Saturday, June 25, 2011

Why Are We In Afghanistan?


President Obama's announcement last week that we would be drawing down perhaps 10,000 of our regular military in Afghanistan by the end of the year started me thinking back about how we got involved there in the first place.  Predictably, the Republican warhawks who see after the interests of the military-industrial complex were outraged that we would break and run like this and attacked the president who, after all, himself mandated the "surge." They had already forgotten that it was Obama who ramped up this war after taking office, adding most of the roughly 150,000 U.S. military currently in-country.  To these ought to be added the perhaps 100,000 "advisers," mostly highly paid ex-military who constitute a very heavy drain on our deficit-plagued budget.

The problems anybody was going to face in Afghanistan were never a mystery around Washington.  An ex-State Department professional reminisced to me once about his time in Kabul during the years of the Russian occupation. Languishing in his hotel one rainy Sunday, he was invited by his Afghan counterpart to join a party and watch the afternoon's entertainment.  A woman supposedly taken in adultery was being held in a compound in one of the suburbs.  At the appointed hour, this diplomat and his colleagues were scheduled to stone the woman to death.

There remains a cultural disjunction between Afghan society and ours. There was a great deal of celebrating around Langley at the outcome of "Charlie Wilson's War," the CIA-managed effort to drive the Soviets and their brutal policies and their Hind armored helicopters out of Afghanistan with Stinger missiles and Agency- trained insurgents.  It has been largely forgotten since that the cadre we trained up included Osama bin Laden and Gulbudin Hekmatar, no doubt the two most ingenious and damaging gadflies we have had to contend with ever since.

Once the Soviets had cleared out of Afghanistan a contingent of CIA professionals moved in and installed a government in Kabul controlled by the Northern tribes.  This meant the Pashtun majority were largely denied much of a voice in their own governance.  A power vacuum opened up, with the potential for a civil war.

I recently chatted for a while with a general from Tajikistan.  He attributed the rise of the Taliban to the repeated efforts during the nineteen-nineties by an oil consortium led by Unocal to negotiate the construction of a north-south pipeline through the mountains of Afghanistan to transport the petroleum being discovered in the oil-rich territories of the newly independent Muslim nations along Afghanistan's northern borders -- the "Stans" -- directly south without having to contend with the harrassing policies of Russian bureaucrats.  This initiative never worked out, but, while preparing to exploit this valuable concession, the oil companies enlisted the poppy-growing Taliban Mullahs and warlords and instructed them in the rudiments of modern guerilla warfare in hopes that they would work out as mercenaries willing to protect the envisaged pipeline. The Taliban leaders moved on to occupy the power vacuum and made common cause with the Pakistani Secret Service, the ISI, which intended to exploit them as a buffer against the Indian forces to the east.

How we are to be expected to forward our national purposes inside this snake pit of ancient animosities has never been explained to the American people.  Al Qaeda is long gone. Afghanistan's corrupt President Karzai, openly negotiating with the Taliban,  has recently accused the U.S. forces of functioning as "occupiers," and invited us to leave.  We ought to take his good advice, and quickly.

Best to you all,

Burton Hersh


  1. This is the best answer to the question I have ever read. Thank you.

  2. Mr. Hersh...

    I hate to offer an off-topic comment to such a good post, but, since I have no way to email you directly, I have to ask you here if you can help clear up a controversy concerning a dubious quotation attributed to Ted Kennedy.

    A book called "Moment of Truth" by Mark Nuttle speaks of an encounter between Kennedy and Milton Friedman on January 20, 1995, during the latter's testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

    Supposedly, Friedman asked Kennedy: ""Senator, socialism hasn't worked in 6,000 years of recorded history. Why won't you give up on it?"

    According to Nutting, Kennedy rose to his feet and replied: "It hasn't worked in 6,000 years of recorded history because it didn't have me to run it."

    This exchange has been widely repeated all over the internet. All of the blogs which offer these words cite Nuttle's book. I've seen no other source. In fact, I've seen no evidence that Milton Friedman spoke on that date before any Senate Committee.

    Can you tell me if Kennedy ever actually said these words? I plan to write about this matter. On my blog Cannonfire (, one of the topics we frequently address is spurious political quotation.

    Any help you could give me would be appreciated. My email address is


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