Sunday, 6 December 2009

Lessons from History 2

Earlier this week Barak Obama pledged a further 30,000 troops to the war in Afghanistan in the hope that this troop surge will have the same effect as a similar surge in Iraq last year. It won’t. The war in Afghanistan is not one that can be won by sheer force on numbers. Indeed I would debate whether the war in Afghanistan is winnable at all. Certainly when one looks to the history of Afghanistan, we see that every invader has come upon the same problems as the British and American troops are coming upon today.

We can go even as far back as Alexander the Great and still see similarities. Alexander invaded Afghanistan in 330 BC and, despite early success, was soon dragged into a long and arduous guerrilla war which claimed the lives of hundreds if not thousands of troops and led to Alexander himself receiving a near fatal wound. While Alexander’s powerful and experienced army was able to sweep away any opposition that stood in its way, it had a much harder time dealing with the guerrilla, hit-and-run tactics of the Afghan tribesmen. As soon as Alexander swept through Afghanistan, founding cities and replacing the Persian Satrap with his own governor, the locals fled to the hills. Strategic victories and the besieging of major cities was not enough to conquer Afghanistan for Alexander, nor was it enough for the British invaders over two millennia later.

In 1839 Afghanistan provided a neutral buffer between British controlled India and Russia, which was hostile to British control of the subcontinent. So when a Russian diplomat arrived in Kabul, fears of Afghanistan becoming a Russian Satellite state ignited. In a typical aggressive, imperialist move, an invasion of Afghanistan was ordered. British troops took Kabul in less that 8 months and installed a puppet ruler on the throne. Despite this they spent the next three years trying and failing to subdue the Afghan countryside before withdrawing, having achieved little apart from the loss of thousands of men. The British faced the same problems as Alexander; the Afghan tribesmen retreated to the hills and disappeared into countryside that they knew far better than the British. The invaders ended up trying and failing to fight an invisible enemy who could disappear as quickly as they could emerge unsuspected from the hills and wreak havoc on the British troops. This time however they were not only fuelled by a general distain for the invader, but a fierce nationalism fuelled by religious devotion, a devotion that would only become more prevalent in later invasions.

Little had changed in 1878, when Britain invaded again for similar motives. Again quick gains were made, with Jalalabad and Kandahar being subdued within a couple of months. A treaty was drawn up and it seems that the objectives have been achieved quickly and easily. However when the British ambassador was murdered, the war began again. A long guerrilla war was only adverted by installing a governor who was favoured by the tribesmen. For a change the second Afghan war was fought like a conventional war, with armies fighting each other, rather than elusive guerrillas. It is not surprising then that the British won. The aims of the war were not to conquer Afghanistan, but to achieve a limited set of objectives which would result in Afghanistan falling under the Empire’s sphere of interest, but not actually being ruled directly by Britain. Britain did not try to subdue the Afghan countryside because it recognised that it could not, instead it was content to install a friendly ruler and leave him to manage the Afghan tribesmen.

More recently, in 1979, the Soviets attempted an invasion of Afghanistan. It has been called ‘Russia’s Vietnam’. Russian troops very quickly took Kabul, but were drawn into a long guerrilla war against the Mujahideen, an extreme Muslim group who took to the hills and violently opposed the Russian invaders. Fuelled by religious fanaticism, the Mujahideen out fought the second most powerful military in the world. After using extreme measures to dispose of the Guerrillas, such as Napalm and poison gas, the Russians withdrew from Afghanistan, her face red with embarrassment at the failed war against such a minor power, despite the support of the ruling party.

History tells us then that wars in Afghanistan almost inevitably descent into vicious insurgency. The mountainous landscape of Afghanistan endears itself to hit and run tactics from locals who know the area far better than any invader could hope to. These tribesmen come not from major cities, but small towns and villages, scattered around the country and almost impossible to subdue. Strategic victories are a myth. Taking cities and establishing control over the political centres is pointless, opposition comes not from the ruling classes, but the fiercely independent tribesmen. Extremist Islam only serves to extenuate this problem; Islamic hatred towards western Christianity fuels the tribal hatred of invaders. In short an invasion of Afghanistan is doomed to failure.

Obama’s decision to pour more troops into Afghanistan then, when set against the context of the violent history of the country, is absurd. More troops on the ground are not going to be any better adept at flushing out the insurgents as the troops currently in the country. No amount of troops will ever be able to subdue the country because whenever an area is cleared to the Taliban, they wait until the troops have left and return from their hiding places. The tribesmen live in the villages, so all then need to do in order to melt away is to return to their homes. They then become no different from other civilians.

When set in its historical context, the invasion of Afghanistan was never going to be anything but a futile waste of life and resources. The war is unwinnable because Afghanistan is not like any normal theatre of war. Unless the tribesmen are in support of the invader, the invasion is bound to become a guerrilla war, which the invader will never win. Further proof that we do not learn the lessons of history.

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