well, any comparison to the Soviets is stupid. The Afghans didn’t want the Soviets there…”
Me: Rudely interrupting I leaned forward “… as opposed to the Americans, who the Afghans are happy to have.”
Spenkman (now acting irritated): “Excuse me, don’t interrupt… as opposed to the Americans bringing democracy and goodness and light. Why, if I don’t miss my guess, we’re viewed as the good guys… and there’s just no comparison to the Soviet experience because there’s just not. So there.”
OK, I paraphrased Spenkman’s last sentence, in part because his toolish outburst caught me by surprise and I stopped paying attention, but the meaning stays the same. In his experience, looking to the Soviet’s almost ten year occupation and withdrawal allows us no insight into our current situation.
After that little encounter, I stopped by Buzzy’s for a cup of joe and a bearclaw. Two things occurred to me while sitting in the back booth watching Buzzy do a liquor inventory. First, putting a big slab of butter on top of a great hulking bearclaw might be overkill. It’s like icing on a Pop Tart. Second, when it comes to Afghanistan, we’re screwed. It’s just that no one’s being honest yet about the screw job.
Here’s the thing. Can you tell me, in a concise manner, what our current goals are in Afghanistan? No? Neither can I. In a general sense we’re hoping to prevent the resurgence of Al Qaeda, keep the Taliban from resuming control of the country, develop conditions so that some form of stable, perhaps democratic-like government can take hold and survive, keep a clamp on extremism so it doesn’t topple Pakistan and, in general, enhance our national security posture. Lofty objectives to be sure.
Now for the past eight years we’ve been attempting to accomplish these tasks with minimal troops and resources. The conflict, for the most part, has played out off the radar screen due to the giant spotlight focused on Iraq during the same time period. Except for those deployed, their families and members of the military and intel communities, it was out of sight, out of mind.
How times change. Now Afghanistan is front and center and we’ve already been there 8 years. It seems like just yesterday when we were busy trying to move the Soviet army out of the country.
The Soviets arrived in late 1979 and by 1985 they were talking amongst themselves about how to get the hell out. They had almost 120,000 troops in country and we’re working with a corrupt government and an Afghan military that was poorly motivated, under trained and divided in their loyalties. They were unable to hold the countryside and eventually decided to focus on the urban centers. There were heated discussions inside the Soviet Central Committee over if, how and when to either add more troops or withdraw entirely. The Soviet leadership worried about the international humiliation of a withdrawal as well as the inability of the Afghan government to remain in power once they left. In February 1989, four years after there was an internal decision by the Soviet leadership to withdraw the troops, the last of the Soviet army pulled out.
I don’t know, I suppose Spenkman is right. I don’t see any comparisons between their experience and ours. What the hell was I thinking? Clearly I didn’t do enough book learnin’ as a young sprog.
And don’t forget, as the argument goes, the Soviets were evil and we ain’t. Our intentions are admirable while the Soviets were just bastards. Our desire for the Afghans to be free, democratic and literate shelters us from the Afghan population’s long standing animosity towards invaders. What a load of crap.
Don’t get me wrong, I do believe our intentions are admirable and we genuinely want the best for the Afghan people. But who cares what I, you or anybody else who isn’t an Afghan citizen thinks? They may not be the most literate population but they’re smart enough to know an occupying force when they see one. You think the average villager is debating the difference between us and the Soviets?
“Honestly Hahmed, I am so impressed with these Americans… I mean, they genuinely seem to care.”
“It’s true Mehsud, just the other day I was saying to my old lady, there’s just something about these guys.” He gestures as a US military convoy rolls past… “The Soviets were complete tools, no interest in our culture… you ever remember a Russian offering to build us a school?”
“A school?” Mehsud laughs as he waves a small American flag and smiles at the convoy…”Please, all I ever got from the Soviets was a good kicking.”
“Seriously, good riddance,” Hahmed snorts as he bends down to pick up a chocolate bar and some nylons tossed by one of the GIs. “You know, I’ve never thought I’d be saying this, but I am sooo happy the Americans are here.”
“Me too Hahmed… me too.” He watches the convoy disappear down the road. “Come on,” he says, slapping his old pal on the back, “… let’s go take up arms against the Taliban… I got me a serious hankerin’ for some of that democracy.”
Does anyone else find it, oh, maybe ironic, that only a couple decades ago we we’re smacking our lips over the prospect of the Soviets being bogged down interminably in Afghanistan. And now… well, you get my point. Hands up, everyone who thinks the Russians might be enjoying the irony of the moment.
Regardless, let’s set aside the obvious futility of trying to learn anything from recent history and examine where we are and where the Obama administration appears to be going. Soon we’ll be treated to a decision from the White House as to which course of action they will follow, possibly choosing one of the scenarios for troop deployment as outlined in General McChrystal’s assessment.
Folks in the know are betting that Obama will opt for what is cleverly being coined “McChrystal Light”… a strategy that would authorize an additional 20,000 troops, or half of what McChrystal requested. Add that to the existing almost 70,000 troops currently deployed, so the theory goes, and we can start to make headway against a stubborn and somewhat resurgent Taliban while also increasing our efforts to train the Afghan military, which to date has proven to be poorly motivated, under trained and somewhat divided in their loyalties. The White House and military advisers have also started posturing that what we need to do is quit trying to hold the countryside and focus on the urban centers. Huh.
A McChrystal Light strategy, despite all good intentions and the dedication of our wonderful troops, will fall short. Frankly, the 40,000 troops that he specifically asked for should be considered the “light” option. You want to achieve those lofty goals we talked about? Let’s start being realistic and acknowledge that we’d need hundreds of thousands of troops and at least a couple more decades to be successful in the long run. Good intentions, 90,000 troops and a timeline of a couple years won’t get the job done.
Much has been made over the time that Obama is taking to make a decision. Some folks have been flapping their arms and yelping about his inability to act.
My problem isn’t necessarily the time it’s taking. A decision of this magnitude should be given significant consideration. If he rushed the decision the same flapping throng would be yelping that he didn’t take enough time.
My concern is that they are taking too much time considering the political implications of what is a tactical matter. If the time is being used to evaluate all the tactical concerns and scenarios… including the scenario of not being there at all, then that is time well spent. If the time is being consumed by examining what impact any of McChrystal’s scenarios would have on poll numbers, then we’re screwed.
Til’ next week Comrades, stay safe.
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Mike Baker served for more than 15 years as a covert field operations officer for the Central Intelligence Agency, specializing in counterterrorism, counternarcotics and counterinsurgency operations around the globe. Since leaving government service, he has been a principal in building and running several companies in the private intelligence, security and risk management sector and has recently returned to Diligence LLC, a company he cofounded in 2000, as President. He appears frequently in the media as an expert on counterterrorism, intelligence and homeland security. Baker is also a partner in Classified Trash, a film and television production company. Baker serves as a script consultant, writer and technical adviser within the entertainment industry, lending his expertise to such programs as the BBC's popular spy series "Spooks," as well as major motion pictures.