Curse of the Khyber Pass

Curse of the Khyber Pass

Mini Teaser: Afghanistan is a losing battle. Former-CIA officer Milton Bearden argues the Obama administration should turn to the provinces for answers—and consider arming the militias. Full article 

by Author(s): Milton Bearden

Afghanistan is a losing battle. Former-CIA officer Milton Bearden argues the Obama administration should turn to the provinces for answers-and consider arming the militias. Click here to watch Bearden on C-SPAN's "Washington Journal." Full meeting at TNI available. To see Bearden's interview with TNI, please follow this link.


AS THE United States settles into its eighth year of military operations in Afghanistan, and as plans for ramping up U.S. troop strength are under way, we might reflect on an observation made by the Chinese military sage, Sun Tzu, about twenty-five hundred years ago:

In military campaigns I have heard of awkward speed but have never seen any skill in lengthy campaigns. No country has ever profited from protracted warfare.

These words tell the tale of the string of superpowers that have found themselves drawn into a fight in the inhospitable terrain we now call Afghanistan. Their stories of easy conquest followed by unyielding rebellion are hauntingly similar, from the earliest accounts of Alexander's Afghan campaign, when, in 329 BC, the great warrior found the struggle longer, more brutal and more costly than his battle in Persia. And through six centuries the Mughals never managed to bring the Afghans to heel, and most certainly not the Pashtuns. Of course, there were also the disastrous expeditions of Britain and the Soviet Union. Now it is up to the Obama administration to try to change the long odds in what will become America's longest war.

Perhaps the failure of empires in Afghanistan is merely destiny. Each has largely made the same mistakes as its forebears, above all underestimating the Afghans. The premier historian on Afghanistan, the late Louis Dupree, explained how the occupation of Afghan territory by foreign troops, the placing of an unpopular emir on the throne, the harsh acts of occupier-supported segments of the Afghan population against their Afghan enemies and the reduction of the subsidies paid to the tribal chiefs all led to imperial demise.

The United States may not yet have reached that point where it is just another occupation force facing a generalized resistance, but it is getting close. It is, indeed, much as the Mughals who came before, facing a Pashtun insurgency in the east and south of Afghanistan, where invaders historically fail. In Hamid Karzai they have placed an unpopular leader at the helm. The ineffective U.S. aid programs have done little to subsidize potential allies. And so America finds itself pursuing the failed plan of so many ambitious states of the past.


AFGHANISTAN, THOUGH never conquered, has rarely found itself without a potential occupier to hold at bay. And all of those empires have fallen victim to Dupree's four banes. Alexander may have been the first to almost lose his kingdom to the Afghan battlefield, but many followed. This may be the starkest case of Obama's need to learn from history.

After centuries of unrelenting but ultimately failed attempts at conquest, early in the nineteenth century, as imperial Russia expanded its influence in central Asia and as Britain consolidated control of the Indian subcontinent, Afghanistan (much like its occupiers) found itself a victim of circumstance once again. Russia and Great Britain set themselves on a collision course. Afghanistan lay between them as the fulcrum of the "Great Game" of espionage, diplomacy and proxy conflict that would play out over the rest of the century.

The First Anglo-Afghan War of 1839-1842 sprang from British India's need to protect its western flank. Certain that Russia intended to encroach on its empire, in December 1838 the British governor general of India declared the Russian-favored emir of Afghanistan, Dost Mohammed Khan, "dethroned," and launched British forces into Afghanistan. Entry was easy, and after a leisurely march through Kandahar and Ghazni, British forces reached Kabul in August 1839 and placed their man, Shah Shuja, on the throne. The first fatal error.

By 1841 British forces in Afghanistan faced a murderous rebellion led by the deposed emir's son. On January 1, 1842, three years after their invasion, a combined force of sixteen thousand five hundred British and Indian troops began its retreat from Kabul under an agreement of safe conduct. The passage was anything but safe, however, as the retreating forces came under persistent attack by Pashtun Ghilzai warriors in the snowbound mountain passes on the hundred-mile route to Jalalabad. In one of the most crushing defeats in the empire's history, the remnants of the British column were massacred about thirty-five miles from Jalalabad. The sole survivor of the march was an army surgeon. Shah Shuja was assassinated four months later. In 1878, the British would repeat these mistakes in a brief war that would end with another humiliating defeat at Maiwand, about fifty miles northwest of Kandahar, where Afghans killed around one thousand British and Indian troops.

The Soviets would follow the failed British playbook a century later, embarking on their own Afghan adventure on Christmas Eve, 1979. Their decision to move a "limited contingent of Soviet forces" into Afghanistan was based on cooked intelligence that argued America was plotting to use Afghanistan to threaten Russia's central-Asian republics. Really a cover-up for the Soviet Union's own imperial agenda for Afghanistan, these claims supported the doctrines of their aging and ailing leader, Leonid Brezhnev. And so the invasion was launched. The Soviet foray was brutally efficient. The troublesome Afghan leader, Hafizullah Amin, was assassinated; Kabul was secured; and "their emir," Babrak Karmal, was installed at the helm of the Afghan government. Another false leader placed atop the throne. It seemed easy, and it initially looked as if the politburo had called it right; they would be in and out of Afghanistan almost before anyone noticed. Certainly, President Jimmy Carter must be too preoccupied with his hostage crisis in Iran to give much thought to Afghanistan, or so the Kremlin thinking went.

Not quite. Carter reacted decisively. He cancelled a number of pending agreements with the USSR, ranging from wheat sales to consular exchanges, set in motion the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics and quietly signed a presidential finding tasking the CIA to organize assistance, including lethal aid, to the Afghan people in their resistance to the Soviet invasion.

By the fifth year of their war, the Soviet 40th Army had grown from its original limited contingent to a countrywide occupation force of around one hundred twenty thousand troops. Again, here was an outside state foolishly attempting to occupy Afghan territory. As Soviet forces grew, so did the Afghan resistance; by the mid-1980s there were around two hundred fifty thousand full- or part-time mujahideen. Soviet efforts were beginning to falter, and, in 1986, the new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, declared Afghanistan a "bleeding wound." He gave his commanders a year to turn it around. They didn't, and by the end of the 1986 fighting season, the Soviet position had deteriorated further. When the snows melted in the high passes for the new fighting season of 1987, diplomatic activity intensified. A year later, on April 14, 1988, the Geneva Accords ending Soviet involvement in Afghanistan were signed. The Soviets were out of Afghanistan nine months later.

In the nine years of their Afghan adventure, the Soviet Union admitted to having lost around fifteen thousand troops killed in action, several tens of thousands wounded and tens of thousands more dead from disease. The Afghan population had suffered horrendous losses-more than a million dead, a million and a half injured, plus 6 million more driven into internal and external exile. The costs to the USSR, however, would soar with the breathtaking events that followed their February 15, 1989, retreat. In May, Hungary opened its border with Austria without fear of Soviet intervention; a month later came the election of Polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, bringing an end to Communist rule in Poland; throughout the summer of 1989, the people of East Germany took to the streets until, on the night of November 9, 1989, the Berlin wall was finally breached. The world had only just digested the events in Berlin when Vaclav Havel carried out his "velvet" revolution in Czechoslovakia a month later. Three hundred twenty-nine days after the Berlin wall fell, Germany was reunited inside nato, and the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact were on deathwatch. Their Afghan campaign was indeed the death knell for the Soviet Union. But Afghanistan too would plague the United States a short time later.


WITH THE world's attention focused almost entirely on the historic events in Eastern Europe, scant attention was paid to the drama unfolding in Afghanistan at the end of the cold war. There was no looking back by senior levels of the administration of George H. W. Bush. All energies were consumed by the denouement of the Soviet Union and its aftermath. The neglect would be a grave error.

No one accounted for the fact that during the Soviet occupation, the call to jihad had reached all corners of the Islamic world, attracting Arabs young and old and with a variety of motivations to take up arms against the invaders of an Islamic country. There were sincere volunteers on humanitarian missions; there were adventure seekers on paths of glory; and there were Salafist psychopaths. As the war dragged on, some Arab states emptied their prisons of their own scourges and sent them off to the Afghan jihad with the hope that they would never return. Altogether, over ten years of war as many as twenty-five thousand Arabs may have passed through Pakistan and Afghanistan.

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