I am about to pick up The Soviet-Afghan War: How a Superpower Fought and Lost at the Owego library. This book was written by the Soviet General Staff to analyze their performance during the conflict. Given the situation we find ourselves it, it seems like an appropriate book to read. Before I do, I want to jot down a few thoughts I have about the state of the conflict.
We find ourselves at war with a terrorist band rather than a nation state. It has similarities to what the Romans faced trying to purge the Illyrian pirates but with far greater international and internal pressure to reduce unnecessary violence, even against the terrorists themselves. This enemy has already proven themselves capable of striking at us and striking hard; there is no reason to believe that, left unmolested, they could not perform even worse feats against us.
This war also has parallels to the Punic Wars. There, tribes and cities would routinely switch sides to whichever power appeared to be the strongest at the present moment in time. Tribes and factions throughout the Muslim world, not to mention individuals, are far more likely to join Al Qaeda if Al Qaeda has the appearance of winning the conflict. It is imperative that we never allow such an impression to be made.
Afghanistan is one of the worst places we could be fighting such a conflict. Iraq was far better. Guerrilla insurrections survive by not fighting pitched battles but rather operating with hit and run tactics, always preserving their fighting force from the militarily stronger opposition. This means the guerrillas need a place to operate from that either cannot be located or operated in by their stronger enemy. There are generally two places to hide: the terrain and the population.
In Iraq, the terrain is not particularly well suited to hide guerrilla bands. Large areas are fairly open; forests are few and mountains are primarily located to the north in Kurdish territory. The population was initially not hostile towards Al Qaeda or other insurgent groups. Ironically, the setbacks we faced in 2006, when Al Qaeda was left in charge of large segments of the population, proved to be beneficial for the United States. Strict Islamic law was applied; Iraqis, who have a long history of living in a quasi-western civilization, were appalled. At the end of 2006, the United States declared their intention to see the conflict through to the end, launching "the surge" and increasing the number of troops on the ground by tens of thousands. Al Qaeda was never strong enough to take on the full power of the United States military and after alienating the local population found themselves having no place to hide. Since 2008, casualties in Iraq have plummeted despite America having less than one third of our troops remaining in country.
This was a great win for us. Al Qaeda had declared that Iraq would be their central front in their jihad against us, but in the end Al Qaeda was largely annihilated! We should be proclaiming those two facts throughout the Muslim world to show we are more than capable of beating this enemy. As I said, and as ancient and modern history show, the side that appears to be winning is the side that people join while the other suffers desertions.
Unfortunately, political considerations got in the way. Our current administration declared that the Iraq war was "stupid" and that the surge would increase rather than decrease violence there. Afghanistan was the good war, the area we needed to be fighting in. Perception is what determines whether a person or tribe will join Al Qaeda; our performance in Iraq would be a great piece of propaganda, especially concerning Al Qaeda's boast that they would win there, but this administration will not use it because it would undermine their earlier ardent opposition to the liberation of Iraq.
So instead we sent a surge of troops to Afghanistan, put General Petreaus in charge, and gave them a two year deadline to achieve the impossible. Afghanistan is mountainous and borders Pakistan, a country that isn't hostile to the Taliban/Al Qaeda message. The people of Afghanistan are different from the people of Iraq; they do not have a long history of living a semi-western lifestyle and sharia law is more acceptable there. Our enemies can hide in the terrain and the population with far greater ease than they could in Iraq.
Moreover, this administration is blatantly putting political goals ahead of the military situation. Our generals flat out told the President that a timetable for withdrawing from Afghanistan is merely giving the enemy a countdown to victory, creating the impression among the locals that they cannot trust our commitment and driving them towards the enemy who will be there long after July 2011. If the Taliban remain then (and they will), communities will not want to explain why they helped the Americans to those brutal warlords. Best way of not having to say sorry is to not piss off the warlords in the first place.
Mr. Woodward's recent book quotes the President as creating the July 2011 deadline because "I [Obama] can't lose the whole Democratic Party." This has absolutely nothing to do with the military situation. More of our troops have died this year in Afghanistan than in any previous year; Obama's reelection should not be a reason American soldiers die.
I need to remind the readers that Obama had absolutely no military experience prior to coming into office; there is little evidence he has studied warfare, either. It almost appears that his decision to send a "surge" of troops and put Petreaus in charge comes from the fact that those combination of things worked in Iraq (despite Obama's vocal opposition at the time). As I've pointed out, the terrain and people are very different in Afghanistan than they are in Iraq. From what I have read, it seems our President was shocked he could not get an exit strategy out of his generals. This was a common complaint against Bush by the Left. Wars are not fought with exit strategies; you pick your goal and then you beat and kill your opponent until they accept those terms or are no longer physically able to resist them.