Wayne O’Leary

Obama’s Kipling Moment

The tentative success of the surge in Iraq—tentative because military progress has not yet translated into geopolitical progress—has apparently encouraged the Obama administration to attempt its duplication in Afghanistan. The Afghan buildup will coincide with a gradual drawing down of American forces from the Iraq theater. Not a total withdrawal, mind you, but a reduction to 50,000 “non-combat” troops, who will stay more or less indefinitely to secure the survival of the Maliki government, our client in Baghdad.

Those homeward bound from the deserts of Iraq will not demobilize; after the requisite stateside R and R, they’ll be outward bound again—this time to the mountains of Afghanistan, site of America’s latest war of choice. President Obama insists he wants to talk to the enemy this time, to employ diplomacy and negotiation rather than just guns and bombs as his predecessor was prone to do. Nothing wrong with that. Why not try talking? The problem, of course, is that the new top-priority enemy, the Taliban, do not appear especially talkative.

I suspect the Obama team knows this and is preparing for an armed resolution and for a lengthy stay. We’ve already spent, in addition to $32 billion on civilian reconstruction programs, $1.1 billion to provide semi-permanent facilities to house American troops in Afghanistan, and $1.3 billion is in the pipeline for further construction in 2009. That budgetary commitment implies an expanded, long-range military commitment to follow. The president himself has called the Afghan sector the “central front on terror.” He’s recently signed off on 17,000 more troops to prosecute the war there, bringing the US total to 55,000. The commander on the ground, Gen. David McKiernan, has a standing request for thousands more.

So America, the policeman of the world, has mounted the treadmill once more, taking on another conflict it won’t easily cast off. Rudyard Kipling, poet laureate of British imperialism, who in 1899 exhorted Americans to assume “the White Man’s burden” of civilizing Third World peoples, would have approved. Yet, this same Kipling unwittingly provided a cautionary tale about what such an enterprise might entail in Afghanistan. In “The Man Who Would Be King,” a short story often considered the author’s best, he described the ill-fated expedition of two English adventurers from British India to remote Kafiristan in the northeast corner of Afghanistan during the late 1880s. “You’ll be cut to pieces before you’re fifty miles across the Border,” the story’s narrator advises the heedless duo. “You have to travel through Afghanistan to get to that country. It’s one mass of mountains and peaks and glaciers, and no Englishman has been through it.”

Kipling, who worked as a journalist embedded with British colonial troops of the Raj along what is now the Afghan-Pakistan border, knew whereof he spoke. His reporting revolved around the so-called Great Game, the century-long competition between Britain and Russia for imperial dominance over the Near East, which included three futile English attempts (in 1838-42, 1878-80, and 1919) to conquer and occupy tribal Afghanistan as a buffer state to India. The first of these Afghan wars was notable for the 1841 massacre of an entire 4,000-man British army in retreat from Kabul, with only one ragged survivor returning safely. Between 1979 and 1989, the Soviet Union learned a similarly expensive lesson about guerilla war in Afghanistan, when it sacrificed 15,000 troops in an ill-conceived attempt to establish a pro-communist puppet regime there.

Afghanistan’s fearsome mujahideen fighters—the Taliban presently has an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 of these jihadist warriors—should give pause to plans for a ramp-up of the American military commitment in Afghanistan. Outside its isolated capital city, the country has a semi-feudal, warlord-based society that revels in armed conflict far more than comparatively modernized and westernized Iraq. But it also has something else threatening to foreign interventions: its forbiddingly harsh environment. Where Iraq is a country of open deserts and flat plains perfectly suited to US-style mechanized warfare utilizing tanks and air power, Afghanistan has a mostly mountainous terrain that nullifies American technological advantages. Searingly hot summers and achingly cold winters are combined with some of the most rugged, inaccessible heights found anywhere, including the famed Hindu Kush range bordering the Himalayas, where elevations reach 25,000 feet. US patrols, aided by helicopters, presently venture no higher than 10,000 feet. Like Russia’s steppes, Afghanistan’s mountains can literally swallow up armies, especially in winter.

To this must be added Afghanistan’s formidable size (slightly smaller than Texas), its population (at 33 million, larger than Iraq’s), its unlimited access to insurgent reinforcements from Taliban-friendly western Pakistan (also ethnically Pashtun and religiously Sunni Muslim), its lack of a transportation network (1,700 miles of paved roads compared to Iraq’s 28,000), and, most problematic, its difficult supply routes for foreign occupiers. Roughly 75% of supplies for US and NATO troops are transported overland from Karachi through the legendary, 26-mile-long Khyber Pass connecting the Afghan and Pakistan mountains—the same circuitous route used by British armies in Kipling’s day. In short, the setting is a logistical hell and a tactical-strategic nightmare for outside military forces.

This combination of factors has had its effect on America’s coalition allies. Canada, which has lost over 100 men holding off the Taliban in the Kandahar region of southern Afghanistan (a comparable loss for the US would be over 1,000), will pull its 2,500-strong “peacekeeping” force out in 2011. Prime Minister Stephen Harper admitted to the CBC News in early March that he frankly doubted the Afghan insurgency could be defeated. Yet, as Bush did in Iraq, Obama is strengthening his military commitment just as his allies are melting away. He may shortly be alone; a recent opinion poll found barely 34% of Americans in favor of sending more troops to Afghanistan.

Like Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party, Afghanistan’s Taliban is composed of not-very-nice people who, nevertheless, did not attack us. The Obama administration is faced with a dilemma: Do we want, and can we afford, to go to war with everyone we don’t like, or forcibly reform and democratize every authoritarian society that refuses to adopt Western values? America’s first black president needs to carefully reconsider his assumption of 2009’s version of the white man’s burden.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He holds a doctorate in American history and is the author of two prizewinning books.

From The Progressive Populist, May 1, 2009

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