How We Might Have Won the Afghan War

The U.S. lost its war in Afghanistan, but not so long ago it won a war in that same country. Without any bombing or use of troops, the U.S. backed the Afghan rebels – Mujahedin – against the Soviet occupiers. With much aid like the Stinger anti aircraft missile, the Afghans forced the invaders into withdrawal, contributing to the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was a signal victory for the U.S. behind the scenes and served as a lesson about relying on indigenous forces in overseas conflicts.

Alas, it was a lesson lost a little over decade later when in the shock of the 9/11 attack, the U.S. followed the Russian example and not its own and directly invaded and occupied Afghanistan. Again, like the Russians, it eventually lost with a humiliating withdrawal. We would answer their bang with a bigger bang, we boasted. We did, but it didn’t win the war.

Another kind of war akin to the earlier one was possible. Local groups, varying greatly among themselves, were available and eager to overthrow the ruling Taliban. Just give us some help, they urged the U.S., as you did the Mujahedin, and we will do the job. But the U.S. wasn’t listening.

The opposition within Afghanistan had been building for some time. Afghans were appreciative of the Taliban for bringing peace to the country after the destructive  clashes of the warlords who had followed the Soviet occupation. But its harsh repression was another matter, along with harboring outsiders like Osama bin Laden. 

Abdul Haq was a top commander against the Soviets renowned for his independence and also reviled for it. Disgruntled Americans who wanted him to obey orders dubbed him “Hollywood Haq.”  Even so, after a meticulous examination of the military scene in her book “The Afghan Solution,” Lucy Morgan Edwards with long experience in Afghanistan concludes that he was ideally suited to lead an insurrection against the Taliban. Because of “a history of excellence in asymmetric warfare, he was able to bring disparate groups together – even across the ethnic divide.” 

Left: Lucy Morgan Edwards. Right: Abdul Haq (photo

He also worked closely with his opposite, Mullah Mohmmed Khaksar, a founder of the Taliban who had soured on the movement. A prime source for one of the best reporters on Afghanistan, Kathy Gannon, he made a trip at great personal risk to Pakistan to meet two CIA operatives to ask for U.S. help for his planned coup. Because of his objection to bin Laden and the other foreign fighters, he had been demoted by Taliban leader Mullah Omar from intelligence chief to deputy secretary of the interior, which left him in charge of thousands of police ready to move at his command.

Gannon writes in her book “I Is for Infidel” that other prominent Afghans were reluctant to join him without U.S. backing. He told her:“I know if there had been some flexibility, there were people in the Taliban who wanted to work with the international community, who wanted the foreign fighters gone. But with no help from the outside we couldn’t do anything, and then it was too late.”

Left: Kathy Gannon (AP Photo/The Canadian Press,Darren Calabrese, File) (The Associated Press). Right: Mullah Mohmmed Khaksar (

Dissension within the Taliban was apparent to me on a trip to Afghanistan for the Voice of America a year before 9/11. First a requisite visit to the Ministry for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, then the added privilege of witnessing a hanging, followed by a meeting with the Taliban leadership – minus Omar and bin Laden – who were not hostile but welcoming The foreign minister in particular, Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, spoke of the need to get along with the U.S. and the rest of the world. Khaksar was among the group.

Would these Taliban be as good as their word? It wasn’t tested. Khaksar never got a serious reply from the CIA, and after 9/11 President Bush proclaimed “You’re either for us or against us,” ruling out any kind of ambivalence of a Haq or Khaksar. A brilliant strategist like Julius Caesar would have been aghast. You work with anyone, good, or bad or indifferent, to win,  and Caesar always won.

After the war began, Haq was killed by the Taliban. Muttawakil was sent to prison for eighteen months until it was.realized he might be useful. Khaksar, knowing he was on the Taliban hit list, asked for U.S. protection. It was denied and he was assassinated. The Taliban wrapped up their internal divisions as they went on to win the war.

We now face a triumphant Taliban whose behavior is yet to be determined. If an opposition again emerges, will we be prepared this time?

The Deity of the Drug Cartels

Everybody has its own religious taste, but by any standards this is an unusual one. Many adherents of the Mexican drug cartels pay homage to Santa Muerte – Saint Death – a skeleton goddess dressed as a bride adorned with hundreds of pieces of glittering gold jewelry served up by her devoted followers. Hardly the comfortable image of a Christian saint, but suitable enough for those habituated to the violence that has consumed Mexico. Saint Death is a symbol for everyday life, which is death for so many Mexicans. Those causing it can take comfort in a saint that seems to absolve them of their crimes. She is one of them quite large.

The Holy Death by Dori Hartley

Like so much of cartel life, Saint Death is crossing the U.S. border. She is popular in prisons, and her figure stands in many front yards. Decals of her are seen on cars and pick-up trucks. Some proudly display their Saint Death tattoos. The American media have even caught up with her The Watters World on Fox tv described her rise with appropriate and repulsive video. A good start, but there could be a misleading implication. If only the cartels had a decent religion, they could change their ways.

This overlooks the fact that they do have a religion well beyond Saint Death: the worship of money. This is a bountiful deity indeed that supplies its worshippers with something close to one hundred billion dollars a year in drug sales to Americans. Who then is the true god of this religion? Unwitting Americans whose drug habit makes the cartels possible? For some reason the media avoid making this obvious connection. Saint Death is an easier target than the powerful American interests supporting an indefensible status quo.

Restricting drug demand is an uphill battle. No doubt more could be done, but a growing number of Americans will have their drugs come what may. Supply is another matter. That can be sharply curtailed by sealing the U.S.-Mexican border where most of the drugs arrive. Given the weakness of current border control, an estimated thirty thousand U.S. troops could make the difference along with another ten thousand to uproot the cartel marijuana farms in the California desert and keep others from starting with their attendant activities. That would be just a fraction of the U.S army of 480,000, and troops might prefer defending their homeland rather than remote places and questionable enemies a long distance away.

Use of the military on domestic soil is a challenge to custom and not lightly undertaken. But the cartels can be considered an enemy power – they basically run Mexico – and a clear present threat to the U.S., including increasing conflict with the Border Patrol on our side of the border. Less provocation than this has led to military action elsewhere in the world. It’s time to confront the gods of greed and violence here at home.

Victory Was Possible in the Afghan War

Tora Bora. The name isn’t engraved in U.S. history, but it should be, says Peggy Noonan in her weekly column for The Wall Street Journal. She writes that in this mountainous region full of caves on the Pakistan border Osama bin Laden, mastermind of 9/11, was making his last stand under heavy U.S. bombardment. It was just a matter of time before U.S. troops would seize or kill him, and he was drawing up his will. The war would be over in a few weeks. Mission accomplished.


Then, astonishingly, writes Noonan, U.S. troops were not supplied but were sent instead to fight the planned war in Iraq, which had nothing to do with 9/11. Bin Laden escaped to Pakistan, where he survived as an icon of error for another ten years until killed in a Navy Seal raid. Deprived of their target, U.S. policy makers assumed the larger task of conquering Afghanistan and turning it into a replica of American democracy.

What were U.S. policy makers thinking? asks Noonan. Incompetence and the fog of war may partially explain the blunder. But was there something else? There were those in Washington, she writes, who may have felt it was too soon to seize bin Laden since it might weaken support for the invasion of Iraq, their basic goal. Noonan doesn’t name them, but the so-called neocons, who figure prominently in U.S. foreign policy, wanted to remove Saddam Hussein as an enemy of both Israel and the US. The war gave them an opportunity at the cost of its lasting another twenty years.

Coincidentally, in the same issue of The Wall Street Journal, a leading neocon, Paul Wolfowtitz, says this longest war may not have been long enough. He writes that given low U.S casualties, a war can go on forever to help keep America safe.  He fails to mention how others may feel about endless wars destroying their homelands and peoples. Also unmentioned is his own role as U.S. deputy defense secretary in the Bush Administration in providing false information leading to the invasion of Iraq. Contrary to his assurances, Iraq had no link to 9/11 and was not building weapons of mass destruction. 

Oddly, the crisis of 9/11 did not lead to a concentration on strategic thinking that largely characterized Cold War policy. Rather impulse and emotion seemed to prevail. In his book “Bush At War,” Bob Woodward quotes a U.S. counter-intelligence chief predicting to a doubtful Russian: “We’re going to kill them.We’re going to put their heads on sticks. We’re going to rock their world.” Forever wars are not conducive to balanced judgment.