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George W. Bush's presidency since 2005

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Losing the War in Afghanistan

By Ivan Eland
February 28, 2007

Editor's Note: Since late 2001, George W. Bush and his supporters have boasted about Bush's supposed success in Afghanistan even as Iraq was degenerating into a world-class disaster and the U.S. position was slipping in other countries across the strategic region. Now, however, Afghanistan, too, is sliding toward failure.

In this guest essay, Independent Institute's Ivan Eland looks at the painful lesson that the United States never seems to learn about nation-building and mission creep:

While media attention has been focused on the U.S. quagmire in Iraq, an equally failed war in Afghanistan has received little coverage. As in countless militaristic U.S. nation–building fiascos, “mission creep” in Afghanistan is leading to another foreign policy disaster.

Although the escalation in Afghanistan has not been announced publicly, a reliable source with connections at the Pentagon tells me that the Joint Staff has been ordered to plan for a surge in that country, and the Department of Defense Comptroller has been asked to budget the money for it.

As in Iraq, however, the escalation just promises to sink the United States deeper into the nation–building morass.

Historically, U.S. nation–building adventures have followed a familiar pattern. Once on the ground, U.S. troops, sent for a limited purpose, often have their mission expanded. That expansion tends to ensnare them more deeply in the bog.

In Lebanon, for example, during the early 1980s, the Reagan administration sent U.S. forces to keep the peace among the rival factions in Lebanon’s civil war. Once there, however, their mission was expanded to training, equipping, and patrolling and fighting with one side in the war against the other—that is, with the Christians against the Muslims.

Shi’ite Muslim militants, none too happy with this turn of events, blew up the Marine Corps barracks, killing 241 U.S. military personnel. Ronald Reagan then withdrew U.S. forces from Lebanon.

Osama bin Laden regularly cites this episode as marking his realization that the U.S. superpower could be made to end an occupation through hit–and–run attacks.

In Somalia during the early 1990s, “mission creep” caused similar problems. Initially, U.S. forces were sent merely to guard relief supplies for that nation, which was engulfed in internecine conflict.

The mission then was expanded to include stabilizing the country by fighting the warlord Mohammad Farrah Aideed. Again, the United States fell into joining the fight of on one side of a civil war. U.S. forces were withdrawn from the country after 18 U.S. personnel were killed and some of their bodies were dragged through the streets.

Initially in Iraq, the U.S. plan was to decapitate the regime of Saddam Hussein, and replace him and only his top henchmen with loyal U.S. lackeys. The U.S. mission quickly evolved into holding democratic elections and rebuilding the wrecked country.

As the ongoing U.S. escalation in Iraq unfolds, the United States again will be fighting on one side of an escalating civil war. It is already clear that the militias from the majority Shi’ite sect are melting away and will not resist the augmented U.S. forces.

As a result, U.S. troops will be fighting and diminishing only those insurgents from the minority Sunni sect. The Shi’ite militias intend to wait until the U.S. again reduces its troop presence, before ethnically cleansing the weakened Sunni sect.

In Afghanistan, “mission creep” has taken a slightly different form. Initially, the purpose of the invasion was to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, his top deputy, Ayman al–Zawahiri, and other top al Qaeda leaders, and to remove the Afghan Taliban government that was harboring them.

Those al Qaeda leaders were never captured, because key U.S. intelligence assets and Special Forces troops were moved out to support the invasion of Iraq.

Although the government was removed, the continued presence in Afghanistan of U.S. and NATO forces for nation–building fueled a Taliban resurgence against the foreign occupiers. This winter, despite Afghanistan’s weather—not usually conducive for fighting—Taliban attacks have increased dramatically, and they promise to spike as the mountain snows melt and the spring campaigning season begins.

The unpublicized U.S. escalation there is designed to counter this expected Taliban offensive.

Even worse, the U.S. nation–building mentality in Afghanistan has gone a step further: it now involves reducing opium production.

But each time the United States eradicates opium in this poor nation, it increases the probability that opium farmers and drug lords will support the Taliban. In addition, the failed U.S. war on drugs raises the price of opium, thus increasing the revenues available to drug lords with which to buy the Taliban weapons.

Thus, another U.S. escalation in Afghanistan, even in the unlikely event that it could be sustained simultaneously with the U.S. surge in Iraq, will fail, because U.S. policy is fueling the very Taliban insurgency that the larger U.S. force is there to combat, and because the U.S. government has lost sight of the original mission: to neutralize the top leadership of al Qaeda.

Ivan Eland is Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute and Assistant Editor of The Independent Review. Dr. Eland has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office, Evaluator-in-Charge (national security and intelligence) for the U.S. General Accounting Office, and Investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

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