December 2nd, 2009

Afghanistan: Graveyard of Empires

An officer fighting in Afghanistan submitted a letter to the highest ranking defense official over the war, which reads in part:

We should honestly admit that our efforts over the last eight years have not led to the expected results. Huge material resources and considerable casualties did not produce a positive end result—stabilization of military-political situation in the country. The protracted character of the military struggle and the absence of any serious success, which could lead to a breakthrough in the entire strategic situation, led to the formation in the minds of the majority of the population of the mistrust in the abilities of the regime.

The experience of the past years clearly shows that the Afghan problem cannot be solved by military means only. We should decisively reject our illusions and undertake principally new steps, taking into account the lessons of the past, and the real situation in the country…

This frank assessment of the situation in Afghanistan came after several years of ongoing fighting to eradicate enemy forces determined to resist the military’s presence. Its plea for an entirely new direction, a study of relevant history, and an honest analysis of the progress and circumstances in the country they are occupying is most welcome.

Unfortunately, this letter was not written by any American soldier, nor by anybody in the coalition of forces currently fighting in Afghanistan. It was written over two decades ago by Colonel K. Tsagalov, addressing the newly-appointed Soviet defense minister, Dmitry Yazov.

Like Ghengis Khan, Alexander the Great, King George V of Britain, and most recently, the Soviet Union, America is wasting blood and treasure in the historical graveyard of past empires. Just last night, after several weeks of deliberations, including nine meetings with his war council, Mr. Obama announced a “surge” of 30,000 additional troops to aid in the never-ending and abstract mission given to the active duty military forces and contractors—this after upping the number by 34,000 in March. Ignorant of the foolishness of such a campaign in light of previous attempts by other empires to do just the same, America is being led into the same quagmire that other military superpowers have succumbed to.

Perhaps in no other scenario has the phrase “he who does not learn from the past is condemned to repeat it” been more relevant, especially in terms of death and destruction. The Russian military historians tasked with producing the official history of the Soviet war in Afghanistan apparently agree, as their assessment had this to say:

The Soviet government and the Soviet high command did not study Afghanistan’s national-historic factors before committing Soviet forces. If they had, they would have found a history of many centuries of resisting various conquerors. The Afghan considers any foreigner carrying weapons as an alien occupier.

If this cultural sentiment remains true two decades later, would increasing the number of occupying forces by 30,000 really achieve “Operation Enduring Freedom’s” stated goal of toppling the Taliban (to say nothing of actually catching that ever-elusive Osama bin Laden)? Critics assert that the escalation of troop levels is like trying to put out a fire by dousing it with more gasoline. Personally, I think that the golden rule has always been a far more powerful analogy in cases of war.

Consider, if you will, a future where China looked with great interest to the oil fields in Texas, and declared them a “vital interest”. Shortly thereafter, China released a statement as follows:

An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Texas oil fields will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the People’s Republic of China and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force. (Sound familiar?)

Two months later, tens of thousands of Chinese troops landed in several locations along Texas’ borders as part of a strategic “shock and awe” campaign. A swift and short-lived attack on the state capitol and various headquarters of oil companies resulted in a quick transition to complete Chinese rule of Texas’ government and oil industries.

Texans, however, are not identified only by their government, and far less by one of their leading exports. The blood running through those veins carries a deep strain of independence and resistance to oppression. While China did indeed gain control over key resources and infrastructure, they did not gain control over the entire geographical area. Banding together in militias, neighborhood watch groups, and national guard units, the well-armed citizens of Texas began a passionate resistance movement to expel the foreign invaders and regain control of their land and its resources.

Faced with this fierce and unrelenting enemy, the Chinese forces tried a multi-faceted approach to victory in Texas: they aggressively weeded out the resistance fighters in key cities such as Houston, San Antonio, and Dallas; they began a construction campaign to build up Texan infrastructure that had been neglected for years due to the American economic decline; and they provided free food, clothing, and medicine for needy citizens, and candy for the children. The goal, of course, was the win the hearts and minds of the people, so as not to have to be embroiled with them in military conflict for ages to come. Also, the photos of smiling Texans receiving assistance from the occupying forces helped ameliorate any concerns back home with politicians and the media, thus satisfying the Chinese by and large that they were welcomed and beloved by the majority of Texans.

They also provided training to Chinese-sponsored Texan security forces, and vowed to continue their presence until these individuals could be trusted with defending the new government China had helped create.

Despite the aforementioned strategies, the reality would, of course, be that China had invaded Texas, displaced hundreds of thousands of people, destroyed key infrastructure, and killed who knows how many innocent individuals. Texans would be, in our surely unanimous opinion, the justified party repelling an aggressive occupying force from their own land.

Just as the very presence of Chinese forces would serve at a catalyzing rally cry to swell the resistance’s ranks, so too has the American military’s presence created enemies faster than they can be killed. In such a scenario, a speedy withdrawal is the best solution.

In too many ways, Afghanistan is the new Vietnam, and as anti-war sentiment becomes more widespread domestically, the comparisons between the two situations will continue. In Afghanistan alone, we’ve now seen 20,000 people killed and 53,000 injured. Troop morale is low, divorces and depression are high, and at least as of now, there is no end in sight to this war.

So, what is to be done? We can continue to be the occupying aggressors like China was in my fictitious scenario, and we can continue to add more fuel to the fire we’re allegedly trying to put out. In doing so, however, we will simply be accelerating the arrival of the same fate meted out to other empires who have been repelled from their respective invasions of Afghanistan. Just as the Soviets learned some lessons in retrospect, so too can we learn from our own history. On the ninth anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, President Reagan said the following:

Self-determination, the right to freely choose one’s own destiny, has been the central point of the Afghan struggle. The Afghan people have clearly demonstrated that they will resist any effort by outsiders to impose a leadership on them. We have held that any decision about the government in a free Afghanistan will be — must be — the free choice of the Afghan people alone. With the end of foreign occupation, I am confident that the Afghan people will be able to take charge of their own affairs and get on with the formidable task of rebuilding their country.

If we want to save face and avert this inevitable disaster, and, more especially, if we value the lives of the individuals who are being assigned to the perennial graveyard of empires, then it is time to bring the troops home.

30 Responses to “Afghanistan: Graveyard of Empires”

  1. Connor
    December 2, 2009 at 12:03 pm #

    One Afghani’s commentary:

    Thirty thousand more U.S. troops for Afghanistan? Esmatullah only shrugged.

    “Even if they bring the whole of America, they won’t be able to stabilize Afghanistan,” said the young construction worker out on a Kabul street corner on Wednesday morning. “Only Afghans understand our traditions, geography and way of life.”

  2. Doug Bayless
    December 2, 2009 at 12:34 pm #

    I found Matthew Hoh’s recent, public resignation from the State Department an interesting read. Here is a high-ranking, career military man who says he entirely supported our entire middle-east strategy (even after many years served in Iraq) but completely changed his mind after ‘boots on the ground’ time in Afghanistan.

    Washington Post article on Hoh and his Letter of Resignation

  3. Kelly W.
    December 2, 2009 at 1:12 pm #

    I think we’ve accomplished the goal there. The goal was to OCCUPY the country in order to keep Caspian oil coming westward, and to keep the poppies coming westward. Opium production is at an all-time high, and the pipeline is done.

    We can’t keep these “vital interests” of the USA if we leave. Therefore, we stay.

  4. Morgan Deane
    December 2, 2009 at 1:22 pm #

    The author’s Texas analogy fails on several significant points. For the analogy to be more applicable, Texas terrorists with the support of a brutal extremist regime would have to stage a damaging sneak attack upon China. You would also have to assume that the United States is not a land of freedom anymore, but largely lawless except for a scattering of unjust warlords. You would also have to assume that the standard of living, safety of its citizens and rule of law are far less ideal than what they are today.

    We would also have to assume that China is a democracy that has a 100 year history of fighting wars to protect the freedom of others, including instances such as Bosnia, Kosovo, and Somalia, where China had no vital national interest, but simply sought to ease human suffering and protect the innocent. (Personally, I don’t feel fighting for a national interest would make the war immoral but thats a fight for another day, Bismark would feel that fighting for anything but a national interest would be immoral.)

    But back to the analogy: Since we have a justifiably negative perception of China due to their brutal regime, and the people of Texas are not being repressed by an unjust government, and Texas has not sponsored a 9/11 type attack against China, we can safely assume that China’s intervention is not necessary.

    If you run with the modified scenario however, I would appreciate the Chinese forces, with a record of standing and fighting for the liberty of others, protecting me from a brutal regime and helping me and my people to re establish a democracy. Its rather insulting to have foreign troops have to give that to me, but I would appreciate the help they gave me in protecting my family and helping me be free. (Its a strange love/hate relationship that works once we actually leave) If the Chinese soldiers acted like I did, I would have no problem with a significant body of soldiers in the state. Especially when they rebuild the hospitals, schools, farms, and factories that I saw destroyed during the previous regime.

    In the real world, Afghanistan was a largely stable country untill 1979. Terrorists operating from their territory have already attacked us, and we have spend our lives and treasure to help them establish a democracy and prevent the previous brutal regime from regaining power, not to steal their resources. I am glad Obama made the right choice by sending the soldiers.

  5. Kelly W.
    December 2, 2009 at 1:27 pm #

    “Texas has not sponsored a 9/11 type attack against China, we can safely assume that China’s intervention is not necessary.”

    Sorry, you’re wrong there. The 9/11 attack had full foreknowledge from people in Texas, namely Bush, Cheney and Rice. (It was an inside job, indeed.)

  6. Morgan Deane
    December 2, 2009 at 1:38 pm #

    Thanks Kelly. You’ve given me enough reason to completely ignore you now.

  7. Kelly W.
    December 2, 2009 at 1:40 pm #

    And I know where you are coming from, too.

  8. Connor
    December 2, 2009 at 1:53 pm #

    For the analogy to be more applicable, Texas terrorists with the support of a brutal extremist regime would have to stage a damaging sneak attack upon China.

    Not quite. Do recall that the 9/11 terrorists were nearly all Saudis, and none were from Afghanistan.

    You would also have to assume that the United States is not a land of freedom anymore, but largely lawless except for a scattering of unjust warlords.

    Why would that matter to China? There are plenty of “largely lawless” places around the world, and there always have been. Is this reason to go around policing them to whip them into shape?

    You would also have to assume that the standard of living, safety of its citizens and rule of law are far less ideal than what they are today.

    This point is under heavy dispute. Yes, some infrastructure has improved. But so many people have been displaced (or killed) in war’s path, that you’re hard-pressed to argue that “life is better” for the population overall. Here’s one example for you.

    Neither is this an excuse for war. There are far better ways to improve the lives of other people, and much more moral ones as well. To claim that the standard of living and security of a people is the ideal by which our military’s use should be judged is to likewise justify any intervention around the world where this PR statement can also be made. Kill a bunch of people, give a few others some food and electricity, and hey! Their life is great!

    We would also have to assume that China is a democracy that has a 100 year history of fighting wars to protect the freedom of others…

    We are not a democracy. Please get your facts and history straight. We are a republic.

    We also do not have a “100 year history of fighting wars to protect the freedom of others”. Wars are not as noble as you’ve been led to believe, and the reasons are far more complex and sinister. I almost can’t even take this statement of yours seriously. I mean, dropping two nukes on Japan considered part of protecting the freedom of others? I have plenty of examples, but this one alone suffices to rebut such a fallacy…

    …we can safely assume that China’s intervention is not necessary.

    You missed the reason Chinese invaded in my example: oil—the same excuse given in the “Carter doctrine” for our involvement in middle eastern affairs. Sure, we can say that such intervention would not be “necessary”, but that’s not the point. The point is that the Chinese deemed it justified for whatever reasons they provided.

    I would appreciate the Chinese forces, with a record of standing and fighting for the liberty of others, protecting me from a brutal regime and helping me and my people to re establish a democracy.

    Would you have preferred that the French stuck around in America for a decade, maintained troops throughout the colonies, helped create and approve America’s new government, and continued military operations throughout the country against any who might resists and be considered British sympathizers?

    Far better than they got in (at our request), got the job done, then got out and let us decide our own fate. Nowhere do we have the moral authority to do what we’re doing in propping up a government.

    Or have you never heard of the concept of blowback?

    Terrorists operating from their territory have already attacked us…

    And so it’s okay for America to invade/occupy any country they may operate in? Let’s say they become far more mobile and elusive and travel all around Europe. If those countries are unable/unwilling to go after them (you know, those total of 100 suspects that there currently are in Afghanistan…) then you’re okay with us waging a war path through whatever territory necessary?

    I sure hope not.

    …we have spend our lives and treasure to help them establish a democracy and prevent the previous brutal regime from regaining power…

    I’m not sure how much history you know, but America has a horrible record at propping up foreign governments that qualify as a legitimate “democracy” and prevent brutality in any way. We’ve failed time and time and time and time again.

    Pray tell, why are our current adventures in Afghanistan any different?

  9. Morgan Deane
    December 2, 2009 at 3:00 pm #

    Conner: If you want an exchange I would appreciate you staying out the rhetorical gutter by not insulting my intelligence, historical knowledge, and motivations. I’ve striven to give you that courtesy, I expect the same in return. I mentioned in your last thread that I did not want a back and forth exchange, you’ve proven why I still feel that way.

  10. Connor
    December 2, 2009 at 3:15 pm #

    One should not feel insulted when no insult was intended.

    Reduce my arguments and counter examples to mere rhetoric if you wish, but my references to you not knowing some things were valid and sincere based on your assertions that our wars for the past century have all been based in “protecting freedom” and “spreading democracy”, that life is better for Afghans in general since our occupation, and that America has any history of success in establishing democracies and preventing brutal regimes. I mean, just look over the mountains to Iran for a relevant case study.

    The facts simply do not bear out your arguments. If you do not wish to have an exchange based on facts and relevant data, then so be it. But framing my reply as nothing more than rhetorical gutter trash is a red herring and a waste of time.

  11. anon
    December 2, 2009 at 3:43 pm #


    The author’s Texas analogy fails on several significant points. For the analogy to be more applicable, Texas terrorists with the support of a brutal extremist regime would have to stage a damaging sneak attack upon China.

    You need to work on some of your facts, Morgan.

    Pretend time is fun!

  12. Morgan Deane
    December 2, 2009 at 3:50 pm #

    You’re right on one thing: this is a waste of time. When you are capable of a grown up discussion free of juvenile digs and sophistic rhetoric please send me a message. You provide a target rich environment (the writing sample I sent to grad school was about the necessity and morality of dropping the A bomb for example), but I’ve seen enough “gutter trash” to know better than to try wading into it.

  13. Connor
    December 2, 2009 at 3:53 pm #

    Fare thee well, Morgan.

  14. Royal
    December 2, 2009 at 5:12 pm #

    Changing one’s views based on evidence and logic is difficult. It is much easier to look for evidence that validates one’s already preconceived notions. Taking a hard look into one’s self and being willing to admit guilt/fault and then be willing to change to conform to truth is difficult. It takes moral courage and a humble heart. Dialogue and Debate allows us to add up the evidences and explore the logic. “by proving contraries, truth is made manifest” Joseph Smith (HC 6:428)

  15. Morgan Deane
    December 2, 2009 at 6:53 pm #

    My last post came out more snarky than I intended. Suffice it to say, I’m just not in the mood for a flaming back and forth. So from the tone of your post Connor, even though it seemed mild by comparison to some, I didn’t feel like continuing. No hard feelings from me. Good luck in the future.

  16. Marc
    December 3, 2009 at 10:32 pm #

    Morgan, sounds like you are stuck in the mode thinking that the US has no alterior motives in any of these recent wars. The truth is that you are being lied to. The reasons for these wars and what we are being told about the reasons are 2 different things. America is an empire now. We have been for a long time. Arise and wake yourself. Things are not what they seem.

    9-11 was an inside job designed to get people to support all the wars. That should be pretty obvious by now.

  17. Doug Bayless
    December 4, 2009 at 12:15 pm #

    It seems to me that our foreign policy in Afghanistan fails at the most basic levels:

    (1) It is immoral
    (2) It is impractical

    I think it is important to discuss the pragmatics of the situation (as Connor does here) simply because so many will *not* entertain any reasonable discussion of the legal or moral dimensions. But eventually there are those who will rebut pragmatics with the reasonable question of ‘who cares if it’s practical, if it’s the right thing to do?’ . . . which always brings us back to the morality of the fight.

    I’m, personally, still trying to understand “Why?” we are even sending troops to Afghanistan and “What?” we really are defining ‘mission success’ there to be. I would change my position on the war — even in the face of proof that it was “mathematically” unwinnable — if somebody could help me believe it was ‘the right thing to do’. When something is ‘the right thing’ it changes all the calculus for me. Suddenly I have to factor in more heavily the potential blessings of a benevolent God, for instance.

    In this case, however, I do not see the God that I believe in being able to fully support either side. I see American troops being told they are repelling ‘terrorist forces who want to destroy the US homeland’ and local Afghani fighters who are being told that ‘foreign invaders are willing to kill endless numbers of local innocents to prop up the permanent, invalid, heathen, imperialist government they are trying to force in’.

    I like Connor’s title on this one. It’s not just that Afghanistan is historically a tough place to conquer, it’s also important that we look at the *reason* we are even trying conquer it. (ie perhaps ‘for Empire’) There are many, many ‘good’ people with whom I discuss politics who honestly seem to feel that the ‘American Empire’ is somehow the world’s last, best hope. That if, in some way, part of our ‘mission’ in the MidEast is to remake the governments into allies of the great American Empire (and thus providing ‘Pax Americana‘) well then, yeah, that’s ‘legit’. I humbly disagree.

    I really appreciated when President Hinckley said in April 2003 conference:

    We sometimes are prone to glorify the great empires of the past, such as the Ottoman Empire, the Roman and Byzantine Empires, and in more recent times, the vast British Empire. But there is a darker side to every one of them. There is a grim and tragic overlay of brutal conquest, of subjugation, of repression, and an astronomical cost in life and treasure.

  18. Kelly W.
    December 4, 2009 at 12:53 pm #

    nice thoughts, Doug.

    That “darker side” is Satan. He is the author of war, he even stated so himself: “with gold and silver to buy up armies and navies.”

  19. carissa
    December 4, 2009 at 2:43 pm #

    That if, in some way, part of our ‘mission’ in the MidEast is to remake the governments into allies of the great American Empire

    Our mission was summed up nicely in the gem Connor dug up a few posts ago:

    “We believe that international difficulties can and should be settled by PEACEFUL MEANS, and that America’s great mission in the world is to bring this about.”

  20. Doug Bayless
    December 4, 2009 at 3:52 pm #

    So, Carissa, you don’t think Presidents Grant, Clark, and McKay overlooked a typo and actually meant to say that ‘difficulties’ should be settled by ‘increased military occupations, high-collateral-damage Drone strikes, huge military equipment bribes, setting ancients feuds to new heights of conflict, and other frightening means’ do you? . . . I mean it was an 18-page letter . . . you certainly wouldn’t be the only Latter Day Saint to opine that they couldn’t possibly have meant what they wrote. Heh, oops, I usually avoid snarky posts and should probably get back to work . . .

    Thank you for noting those lines in there and re-iterating them here. They *do* seem to dovetail nicely with other ancient scriptures and particularly with other modern prophets about our proper role as a nation and a people.

  21. Kelly W.
    December 4, 2009 at 4:36 pm #

    Concerning my last comment (#18) I would like to further elaborate:

    I was studying for my upcoming Sunday School lesson which is about putting on the whole armor of God. The lesson starts out talking about the War in Heaven, and how it continues to this point in time today. While studying about the War in Heaven, I came upon this quote by Joseph Fielding Smith in Doctrines of Salvation volume 3 pages 314-315:

    “Satan has control now. No matter where you look, he is in control, even in OUR OWN LAND. He is guiding the governments as far as the Lord will permit him. That is why there is so much strife, turmoil, confusion all over the earth. One master-mind is governing the nations. It is not the President of the United States…It is not the king or government of England or any other land; IT IS SATAN HIMSELF.”

  22. carissa
    December 4, 2009 at 5:08 pm #

    Doug, keep working on that “snarkiness” of yours and it just might cause me to reinterpret the obvious… one of these days 😉

    (if you’re good enough at it)

    Pretty powerful quote Kelly.

  23. Josh Williams
    December 5, 2009 at 1:31 am #

    the writing sample I sent to grad school was about the necessity and morality of dropping the A bomb for example

    It’s easy, in more civilized times, to have an academic discussion about the necessity and various morality of our use of the atom bombs.

    In my experience, such discussions rarely mention the campaign of strategic firebombing carried out by General LeMay, against hundreds of major Japanese cities prior to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These raids caused millions of Japanese to be burned to death. The logic of such acts of war is brutal and arbitrary, it was to terrorize the Japanese people to such an extent that they would surrender. That was the only goal. By comparison the atom bombs were mostly symbolic acts.

    I would ask, whose freedom were we protecting?

    What about during the last Korean civil war, or the last Vietnamese civil war? Were we fighting for freedom then? I sincerely doubt the citizens of those countries would thank us. I wish these were the only examples of the American military fighting to “protect freedom”….sadly, tragically, they are not.

  24. >Airmen
    December 6, 2009 at 7:15 am #

    While it is interesting to read everyone’s blogs, and a great privilege to do so w/o legal reprisal, it seems to be the familiar American arrogance we all share in common. I speak of the misinformation we-myself included-base our mindset around the media driven ‘information networks’ we depend on. Like the song goes ‘I watch CNN but I don’t think I can tell you the difference between Iraq and Iran’ -That Sept Day. But politically and morally we are entitled to speculation..even false or misplaced speculation. It is your prerogative as a Citizen to ‘stand for something’ and I admire your courage to not be fence sitters! Even though I despise the news, I can only respect their goal to offer America a ‘glimpse’ into the ‘Combat zone’. The AOR is the area of responsibility-whether it’s humanitarian, combative, and most typically trying to win the hearts and minds of the people. It’s not much different than the vineyard of a mission field, it requires selfless service, goodwill, and glad tidings lol. (if your familiar w/ carrots).
    I would recommend PBS Frontline

  25. Gary Nuila
    December 7, 2009 at 2:47 pm #

    I struggle with the right way to address situations like the current one in Afghanistan where the most recent involvement has already been taking place for some time. What really is the right thing to do there?

    I agree we want to get out as soon as possible, but how do we do so in the manner that pays due respect to the Afghan people? To me, at the heart of why you don’t get involved in another country is out of respect for the autonomy and dignity of the other country’s people. Well, once you’ve violated that principle and become involved in another country to the degree we have, what is the respectful way to make an exit? If we don’t offer adequate respect in our pullout, I fear we open ourselves to the same types of blowback that occur when we go in.

    Since we have in many senses wronged the Afghan people by becoming involved to the degree we have, it would at least make sense to (1) apologize (something I thing is horrendous governments don’t do more often); and (2) involve the Afghan people by asking how they want us to handle our withdrawal from their country and when. But of course its not like the Afghan people are some homogenous group who have a uniform voice and set of desires concerning us. We all know it’s quite the opposite.

    I wish I had answers.

  26. Connor
    December 9, 2009 at 12:49 am #

    This former Soviet commander who fought in Afghanistan agrees with me. Love it.

  27. oldmama
    April 6, 2010 at 1:30 pm #

    I haven’t read this entire thread, but the link I posted on the ‘beehive’ entry will also go here:

  28. oldmama
    April 6, 2010 at 1:31 pm #

    and I hope it’s all right to add links and new information to old ‘threads’; I do realize and respect that this is a private blog. If the owner, Connor, doesn’t want these here–
    I can remove them.

  29. Carissa
    June 25, 2010 at 8:47 am #

    “When it comes to Afghanistan, history is not on McChrystal’s side. The only foreign invader to have any success here was Genghis Khan – and he wasn’t hampered by things like human rights, economic development and press scrutiny”
    -Rolling Stone Mag, “The Runaway General”

  30. Kelly W.
    June 28, 2010 at 9:28 pm #

    History isn’t on the side of USA, either. I think the last war that we won was WWII.

Leave a Reply

Leave your opinion here. Please be nice. Your Email address will be kept private.