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by William H. Benson

May 9, 2013

     “In June 2010, the Afghan War surpassed the Vietnam War as the longest American war in United States history.” Operation Enduring Freedom began on October 7, 2001, a month after Al-Qaeda’s attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The war’s goal was to capture those responsible for the terrorist attacks, destroy Osama bin Laden’s terrorist boot camps, and remove from power the Taliban, that Islamic fundamentalist party that controlled the country and that hosted Al-Qaeda. A year later it appeared that the Americans had accomplished those three goals, but today American troops are still dying on Afghan soil.

     The war’s high point occurred two years ago, on May 2, 2011, when U.S. troops invaded a compound in Pakistan at night, found and killed Osama bin Laden. Otherwise, the continual news that another bomb has exploded and killed more Americans has dented America’s resolve to fight to win in this war-torn country. Last week another roadside bomb killed five more American soldiers.

     Hopes are high for a draw-down that will culminate in 2014 when President Obama is expected to reduce American troop strength from the current 74,000 to as little as 10,000. A genuine fear exists that Afghanistan will deteriorate into another civil war, or that the Taliban will regain control. Either way the Afghan people will suffer.

     Two weeks ago, a French envoy to Afghanistan named Bernard Bajolet spoke at his going-away reception in Kabul and outlined the challenges he sees facing the Afghan people. A New York Times reporter said that “His tone was neither shrill nor reproachful. It was matter-of-fact.”

     Bajolet said, “I think it crucial that the Afghan leadership take more visible and obvious ownership for their army.” He said that the Afghan government needs to “cut corruption, which discourages investment, deal with drugs and become fiscally self-reliant.” The drugs have “caused more casualties than terrorism in Russia, Europe and the Balkans,” and that the Western governments should discontinue spending billions in Afghanistan “if it remains the world’s largest heroin supplier.”

     Such straight talk from a diplomat is welcome and refreshing. The corruption is appalling. In recent days, the news broke that the CIA has been dropping off bags of cash at Amid Karzai’s office. Afghanistan’s top leader hinted that he used American taxpayers’ money “to pay off warlords and power brokers.” Members of Congress expressed their dismay.

     Yet, this is not unusual. The CIA has worked for decades in Afghanistan. Read Charlie Wilson’s War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History for an explanation. A Congressman from Texas, Charlie Wilson ran Operation Cyclone throughout the 1980’s. His CIA operation supplied anti-aircraft weapons, Stingers, to the Afghan mujahideen who were fighting the Russians after the Soviet Union had invaded their country on December 24, 1979.

     The Russians learned too late that the Afghan is a tenacious foe, and that once the CIA began arming the mujahideen, the war turned against them. The former invincible Russian army withdrew in tatters.

On February 15, 1989, General Boris Gromov, stood on the Friendship Bridge at Afghanistan’s border and told a television reporter, “There is not a single Soviet soldier or officer left behind me. Our nine year stay ends.” It was nine years, fifty days.

     A wasteland lay behind Gromov. Fifteen thousand Russian soldiers died in what is now called Russia’s Vietnam, the Soviet Union spent billions of rubles, a million Afghan people died, and seven million Afghans streamed into Pakistan and other countries. Other foreigners streamed into Afghanistan to join the mujahideen in their fight. One such foreigner was the Saudi, Osama bin Laden.

     In the power vacuum created when the Russians departed, the mujahideen quarreled and fought among themselves. A vicious civil war broke out in 1994 that made the fight with the Russians look tame. Mullah Mohammed Omer and his Taliban party emerged victorious.

     What will happen once American troops leave Afghanistan and another power vacuum opens up? What will that last American general say? Will another civil war erupt? Will the Taliban regain power?

Questions pile up, but answers elude us.

     The Afghan people deserve better. They deserve peace. The children play in cemeteries because those are the only open fields without land mines. Their land is a battleground where the Western powers play their war games, and the Afghans are shot and killed in the crossfire.

     After eleven years and seven months, it is time that the American troops leave Afghanistan.