Afghan Pitfalls

As the United States prepares to escalate its eight-year war against the Taliban, it might be useful to weigh its chances of success.

Consider, first, the fate of three previous invasions of Afghanistan by two great European powers, Britain and Soviet Union, since the nineteenth century. 

These invasions ended in defeat - for the Europeans.

The first British occupation of Kabul lasted for four years. When the British garrison retreated from Kabul in 1842, it was picked off by Ghilzai warriors as they trudged through the snow. Only one British officer, William Brydon, survived this harrowing retreat. This solitary survivor was memorialized in a haunting painting by Elizabeth Butler, titled, Remnants of an Army.

The British occupied Kabul a second time in 1878, withdrew a year later, leaving behind a British resident to keep an eye on the Afghans. They returned the same year, when their resident in Kabul was killed in an uprising. When the British withdrew in 1880, discretely, they did not insist on leaving behind a British resident.

Nearly a hundred years later, 30,000 Soviet troops, invading from the north, occupied Kabul in December 1979. In order to oppose the growing Afghan resistance, the Russians soon raised their troop strength to 100,000 but never controlled any areas beyond the limits of a few cities. With 15,000 deaths, and unable to sustain growing casualties, the Soviets retreated in February 1989.

Will the United States fare better than Britain or the Soviet Union?

In terms of logistics, British India and Soviet Union were better placed than the United States. Afghanistan was next-door neighbor to both. It is half a world away from the United States, which, as a result, depends on long rail and road transit through Pakistan to supply and resupply its troops. Moreover, the supply routes - from Karachi to Kabul - are vulnerable to attacks by the Taliban and their allies in Pakistan. 

Alternative land supply routes would have to pass through Russia or Iran. Russia might make these routes available, at a steep cost, and keep raising the cost as US troop concentration in Afghanistan rises. Dependence on the Russians may turn out to be trap. Almost certainly, the Iranians will refuse, since, to do so, would badly tarnish its image with Sunni Islam.

The Soviet and British invaders primarily had to deal with Afghan fighters. The Americans are fighting the Taliban on both sides of the Afghan border, who, besides the Pushtuns, also have help from several extremist groups based in Punjab and Pakistani Kashmir. 

Pakistan, America's indispensable ally in the war against the Taliban, is an unwilling partner at best; it is also unreliable. Pakistan army has been gang-pressed and bribed into fighting the Taliban, and, as a result, the war is not popular with the junior officers and soldiers. In a rising spiral, Pakistan's war against the Taliban has provoked them to carry their war deeper into Pakistan. At some point, this could split the Pakistan army, intensify Taliban attacks on Islamabad and Lahore, or force Islamist and nationalist officers to take over and end Pakistan's collaboration with the United States.

Under pressure, the Taliban could launch another attack inside India. After the attacks on Mumbai last November, India was threatening 'surgical strikes' against Pakistan, forcing Pakistan to divert its troops to the eastern front. Another Mumbai, followed by Indian surgical strikes against Pakistan, could produce consequences too horrendous to contemplate. 

Are US objectives in Afghanistan so vital as to bring two nuclear powers to the brink of a war?

Iran was not much of a factor when British India and Soviet Union were fighting in Afghanistan. It is now. In Iraq, Iran favored the defeat of the Sunni insurgency once it had denied the United States a victory. In Afghanistan, Iran prefers to create a quagmire for the Americans, ensuring a long stalemate between them and the Taliban.

In light of the consequences that have flowed from the US presence in Afghanistan, who would advise an escalation? President Obama still has time to put on hold his plans to send more troops to Afghanistan. Instead, the best political minds around the world should be examining the least costly exit from a war that promises to become a quagmire, at best, and, at worst, a disaster, which no US objective in the region can justify. 

Unless, dismantling the world's only Islamicate country with the bomb is an objective worthy of such horrendous costs.

M. Shahid Alam is professor of economics at Northeastern University. He is author of Challenging the New Orientalism (2007). He can be reached at [email protected]. Visit the author's website at

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Older Comments:
Mr.saleem, I appreciate yr answer and you are right that one should not condemn anyone like I did but you do not have any right to say or judge that I am not educated enough..maybe u are more than me but I am old enough to know what is going on in Muslim countries and we should have a voice to say what is wrong and being a mother of three children I also know that we should not give reasons or excuses and blowing or breaking thing is not a good enough reason in my eyes to express one's opinion no matter if u r educated or not.

The basic assumption I know better than ya'all. Is racist. People have different backgrounds and they have different priorities.

I meant to say in the case of Native Americans when Early Europeans came they fought them unncessaryly, On basic assumption i know more you dont know much , we are civilized and ya'll are savage and i can decide for you on your behalf. This kind of thinking has no place 21st century.People who have this kind of racist approach to any certain given problem are Non Productive and this racist approach should be avoided at all cost for the benefits of all.

There are many tribes in the world who are not educated. What we are goin to do ask them to alter by force. This is a brutal savage approach.

You can advice them , ya but cannot force them to do any thing. Any change has to be from within and Not from Outside. On volunteer basis, Via peaceful approach and without violating any of the local laws.

We are all different we have to understand this and we all need to be the same via force.

Any effort for all of us to make the same under one law is a criminal approach.

As far as taliban or any other way of living is concerned. FYI Taliban are not against women teaching. This is a false propaganda. In Pakistan Islamist are bombing both boys and girls schools not because they dont like schools but these schools are used to station Pakistan's military to stations. So that's the strategic military tactice beeing used there.

In Afghanistan in the time of war and no infrastructure due to several decades of war. Taliban in Afghanistan did not allow women schools to operate because there was no food and water and many of the schools were used not for education but for exploitation purposes.

Taliban of Afghaistan are not against Women goin to school at all this is a propaganda being used by the west. For all the wrong reasons of Occupation.

Mr.Saleem do you really think one should ask the
Afghans if they want Islamic shria or western style government? These talibaan are the enemy
of Islam and the Mullah have no formal education
in our deen to pass these fatwa's. Where does it
say that women cannot get education? We as Muslims should condem these Taliban and should get rid of them and I think that instead of fighting Westerners we should spend our time learning and educating ourselves and we should have forums as how to improve ourselves, our countries and its educational system and maybe we can have hope.

Please leave the Afghans alone. Let them decide for themselves who they want to lead their country. American or any other nation, stay out of this. What do the foreigners hope to achieve in Afghanistan any way. It is not worth dying for.

The only solution to counter one world order is to support local politics via Referendum. On major issues like one we just experienced in Bolivia.
This brings about major essence of freedom and equality and justice.

So what is local and what are the local issues. Local issue for a given jurisdiction for example Kurdish people should be asked if they want a separate state or province.

Afghans should be asked if they want Taliban style Shariah or Western Style Governments.

Locals means the majority of certain group of people under their ethnic or culture background. As we dont get to choose our ethnicity or tribes. Allah has created men like that so that we can recognize each other.

So all this trouble not to distinguish each other on false assumption that one law for all. Fighting against nature is Non Productive.

We need to recognize each other as Native Americans , when we recognize each other we recognize their ways of living and acknowledge it and respect it. We donot need to fight and be violent.

I agree with Romesh Chandler.This is not rocket science.More war is utterly foolish but the false powers that be think that arrogance and brute force is the only way.Wait until THE Real Power (The Almighty One)intervenes.

America has not won the war fought on foreign soil, and she will not win the war in Afghanistan either. Let the old and new fools in Washington learn their lesson the humiliated way.

What is the purpose of US in Afghanistan? US military and White House and State Department do not have a clue. It is like Vietnam all over again. US lost its purpose in Vietnam.

US is already defeated in Afghanistan; it just have not fully realized it yet. But soon, it will. Economic situation in US deterirating fast. And a declining economy cannot support a war effort. That will make defeat even more brutal. But, hey, that is how silly politics works.