History Promises Disaster in Afghanistan for Blind America

If President
Obama has ever heard of William L. Shirer, chances are it's in
connection with Nazi Germany. Nowadays, you can't make assumptions
about what people under 50 know and don't know, but it's a safe bet
Obama recalls Shirer's most famous book, "The Rise and Fall of the
Third Reich," even if he hasn't read it.

For most people,
Shirer's chronicle of Hitler's ascent to power reinforces the argument
that mad dictators must never be appeased. Whether this is universally
true, you can't read Shirer's or any other standard account of Germany
between the wars without concluding that, given stronger French and
British political will, Hitler could have been stopped (and maybe even
overthrown by an internal coup), either in March 1936, when he
remilitarized the Rhineland in violation of the Treaty of Versailles,
or at some other point before the Munich agreement in September 1938.

the other night I stumbled across a part of Shirer's outstanding
reporting career that provided a different, urgently pertinent lesson
and might convince Obama of another argument against appeasement - in
this case, appeasement of mad Army generals, mad neo-colonialist State
Department officers, and mad neo-conservatives, all of whom think that
Afghan tribesmen can be brought to heel by an American military
occupation employing the latest counterinsurgency techniques.

hadn't known that Shirer visited Afghanistan in 1930 until I happened
to pick up the second volume of his memoirs ("The Nightmare Years,"
published in 1984) and started reading the first chapter. I'm lucky I
did because I've never seen the stupidity of America's current Afghan
policy so clearly laid out.

But first let's restate the burning
question: Why are we in Afghanistan? To start, we can dismiss the
preposterous argument advanced by Obama's most aggressive advisers
about defending our country against "terrorism" in Afghanistan.
Al-Qaida is nothing if not decentralized, and its adherents are still
perfectly capable of attacking the United States from Canada, Boston,
Hamburg, or Fort Hood. Anyway, terrorism, as Timothy McVeigh
demonstrated in Oklahoma City, can originate with the nice young white
man next door who shops at the gun store around the corner. "Fighting
terrorism" in Afghanistan "to prevent another 9/11" simply isn't a
serious argument, and I suspect that even the deluded Gen. Stanley
McChrystal understands that his men are shooting at indigenous Afghan
rebels, not Osama bin Laden or his followers.

No, the more
likely reason for killing all those people and wasting nearly $3.4
billion a month is an ugly mixture of vanity, misplaced pride, crass
politics, and liberal self-righteousness. The Army still wants to prove
it can defeat a guerrilla army and erase the shame of Vietnam. The
politicians, Obama included, want to look warlike and tough, so they
can't be accused of being "soft on terror" in 2010. And then there are
the civil servants and think-tank denizens known as "humanitarian
interventionists" - now led by Hillary Clinton, who think that
America's "civilizing" mission in the world includes not only
establishing "democracy" but also "freeing" Afghan women from being
required to wear the burqa.

All these foolish partisans of
drone bombing and "human terrain teams" should read Shirer's account of
slipping into war-ravaged Afghanistan from India as part of the
entourage of Crown Prince Mohammed Zahir Khan, who was on his way to
Kabul to rejoin his father, the newly proclaimed king known as Nadir
Shah. The highly sophisticated son, only 16, "already missed" Paris,
his exile home, and was grateful to be able to speak French with

The British didn't like Shirer's reporting for the
Chicago Tribune on Gandhi's civil-disobedience campaign in India, so
they did their best to keep him from getting through the Khyber Pass.
Moreover, "they did not intend now to allow me to poke my nose into a
country where they, like the Russians, were conniving for control."

British, of course, had notably failed to control the Afghan tribes,
most recently in 1919, when Nadir Shah (then known as Nadir Khan) had
commanded the Afghan forces against the colonial occupier. This
survivor of Western realpolitik then ousted his latest Afghan rival
from the throne, a Robin Hood figure named Bacha-i-Saqao. But in
classic Afghan fashion, treachery took precedence over principle -
"after promising to spare [Bacha-i-Saqao's] life, [Nadir Khan] had him
executed in a rather Afghan manner - by degrees: first stoning, then
shooting, and finally hanging." (Does this sound like an incubator for
democracy?) To make matters even more sinister, it seemed that his
majesty's government had (in a rather British manner) secretly backed
the power grab of its old enemy Nadir Khan in the hope of reasserting
its influence by removing Bacha, who was Moscow's favorite.

our day, such cynical, great-power maneuvering sounds absurd and,
ultimately, pointless. These are fantastic tales of the distant
colonial past, when intriguing European foreign offices played games
within games to enlarge their spheres of influence - bureaucratically
at home and territorially abroad. America, we flatter ourselves, is
mostly immune to this sort of nonsense. Indeed, Nadir Shah, like Ho Chi
Minh 15 years later, naively believed in the United States as a
potential honest broker with a less acquisitive interest in countries
like his.

As Shirer wrote: "Shyly, he suggested that when I
returned home I might call the attention of Washington to his nation's
existence, the opportunities for American development of Afghanistan's
vast, untouched natural resources and the desirability of diplomatic
recognition. 'You are the one great country in the world which has no
political interests in Afghanistan. If we can establish commercial
relations with you, why not diplomatic relations?' "

disabused the new king of his faith in American good will and logic by
noting that Washington, in its "peculiar blindness," still had not
recognized the Soviet government fully 13 years after the Bolshevik
revolution. But even worldly-wise Shirer, writing more than 50 years
later, did not imagine Washington imposing itself on a "tribal society,
primitive, savage, living off its flocks and barren fields . . .
fighting off or attacking hostile tribes and government tax collectors,
fearless of death in a way I envied, illiterate, uncivilized to a
Westerner, but conscious of a long and continuous history handed down
by word of mouth from generation to generation."

Only the Soviets and the British could be that self-defeating, right?

the end of his first chapter, Shirer takes stock of the Soviet invasion
of Afghanistan in 1979 with nearly 100,000 troops. The Red Army, he
wrote, was "reported to be meeting the usual reception which Afghans
gave foreign invaders. ... To the surprise of no one who knew the land,
the Russian troops apparently were having a more difficult time than
Moscow had envisaged."

© 2023 Providence Journal