Small World: Questions from Afghanistan

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

The story of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, free after five years as a prisoner of the Taliban in Afghanistan, is loaded with questions — most of which are generously sauced with politics.

Did Bergdahl desert his duty station or simply become confused and disoriented and wandered into Taliban territory? Were American lives lost trying to rescue him? Did he really suffer the rough treatment by his captors as he described after his release?

Was the swap of five senior Taliban leaders a reasonable deal or did their release put five killers back on the battlefield? Can Qatar be depended on to hold these men in supervised custody for a year as promised?

Did President Obama violate the law requiring consultation with the Congress before any prisoners are released from Guantanamo confinement?

Finally, as America winds downs its engagement and, before too long, pulls out of Afghanistan, could our president have honorably left one soldier behind to an unknown fate?

How one answers these questions will probably tell more about a person’s politics than about conditions in Afghanistan or the workings of our military and civilian leadership in Washington. Myself, I would be inclined to support the decision Obama made to end Bergdahl’s captivity. I don’t see how a reasonable and compassionate chief could have done otherwise.

But, hold on — there are other questions that haven’t been batted around in the press — questions having to do with the original and continuing wisdom of our struggle in Afghanistan.

I’m far from expert on Afghanistan. I visited once for three weeks in 1973, long before the Taliban took over and when the country was still ruled by a king. Traveling around the realm, I concluded that I had never been in such a primitive and starkly different place in my career. Iran, where we lived at the time, seemed decades or a century ahead.

I am fortunate that I have friends who were stationed there and love and thoroughly understand the country. I have also read histories of the place and the defeats its tough fighters have inflicted on all invaders since Alexander the Great.

I doubt that President Bush and his people were much better informed than I when they launched the invasion in 2001. We acted to avenge al Qaeda’s destruction of the World Trade Towers, to chase down Osama bin Laden and to drive out the Taliban who had granted the terrorists sanctuary.

We forced Pakistan to support us even though the Paks saw Afghanistan as their “strategic depth” in their continuing struggle with India over the Moslem state of Kashmir. Pakistan had helped the fanatic Taliban to defeat the other competing ethnic and warlord groups in Afghanistan. The Pakistan military and intelligence service were not about to abandon their client. Nevertheless, in the process we pushed (nuclear armed) Pakistan into civil strife with its own brand of Taliban.

The U.S. invasion was a fast moving thing; al Qaeda and the Taliban slipped across the border and continued their resistance from Pakistan. That began 12 years ago! The longest war the United States has ever fought. It was not a war that Bush and his neo-con advisors wanted, however. Their preferred target was Iraq and with crude deceptions they led our nation into yet another conflict there while Afghanistan stumbled on with reduced attention, resources and commitment. Obama continued the mistakes: first a surge to satisfy our military, then withdrawal from combat when the Pentagon’s predictions turned sour.

In my opinion, we allowed the imperative of reacting forcefully to the al Qaeda attacks befoul our judgment. A more limited goal would have been to drive out OBL and his gang, knock off the Taliban rulers, install a replacement regime, declare victory and leave — promising to return if Al Qaeda resumed operations. We might more wisely have confined our war on al Qaeda to selected raids by Special Forces or the CIA and abandoned vain hopes of changing Afghanistan through democracy and development.

Now, at long last, we have come around to this basic wisdom: That we cannot force the development pace of a primitive state. We cannot impose our will on a country determined to resist us — without heavy costs on all sides. The sad fate of Sgt. Bergdahl and the five Americans killed last week by friendly fire bear witness to our error-based agonies.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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