Afghan Pitfalls

As the United States prepares to escalate its eight-year war against the Taliban, it might be useful to weigh its chances of success.

Consider, first, the fate of three previous invasions of Afghanistan by two great European powers, Britain and Soviet Union, since the nineteenth century.

These invasions ended in defeat – for the Europeans.

The first British occupation of Kabul lasted for four years. When the British garrison retreated from Kabul in 1842, it was picked off by Ghilzai warriors as they trudged through the snow. Only one British officer, William Brydon, survived this harrowing retreat. This solitary survivor was memorialized in a haunting painting by Elizabeth Butler, titled, Remnants of an Army.

The British occupied Kabul a second time in 1878, withdrew a year later, leaving behind a British resident to keep an eye on the Afghans. They returned the same year, when their resident in Kabul was killed in an uprising. When the British withdrew in 1880, discretely, they did not insist on leaving behind a British resident.

Nearly a hundred years later, 30,000 Soviet troops, invading from the north, occupied Kabul in December 1979. In order to oppose the growing Afghan resistance, the Russians soon raised their troop strength to 100,000 but never controlled any areas beyond the limits of a few cities. With 15,000 deaths, and unable to sustain growing casualties, the Soviets retreated in February 1989.

Will the United States fare better than Britain or the Soviet Union?

In terms of logistics, British India and Soviet Union were better placed than the United States. Afghanistan was next-door neighbor to both. It is half a world away from the United States, which, as a result, depends on long rail and road transit through Pakistan to supply and re-supply its troops. Moreover, the supply routes – from Karachi to Kabul – are vulnerable to attacks by the Taliban and their allies in Pakistan.

Alternative land supply routes would have to pass through Russia or Iran. Russia might make these routes available, at a steep cost, and keep raising the cost as US troop concentration in Afghanistan rises. Dependence on the Russians may turn out to be trap. Almost certainly, the Iranians will refuse, since, to do so, would badly tarnish its image with Sunni Islam.

The Soviet and British invaders primarily had to deal with Afghan fighters. The Americans are fighting the Taliban on both sides of the Afghan border, who, besides the Pushtuns, also have help from several Jihadi groups based in Punjab and Pakistani Kashmir.

Pakistan, America’s indispensable ally in the war against the Taliban, is an unwilling partner at best; it is also unreliable. Pakistan army has been gang-pressed and bribed into fighting the Taliban, and, as a result, the war is not popular with the junior officers and soldiers. In a rising spiral, Pakistan’s war against the Taliban has provoked them to carry their war deeper into Pakistan. At some point, this could split the Pakistan army, intensify Taliban attacks on Islamabad and Lahore, or force Islamist and nationalist officers to take over and end Pakistan’s collaboration with the United States.

Under pressure, the Taliban could launch another attack inside India. After the attacks on Mumbai last November, India was threatening ‘surgical strikes’ against Pakistan, forcing Pakistan to divert its troops to the eastern front. Another Mumbai, followed by Indian surgical strikes against Pakistan, could produce consequences too horrendous to contemplate.

Are US objectives in Afghanistan so vital as to bring two nuclear powers to the brink of a war?

Iran was not much of a factor when British India and Soviet Union were fighting in Afghanistan. It is now. In Iraq, Iran favored the defeat of the Sunni insurgency once it had denied the United States a victory. In Afghanistan, Iran prefers to create a quagmire for the Americans, ensuring a long stalemate between them and the Taliban.

In light of the consequences that have flowed from the US presence in Afghanistan, who would advise an escalation? President Obama still has time to put on hold his plans to send more troops to Afghanistan. Instead, the best political minds around the world should be examining the least costly exit from a war that promises to become a quagmire, at best, and, at worst, a disaster, which no US objective in the region can justify.

Unless, dismantling the world’s only Islamicate country with the bomb is an objective worthy of such horrendous costs.

M. Shahid Alam is professor of economics at Northeastern University, Boston. You may read this essay with footnotes and references in Real World Economics Review where it was first published. He is the author of Poverty from the Wealth of Nations (Palgrave-Macmillan: 2000) and Intimations of Ghalib (Orison Books: 2018). Read other articles by M. Shahid.

7 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on February 13th, 2009 at 10:33am #

    can we exclude the notion in our evaluation of the nato/US invasion of afgh’n and US invasion of iraq that US wanted to democratise Iraq and afgh’n? or any muslim or fascist land?

    moreover, may we exclude the notion that US went into afgh’n to hunt terrorists? in view that there may have been in ’01 a few dozens of them there and all or most of them being arabs?

    we can definitely exclude the idea that US war planners sent boys to afgh’n and iraq to teach sunnis, kurds, and shias of iq to get along and to win their hearts and minds.

    similarly, nato did not invade afgh’n because it wanted to make pashtuns love uzbeks and tajiks and vice versa.
    war planners must have known that christian occupiers wld be resented by all muslims of afgh’n.

    so why is nato in afgfh’n and US in iraq? establishment of some bases in each by now completely dysfunctional lands!? and rendering both empires ungovernable and anarchic.

    so, it seems that US will remain for decades + in both evil empires. thnx

  2. kalidas said on February 13th, 2009 at 6:57pm #

    It’s the poppies, stupid.

    “Turning first to drug control, I had expected to concentrate my remarks on the implications of the Taliban’s ban on opium poppy cultivation in areas under their control… We now have the results of our annual ground survey of poppy cultivation in Afghanistan. This year’s production [2001] is around 185 tons. This is down from the 3300 tons last year [2000], a decrease of over 94 per cent. Compared to the record harvest of 4700 tons two years ago, the decrease is well over 97 per cent.

    Any decrease in illicit cultivation is welcomed, especially in cases like this when no displacement, locally or in other countries, took place to weaken the achievement” (Remarks on behalf of UNODC Executive Director at the UN General Assembly, Oct 2001,

  3. JosephConrad said on February 13th, 2009 at 10:04pm #

    America’s WEALTHY OLD WHITEBOY 1%-ERS, their GOP ‘Slaves’ & the COMPLICIT Democraps have tried to STEAL – THRU GENOCIDE & SURROGATE WARFARE – the OIL & GAS of more than 100 nations around the World since 1960. In the process, the U.S. has killed over 550,000 citizens of Central American nations; over 200,000 in South America; more than 4.6 MILLION in DR of Congo and the rest of Central Africa; and over 2.5 MILLION MUSLIMS.

    America will not STOP MURDERING MILLIONS of the World’s citizens until it can no longer FIELD AN ARMY or its citizens WAKE UP.

  4. AaronG said on February 15th, 2009 at 3:33pm #

    The article talks about “winning” and “losing” wars like the old days when armies faced each other in the field. Make no mistake about it, America is “winning” this war, like the one in Iraq. It is not a quagmire. The US’s “interests” have always been imperialism, control of oil/oil pipelines, military bases, economic boom for arms dealers and disaster capitalists etc and maybe more that I am not qualified to enumerate. If you measure the invasion against these parameters, the exercise has been a success.

    If you measure the invasion against the official reasons like overthrowing the Taliban, capturing some phantom terrorists and/or bringing Blairite freedom to the world blah blah blah then, yes, the exercise has been a failure.

    It’s all in the perspective……………..

  5. bozh said on February 15th, 2009 at 5:21pm #

    it does seem that US had since 1800 gone on missions possibles; i.e., missions achievables and missions achieved.
    missions in afgh’n and iraq are missions impossibles only if we take stated goals as true.

    but if we assume the goals were to destabilize the two evil empires (realatively easy to do) and set up puppet gov’ts in both empires, then even these missions are accomplished.

    yes kilings, or rather, child-, woman-, and manhunt, goes on since US needs to get rid of old bombs and missiles anyway; so, why not use them against alien terrestrials; having tainted skin helps also.
    it’s also good for economy and a moral booster for a psychotic empire. thnx

  6. Warwickshire said on March 28th, 2009 at 4:41am #

    Please get it right Mr Alam the British withdrew from Afghanistan in (1880) SIX MONTHS after capturing and relieving the garrison at Kandahar where the very next day they attacked and defeated the Army of Ayub Khan . Lord Roberts and his men then marched to Malwand where they buried the dead of a previous battle. I don’t call that discreate in the manner that you suggest. The whole point of the exercise was to dissuade Russia into seeking a path into India.

  7. mary said on March 28th, 2009 at 7:12am #

    We (the West and the Russians before us) have NOT learnt any lessons from our previous experiences in Afghanistan.

    Dr William Brydon was the last man standing in 1842 in the First Afghan War as Professor Alam says.

    Afghanistan is just a graveyard for the invaders and the wars cause death and misery for the people. Nobody actually wins.

    For instance the casualties and losses in the First Afghan War were
    7,000+ Afghan army killed & wounded
    5,062 British army killed
    Afghan civilians = Unknown
    British civilians = 12,000 killed

    This war was followed by the Second and the Third and goodness knows what the totals are of the dead and injured since then.


    PS I have left other comments on Obama on Nicole Colson’s article on this site. War on Terror 2.0