Afghanistan: Get Serious or Get out

Unless there is a change in how it perceives the nature of warfare, the West will lose the war in Afghanistan, despite declaring victory, and spend the next 10 years in splendid isolation wondering what went wrong.

Patrick Bury is a former Captain in the British Army’s Royal Irish Regiment who has served in Afghanistan; he delivered his Masters dissertation on Military-Media Relations and a memoir of his experiences, ‘Callsign Hades’, is to be published in September by Simon and Schuster

The leaking of the contents of log reports two weeks ago from an American military headquarters in Afghanistan may have surprised the media and the populace, but it will not surprise any soldiers who have served there.

It appears that much of the media and many people are out of touch. That they still think that war should be clean, clear cut and concise. It is none of these.

Maybe the precedent of low casualty victories, like Iraq in 1991 and Kosovo in 1999, delivered by the technological Revolution in Military Affairs, has helped shape this false belief, maybe it is the failure of the media to convey the true horrors of war, but for leaked reports, detailing civilians getting killed by accident, special forces operatives on ‘kill or capture missions’, and Pakistani intelligence service collaboration with the Taliban to surprise anyone who knows anything about either war or Afghanistan, is ridiculous.

Of course, the media has an important watch-dog role in modern society and there is a definite need for the primacy of rule of law in military operations. Yet the way some of the media, and therefore the population in general, expect soldiers to win wars that are ostensibly fought in their name is unrealistic, and given the changing nature of war, becoming even more so.

The leaked logs show higher civilian casualties than previously reported. When our enemies fight us amongst the people, high rates of civilian casualties are unfortunately inevitable. Indeed, as in the Taliban’s case, inducing the West to cause civilian casualties is an explicit tactical and strategic goal of insurgents. And it seems much of the West’s population and media are not aware of this manipulation.

Moreover, heavily armed young men, despite the best training and restraint, make mistakes sometimes. You would, if you were in Afghanistan and a car that you couldn’t make out was hurtling toward your checkpoint and ignoring your shouts and warning shots and driving right toward you, and what about that report of three vehicle borne suicide bombers in the bazaar just before you left base?

And unfortunately, war makes both states and men act in ways they may not like to act normally. Special operations provide an example. They operate in the grey area between Realpolitik and law, they execute foreign policy at the tactical level, with all the myriad moral complexities this entails. If you think ‘kill or capture missions’ are morally suspect you are right, if you think they are always unnecessary you are wrong.

War has changed, probably irreversibly. The prospect of defeat in Afghanistan for NATO and the U.S is now real. Wars amongst the people and Improvised Explosive Devices have negated Western militaries’ once all powerful control of the battlespace and turned soldiers into little more than heavily laden slow-moving targets.

Meanwhile a lightly armed, agile militia called the Taliban are using every trick they can to win. They use children proxy bombers, they use human shields, they lay ambushes for NATO soldiers returning Taliban dead to their mosques. They do not care for the Geneva Convention, nor human rights. And it pays off.

And they have time and a long term view of strategy.

The only time the West fights to win is in a war of necessity, such as in World War 2. Then the rules are bent and the gloves come off, for a period. This is usually acceptable, if unknown, to the population the state is acting to protect. This happens in a war of survival; survival of the fittest, the most adaptable.

A government should not go into a war if it is not a war of survival, if it is not prepared to fight to win. It owes that to those risking their lives on its behalf.

Unless there is a change in how it perceives the nature of warfare, the West will lose the war in Afghanistan, despite declaring victory, and spend the next 10 years in splendid isolation wondering what went wrong.

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44 Responses to “Afghanistan: Get Serious or Get out”

  1. LockPickerNet

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  2. lockpickernet

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  3. shamikdas

    Patrick Bury, former captain in Afghanistan, on the reality of war: Afghanistan: Get Serious or Get out http://bit.ly/bEA8i5 @leftfootfwd

  4. next big idea

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  5. peterjohncannon

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  6. dazmando

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  7. politikezoe

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  8. Ash

    Am I going mad or have you just published an article on Left Foot Forward calling for NATO forces in Afghanistan to take off the gloves, bend the rules, be more adaptable, and compete in a survival-of-the-fittest contest with opposing forces who understand that ‘it pays off’ to disregard human rights and the Geneva Convention?

    I have read and reread this article, trying to see how it could be interpreted otherwise – perhaps as a call to withdraw from Afghanistan rather than cross the moral lines we’d have to cross in order to win. (A call to ‘get out’ rather than to ‘get serious’). But it can’t. It’s a call to ‘get serious’, adjust our view of the nature of warfare (along the lines suggested above) and ‘fight to win’.

    Truly, deeply, shocking.

  9. Carl

    It’s interesting isn’t it; hardly anyone would doubt that the Taliban are a force that must be curbed, and of course they are a network, and linked to other networks. For whatever kind of better society we want to achieve, left or right, we should all see the implications of losing the war against them in Afghanistan.

    Yet there war effort is the one that is, according to the author, “paying off”, that is by playing dirty, and not following the Geneva Convention or giving a damn about human rights.

    If we recognise that we need to win against the Taliban, this throws some awkward questions at us about how we go about that. Further, questions arise about how our war effort may have been put in jeopardy by not ever playing like for like – can we win when the opposite sides ignore the “rules” or war?

  10. carlraincoat

    RT @leftfootfwd: Afghanistan: Get Serious or Get out http://bit.ly/bEA8i5

  11. Robert

    Every one knows if your at war it’s total you cannot go around saying OK we will not kill anyone today, tomorrow well OK we can kill people tomorrow. War is total is nasty it’s dirty, and people guilty and innocent get killed.

    You cannot fight the Tali Ban by not dropping bombs on them, if your not willing to allow innocents to die the Tali ban will use this.

    But we are not at war with the Tali ban we are a Police force, and thats no good at all, the Americans now realize like the Russians you cannot win this one, so get out

  12. Matt Owen

    I think I’ll just reiterate what Ash said above. Am I really reading a piece on this blog suggesting that “the rules are bent and the gloves come off, for a period” in Afghanistan? The suggestion being that we follow the Taliban’s lead and forget “the Geneva Convention” and “human rights” – after all, this “pays off”, right? How can anyone seriously expect the people in these countries to submit themselves to our values of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ if we refuse to play by the rules we ourselves create? I’m astonished reading this piece, truly astonished.

    Also, you say that “war has changed, probably irreversibly” – but hasn’t war been like this for a long time now? Aren’t we losing for exactly the same reasons the US lost in Vietnam fifty years, and the Soviets lost in Afghanistan thirty years ago? I have a friend in the forces who sees our failures in the Middle East conflicts as stemming from the fact that our military leadership has completely failed to learn from the past, or adapt its approach.

  13. andy williams

    You are going to have to decide whether you want to win this war or not, bearing in mid what WILL happen to the people of Afghanistan if we leave and the Taliban retturn to power.

    Then once we have made our decision if we are happy enough to let the Taliban return, we should pull out as fast as possible. If however we decide that we should wage the war and defeat the Taliban then whether hand-wringers like it or not, we ae going to have to take of the gloves and leave them in no uncertain doubt that we are going to eliminate each and every one of them no matter what the cost in men or materials.

    At the moment we are losing a war we should easily win and the reason is because the civilian population here in the UK and America and other countries in the Coalition Forces seem to think we can win by playing fair and being nice.

    Unfortunately in war the best you can hope for by playing fair and being nice is runner-up. War is a dirty, messy, brutal and inhuman activity and if you want to be in it, then you have to be in it to win it no matter what or you are courting disaster.

    PS – I served 22 years in the Infantry.

  14. Patrick

    Ash and Matt,

    Thanks for your comments. I wrote this article to hopefully spark a debate, and you are both right to pick up on certain questionable parts of it. The interesting thing about the Taliban’s strategy is that they see what you both very rightly see as the West’s strength, ‘Freedom and democracy’, as our very weakness. This being the case, if war is essentially about winning, the point I am making is that we need to adapt to win. This happens in wars for survival and is usually acceptable.
    What has changed about war is that it is now ‘amongst the people’, in Vietnam it was not, neither to the same extent in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
    Other questions I saught to raise are: is Afghanistan a war of survival for the West? What are the criteria for committing our forces now the Powell Doctrine is obviously obsolete, and what effect will this have on future foreign policy? I understand these are distasteful questions, especially to liberals like myself, yet I feel not searching for answers to them would be the height of folly…

  15. Patrick

    And thanks Andy!

  16. Ash

    Visit your favourite left-of-centre blog next week to read the rest of this hard-hitting new series: ‘Terror Supect Interrogation: Torture Them or Don’t Bother’, ‘Burglars: Amputate Their Hands or Forget It’ and ‘School Bullies: No Cane, No Gain’.

  17. Matt Owen

    Patrick – Thanks for the response. Firstly, I’d argue that the Vietnam war (especially in its latter stages) was fought almost entirely ‘amongst the people’. The tactics employed by the Viet Cong provided a virtual template for future guerilla forces like the Taliban – using human shields, blending in with locals etc. But anyway, that’s another debate, and we should probably leave it be.

    I guess my argument would be that while you’re entirely correct in saying that the Taliban view our Western values as a weakness, by discarding them, we corrupt exactly what we were fighting to achieve in the first place. It’s all very well to, as Andy tactfully put, “eliminate each and every one of them no matter what the cost in men or materials,” but if we want there to be a country left when we’re finished, or more specifically a population that doesn’t want us out more than ever, we have to be the ones setting an example; we have to demonstrate that the value systems we represent are morally superior to that of the Taliban. Do you see what I mean? As the invading force, the burden of proof is on us to prove that we are offering a better alternative, and degrading ourselves by using the methods employed by the Taliban means we instantly fail in this. If you believe some of the studies that have emerged from the recent wars – http://bit.ly/b6HDFx, just to name one – our recent policy in the Middle East has done nothing, in fact it has helped us to continually fail, in our global ‘war on terror’. If we want to buck this trend, we absolutely cannot discard the values and the ideals that we went there in the first place to promote. In a simple sense, we cannot claim to be morally superior – or more civil or compassionate or however you want to term it – if we then willing to lower ourselves to the standards set by the vicious, regressive and morally repugnant Taliban.

    I realize it’s not black and white, but that’s my view. Your later questions are broader geo-political ones, but if you want to discuss them i’d want you to clarify a) what differentiates a “war of survival” from any other war, and b) why you think the Powell Doctrine is obsolete, seeing as none of its criteria were met for either of our recent Middle-Eastern interventions.

  18. Matt Owen

    Apologies, i meant ‘b) why you think the Powell Doctrine is obsolete, seeing as ALMOST none of its criteria were met for either of our recent Middle-Eastern interventions.’

  19. Patrick

    Thanks Matt,
    And you’re right about Vietnam now that I ponder it, especially the latter stages…
    Not only do I understand your main point, to a large degree I share it, but that, unfortunately, means the West will lose in Afghanistan. That will have strategic implications for the West, and these may, or may not, be serious. One of the lessons from the West’s defeat in Afghanistan (and to a large degree Iraq) will be that anybody with an idea, an AK and patience can defeat our militaries. This is exactly what AQ saught to herald when they began their operations and could have far reaching consequences.
    I completely see what you mean, and i have fought out there for those priciples and expounded them to the men under my command. Some of us died for them. But I do not think they will deliver victory where I was, (Sangin) and proabably not in the rest of Afghanistan. My argument is saying: if the West wants decisive victory in Afghanistan, it will have to become the strong man. I do not think we should claim to be morally superior by one iota, just realistic. Unfortunately for us, most Afghans respect strength, not Western liberal ideals. That may well be unacceptable to the West, and I accept that.
    Wars of choice vs wars of survival? I think the history of interventions we’ve seen in the last 10 years fall into the former. WW2 was a rare latter.
    On the Powell Doctrine, again you’re right. My terminology was sloppy and indeed those criteria were arguably not met at all. However, the use of ‘overwhelming’ military force detailed within the Powell Doctrine, using precision weapons, aircraft and armoured thrusts, is obsolete. But thanks for catching me out and having a decent exhange of ideas!;-)

  20. Matt Owen

    Patrick – again, thanks for the measured and sincere response. Of course, you’re right in everything you say, and it’s very easy for me to state that we should take the moral high ground, but not so easy to face what losing this conflict as a result might mean. I suppose that’s what makes these debates so damn hard.

    As you say, thanks for the exchange of ideas. Whatever my feelings about the war, that you have risked your life fighting out there and still believe in the same principles that I preach from the comfort of my armchair is a credit to your character. Cheers.

  21. andy williams

    Patrick, as I said I served 22 years in the Infantry. I see you were a Ranger – I went to school with Alan Jones and later served under his command when he was attached to us as a Company Commander in Bosnia in 92/93.

    Top bloke.

  22. andy williams

    Matt – Andy tactfully put, “eliminate each and every one of them no matter what the cost in men or materials,” but if we want there to be a country left when we’re finished, or more specifically a population that doesn’t want us out more than ever, we have to be the ones setting an example

    If we opt for the total war scenario then it is to ultimately protect ourselves and our way of life here in the west. In which case Afghanistan itself becomes merely a place of battle. What state it’s in afterwards becomes of no consequence so long as the threat to us is removed.

  23. andy williams

    In fact make that 93/94.

  24. Ash

    I wonder if part of the debate here stems from the conflation of two issues. It’s one thing to argue that we need to accept some ugly truths about the realities of war – that sometimes our bombs will hit schools, sometimes the people in that car speeding through the checkpoint will turn out to be unarmed, etc; I get that. But it’s another thing entirely to imply that we ought to be “adaptable” to the point of being prepared to commit war crimes if that’s what it takes to win. (And that does seem to be the implication when you describe the atrocities committed by the Taliban, note their effectiveness, and then suggest that we should be *more* adaptable than them in terms of ‘bending the rules’ etc.) The whole concept of a ‘war crime’ is meaningless if a war crime is just an act that it’s acceptable to commit only if doing so will help one to win a war. How are we supposed to condemn the Taliban’s use of human shields etc if we endorse the principle that it’s acceptable to do whatever it takes to win?

  25. Andy Williams

    Ash there are some brutal truths that people are going to have to accept about Afghanistan. The Taliban will win unless we tiotally destroy them. If they win, al-Quada will be back in there like a shot and what happend in New York, London and Madrid will happen again, only more frequently and on a bigger scale and in more western cities.

    So Ash, what’s it to be. More terrorist atrocities in western cities, or victory in Afghanistan.

    Which do you want because they are the only choices on the table (unless you bizarrely believe that the drug-addled jokers known as the Afghan National Army can actually win for us).

  26. Patrick

    I understand your point Ash, but I am talking about accepting the inevitability of civilian and military casualties, hardening against capital driven media sensationlism and getting down to do a dirty job with enough boots on the ground, resources and willpower to actually do it properly. Of course, this should be conducted within the rule of law. And thats if we actually think it is worth it…
    To most Afghans we look weak, precisely because of our commitment to our Western ideals. I am not saying they actually make us weak,(they strengthen us in some ways, too) but I’m saying thats how we are percieved in many parts of the world.
    The French have a democratic society yet are tough on defence and security. Ask any Somali pirate. Meanwhile the Royal Navy is faced with a rules of engagement conundrum each time an armed skiff races by in pursuit of a tanker. The point I’m making here and in the article is that the world is an increasingly unstable place, and it does not pay to be percieved as weak.
    I would never suggest ditching the Geneva convention or commiting war crimes to gain the upper hand, I would suggest, if the fight is deemed worth it, fighting with every asset available and fighting hard. If its not worth, lets get out. The Taliban will be running half of the country by the end of the decade and fighting the other half..

  27. Ash

    Patrick – if you’re talking about acting strictly within the rule of law, I’m not sure we disagree. But I find it hard to square that with your comments in the article about bending rules in order to prevail, in a survival-of-the-fittest contest, against an enemy whose disregard for legal and ethical principles you describe as ‘paying off’.

    Andy – not quite sure what you’re asking me. It’s not utterly destroying the Taliban I’m objecting to, it’s the implication that we should do so by beating them at their own game – i.e. disregarding any and every moral and legal principle in the pursuit of victory. If the choice on offer is between Taliban/al-Qaeda style atrocities committed AGAINST the UK and Taliban/al-Qaeda style atrocities committed BY the UK, then I’ll take the former.

  28. Mr. Sensible

    This is an interesting debate.

    I think it is right that we have gone in to Afghanistan; Andy has highlighted what could happen if the Taliban come back.

    Yes, we want to win, but I think 1 of the best ways to win will be to try and take the Afghan people wit us. And so, whilst civilian casualties may be inevitable, they should be kept to a minimum.

  29. Patrick

    Andy, I’m talking operating within the rule of law, but not strictly all of the time, like most state and non- state actors around the world. I’m talking about realpolitik and the situation as it is, not as we would like it to be. I understand the argument that if we do not operate under our liberal ideals we erode our own society, but these liberal ideals are percieved as weak by many. If you hold on to your own ideals (which many have fought and died for)too tightly and do not adapt there is a risk that it will be detrimental to your position. I think that is especially the case given the strategic instability we are faced with…
    It is also somewhat naive to think that ignoring the rules does not pay off. The precise reason the Taliban are doing so well is they fight dirty and dont care about our ideals (Civilian casualties, Geneva convention etc)and the military are not alowed to fight at that level, mostly for good reason.
    I think the nature of war is changing, and because of that the West is losing its military power, which was based on armour, jets and overwhelming force. If you agree with these two observations, then, it follows, we need to reconsider how the West fights its wars vis a vis its enemies. It is perfectly fine, brave and commendable saying you would rather face AQ atrocities than be party to UK atrocities of the same nature, and I agree, but that does not get away from the crux of the argument. I believe, as a liberal, we are increasingly percieved as weak around the world because of our ideals. I thought that LFF, as a blogsite for likeminded individuals, would be a good place to see what other people thought….

  30. Ash

    Patrick – I think you’re replying to me and not Andy!

    “It is also somewhat naive to think that ignoring the rules does not pay off.” – I don’t think that for a moment. Obviously it can sometimes pay off to behave unethically – that’s precisely why we need rules proscribing unethical behaviour. This applies to everything from sitting an exam to filling in a tax return to putting someone on trial to fighting a war – if it didn’t sometimes pay to cheat, fudge the figures, rig the jury or torture the POW, no-one would be tempted to do such things and there’d be no need for rules.

    “I’m talking operating within the rule of law, but not strictly all of the time” – and if you were talking about bending the rules just a little in the most extreme, exceptional circumstances, no doubt that would be fair enough. But the argument you actually seem to be putting forward is that we should treat *every* war, at every time, as an extreme circumstance – a fight for survival – so that in the context of war, there should be a permanent presumption in favour of the legitimacy of bending the rules by as much as it takes to win.

    Since you acknowledge that our enemy in the present context gains a significant advantage by bending the rules to an extreme degree, the clear implication is that it may very well be necessary in order to win – and so legitimate – for us to bend the rules to a similarly extreme degree. (This, of course, incentivises our enemy to bend the rules still further in order to regain the upper hand, and so it goes on.)

  31. Patrick

    Ash, sorry!
    No I don’t mean bending the rules to an extreme degree, I mean it would be worthwhile for some introspection and debate on how the West is meant to wage war, thats all. A look at what the rules are and how they affect our power is something I think would be worthwhile for us all.
    Also the survival battle: the point I made in the article is that we should not get involved militarily if we do not judge it to be of vital interest; that will be the lesson of Iraq and Afghan. I am not saying all wars are for survival, but that we should stay out if we are not prepared to fight to win. Fighting to win does not mean ignoring every ideal we hold dear, but rather a more contextual and adaptable recognition of our ideals within the the changing nature of warfare and the wider world.
    Also war is a completely different activity from sitting exams, tax returns and courtrooms and must be understood differently, although I agree that you need to uphold our ideals as best you can throughout all society’s activities…

  32. Mike

    I am serving in Afghanistan right now

  33. Mike

    I am an American serving in Afghanistan right now and have just read this excellent article and the comments made regarding it. In simple terms we are trying to fight a counter-insurgency war within an artificial political timeline. Long term victory requires long term investment. When the political leadership of the two biggest players (UK and US) have already announced our departure it is hard to see how it is even possible to begin to think that we will ‘win’. The Afghan people are a proud and noble race, and unlike many reports suggest highly intelligent. They will not side with ISAF when they know that in 4 years they will have their throats slit by the Taliban/insurgents. This campaign requires long term investment – if we as the Western World are not able to deliver this then we whould be slightly less deceitful and just leave. The debate as to whether we handover to the Afghan Security Forces is pointless – we all agree we should and indeed must in due course but in reality they will not be able to do what is needed for at least a generation.

  34. Ash

    Patrick – “war is a completely different activity from sitting exams, tax returns and courtrooms and must be understood differently”

    – of course, and I’d expect the rules governing war to be completely different from those governing other activities. But the point still holds that within each domain, the rules are there to counterbalance incentives that exist to behave unethically. So while war should (of course) be governed by rules appropriate to war, I think it’s dangerous to suggest that the ‘high stakes’ involved in war mean the rules applying in that area need to be treated as more bendable than those operating in other areas. (In fact one could make a case for the opposite conclusion – that given what’s at stake, given what it means in terms of human rights and lives to bend the rules of war, those rules should be regarded as *more* sacred than those governing more trivial activities.)

    What you said in that last reply makes sense to me, though: of course there’s always room to review & debate the rules.

  35. Patrick

    Ash, you’re right, these rules need to be carefully upheld in warfare, but I think they also need to be open to review.

    Mike, interesting to hear from someone on the ground, and that things don’t seem to have changed much. I think we need to start having this debate sooner rather than later…

  36. Mike

    Patrick, You are absolutely right. The problem from my point of view is that whilst folk back home debate and discuss this allowing everyone to have their view, allow diplomacy to occur blah blah that time passes by. This time costs us two things, firstly the lives of my men and those injured (daily) and also the opportunity to get this right. If we are going to fight then let us fight – but do not be shocked by the headlines when we fight for real and it appears a bit nasty on CNN. If we are not going to fight, because we do not have the stomach or will then withdraw us. Getting my legs blown off is not my ideal solution – so whatever we do please hurry up!

  37. Patrick

    Mike, well said, I know exactly how you feel. Unfortunately, knowing what I do about the military, politics and society, I think it will take a couple of defeats before we really start asking the searching questions… which isn’t much good to you and your guys, or Afghanistan.
    Best of luck out there, and if you want to converse OTR, my email is patrickbury@hotmail.co.uk

  38. blogs of the world

    Unless there is a change in how it perceives the nature of warfare, the West will lose the… http://reduce.li/n677au #serious

  39. Paul Sloane

    RT @leftfootfwd: Afghanistan: Get Serious or Get out http://bit.ly/bEA8i5

  40. Bruce Lee

    ‘Freedom and democracy’? Bombing Afghan weddings and torturing Afghans has nothing to do with freedom and democracy but everything to do with war crimes.

    “if war is essentially about winning” There is as much chance of us finding victory in Afghanistan as there was of us finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq ie zero chance. Indeed, the war propagandists no longer talk in terms of victory, they have cunningly changed the debate to terms of defeat eg we will be defeated in Afghanistan if we do not supply Afghan children with schools.

    “the point I am making is that we need to adapt to win.” there is no point in adapting as we have already lost because we have murdered too many civilians. When I say we I mean our coalition partners, the Americans who have murdered and bombed and tortured thousands of Afghans. There is no way we can win the hearts and minds of people whose hearts and minds have been blown up by American bombers.

    “is Afghanistan a war of survival for the West?” No. No Afghan has ever attacked the British mainland. No Taliban has ever attacked the American mainland.

    “What are the criteria for committing our forces now the Powell Doctrine is obviously obsolete,” The Powell doctrine was obsolete at birth.

    “and what effect will this have on future foreign policy?” we are not able to save the world, we are not the policemen of the world, indeed we are the criminals so we should concentrate on not breaking international law ourselves before preaching to others.

    Sorry to be so blunt but you are over-intellectualising what is essentially a massacre and mistaken mission that we should never have gone along with.

    No Afghan was involved in the attacks on the Twin Towers. If the Americans had sent in special forces to neutralise Alqaeda in Afghanistan then fair enough. They didn’t do that, they carried out a land invasion and occupation instead.

    Which means they were only using the attacks on the Twin Towers as a cover to invade and occupy Afghanistan. That is a war crime. You talk of the Taliban breaking the Geneva Convention but you fail to acknowledge they would not be doing so if their country had not been illegally invaded and occupied.

    We were wrong to occupy the country and the only way forward is to remove our troops immediately.

  41. robert brown

    Congrats Bruce, nothing more to add.

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