Bytes, Not Bombs

This is a story about a US Army Reserve captain, Benjamin Tupper, and how the war in Afghanistan might have been won. But first, let's go to the replay.

A long, long time ago -- 2001 -- the war in Afghanistan began. Back then, the war had a purpose and a focus. The focus was a tallish Arab millionaire named Osama bin Laden, who had made it his mission in life to hurt the United States, to drive the "infidel" -- that's us -- out of Muslim lands. He had been kicked out of his native Saudi Arabia, so he was stateless. All he needed to attack the United States over and over was a low-rent base of operations, a few Islamist zealots ready to die for the cause, and a fistful of dollars. Because he had shrewdly contributed to the jihad against the USSR in the 1980s, and to the Taliban takeover of most of Afghanistan in the 1990s, he had street cred among the Afghans, and was given space for his training camps in eastern Afghanistan.

The purpose of the US invasion of Afghanistan was two-fold: to get Osama, "dead or alive," as one cowboy put it, and to oust the Taliban from power in Kabul. The rout of the Taliban seemed almost too easy. A wild bunch of CIA rough riders on horseback and the battle-hardened soldiers of the Northern Alliance accomplished the task in a couple of weeks. The death or capture of Osama remains unfinished business, and the fact that he lives and is still pulling the strings of Al Qaeda stands as the single greatest failure of the Bush administration, particularly of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who refused to commit additional forces in the Tora Bora mountains to trap Osama and eliminate not only him but the leadership cadre of Al Qaeda. Rumsfeld's focus had quickly shifted to Iraq, for as-yet unfathomable reasons, as Iraq had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks and had not otherwise threatened the US. Iraq had "better targets," Rumsfeld is said to have said. The decision to forget about Osama and attack Iraq led to the current state of affairs in Afghanistan, which is probably best described as a quagmire. My belief is that Afghanistan could have been "won" with far fewer troops and many more people like Greg Mortensen (Three Cups of Tea) and Captain Benjamin Tupper. You can listen to Captain Tupper's commentary on NPR of what he feels was his best contribution to the war effort: spreading computer literacy.

Let's quickly run through the If List. If Osama and his top guns had been killed or captured right away, and if the US had held Pakistan's feet to the fire instead of simply pouring billions of dollars into Islamabad for vague purposes, al Qaeda might have been rolled up in a hurry. If the US had empowered the Afghans to defend themselves against a Taliban resurgence -- remember, the vast majority of Afghans hated the Taliban -- and if the focus had been on non-military, electricity-and-education assistance, and if the US had not sent a large occupation army into Afghanistan, the situation there would be vastly different.

The only reason the Taliban are powerful today is because we gave them a cause and a mission by occupying Afghanistan with Western armies. No nation in the world has been happy under the boot of an occupying army. The American soldier served as a recruiting poster for the Taliban and gave them, as Rumsfeld might have put it, "better targets."

Captain Tupper's story about how he managed to get a shipment of computers out of storage and put them into the hands of the Afghan National Army soldiers he was working with reveals a lot about the failures of the US effort in Afghanistan: American officers thinking the Afghans were too stupid or too corrupt to be trusted with a few Dell computers, and the lasting gratitude of the Afghans who were given both the trust and the tools to improve their own lives.

At the same time as Captain Tupper's commentary comes a story in the Wall Street Journal reporting that billions of dollars in cash, including US aid money, have been funneled through Kabul International Airport and flown out of Afghanistan. The story quotes State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley as saying the Afghan government has "gradually improved" its ability to track the dollars coming into and leaving Afghanistan. If that's the case, it probably means only that corrupt officials have "gradually improved" their abilities to siphon off more of those dollars for their own use.

Just think what Captain Tupper and Greg Mortensen might have accomplished with that money. Instead of being a tour in hell for American soldiers, Afghanistan might today be a destination for tourists, as it once was.