"The most extravagant idea that can be born in the head of a political thinker is to believe that it suffices for people to enter, weapons in hand, among a foreign people and expect to have its laws and constitution embraced.
No one loves armed missionaries; the first lesson of nature and prudence is to repulse them as enemies."
Thus spoke French Revolutionary leader Maximilien Robespierre in warning against foreign entanglements, though he soon succumbed to the pressure of his peers and the public: To ostensibly secure France's borders, he moved to belligerently impose the ideas of the Revolution in foreign lands, and shortly after lost his head on the guillotine to cheers of the crowd he had coddled.
"In counterinsurgency," noted Acting Director of U.S. National Intelligence David Gompert, "the population is not just the field of battle but the prize." The problem with our mission in Afghanistan is that each passing day not only makes that prize more unattainable abroad but brings new risks at home.
The NATO-led mission in Afghanistan is now near parity with the Red Army's top troop strength, and has already lasted as long as the doomed occupation during the 1980s that facilitated the collapse of the Soviet Empire. NATO's recent decision to fight for four more years in a war that cannot be won, on behalf of an untrustworthy and unpopular government, in order to solve a problem that no longer really exists, is a stunning waste of lives, treasure and the goodwill of the world's peoples on whom our own national security ultimately depends.
Still, the United States and its allies persist in pursuing what one soldier in the field described to me as "a crazy dream." As a result, NATO's already diminishing credibility and, more portentously, America's already declining influence in the world, likely will degrade faster and further despite newer, more positive plans for NATO's future program elsewhere.
"As we approach our 10th year of combat," intoned President Obama, "we must never lose sight of what's at stake:" to deny al Qaeda a safe haven by "building democracy" with the good cop tactic of social "reconciliation and reintegration" (which no Taliban group has yet accepted) and the bad cop strategy of military "containment and counterinsurgency" in a country already tormented by three decades of constant war. Truth be told, although the Taliban and al Qaeda have had an unsteady alliance of convenience, there were never any Afghans in al Qaeda, and there is no significant al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan today. The one incontrovertible fact is that over the last five years or so, the greater NATO's footprint in the country, the more widespread and lethal the Taliban insurgency has become.
The recent revelation in Britain's newspaper The Guardian, that some Afghan émigrés from the UK and other Western countries regularly return to fight with the Taliban against perceived Western occupation of their homeland, signals that the Afghan insurgency has become a partisan movement of the Global Age. "I work as a minicab driver," one London-based Taliban part-timer said," I make good money. But these people are my friends and my family and it's my duty to come to fight jihad with them."
The name "partisan," which probably stems from the resistance of the Parthian people to Roman occupation 2,100 years ago, was first systematically applied to Jewish "zealots" and other "terrorists" just after the time of Jesus. Jewish partisans carried out suicide missions to incite Roman retaliation against the civilian population and so increase popular support for the rebels' cause. Beginning with the Spanish guerrilla war against Napoleon and on through WWII, "partisan" came to mean a member of any irregular force formed from a population to fight foreign control of their territory. The hallmark of any successful partisan movement is wide-ranging local involvement, most tellingly from "part-timers" -- the "bakers and candlestick makers" who work for the occupiers by day and the insurgency by night. Partisan strength lies in the social network within which the insurgency is embedded: in the dense fabric of families and friends that now extends, courtesy of globalization's easy movement and communication, to fellow travelers among immigrant and internet communities.
Among the London cabbie's fighting circle in Afghanistan we find farmers, teenage madrasa students, local officials, European part-timers, and old timers fighting, they say, "because the foreigners are here"; 30 years before "they were called Russians, but they are the same, all kafirs (infidels)." A century ago, British Army missionary T.L. Pennell wrote in his classic, Among the Wild Tribes of the Afghan Frontier: "The Afghans are never at peace except when they are at war! For when some enemy from without threatens their independence, then, for the time being, are their feuds and jealousies thrown aside, and they fight shoulder to shoulder ... all desirous of joining some jihad."
Today, "Taliban" is an umbrella term for those who collectively hate the "foreign invader" enough to turn even traditional enemies into friends. Since 2005, when NATO began ratcheting up military involvement, Taliban ranks have swelled many fold and their influence has spread to nearly every part of the country. The Taliban coalition now extends to almost all segments of the population, including the Pashtun's traditional rivals: Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazara and others.
In describing the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire, T.E. Lawrence wrote: "the idea of nationality was independence of clans and villages, and their ideal of national union was episodic combined resistance to the intruder.... They were fighting to get rid of empire, not to win it." Although far inferior in treasure and arms, the insurgents would beat the enemy with "a highly mobile striking force of the smallest size" that would squirrel to death the enemy's desire and ability to hold on to as much territory as possible: "his stupidity is our ally, for he would like to hold, or think he held as [many] provinces a possible." NATO's present "surge" strategy against a similar kind of enemy, initiated by the Obama administration's decision to send an additional 30,000 troops to assist in "pacifying" as many Afghan provinces as possible, also does not shine with intelligence or effectiveness. 2010 is the bloodiest year yet of fighting, with insurgent attacks up by two-thirds over last year.
In a report released in August 2009, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee warned that the Obama administration "has raised the stakes by transforming the Afghan war from a limited intervention into a more ambitious and potentially risky counterinsurgency." The incoming chief of the British Army, General Sir David Richards, cautioned that the proposed counterinsurgency and nation-building mission in Afghanistan (which now costs over a billion dollars per week) "could last up to 40 years."
A century before, Lord Curzon, the former Viceroy of India who had established the North West Frontier Province as a buffer zone to keep the Afghan tribes at arm's length, rose in Parliament as a member of the opposition to warn the new British government against prolonged military engagement: "we are dealing with an enemy habituated to every form and habit of guerilla warfare, even if [military action] attended with maximum success, no permanent results can be obtained;" and if Britain further attempted to occupy their homeland the whole region would be "ablaze from one end to the other [causing] an intolerable burden on finances." In Afghanistan, the more things change, the more they remain the same.