In the first years of Operation Enduring Freedom, the United States managed to oversee a campaign that broke the Taliban, drove them out of major cities and regions, including Kabul, and left them dispirited and broken. And did it while taking under 50 casualties a year. But in 2010, the United States suffered almost ten times as many casualties as it did in the toughest battles of the early days of the war.
In 2001-2002, we barreled into Afghanistan on a mission to break the Taliban and kill or capture as many Al Qaeda as possible. We employed maximum firepower so casually that the fleeing Taliban fighters were thoroughly demoralized. So much so that it took them years to even seriously think about confronting us again.
Let's go back to the end of 2001 and the Battle of Qala-i-Jangi. Hundreds of Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners imprisoned in Qala-i-Jangi Fortress revolted, seized weapons from their guards and took over parts of the fortress. The United States and its allies responded with mass bombardment using gunships and guided missiles. A handful of surviving prisoners took refuge in the basement, which was flooded with water, forcing them to surrender.
Can anyone imagine something like this being done today, without everyone involved facing media smear campaigns and criminal trials? Only 3 years later, the mild mistreatment of some terrorists and insurgents imprisoned at Abu Ghraib resulted in a media feeding frenzy and criminal trials. Two years later, the Haditha Marines were virtually lynched for acting in self-defense. Today the ACLU is actually suing the US government for daring to use drone strikes against Anwar Al-Awlaki, a top Al-Qaeda terrorist recruiter who was tied to the Christmas bombing and Fort Hood Massacre, because he happens to hold US citizenship.
The difference between 2001 and 2011, is that today the idea of fighting a war is controversial.
Two of the sewer rats hiding out in the Qala-i-Jangi basement among the corpses of their own kind happened to hold American citizenship. John Walker Lindh was tried early enough that he received very little mercy from either the media or the court. And he didn't have the Saudi government behind him. Yaser Esam Hamdi on the other hand grew up in Saudi Arabia. And like so many murderers and terrorists before him, Hamdi became a liberal cause celebre. None of them asked what role he may have had in the first US combat death, the murder of Johnny "Mike" Spann during the Battle of Qala-i-Jangi. They were too busy agonizing over how small his prison cell was.
Everyone from the ACLU, the CATO Institute, the AJC, the ABA and Trial Lawyers For Public Justice piled on to help Hamdi. And in one of its most shameful hours since the Dred Scott Decision, the Rehnquist court stood for Hamdi, with only Justice Clarence Thomas left alone to stand up for America and against Islamic Terrorism, along with its native aiders and abettors. Several months later, he was released back to Saudi Arabia, a known revolving door system for terrorists with George Clooney developing a movie to play his lawyer.
We have come a long way from bombing terrorists until they cowered in flooded basements, to turning them and their liberal defenders into Hollywood heroes. And there is the difference between the war as it was, and the war as it is.
In the agonizing days and months after September 11, there was still a clear moral compass. We understood who the enemy was and we didn't care how we treated him. But as the memory faded, the moral compass faded into guilt and sympathy for the enemy. We stopped thinking in terms of kill ratios and turned it all into a nation building exercise. We forgot that we were there to kill terrorists, and decided that we were there to turn them into model citizens instead.
In Afghanistan the Taliban regrouped and rebounded, while the Alliance strategy focused on winning the hearts and minds of the tribal. And it's no wonder that our casualties have gone up tenfold. We have become occupation forces without teeth.
The enemy knows that all he has to do is hide behind civilians to neuter our air power and artillery. To force us to chase after him on the ground. And then our patrols run into ambushes that fall back or IED's that can be planted without exposing the enemy to our fire. And the credit for that strategy goes to every cry of outrage over Afghan civilians killed by air strikes and the accompanying need to win back their support through money, village improvements and neutering our own warfighting capabilities in a way that favors the Taliban.
Al Queda and the Taliban know that they can move in plain sight with weapons in hand and that our soldiers can't fire until they do. No wonder they can control as much of the country as they want.
Most US casualties in Afghanistan continue to come from IED's employing Ammonium Nitrate imported from Iran, Russia, Germany and China into Pakistan or manufactured in facilities such as Pakistan's own Pak-Arab Fertilizer Company, operated by Nasim Beg, a Pakistani senator with close ties to the government, and smuggled across the border to the Taliban. The fertilizer pipeline flows from mostly enemy countries to our enemies/allies in Pakistan, and across the border to the Taliban. Who have used it to kill record numbers of American and Coalition forces.
The IED strategy depends on the clash between our attempt to control the area with boots on the ground, and the reality that we can never trust any of the natives on the ground. It's the perfect low tech match to our COIN approach. We can pile up Taliban kill ratios, but they don't really matter. The Taliban get their funding from abroad. And they can always recruit more cannon fodder to take our bullets. But our own people are not nearly as replaceable. And we don't know why we're there anymore.
Afghanistan is not going to be civilized any time soon. Most of it is stuck in the dark ages and will go on being stuck there for the foreseeable future. Democracy is a dead road even in far more advanced Muslim countries. In Afghanistan's tribal system it's anything but a guarantor of civil rights. And as a Muslim region, it is never going to be a place where women have many rights. We could boostrap it until parts of it is up to the level of parts of Pakistan or even parts of Egypt. But those are still countries where 90 percent of women have little more rights than dogs, and that's only because Mohammed and his Koran hated dogs more. There is only one hope for women's rights in the Muslim world. And that is the abandonment of Islam.
There were three reasons why we went into Afghanistan. First, to kill those who had done this to us. Second, to send a message to anyone who would attack us that they would pay a terrible price for it. Third, to make it clear that our reach was worldwide. We had accomplished the first and second goals within a year of the onset of Operation Freedom. But burdened by our idealistic "White Man's Burden" rhetoric, we stayed to open girls' schools and provide electricity and stabilize Karzai's coalition and do all the other little Nation Building things that our charitable little hearts told us needed to be done. And as we set to doing these things full time, we forgot why we were there and how to break the enemy, instead of maintaining vigil on a series of forts and outposts as if we were the second coming of the British Empire. Worst of all, we had fallen into the deadly trap of thinking that our goal was to make the natives love us. And through that endless quest for their love, we betrayed our own soldiers and disarmed ourselves.
Had we packed up and left in 2003, things might have been different. But if we leave today on any terms other than the massive devastation of the Taliban, then we leave as losers, having tossed away the deterrence we gained in the crucial battles of 2001 and 2002. But that appears to be exactly how we will leave. Our quest to be loved has taken us to the Taliban. And sooner or later a deal will be struck, the choppers will lift off, and we'll leave behind not beaten foes, but celebrating Taliban who will fire into the air as proof that America has been defeated in Afghanistan, just as Russia was.
Our commitment to nation building once again snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Not because we were physically weak, but because we were morally weak. Too married to the myth of global stability, unable to prioritize our lives and welfare over those of enemy civilians, and incapable of understanding that trying to apply the Marshall Plan and Cold War strategies to the Muslim world was yet another case of refighting the last war, instead of learning to fight the new. And so we're caught in the dying stages of a war now being fought because politicians like Obama who oppose it, still want to leave on some kind of high note. Not because they think it can be won, but because they want to win their own elections. This is the Afghan War to Nowhere. A war we could have won, but chose not to instead.