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July 29, 2008

Graveyard of Armies

Roy Meachum

Both presidential candidates are in agreement: We are losing the war in Afghanistan. That's not what they say of course: We must shift troops from Iraq to take care of unfinished business in Afghanistan. I hope I managed to get that straight.


America's entire Middle East strategy was based on a faulty premise. The administration's experts assumed Iraqis would kneel down before our display of firepower; they concocted the phrase "shock and awe." For the Afghans, they didn't bother to find anything catchy.


From the get-go, the U.S. public was encouraged to believe the Taliban would hang up their turbans when faced with the mighty armada that was sent to revenge the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. It didn't happen.


When Great Britain was the earth's mightiest empire with millions of potential soldiers and warriors at its disposal, they could not put the illiterate mountain people in their place. In seeking to quell and pacify India's northwest frontier, at least two fully organized colonial armies laid down their arms and begged to surrender. In one instance, 12,000 officers and troops were chopped up, their flags of truce ignored.


Of course there is little comparison between the 18th and 19th centuries' arms and weapons developed since World War II. In 10 years the Soviets' modern firepower amounted to zilch. Russia's special forces, as did the British raj, wound up skedaddling for their lives.


But the Bush White House dispatched American troops equipped with American weapons and, naturally, he proclaimed an American victory. The big trophy eluded entirely. But, we were told and repeatedly, capturing Osama bin Laden was not the issue. But then we were never learned what was more important.


In any event, Washington's powers-that-be decreed invading Iraq was the real key to world peace. Deposing and executing Saddam Hussein was the first step. Instead of applauding America's dedication in removing the dictator, Iraqis demanded to know when we would go and leave them alone.


Since that's not what the White House wanted to hear, the voices were ignored and more troops were sent in. The "surge" was declared successful. Only maybe not in terms of saving American lives. True, more men and fiercer weapons worked, at least in immediate terms of quashing violence and death.


In fact, since the insurgent leaders are not totally dumb, they understood that inflicting casualties made Americans more violent and what they were about was sending the invaders home, as soon as possible.


Fighting and killing the foreigners was not the way, not in Iraq. It mattered less among the tribes and clans that cluster around Kabul. After all, they had been slaughtering strangers for most of their national life. Reaping revenge was more difficult; they are not a nation of big cities. Bombing and strafing villages makes no sense: it simply increases exponentially the odds that simple civilians will wind up casualties. The advantage there was increasing hatred of the light-skinned Christians.


Afghanistan continues to specialize in providing graveyards for armies. Little has changed since the great Alexander kept moving out of the mountains lest his forces were slaughtered. The region with more rocks than slabs has never been hospitable to outsiders. The people infinitely prefer their own kind.


And so it goes.


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