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Why Afghanistan Will Not Be a Quagmire

by Stacy Bergstrom Haldi on Oct 2, 2001

Stacy Bergstrom Haldi

The United States has sent special forces, along with British special forces, into Afghanistan. This is just the beginning; more ground forces will follow. The limited air strikes the United States launched in response to previous terrorist incidents failed to punish the terrorists and certainly did not protect the United States.

The United States has concluded that Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network, al-Qaida, are responsible for the Sept. 11 attack on America. Moreover, the United States has concluded that the Taliban regime in Afghanistan is complicit because it harbors al-Qaida. But will an American ground war in Afghanistan turn into another quagmire like Vietnam? No.

Given the past experience of other nations’ troops in Afghanistan, many are warning of a dire fate for any American troops sent there. It is true that Afghanistan fought well against the British in the nineteenth century. It is also true that Afghanistan defeated the Soviet Union in a bloody decade-long war that began in 1979. Should past Afghan successes and American failure in Vietnam frighten us from responding with ground forces? Again, no.

There is a major difference between the international situation today and the international situation in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when Afghanistan met with success and the United States met with failure. Today the United States can isolate Afghanistan and cut off its supplies. Afghanistan was not isolated in its earlier wars. Nor could the United States cut off supplies to the communists in Vietnam.

Britain failed to isolate Afghanistan and paid the price. In the nineteenth century, the British and Russian empires were competing for dominance in the Near East. Afghanistan used this rivalry to its advantage. Afghans hostile to Great Britain turned to Russia for support, receiving munitions and other supplies to use against British forces. While Russia did not commit its armies to fighting at the Afghans’ side, Russian material support was crucial to Afghanistan’s success.

In 1926, Afghanistan signed a treaty with the Soviet Union. Over time, Afghans grew to resent both the Communist regime in Afghanistan and the Soviet influence that supported it. In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to put down a rebellion against its client regime in Kabul. After ten bloody years, the Soviet Union was forced to withdraw.

Why? Again, the answer lies in the international situation. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan during the Cold War. The Afghan rebels turned to the Soviets’ enemy, the United States, for support. As part of its Cold War strategy, America supplied the munitions Afghanistan used to defeat the Soviet Union.

So much for Afghan success. What about American failure?  One of the many problems the United States faced in Vietnam was the Ho Chi Minh trail, the strategic pipeline funneling arms and personnel from North Vietnam to the communist insurgents in South Vietnam. American efforts to cut the trail were constrained by another reality of Cold War politics: fear of Chinese intervention.

Now the Cold War is over. Afghanistan cannot obtain great- power support as it did in past conflicts. Today, no nation dares risk U.S. wrath by shipping arms or money to the Taliban. Although neighboring Pakistan used to support the Taliban regime, Washington has persuaded the Pakistani leadership to assist the U.S. effort against the Taliban, Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network. This time Afghanistan is effectively isolated.

The Taliban and al-Qaida doubtless have stockpiled munitions left over from the war against the Soviet Union. But these stores are finite. Moreover, Afghanistan’s poor economy cannot manufacture the arms and ammunition needed to fight U.S. forces; they must be imported. Without an external source of supply, the Taliban will quickly deplete its stock of munitions in combat.

Why is this an important key to American success against Afghanistan? In the history of warfare, a blockade alone has never defeated an adversary. But the failure to cut off an adversary’s supplies can make victory difficult or impossible. In its previous conflicts, Afghanistan has been able to turn to one great power or another. But not today. As long as the United States can continue to isolate the Taliban, American prospects for rooting out the al-Qaida network are much brighter than they were for the Soviet Union just 22 years ago and for the British a century before that.

Using history to understand the present and future is important. But it is crucial to recognize differences as well as similarities. In this case, the lesson lies in the difference between the international situation in previous Afghan wars and the international situation today.

This time the scales are tipped against Afghanistan.


Stacy Bergstrom Haldi teaches international relations at Gettysburg College. She is the author of "Why Wars Widen: A Theory of Predation and Balancing" (2003) and is a writer for History News Service.