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The U.S. war in Afghanistan remains as unwinnable now as it was when the U.S.–led coalition dropped its first bomb in October 2001, author Scott Horton said at a March 4 talk at Washington, DC’s Middle East Books and More. In his insightful new book, Fool’s Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan, Horton details the futility of the longest U.S. war and makes the case for an immediate long-overdue withdrawal.
The author began with an explanation of America’s long history of meddling in the region—from the 1953 overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh to the ongoing war in Afghanistan known as Operation Freedom’s Sentinel.
Interpreting the Carter Doctrine of 1980, which provided that the United States would use military force if necessary to defend its national interests in the Persian Gulf, Horton argued, “They were deliberately trying to provoke the Soviet Union to invade Afghanistan.”
During Operation Cyclone—the code name for the CIA program to arm and finance the mujahideen in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989, prior to and during the Soviet military intervention—Arab fighters were recruited across the Muslim world, particularly from Syria, Libya, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. “It was a right of passage to go to Afghanistan and fight for at least a little while,” he observed. “Some of them stayed, including Osama bin Laden, who brought his construction company and built bases in Pakistan. He was actually wounded in battle against the Communists and really earned his street credibility among the fighters there as part of the Arab Afghan army.”
Since 1941, “the American empire has never taken a break,” Horton told his audience. “We’ve been at war ever since then. We inherited the world’s empires—the European and Japanese empires at the end of WW II—and have dominated most of the planet ever since then. The Communists got one-third and we got two-thirds, basically, and now that the Communist block is gone America’s influence has spread even further.”
According to Horton, after the 9/11 attacks bin Laden’s agenda was “to bring us to Afghanistan and do the same thing to us that they did to the Russians.” And bin Laden and al-Qaeda found an ally in President George W. Bush, who “enlisted the American military to do their dirty work for them,” he said. “America’s military empire, in taking advantage of and exploiting the 9/11 attacks just as al-Qaeda had wanted us to do, is what has accomplished so many of their goals across the region.”
Horton astutely pointed out that we didn’t need a war against the Taliban, only al-Qaeda. “Taking on the Taliban was actually a huge distraction from taking on the enemy, al-Qaeda,” he exclaimed. “The attackers on 9/11 were not Taliban, they were Egyptians and Saudis.”
Turning to the current insurgency in Afghanistan, he stated: “We cannot win it. Because, to oversimplify it, the first reason is the brutality of the occupation and the way the war is waged against innocents.” But also, Horton noted, “in Afghanistan the war amounts to an American attempt to foist a coalition government of very small minority groups—the Uzbeks, Tajiks, Hazaras—onto the Pashtun tribesmen who dominate in the east and south of the country.”
To instill a government without including the Pashtuns—the single largest ethnic group in Afghanistan—will simply not work, Horton argued. “The Pashtun tribesmen are a warrior culture and they always have been. They define themselves as defenders of invasion.” And, as this area comprises the ancient Silk Road, the Pashtuns have been invaded since time immemorial. “These are people who would rather die than give up,” he averred. “They will not give up and cannot be defeated.”
The Taliban, calling itself the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, “is not a shadow government,” the author stated. “They are the only functioning government in the vast majority of the country now. They rule the entire countryside of the south and the east and much of the west. The Taliban does not have to lose. They just have to hang on, and they have.”
At a cost of more than $1 trillion, the loss of almost 2,400 U.S. soldiers and more than 111,000 Afghans, “the war in Afghanistan has accomplished nothing,” Horton lamented.
“Even though the polls show the majority of American people are against the Afghan war, it is the lowest priority and remains another one of America’s seven wars on the back burner, mostly out of sight and out of mind, and yet is still destroying Afghanistan and the United States,” he concluded.
Fool’s Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan is available from the Washington Report’s Middle East Books and More.