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Why Are We In Afghanistan?

Why Are We In Afghanistan?

By Richard Reeves - February 7, 2009

NEW YORK -- Twenty-five years ago, when more than 100,000 soldiers of the Red Army were trying to gain control of Afghanistan, I spent most of a day at the Afghan Surgical Hospital on the Pakistan side of the Khyber Pass, listening to stories about Soviet atrocities.

The place was run, probably with American money, by the most fundamentalist of Pakistan's many religious parties, Jamaat-i-Islami, the spiritual (and often literal) fathers of the Taliban. I wrote this at the time:

"I was not allowed to leave without going from bed to bed. Forty beds. At each one, stumps of arms or legs would be thrust at me, or dressings would be lifted away to show a red hole that had been a face. A young man, what was left of him, held my eyes with his until I cried as the blankets were pulled from his wasting body, most of it scar tissue from burns. ... An older man named Abdul Kareem, who said he was a farmer at a place called Baghlan, north of Kabul, proudly showed me the foot-long stumps of his legs."

"Abdul Kareem said, through a translator, that a Russian had thrown a grenade into his house and killed three of his children. "'How do you know it was a Russian?'" I asked.

"'I know Russians,' he said. 'They have red faces. They look like monkeys.'

"The maimed men around me burst into laughter. They were broken only in body -- and many of their bodies were being patched up so they could fight another day."

Someone else said something and they laughed again. I didn't need a translator to know what he had said. "They look like you!"

Most of the fighters I talked with there and in travels through the tribal lands on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border saw little difference between Russians and Americans, except at that time we were paying them to kill Russians. Communists, democrats, we all represented modernity to them. We wanted to give them -- or force on them -- new laws, new freedoms, a new culture. Most of all, both communists and democrats wanted to educate women.

We want them to be like us. That is not going to happen.

They beat the Soviets, as they beat the British of Kipling's time, the time he wrote "A Soldier of the Queen," ending:

"When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains,

"And the women come out to cut up what remains,

"Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains

"An' go to your Gawd like a soldier."

And they will defeat us. They have been there for centuries, and they will be there for centuries more. They have no place else to go. We do and we will. As early as 2006, Field Marshal Sir Peter Inge, the former head of Great Britain's armed forces, warned his country and countrymen that they were risking another defeat in Afghanistan, which is more a name than a nation.

Which brings me to President Obama's warnings and pledges about winning in Afghanistan. He had to sound tough about something after he courageously and correctly opposed our invasion of Iraq. That's how American politics works. And American presidents, the good ones, change their focus and strategies as times and events redirect them. Now he is running the government, and he should break those promises, the sooner the better, before more of our men -- and the men of our NATO allies -- are left on Afghanistan's plains.

"We did not finish the job against al-Qaida in Afghanistan. We did not develop new capabilities to defeat a new enemy, or launch a comprehensive strategy to dry up the terrorists' base of support," Obama said during the campaign. We tried but failed. That's too bad, but the growth of terrorism and a multiplication of terrorist havens have made the job more complex and Afghanistan irrelevant.

We have been on the plains and in the mountains for seven years now, almost as long as the Soviets were there. We went to punish Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida for the bombing of the World Trade Center -- and we have certainly had some success diminishing that organization, even as others are arising, some because we are engaged in that part of the world. It is worth remembering that bin Laden and his people are not Afghans; they are Saudi Arabians and Egyptians.

So the relevant questions now are: Who are we fighting? Why?

Copyright 2009, Universal Press Syndicate Inc.

Richard Reeves

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