Lessons On The Ground In Afghanistan

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Loren Jenkins is the senior foreign editor for NPR. You can read more about him here.

The coming of winter in Afghanistan is always a spectacular time. The snows that crown the heights of its mountain ranges are both breathtakingly beautiful sights and a welcome augury that the war that rages over and around them is entering its annual period of hibernation. Nowhere is that truer than in Afghanistan's Panjshir valley, north of the ramshackle capital, Kabul.

To drive up into this historic valley, where the Mujaheedin fought the Soviet Red Army to a standstill two decades ago, is to understand why those who know Afghan tribesmen's long history of resisting foreign armies — from Alexander the Great to today's NATO forces — warn of quagmires to come.

The valley is framed in the soaring peaks of the Hindu Kush that rise from the valley floor in rugged battlements of craggy rock, every twist and turn of granite an impregnable bastion for the trained sharpshooters, which almost every Afghan male is raised to become.

While autumn leaves still cling to the fruit and walnut trees that edge the patchwork of plowed fields along the banks of the Panjshir River, winter has already come on high, blanketing the mountains with a mantle of snow and ice that blocks the seasonal flow of fighters and weapons from their base camps in neighboring Pakistan.

But the views along the valley are not all bucolic. A casual traveler along the narrow roads is quick to notice the occasional Russian 122 mm artillery pieces in their old battlements, their muzzles pointing aimlessly into the empty azure skies. More ominously, every few miles there are acres of overgrown fields full of rusting tanks and armored personnel carriers, abandoned when the Russians, after 10 years of war, finally acknowledged the impossibility of victory in Afghanistan.

The abandoned armaments of the once-feared Red Army are instructive, a testament to the futility of modern weaponry and tactics in a rugged terrain more suitable for guerilla war that, for more than a millennia, has been the Afghan's way of battle.

To see these vast depots of destroyed weaponry only an hour's drive outside Kabul should give pause to the policymakers who believe that U.S. might and determination can prevail here, where others through history — the Persians, the British, the Russians, among others — have consistently failed.

So far, however, that has not been the case. After seven years of war, with some 34,000 U.S. troops and another 30,000 from NATO, the conflict here is going badly. This year, for the first time, there were more American casualties than we have had in Iraq, and one recent study said the Taliban is operational in 72 percent of the country.

Indeed, things have been going so badly that Washington has so far not released any data from its new National Intelligence Estimate on Afghanistan or the results of several strategy studies on the Afghan war. But there has been a steady stream of warnings from visitors to the battlefields. As British Brig. Gen. Mark Carleton-Smith, who has commanded British NATO forces on two tours in Afghanistan, noted recently: "We are not going to win this war."

The immediate U.S. answer to such dire predictions has been not to question the feasibility of the mission but to escalate. The U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, has requested an additional infusion of 20,000 U.S. troops, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates — fresh from reappointment by President-elect Barack Obama — vowed during a stopover in Kandahar last week to provide them.

If one is to take at face value Obama's campaign statements that the real war on terrorism is in Afghanistan not Iraq, the incoming administration has given little indication that it is prepared to rethink the Afghan war. McKiernan will get the additional forces he wants next year, and maybe more to boot.

Escalation, of course, is a very slippery slope — especially when it occurs in countries whose history and martial cultures are little understood or appreciated by foreigners forging policies half a world away. Lyndon Johnson and Gen. William Westmoreland discovered that in Vietnam in the 1960s. And the Soviet Union discovered the same in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Listening to the official rhetoric coming out of Washington these days, one has to worry that, once again, the lessons of history so evident on the ground in the Panjshir valley are in danger of being ignored.

When Gates was asked in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar how long he thought the war in Afghanistan could last, he blithely equated it to a new Cold War against terrorism.

"I think we are, in many respects, in an ideological conflict with violent extremists," he said. "The last ideological conflict we were in lasted about 45 years."

Should that be the case, there may be many more destroyed armaments scattered across Afghanistan's rugged mountain valleys for future generations to ponder — and many more Western soldiers to be mourned.



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