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Wounded and Left on Afghanistan's Plains

by Alex Sunday, Sep. 16, 2001 at 10:47 AM

A summary of the geo-political, military, and domestic issues around invading Afghanistan.

Wounded and Left on Afghanistan's Plains

"When you're wounded and left,
On Afghanistan's plains,
And the women come out,
To cut up your remains,
Just roll on your rifle,
And blow out your brains,
And go to your Gawd,
Like a soldier." - Rudyard Kipling

Just looking at a map of Afghanistan is a scary experience. It's easy to see how a bunch of peasants with small arms managed to keep the Russians bogged down for ten years.

Open Afghanistan Map

We recently heard that Colin Powell has been strong-arming the President of Pakistan. He's apparently asked for permission to overfly Pakistan on the way to Afghanistan, and will possibly be asking for permission to base ground troops there. If he gets everything he wants, we'll probably start by bombing Afghanistan back to rubble. The problem is that the Russians tried that for ten years and it didn't work. Every day they'd bomb, and every night the guerillas would come down out of the hills and shoot up their troops.

I don't think America is going to nearly that patient. I imagine us building up a large force of troops in Pakistan sometime in the next few months. If the Pakistanis don't want us to do that we'll probably land Marines on their beaches and conquer them too. Either way, lets just deal with Afghanistan today... Lets assume that by one means or another we station a million men in northern Pakistan. Now we've got two problems.

The first problem is that China borders Pakistan. Their reaction to a million American troops next door will be unhappy to say the least. Imagine how our government would react if some other nation stationed a million troops in Mexico or Canada, and you understand why China is one of the few countries on earth which has not pledged it's support to America in our time of crisis. Would they declare war if we station troops in Pakistan? I don't think that would surprise anyone, but it's more likely they'd simply ship guns, ammo, and supplies into Afghanistan. Iran, which borders Afghanistan on the west might do the same thing, and sympathizers in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, which borders Afghanistan on the north might do the same thing.

The second and possibly far worse problem is that of fighting in Afghanistan. You see, this isn't desert warfare. What the American army (or allied army) would be dealing with is a series of little roads through the mountains. Two railroads lead to Afghanistan from Pakistan's capital, Islambad. One goes through Peshawar and stops at Landi Kotal at the Afghani border. The other railroad goes as far as Thal, then stops. From there a road heads west for about thirty kilometers then splits. One branch of the road goes directly to Afghanistan via the town of Khowst, then heads onward to the provincial capital at Gardeyz. The other road goes north through the Pakistani town of Parachinar then also heads to Gardeyz.

A four hundred or so kilometers southwest there's another road heading from Pakistan into the Afghani interior. This one is also a railroad heading northwest from Quetta and heading northwest until it stops at the border town of Chaman. In some ways this route is a little better. It is only mountainous on one side, and it looks like an easier route. However, it is considerably longer than the of the routes from Peshawar or Thal

These roads are all little two lane roads (some of them are even dirt roads) that go through high mountain passes. Like I said, this isn't desert warfare. In desert warfare armies have a chance to maneuver around their enemies. The terrain is relatively level, there's not much cover, one has very little trouble with radio communications, and an army has a reasonable chance to spot its enemies while they're still miles away. Relatively speaking, desert warfare is easy.

Mountain warfare is hard. What we're discussing here is the kind of warfare where troops move through two hundred kilometers of hostile terrain on a narrow road. Along most of its rout, the road is at the bottom of a series of valleys and passes. This means the enemy almost always has the high ground. They can take a couple of shots at your troops, disappear behind a tree, and lead the soldiers you send after them into an ambush. The enemy can plant explosives in slopes or cliffs above the road to create avalanches, set fires secure in the knowledge of how the wind can be expected to blow at that time of year... There are a thousand little tricks to successful guerilla warfare, and the Afghans know them all.

The other route is conceivably even worse. It goes through Iran. It wouldn't surprise anyone to hear a representative of the US government claim that Iran helped sponsor this terrorist act. At that point we might just conquer Iran first, then enter Afghanistan via its western border. The logistical issues alone are nightmarish.

It's also possible to come in through the north via countries like Uzbekistan or Tajikistan - you know, the heavily Muslim countries that border Russia. That route is worse too. Lastly, one thin arm of Afghanistan reachs between Tajikistan and Pakistan to touch China. There is nothing resembling a decent road.

When the army finally got to Kabul, they'd discover that the enemy had faded into the hills. Guess what. Afghanistan is mostly mountains. At that point the Afghans, who've been fighting everyone who's ever been stupid enough to invade Afghanistan for the last thousand years with the same basic strategy, (and practicing on each other when there's no invader to be fought) will happily let an invading army sit in Kabul thinking they've accomplished something. Then at night they'll come down from the hills, blow up a couple jeeps, shoot some soldiers and head back into the hills. They'll keep doing the same thing for ten, twenty, thirty years if they have to.

Then there's the quality of the Afghan soldier. Every trip a village child takes into the forest to gather firewood, each time the child takes the goats up to the high pastures, every time they go to the river to fetch water, they're learning woodcraft and becoming intimately familiar with the intricate network of trails that leads from village to pasture to stream to isolated hut. There are no real roads and no maps. The average twelve-year-old probably has better outdoor survival skills than most commandos. Then there's the fighting itself. In Afghanistan it's ongoing. Some of the men we'd be fighting have been guerrilla warriors for twenty years or more. Compared to Afghanistan, Vietnam was a kindergarten.

I wholeheartedly agree with those who say that George Bush wanted a war. However, I don't think that this was the war he wanted. Invading Afghanistan is known to the world's military planners as the foolish move, the one campaign you hope and pray you'll never be called upon to undertake.

This analysis leads to some interesting possibilities for opposing the war or lessening its impact.

As I've stated previously, I don't think there's much room right now for a straightforward anti-war campaign. Chances are that such a campaign would simply be ignored, or possibly backfire on the anti-globalization movement as a whole. However, there are some subtler alternatives to such a campaign which I believe have a chance of success.

One alternative is a subtle campaign of simple discouragement. Make sure everyone knows just how hard it would be to fight in Afghanistan. People who choose this path might discuss the issue loudly in bars and coffee houses, and also write to the newspapers, broadcasting corporations, radio stations, and of course politicians. Another ideas is to put an analysis such as this on one side of the page and a discussion of how Bin Laden was trained by the CIA on another and stuff them into newspaper racks.

Another alternative, for the theatrical among you, is to do the whole "Brutus is an Honorable Man" thing. Take a really, really rabid pro-war stance. Get loud about how about how great it would be for the American soldier to test himself against the stalwart, twenty year veterans of the Russian wars, the high altitude, the inclement weather, the guerilla warfare that the Afghans start mastering in their cradles. Wax eloquent about the joys of patrolling a ridgeline at 14,000 feet at midnight in the dead of winter - really makes a man of you!! Discuss the uselessness of technology against a skilled jungle fighter as a way to sharpen a young soldiers wits. Phrase all the horrors of an Afghani campaign as joys and advantages and watch the crowd of pro-war demonstrators walk home with dejected looks on their faces. The ultimage expression of this would be a leftist pro-war demonstration where the participants hold forth on the glories of dying from a sucking chest wound for America.

Help the truth of just how hard it is to campaign in Afghanistan really hit home across America. Once Americans are aware of what they really face then it might be politically possible to either argue against the war as a million American families realize just what horrors their loved ones will be sent into, or as seems safer from an overall political standpoint, to argue for a war with limited objectives and strict guidelines.


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Listed below are the 10 latest comments of 6 posted about this article.
These comments are anonymously submitted by the website visitors.
Hold Bush responsible sun tzu Sunday, Sep. 16, 2001 at 3:16 PM
interesting analysis, but ibble Sunday, Sep. 16, 2001 at 6:06 PM
Anti-War Sentiments Alex Sunday, Sep. 16, 2001 at 9:16 PM
Smash the state Where were you in the Gulf War protests? Sunday, Sep. 16, 2001 at 11:54 PM
Okay, Try It This Way Alex Monday, Sep. 17, 2001 at 7:21 AM
Countering a CIA operative's logic Alex's alter ego Tuesday, Sep. 18, 2001 at 12:00 PM

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