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Friday, 4 April 2014

A Land Of Only Stones And Men

With the withdrawal of the latest foreign armies from Afghanistan later this year, this time its the US and NATO forces, the focus is of course on what's going to happen there next, with most of the smart money on the Taliban taking over again within a few years, (if the US tires of propping up the regime), and certainly within the decade, regardless of the military aid given (See Soviet experience).

In the meantime, the whole debacle has reopened a long running argument amongst military historians, going back at least as far as the mid 19th century, as to whether Afghanistan can be occupied by any foreign power. Now before I discuss this further, I need to point out that no one seriously suggests that Afghan armies are unbeatable in battle, and in fact their armies have been regularly beaten in battles against foes as diverse as the Persians, the Greeks under 'Alexander The Great', the Mongols, the Arabs, the Mughals and even the British (who usually did well in punitive raids and revenge marches). But where it always goes badly wrong, as the British have found out a few times over the centuries, is when the invaders try to stay.

Invasions Of Afghanistan - All Ended In Retreat

The Afghans may be only able to raid from the hills against superior forces, but in a land that one Emir who was fighting the British described as "a land of only stones and men", a description which is still true today, there is no material gain in invading. What was true then and now, was that there is no money in what is historically a very poor land, one in which 'honour' and 'religion', is all that the men had to fight over. A situation that is nearly as true now, as it was when the Emir spoke those words ..... if wasn't for the West's unending appetite for the heroin derived from Afghanistan's poppy fields.

However, poppy juice not withstanding, the Afghan poverty makes it impossible to get the Afghans to pay for their own occupation, either by way of taxes, or to get them provide reliable soldiers to defend any 'friendly' regime against its own rebels. The occupiers end up haemorrhaging both their own blood and money, to little material or political gain, and it apparently matters little which military, or political tactics, they adopted.

For instance the Soviets tried brute numbers, and fought a no quarter, no rules war that left 1.5 million dead, figures which are even higher if the casualties from the subsequent civil war, which saw the Taliban sweep into power, are added in. However the cost to the soviet economy was only about $2bn (£1.2bn), a year in materials and weapons etc which seems a pittance compared with the US efforts.

The US tried to fight a 'smart war', with a highly trained professional army (as opposed to the Soviets conscript soldiers), and with an estimated 100,000 casualties so far, its certainly a far less bloody conflict than the Soviet version, but this latest Afghan War has also been far more expensive than the Soviet misadventure, with the US have already spent more than $700bn (£418bn) .... but to much the same effect.

There is a lot to be said in being a backward, fanatical, bloody-minded peoples, with an almost casual disregard for the value of human life, because in the end, most occupiers just throw in the towel, as the British did in 1842, as the Soviets did in 1988, and as the US and NATO will do later this year.    

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