Commentary: U.S.-Afghan history overlooked in Obama address

President Obama left a major element out of his West Point address Tuesday as he announced the deployment of 30,0000 troops to Afghanistan: the modern history of America's involvement in that faraway, landlocked country.

It was an extraordinary omission for a president who looks for his model to Abraham Lincoln, a president steeped in history. In declaring that the coming military offensive is aimed at defeating al-Qaeda, which has a small presence now in Afghanistan, Obama made it all the harder to claim public support for an extended engagement in a country that has been at the center of so much history in the last half century.

He also made it all the harder to convince Afghans, who after three decades of war are being asked to prepare for still more sacrifices.

It's 30 years since the Dec. 26, 1979, Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, an action that badly rattled the Carter administration until it made the critical decision to infiltrate military support to a fledging Afghan resistance. The Reagan administration expanded the program, and 20 years ago, the Red Army left. The United States played a critical role in the nine years and 50 days of that war, supplying every form of support it could to Afghans to drive up the cost of occupation and force the Soviets to leave.

The Soviet troop withdrawal Feb. 15, 1989, also deserved mention in Obama's speech, for it was the first step — and in many ways the necessary one — before all the events of that epochal year, which climaxed with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the overthrow of communist rule in Eastern Europe. The link between the events was in Moscow.

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev took advantage of the exhaustion and demoralization of the Red Army in Afghanistan to gain a grip on his security forces and prevent an armed intervention in the revolutions sweeping across Eastern Europe.

At the same time, the triumph of Afghans fighting a superpower with mostly simple weapons and in the most difficult of circumstances also helped inspire people throughout the communist world into peaceful revolt.

The reaction in Washington, as anyone who saw "Charlie Wilson's War" will recall, was triumphalism. Although the CIA claimed that "we won," no American life was lost — but a million Afghans died in the resistance. The United States had used Afghanistan as a platform to attack the Soviet Union and taken little interest in the country or its people. Instead, it turned to the United Nations to organize a political settlement. After a brief and modest U.S. effort to bring a friendly government into power in Kabul, the United States left the scene, turning American policy in Afghanistan over to Pakistani military government.

Even as communism fell, as Europe became whole and free, and as the United States under Bill Clinton celebrated a "peace dividend" with unprecedented prosperity, Afghans, with Pakistan pushing its favored Islamist proxy, were left to fight an internal conflict that has continued over two decades.

Under Clinton, the United States dropped support for any parties to the internal conflict and stopped close monitoring of internal affairs. The United States cut off all aid and stopped receiving refugees. Clinton looked to the Taliban as a stabilizing force in Afghanistan. He tried in vain through his diplomats to persuade the Taliban to hand over Osama bin Laden, long after the Taliban made clear they would do nothing of the kind. That was the first abandonment.

After the 9/11 attacks, which bin Laden organized and directed from his sanctuary in Afghanistan, President George W. Bush sent in minimal forces to help topple the Taliban. But he, too, used Afghanistan as a platform — in this case for attacking the remnants of the al-Qaeda and the Taliban that had escaped to Pakistan.

The U.S. military, playing a lead role in the "war on terror," had limited contacts with Afghans outside Kabul, mainly to seek protection for U.S. troops. In the process, it gave a new boost to corrupt and discredited warlords and used force without much concern for civilian casualties. U.S. commanders didn't grasp until several years into the mission that Afghanistan has a tribal structure. The Taliban closely monitored the American method of operation, and took advantage of every misstep.

Obama could have made the moral argument that the United States is in historic debt to the people of Afghanistan, and that twice in the immediate past it abandoned the country. Obama also might have acknowledged that Democrats made mistakes on their watch in the 1990s, as Republicans made mistakes on their watch in the 1980s and in the current decade.

Had he made the argument, he might also have explained to Americans that despite the episodic relationship with Afghanistan, with intense involvement alternating with abandonment, it's a real country with people who have legitimate aspirations to stability and security.

Democrats have never done much soul-searching about their role in the events leading up to the 9/11 attacks, nor have Republicans. Since no one has owned up, politicians of both parties on Capitol Hill feel no shame in posturing and critiquing Obama's moves. So Obama will be lucky if he can maintain enough support even to turn the adverse tide in Afghanistan. Finishing the job, bringing real stability to Afghanistan, ensuring that it doesn't become a base again for terrorists may prove beyond his reach.


Roy Gutman, foreign editor for McClatchy Newspapers, is author of "How We Missed the Story, Osama bin Laden, the Taliban and the Hijacking of Afghanistan" (USIP Press). He won the Pulitzer Prize for foreign affairs coverage in 1993. Readers may write to him at: McClatchy Newspapers, 700 12th Street NW, Suite 1000, Washington, D.C. 20005.