The View of Afghanistan From the Island of Elba

When rulers seek unslayable dragons to destroy, they should remember Elba. This tranquil, idyllic isle off the coast of Tuscany was, from May 1814 to April 1815, home to Napoleon Bonaparte. The British and their allies had exiled him there, leaving him to govern the island’s 12,000 souls. The emperor, a title he was allowed to keep, enjoyed two splendid houses, a magnificent library, servants, a small army and the company of family and retainers. This was a life for a king, but small recompense for a man who sought to rule the world.

Rather than write memoirs of one of history’s greatest dramas, Napoleon escaped. But, wrote biographer Philip Dwyer, “Napoleon left Elba not to save France, but to save himself from oblivion.” As we now know, his decision to resume the fight against Britain proved to be a mistake. His country’s humiliation followed at Waterloo, leaving thousands of his countrymen and their opponents dead or mutilated and forcing him to abdicate again. He ended his days, not in the congenial splendor of Elba, but on another island, Saint Helena, in the icy waters of the south Atlantic. He died there in 1821.

As I explored the grounds of Napoleon’s Palazzina dei Mulini, I thought of U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent decision to send another 4,000 American troops to Afghanistan. The United States’ battles began there in 2001, ostensibly with the limited objective of removing Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda followers from the country. That was 16 years ago. Sending more soldiers to risk their lives in the South Asian quagmire would make sense if Trump’s strategy differed from the doomed policies of the past. But it doesn’t.

A Not-So-New Strategy

No one but a fool — and Trump is no more foolish than his predecessors in the long Afghan war — believes in a magic formula for the use of armed forces to win the war. The Taliban’s members are Afghans. They have long received help from neighboring Pakistan and, recently, from its Shiite enemies in Iran. Thanks to geography, culture and language, Iran and Pakistan understand Afghan dynamics better than “the best and the brightest,” as David Halberstam put it, from the Ivy League and Mar-a-Lago. I remember how Syria and Iran ran rings around the United States and Israel in Lebanon in the 1980s, to the point that Washington, which abominated Damascus, begged it to send troops back into Beirut in 1987.

Trump outlined a “new strategy” in his Aug. 21 speech. It consists, he said, of not mentioning “numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities”; integrating “all instruments of American power — diplomatic, economic and military”; and changing “the approach in how to deal with Pakistan.” His disdain for complexity and diplomacy, which requires dealing with everyone involved on Afghanistan’s plains — Pakistan, Iran, India, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, NATO and the Afghans themselves — does not bode well for peace. Most soldiers I’ve known who have served in Afghanistan contend that military victory, which means eliminating the Taliban, is not viable.

Pentagon sources recently told The Wall Street Journal that around 12,000 American military personnel are based in Afghanistan. Trump’s 4,000 will raise that figure to 16,000. Afghanistan’s population totals 34 million, 40 percent of whom are from the Pashtun community that dominates the Taliban. Will an additional 4,000 young men and women from the American heartland really make a difference in a country of 34 million people?

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, an old friend and former classmate, has worthwhile ambitions for his country. But it is unlikely that 4,000 more foreign troops will help him to achieve them. Ghani, as hardworking and honest a man as anyone I know, has multiple, potentially Sisyphean, tasks before him: unifying a land that has resisted unity for ages; elevating women to the status of full citizens; cleansing Afghan life of the corruption that cripples the nation’s economy and society; and, most importantly, ending the state of war that has persisted there since the Soviet invasion of December 1979. He cannot do this without the cooperation of neighboring states, an understanding with the Taliban insurgents his army is battling and a consensus among his people.

A Path That Has Already Ended in Defeat

America, like Napoleon in 1815, is overstretched. It is engaged in conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen, while providing arms to governments to repress their populations in some countries and to rebels to overthrow their leaders in others. At home, Americans are confronting one another over history, race and class in ways that should alarm the White House but don’t. In 1931, eight years before the Second World War broke out in Europe, Sir Leo Chiozza Money wrote a book called Can War Be Averted? Whether or not war could have been averted, it wasn’t and 50 million people died. Money wrote, in words that we might recall today as wars engage the United States around the world and the threat of a nuclear holocaust looms from North Korea, “And just as within a nation social justice must be done before social peace can be attained, so in the world some better approach to equality of opportunity must be made if we wish for peace.”

As I watch sailboats riding at anchor off Elba, I wish that Napoleon’s confidants had persuaded him to stay on the island, govern it well, cultivate his garden and write books. The failed emperor, however, was unlikely to heed anyone who told him that the same strategy, the same tactics, the same army and the same enemies would produce the same outcome: defeat. In Afghanistan, Trump’s “new strategy” looks a lot like the old: counterinsurgency, reliance on unreliable local informants to discover who is and who isn’t a member of the Taliban, drone attacks, torture and search and destroy. It hasn’t succeeded, and the president gave no reason to believe that an extra brigade on the ground will make it work. My generation remembers Lyndon Johnson’s and Richard Nixon’s assurances that new approaches would reveal the elusive “light at the end of the tunnel” in Vietnam. We didn’t see it until April 1975, when helicopters evacuated the last Americans from Saigon.

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