Picking your battles 

Afghanistan represents a chance for real change

Last week's column noted frustration with the Obama administration over the pace of change in the environmental arena, where many of the Bush-era policies continue to remain in effect. But this week, given a stark assessment of the realities of the war in Afghanistan, President Obama now has a great opportunity to make real change by abandoning Bush's war there, bringing our troops home, stemming the financial hemorrhage and concentrating on America's many problems at home rather than continuing fruitless global crusades.

When the 9/11 attacks shook the nation, President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney leaped at the opportunity not to punish those who carried out the attacks—most of whom were Saudis—but to avenge the former President Bush's decision not to occupy Iraq and depose Saddam Hussein in the first Iraq War.

As we now know, after nearly seven long years of war in Iraq, at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars, more than 4,000 American deaths and hundreds of thousands of other casualties, Iraq had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks. Hussein was, after all, a secular, not religious, leader. By deposing him, we have done little but destroy whatever balance he had been able to bring between the two major warring factions within Iraq, the Sunnis and Shiites. Only time will tell what the eventual outcome of that blunder will be, but with U.S. forces primarily removed from urban areas in Iraq, the violence level is already rising and will likely continue when all U.S. combat forces are removed.

In the meantime, based on the belief that Osama bin Laden, a Saudi who claimed to be the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks, was located in the wild Afghanistan-Pakistan border country, Bush launched a second and simultaneous war. Initially, Bush claimed victory because U.S. forces overthrew the Taliban, who are adherents of a very strict form of religious law called "Sharia," or "Allah's Law," that deals with virtually all aspects of life—often in ways that western societies find objectionable. For reasons that defy logic, President Bush decided it was the job of the United States to "free" the Afghanis from the Taliban, which remain the target of that war in a redux of the Crusades in which Christians fought Muslims for centuries to no avail.

Like those early Christian Crusaders, Bush squandered the lives of American troops and enormous amounts of resources to accomplish very little. The Taliban are, in the term most widely used these days, "resurgent"—which shouldn't be much of a surprise considering they happen to live there. Moreover, Bush embraced the military ruler of Pakistan, now-deposed President Pervez Musharraf, sending billions of dollars and even more billions in military supplies there in an effort to enlist Pakistan's assistance in driving the Taliban from their border region with Afghanistan.

But now, after years of battle and a lengthening and troubling record of indiscriminate civilian deaths caused by U.S. forces operating under the cover of NATO, we are no closer to our goal than when we started. Bin Laden is still free—or at least as free as you can be when the powerful U.S. government is using every military and intelligence source at its disposal to try and kill you. The Taliban still control most of the country, even threatening the capital of Kabul, where the U.S.-backed puppet ruler, Hamid Karzai, is shakily ensconced. And as an added bonus, the U.S. intervention in Pakistan has achieved two things. First, thanks to his bribed cooperation, Musharraf is gone, which is no great loss. But worse is the destabilizing effect the U.S. intervention and much-hated missile strikes from Predator drones have had on Pakistan, which is, after all, a nuclear-armed nation. Like Iraq, only time will tell the eventual outcome of our war-making in that country of 173 million people, but right now, it doesn't look promising.

It is against this recent background that President Obama now faces a seminal decision—drastically increase U.S. troop strength, spending and casualties, or pull out of Bush's ill-advised war and bring U.S. troops home. In this decision, which will be made in the coming days or weeks, President Obama would do well to consider not just the events of the last decade there, but also those of preceding decades and centuries.

They call Afghanistan "the place where Empires go to die" for good reason. The British in the 19th century fought enormously bloody battles there for years in deadly conflict with tribal warriors who, amazingly, held the British Empire, the most powerful of its day, at bay and eventually drove them from the country. Leaping forward, the Soviet Union took its shot at Afghanistan in another bloody conflict that started in 1979 and ended a decade later with total Soviet withdrawal. The United States, still locked in a global Cold War struggle with the communists, aided the Afghans with military training and generous stockpiles of such devastating weapons as the shoulder-launched Stinger missile, which was the bane of the helicopter gunships that the Soviets had hoped would overcome the brutal Afghan terrain.

Like the United States, England had to ship its men and materiel overseas at tremendous cost, and they lost. The Soviets only had to drive their tanks over the border and into Afghanistan—and yet they, too, lost.

President Obama will undoubtedly be assailed by Republican warmongers should he decide to abandon the Afghan war. But in truth, it is the Republicans who should be assailed for getting us into it in the first place—and for the tremendous losses we have since accrued.

America needs to help itself. The hour is late and the need is great and growing. President Obama knows that the populace no longer supports this war, nor do his NATO allies. The real change he promised us is still possible—and nothing could prove that more than ending Bush's terrible wars.

Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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