In 1812, Napoleon Bonaparte of France, head of the largest army in the world, began the worst military campaign in history. His ill-fated and tragic invasion of Russia led to nearly two thirds of the French army getting killed. The effects of the doomed maneuver were so long-standing that France never again recovered its military potency. Senator Barack Obama recently stated that if he's elected president the US will engage in a military maneuver just as foolish. Within Senator Obama's recent pronouncements on Iraq is an ominous and troubling prescription about the small land-locked country of Afghanistan. The proposal involves sending "at least" two additional combat brigades to support the 50,000 NATO troops already present in Afghanistan. He goes on to ask for more helicopters, more nonmilitary assistance, and more intelligence gathering. All of this, in Senator Obama's eyes, is supposed to suggest his greater military aptitude; his attempt to show that he will finish the job — capturing Bin Laden and defeating the Taliban — that his Republican predecessor was unable to finish. It is also a lot of politics, because increasing troop presence in Afghanistan allows Obama to say that he supports troop withdrawal from Iraq without appearing like the "surrender monkey" that the Republican opposition will inevitably try to paint him as around election time. Yet Senator Obama's proposal is one of the worst military ideas in recent history. Here is why: Afghanistan is considered the "graveyard of empires." Shortly after 9/11, in his 2001 Foreign Affairs essay, Milton Bearden, the CIA station chief in Pakistan in the 1980's, stated that unless the US proceeded with caution it would end up "on the ash heap of Afghan history." The list of emperors and nations that have tried to hold Afghanistan is long and there is not a single success story. The Soviet Union spent ten years there, with helicopter gunships and tactical nuclear weapons, and failed. The British Empire spent nearly a hundred years trying to alternatively invade and control Afghanistan and veritably failed at both. The Ottoman Empire, which considered itself the inheritor of Roman power, never bothered with Afghanistan. In fact, they were actually dealt crippling blows by invaders from Afghanistan. In the seventh century, even the heaving Arab armies that had been able to take over then world power Persia in a mere five years after the death of Muhammad were unable to take Afghanistan. For Afghanistan to become Muslim more than a hundred years later it took a local ruler from within, and even then power was not centralized in one man. In other words, Senator Obama is setting the US up for failure of world-historical proportions. Unfortunately most American policy makers don't quite understand the difficulty associated with holding Afghanistan because they think that successful invasion is tantamount to a successful occupation. That, of course, is the same tragedy that befell everyone from the Soviets to the armies of Muhammad. Afghanistan allows itself to be invaded. It doesn't allow itself to be held. Testament of this lies in the fact that it has now been seven years since the US military entered Afghanistan and yet just the other day an American base was actually infiltrated and 9 marines were killed. It will only get worse. The reasons that Afghanistan is impossible to hold have to do with geography. Because of its centralized and landlocked location insurgents can disappear into any number of neighboring countries and use them as a base to launch attacks on the occupier. These days the base of insurgent operation are the tribal areas of Pakistan. Even if, miraculously, the US is able to clean out the tribal areas – an operation to which no sane Pakistani politician or military dictator would agree – it would simply mean that the Taliban would move to another one of the neighboring countries. It could be Turkmenistan or Tajikistan or most likely, Uzbekistan, which is now, as the noted journalist Ahmed Rashid pointed out in his aptly titled book Descent Into Chaos, producing militants at an alarming rate. It would perhaps behoove Senator Obama to look at some of the ways the current Afghan insurgency uses the Afghan geography to its advantage: – Recently US and UK forces captured one stash of Taliban heroin worth nearly two billion dollars going out from an Iranian port. – Before that, an investigation by the Independent UK discovered that the Taliban are going to the northern border to purchase weapons directly from the Russians. – Simultaneously an investigation by the NYTimes revealed that the Taliban have taken control of the marble mines in Pakistan's tribal areas. All this doesn't even include any mention of the vast number of foreign fighters that come to Afghanistan from across the world, using the countless entry points into the country. Historically, issues of geography have perhaps been at forefront of any military planning with respect to Afghanistan, but with Senator Obama, they barely register. For someone who previously disparaged the Iraq war as a "dumb war" and a "rash war" his suggestions about increasing troop presence in Afghanistan is a mistake. It is the sort of thing that led Napolean Bonaparte to destroy France. But perhaps the only thing worse than Senator Obama's ideas are those of Senator McCain. No doubt dueling with his opponent, he recently announced that under his plan the US will commit even more troops to Afghanistan than it would under Senator Obama's plan. Such breathless scheming taking place by the leading presidential contenders will lead to disaster.
Getting bogged down in Afghanistan would be infinitely worse for the national interest than any Iraq.