Afghanistan: America’s Second Vietnam or its First Victory over Al Quida?

The second presentation in the Colby Symposium at Norwich University was titled ‘Afghanistan: America’s Second Vietnam or its First Victory over Al Qaida?’, by Jack Segal. Segal is the Chief Political Advisor to the NATO Joint Force Command Commander, General Wolf Langheld. He is a distinguished figure, having served two tours in Vietnam with the 4th Infantry Division during the Tet Offensive and again with the 25th Infantry Division, where he earned the Bronze Star and Meritorious Service Medal. Since the war and subsequent education, he’s held numerous posts in the US Diplomatic service, playing key roles in the negotiations with the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks between the US and the USSR, and was named the first US Consul General in central Russia in 1994 and became the Chief of Staff to the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, Lynn Davis in 1995. Following that, he worked with the National Security Council at the White House as the director for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, and worked with the White House’s Kosovo group. in 1999, he became the NSA Director for Non-Proliferation, and joined NATO in 2000. He is also a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the US National Defense University. To say that he’s had a distinguished and important role in foreign affairs is a bit of an understatement.

His talk looked to the history of Afghanistan, and the roots of the conflict that we are currently in. He opened with a couple of comments about the present affairs: he noted that he always asks soldiers that he meets a question that his father asked him while he served in Vietnam: “Are you making any headway?”.  When his father asked him in the 1960s, he said that he had sat on the question for a month while he tried to figure out the answer. He said that he’s gotten a variety of responses from soldiers currently serving in Afghanistan. The war is complicated, he noted, politically, and geographically. One question he’s fielded from politicians is that the Afghanistan border needs to be secured, to which he’s replied that it’s the equivalent of attempting to seal the US Border from Maine to Key West: it’s a lot easier said than done.

Segal then turned to history, starting with the Buddha statues that had recently been destroyed by the Taliban, speaking to a long, troubled history with religious connotations. The statues were destroyed because they went against some of the tenents of Islam: deities aren’t permitted to be represented in human form. It was an interesting example as to the lengths to which they will go to protect their faith.

Afghanistan was once part of the ‘Great Game’, between Persia, Russia and the United Kingdom, who went and divided up the country amongst themselves. The UK had extensive colonial interests in India, and were worried about the Russian ambitions in the region. In 1839, the first Anglo-Afghan war began at Ghazni, and while it had begun in favor of the British, by 1842, the entire British army, save for a single person, was massacred at the Khyber Pass. The UK attempted to invade twice more, with similar results, before the region was divided up politically by the major powers in the region, resulting in instability in the future. [As an aside, a good book on the British experiences in India and Afghanistan is Saul David's 'Victoria's Wars'.] The British relinquished control on August 19th, 1919. For part of the 20th century, the country went through several rulers, who made great changes in the nation, working to bring it out of isolation. The monarchy was abolished in 1973, and Afghanistan was declared a Republic.

Segal talked extensively about the Soviet invasion of 1979. On December 24th, the Soviet military deployed a large ground, air and special forces mission in the country, and installed their own Soviet-friendly leader. Thousands of people were killed under this regime. Over the next ten years, a million Afghans were killed, another 1 million internally displaced, and a further 3 million refugees. It was a major disruption to the country. The Soviet Union played out their interactions as a protection from the Mujahedeen, and sought to remove Islamist ties with the country, preferring their own atheistic model – an easy sell to the USSR. This created opportunity for enemies of the USSR: A good example is the events of Charlie Wilson’s War, as the US began to funnel money and weapons into the country. At the start of the invasion, the US handed over around $1 million. By the end of the occupation 10 years later, that money ballooned to over a billion dollars.

During this time, Osama Bin Laden enters the picture in Afghanistan to help oppose the Soviet occupation and agenda: he attempted to create a holy war to kick them out. At the same time, Stinger missiles were introduced to help counter the tactical advantages that the Soviets had with their helicopters. They were wiped out, and soon, weren’t able to fly. By 1989, over 16,000 Soviet soldiers were killed, a lot more wounded, and following the Soviet withdrawal, Afghanistan’s Soviet placed leader, Najibullah, remained for three years before the country dissolved into Civil War, which lasted until 1996, when the Taliban game into power.

 Segal pointed out that Taliban is a plural term: the singular is Talib, which essentially means ‘Student of Islam’. He noted that when we say that we’re fighting ‘The Taliban’, it comes across that we’re fighting the students of Islam, a mistake that has further molded their expectations of what we intend to do in the country. Around this same time, Osama Bin Laden has returned to the country with Al Qaida, after his citizenship was revoked by Saudi Arabia and he was kicked out of Sudan. He was welcomed by the Taliban government, and he began to set up training camps, training about a thousand people a month.

 In 2001, he helped to orchestrate the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and US response was swift, with an invasion of Afghanistan by US Special Forces. (A note, Doug Stanton, who also presented at this Symposium, talked extensively about this) By 2004, the warlords were back in control of the country, but Taliban rule has resisted between 2002 and 2006. As of 2009, a number of new players have entered the field: businesses, criminal groups, religious groups, and so forth, resulting in a splintered country. Now retired General Stanley McCrystal issued a report in 2009, stating that the situation in Afghanistan was serious, under resourced and deteriorating. A major change in strategy would be needed to turn the war around. He proposed a population centric, regional strategy, although he and Karl Eikenberry were split on what to do. As of right now, 132,000 soldiers are in Afghanistan, while there’s only around 100 Al Qaida in the country.

Segal noted that there are significant problems, and a disconnect in the nation’s strategy towards the country. The original mission was to disrupt the operations of Al Qaida, not the Taliban, and that two concurrent strategies, counterterrorism and counterinsurgency don’t necessarily work as well together at points.

He also told the group that the situation on the ground is incredibly complex, with a network of tribes, sub tribes and conflict between other groups throughout the country. There were situations where interpreters working on behalf of the US were from an enemy tribe during sensitive interactions, causing problems. Networking, Segal said, is important, and understanding the networks and the people is vital to the success of the Afghanistan mission. He noted that we’re doing good things right now: building roads, and bridges, as well as a police and military force. However, money is becoming a problem, with the costs up to around $600 million a day.

A key element to understand in the country is that Islam plays a key role in how people live their lives. In 33 out of the 34 provinces in the country, the Taliban maintain a shadow government, and are able to provide what the people want: security, and adjudication of civil disputes: they are legitimate in the eyes of a lot of people, because it is so closely linked to their beliefs. Segal said early in the talk that the thing that he learned the most was how people in the 14th century lived: the mindset it similar, because of the extreme isolation of the country. At points, US troops were asked if they were Russian, because villagers simply didn’t realize that the USSR had left.

This, coupled with a lack of clarity as to what the US is working to achieve, cause problems when working to conduct a war and to justify the costs and sacrifices in the country. When asked what the conditions of victory were, he simply stated that there was no victory: just success, a self-sufficient government that could stand on its own. This brings up some issues, especially when it’s realized that neither side is willing to budge or compromise on their values: the subject of women’s rights is a particularly tough one, given how ingrained some of the beliefs are in the country: the people who believe what we believe exist, but aren’t in the majority.

At the end of the day, Afghanistan is a country that has proved formidable throughout its history: both the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union were driven out after long, grueling wars with high numbers of casualties. While the US doesn’t have to follow this same path, there’s a number of things that need to be understood about the country’s history, to avoid some of the things that caused problems before.

The first is to understand the complexity of the situation on the ground, and the extensive networks and social structure in Afghanistan. Uniting the country is difficult at best, with a plethora of rivalries and grudges from group to group. Along the same lines, it’s important to understand and to not underestimate the importance of Islam in the culture. The Taliban are seen as legitimate because it is very similar to what the people believe, and that the Taliban is able to provide what they want in a government: security and social adjudication. These elements need to be included, because both sides seem to be unable and unwilling to change or compromise their beliefs.

The second element to understand is the mission itself: originally, it was to disrupt Al Qaida, and to prevent them from carrying out threats against the United States: however, with a ratio of over a thousand to one, this mission seems to require rethinking. When Segal asks soldiers what headway they’ve made, the answer is unclear, because people involved are unclear as to the mission and the overall objectives in the country: if it’s to root out Al Qaida, that’s one thing, but complete and utter nation building is another mission altogether, especially when one considers the complications involved with the current conflict in Libya, and the one winding down in Iraq.

The future is unclear for Afghanistan, and it will depend greatly upon the the changes in stance, strategy and attitude towards the ongoing operations in the country.

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