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Posted on Oct 15, 2009 in Armchair Reading

November 2009 Mailbag – Regarding Ralph Peters

Armchair General

This long and well crafted letter came in via the web regarding the Ralph Peters article in the November issue of Armchair General.  We are placing it here as an addendum to the regular Mailbag for this month.

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Rebuttal to "Where are the Strategists?"

By Ralph Peters

I disagree with the assessment that Ralph Peters gives of Afghanistan: that "Afghanistan’s no more than a big patch of worthless dirt, but we’re obsessed with controlling terrain".  Afghanistan is critical in our Global War on Terrorism for a number of reasons and the following paragraphs give my opinion as to the importance of Afghanistan.  First of all, we have not won the war yet and war it still is regardless of the political atmosphere.

 Evidently Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and other insurgent forces do think Afghanistan is worth fighting for by their re-emergence as a political and military force.  The attitude of the strategic unimportance of Afghanistan typifies the attitude during the Carter Administration.  President Carter could not make up his mind about the importance of Afghanistan even on the eve of the USSR invasion.  The response he provided was to present the Carter Doctrine in 1980 and call it good.  This fence sitting was also evident during the crisis in Iran in 1979.  In this case he also could not answer the question as to whether or not the US should remain a close ally of Iran.  He decided that neither was important enough to US interests with the resulting debacles which we are faced with today.  Evidently, the USSR thought that Afghanistan was important enough to send troops and support the fledgling, emerging Communist regime. Why didn’t we realize the strategic importance of Afghanistan in being able to shake off its feudal system and become a modern nation.  Several times during its turbulent history, attempts have been made by its kings and other leaders to bring Afghanistan to the table of modern nations.  Each time, either internal politics or external politics prevented this from occurring, hence the pleas for help from the 1960’s on.  We chose to ignore Afghanistan up to the point of when Ronald Reagan was the President and only then chose to assist the Mujahedeen at almost the 11th hour in their battle against the USSR.  The US certainly had very little knowledge about either Afghanistan nor Pakistan nor what the ramifications that our assistance would be.

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I recently finished reading a book, called "Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife" and the book pointed out the tremendous success that the British had in counterinsurgency in Malaya.  The facts are that the British had colonized Malaya for decades.  The British had been an intimate part of Malaya and the surrounding regions since the 19th century.  When the British fought in Malaya from 1948 to 1957, they already knew much about the people, their culture and geography of the region.  My point is that the US knew very little about Afghanistan during, before and after the Carter Years.  We knew virtually nothing about the people of Afghanistan, its culture, the relationship with Pakistan and out of hand, decided that it was of little strategic importance to US National Interests.  We not only reduced aid to Afghanistan under the Carter years but ended all assistance during his tenure in office.  In spite of the pleas for assistance from Afghanistan, since the 1960’s.  We had an opportunity to assist Afghanistan in modernizing and would have been farther ahead today if only we had.  If we had built a good relationship with Afghanistan, we would not be in the position we are in today, fighting in a land that we know very little of, a culture we know little of, a language we know very little of and even more importantly, one that knows very little of us.

I agree with Ralph Peter’s assessment that we don’t think in terms of strategic importance, if we had then the relationship that we are currently pursuing with Afghanistan could have had its roots planted decades ago and more importantly in a time of relative peace.  Civil – Military cooperation and operations could have been accomplished under a less stressful environment.  Civil – Military Operations can be accomplished during wartime, evidence is the Philippines War of 1899 to 1902, and Iraq today but it is much more intensive in terms of lives and resources.  I disagree with the assessment by Peters that Afghanistan is of little strategic importance to the US.  It continues to be an important view port into Russia, and is critical to us in our war on terrorism because of its location with respect to the emerging nation of Iraq and the oppressive, probably soon to be nuclear regime of Iran.  

The Taliban did not arise out of nowhere; it is not being provided weapons, training and money from thin air.  In Medieval times, armies of the local war lord were supported by the resources of the local peasantry, and the armies of that time were small and the weaponry simple compared to today. Afghanistan’s villages have not advanced much beyond those medieval times and certainly could not support the type of weapons, training and sustainment that the Taliban requires in fighting the military of the US.  The villages cannot manufacture the type of weapons or provide the logistics needed by the Taliban to fight the military of the US and its NATO allies without substantial military and monetary assistance from other countries.  

Even if the bulk of the Taliban’s weapons and ammunition was supported by the sale of opium, it could not be transported without the cooperation of other countries.  Too much of it is being sent out for it not to be obvious.  Afghanistan has no port of its own to transport the opium to the rest of the world.  It is my opinion that the Taliban can’t accomplish this without assistance from other countries within the region.  Afghanistan does not export anything and its opium shipments have to be hidden.  The question is which countries are helping the Taliban in their re-emergence?  To provide an example of my argument, it was not the villagers in Vietnam that provided the bulk of the weapons, training and other resources to the VC but North Vietnam, backed by the USSR and China which allowed the resources the VC needed to pursue the guerilla war against the US military.  Without this assistance, the VC would have collapsed in South Vietnam long before TET in 1968.  Without resources, the Taliban will also certainly fail.  Time is not on their hands.  Their ranks were and continue to be filled with foreign personnel from all of the regions of the Middle East and Central Asia and not only from the various regions of Afghanistan.  Afghanistan needs to be a nation, with secure borders, and free from unwanted meddling by external powers merely interested in only their own agenda.

I also disagree with LTC Ralph Peters in assessing that the Taliban and Al-Qaeda were merely tenants in the "same terrorist hotel", otherwise I believe that Bin Laden would have been caught long ago.  Without assistance or from fear that is fostered by the Taliban on to the local villagers in the western areas of Pakistan, which was a part of Afghanistan not that long ago, populated with the Pashtuns, Bin Laden would surely have been caught.   The relationship between Al-Qaeda and the Taliban and other extreme Islamist nations was more than "friends with a similar agenda" but close brothers with the same ideals and goals!  

I also disagree with LTC Peters about our relationships with Pakistan and India.  Prior to our involvement (protection of?) with Pakistan, it had numerous covert operations in India, regardless of what we could do to try to prevent them from occurring.  We in fact did very little.  The US could do nothing except watch, as the numerous clashes occurred between the two nations.  How would our leaving the area result in an improvement in relationships between the two nations?  We had little to no impact before.  Letting Pakistan and India do what they want, and hoping for the best  will one day result in a nuclear exchange either initiated by Pakistan or India, and given our close economic and technical ties to India, will certainly impact us.  This is NOT a good option.  Our direct influence in both countries effectively ended in the 1960s and was re-established, not by the US but by companies such as Microsoft doing business there.   The US effectively gave both Pakistan and India the boot in the mid 1960’s during one of their numerous clashes and with their emergence as nuclear powers.  What kind of influence can we possibly exert on either country today, especially if we wash our hands of everything?   We do need to maintain a relationship with both countries, especially with India and hopefully a better future one with Pakistan.

To summarize, we would have been strategically much better off if we would have initiated friendly relationships with Afghanistan, India and Pakistan in the 1960’s.  Especially with respect to Afghanistan, the USSR would certainly have had second thoughts in sending troops there in 1979 and there is always the possibility that Afghanistan could have tried to modernize with our system instead of going the way of communism.  We need to have a future, solid relationship with all of the countries in the region to nurture education and freedom that can co-exist within Islam.  Freedom and Islam does not have to be mutually exclusive ideals, I believe they can exist and that is the importance of Afghanistan, and it is not merely a dirt pile of little worth.  Please remember, the Afghans, just like the Iraqis went out to vote in their respective elections under direct threats and actions by the extremists such as the Al-Qaeda, Taliban and other insurgents.  The voters in our Great Country don’t even go out in the rain, let alone if someone threatens them.  Who truly loves Freedom?

Hans Drehsler
SC, EN, CA, LTC, USAR (Ret)
Veteran of the Vietnam War, GWOT in Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Iraq

I was an enlisted sailor on the USS Midway 1972-1975 in the Gulf of Tonkin, Director of Public Works in  Uzbekistan 2002-2003, MOD and DPW Mentor in Kabul, Afghanistan 2003 (about 2.5 months) and an ePRT member in Iraq 2007-2008

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