Why Western Invaders Lose in Afghanistan

An elderly villager Kunar province, Afghanistan, (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)

Three hundred and thirty years before Christ, Alexander the Great of Macedonia swept across the Bactrian plains of Afghanistan with shock and awe.

Roughly twenty-two hundred years elapsed until another Western invader, the British, marched into Afghanistan with a smidgeon of shock, a dash of awe, and captured Kabul. Three years later, in 1842, an Afghan uprising persuaded the British to leave Kabul with over 16,000 soldiers, civilians, civil servants, and camp followers for a 90 mile dash for Jalalabad. One week later a lone European survivor, an army doctor, wandered into Jalalabad. Only one.

The Soviets decided to have a go at Afghanistan for ten years and ended their occupation and war in 1991, looking like they’d been in a train wreck. Of course, the U.S. supplying the Taliban with supplies and Stinger missiles was a factor. Yes, in case you forgot, the U.S. was in such a hurry to stick it to the Soviets that we decided to befriend the Taliban. Well, silly us.

Exactly like Alexander before them, U.S. troops swept through the Bactrian plains of Afghanistan with – accounting for 2,300 years of inflation – an equivalent amount of shock and awe as Alexander the Great.

The score: Afghanistan 4, Western Invaders O

If history teaches us anything, it’s that Afghanistan suffers no fool lightly and treats no western invader with charity.

Western invaders have always brought much better military toys to the party than the Afghani’s possessed: longer spears, more bows and arrows, advanced military tactics, more accurate rifles, artillery, bigger bombs, and better communications and transport. Advanced weaponry is all about making your enemy’s blood flow more efficiently and freely than your own at ever greater distances, thereby destroying him. Or failing that, destroying his will to resist. Unfortunately for the western invader, military and weaponry advantages have made no mid-long-term difference in the outcome to any western invader of Afghanistan and none resulted in a “final victory.”

The essential problem…

Afghan protests. Photo: nytimes.com

The essential problem with invading Afghanistan is this: regardless of the reasons for invasion, who is fighting whom, or what religious, philosophical, or political points are being scored, the definition and concept of victory never holds still for the western invader. Victory becomes a squirmy, piggly-wiggly thing, hard to get a purchase on and constantly changing over time. For the Afghani, though, living in a warrior society, victory is like the northern star shining constant in the heavens; invaders will leave or die.

Every western invader, including Alex the Great, experiences a 4-stage epiphany that goes something like this:

  1. These Afghani aren’t buying what I’m selling.
  2. This is very costly, time-consuming, death-dealing, and painful.
  3. I could be here a thousand years and nothing is going to change these Afghani’s thinking.
  4. What’s the shortest way out of here?

Steven Pressfield in a series of remarkable video blogs makes the point that our current campaign in Afghanistan matches Alexander the Great’s campaign to an eerie degree. Consider also that Alexander’s campaign was before Christianity or Islam, so take the religious factor out of the equation.

•After Alexander the Great “won” in Afghanistan, like Bush the Tiny, Alexander declared “mission accomplished.”

•Then, a charismatic figure, emerged, Spitamenes, who organized an effective counter-insurgency. Starting to sound familiar?

•Alexander ungratefully complained that the Afghanis struck out of nowhere and melted back into the mountains, refusing to fight set battles. Even more familiar?

•Alexander responded by sealing off the borders to keep tribes, in what is now Pakistan, from crossing to join the insurgency.

•This didn’t work, so Alexander called for more troops – a surge.

• Finally, after years of warfare, Alexander gratefully began paying tribes not to fight him, as we do now with many tribes.

Today, we continue using the same tactics that Alexander the Great used twenty-three hundred years ago. Why?  Take away the AK-47 and slap a spear in the guy’s hand, and you’re fighting the 100th generation great-grandson of the very same guy Alexander the Great fought 2,200 years ago. Nothing’s really changed.

It’s all about tribalism, Stupid…

Pressfield cogently makes the point that it is tribalism and the tribal mindset that has defeated every western invader since Alexander the Great. Little has changed except the invader, and to the Afghani, all invaders are essentially the same. President Obama knew this from the start and planned accordingly, conducting the war more high-tech with drones while setting a time table to get out. George Bush never figured this out, but as we now know, he was slow on the uptake on most things.

The tribesman believes the tribe is far more important than a “nation” run by corrupt officials from afar, a nation which offers little tangible benefit to him or to his tribe. While some Afghani’s in the cities may think in terms of nationhood, 42,000,000 Pashtuns along the Afghan-Pakistan border, segmented into nearly 60 major tribes and more than 400 sub-clans, think in terms of their tribe, not their nation.

These tribes have little fondness for one another, certainly not enough to want to band together to form a country with control over them. Cousins and brothers may fight, but once an invader shows up at the party, they band together and recite an old Arab saying, “Me and my brothers against my cousins; me and my cousins against the world.” It’s a simple but amazingly effective worldview.

Additionally, unlike Christian societies, Afghani tribes have lived under a warrior’s code since the time of Alexander, not a namby-pamby “turn the other cheek” Christian code of conduct. The main elements of the warrior code are honor, hospitality, and revenge…especially revenge, even if it takes 1,000 years to extract from your enemy. Nation-building is not a blip on a tribal Pashtun’s radar screen and not to their advantage. For the U.S. to promote this concept to 42,000,000 million tribal Pashtuns along the Afghan-Pakistan border is a waste of time, resources, treasure, and lives.

Time is not on our side…

The tribes are patient and know time is on their side. The timeless warrior’s code of conduct serves them well. Also, being Muslim doesn’t add to the Pashtun’s willingness to embrace United Nation’s or the United States’ policies, whatever the flavor of the month happens to be. If not directly against these policies, the Pashtuns are at best indifferent to them. Western invaders come and western invaders go; the Pashtun tribesman and tribal mindset is as constant as the Northern star.

The recent killings by a U.S. soldier of 16 Afghan civilians has led to protests in Afghanistan. Al Qaida has been destroyed in Afghanistan and the reason for the Afghanistan war is no longer valid. The time to go is now. Regardless how long we stay, it is highly doubtful that much will change in our lifetime for Afghani tribesman.

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