Exhibit B is what we should have learned in earlier wars about alien terrain: no matter how smart we are and how strong we feel, when we’re fighting in the enemy’s neighborhood, he has the advantage. That helps explain why we didn’t win in Vietnam or Iraq. Fighters from the region know every nook and cranny and where to hide, and they have allies around every corner. That is something basic training at Fort Benning can’t equal.
Exhibit C is what we should have learned in earlier wars about counterfeit confidence, which conjures up shades of Vietnam: “Peace is at hand” (except it wasn’t). And shades of Iraq: “Mission accomplished” (except it wasn’t). Now it’s President Trump saying of Afghanistan, “What nobody else has been able to finish, we’re going to be able to do it.” And, in the wake of last month’s terrorist attacks, reporters asked the general who leads the U.S. Central Command if victory in Afghanistan is still a possibility. Gen. Joseph Votel’s chillingly predictable answer? “Absolutely, absolutely.” Trouble is, previous presidents and previous commanding generals have been telling us that for 16 years now.
And Exhibit D is simply Afghanistan’s anything-but-simple history. It has been invaded time and time again, beginning before the birth of Christ with Alexander the Great. Then Arabs, Mongols, the British, the Soviets. All swept through and for the most part, all were swept away. Now, with more than 2,200 American deaths already, it’s our turn.
The most recent attempt, by the Soviets in 1979, was an episode I covered as a reporter with my own eyes. Within days on the ground it became obvious that, for all the superior military force of the invaders, it would never be as potent as the fervent resistance of the mujahideen. The longer the war went on, the more determined I saw the Afghan fighters become to expel every last one of the occupying forces from their country.
The Taliban today are similar. They are tough, they are vicious, and they can bide their time. Like ISIS in other parts of the world, they don’t have to hold territory to win. They just have to hold a nation in the grips of their terror. The more than 130 people killed late last month are only the latest piece of proof that it works.
We’ve been fighting there for almost a generation. While we haven’t lost, we also haven’t won. And positive public pronouncements notwithstanding, there’s no convincing sign that we ever will.
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