Winning in Afghanistan

In Monday’s speech about Afghanistan Pres. Trump assured his audience, “In the end, we will win.” Since he did not define what victory might look like or how we might achieve it, I’ll offer a suggestion on how to start: Ask more questions.

If our nation had done that in 1979, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, we might well have prevented the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which were plotted in Afghanistan by Osama bin Laden, whom we earlier had supported as a “freedom fighter. We also might well have avoided our current quagmire—our longest war ever.

As noted in the Afghanistan section of Dorothie’s and my book (click for free PDF and go to page 219):

The American media … portrayed the [1979 Soviet invasion Afghanistan] in fearful, angry, and hateful terms. The January 7, 1980, issue of TIME magazine called it, “the most brutal blow from the Soviet Union’s steel fist since the Red Army’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.”

Two weeks later, TIME had a column by Strobe Talbott—who would later serve President Bill Clinton as Deputy Secretary of State—that referred to the invasion as “the Soviet army’s blitz against Afghanistan,” thereby evoking a vision of Communism as a new version of Nazism, whose blitzkrieg devastated Europe.

That bogeyman image was enhanced when Talbott went on to warn that “the Soviet jackboot was now firmly planted on a stepping stone to possible control over much of the world’s oil supplies.” In a private communication, Lieutenant General (US Army, Retired) Karl Eikenberry, Commander of the American-led Coalition forces in Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007 and our Ambassador to that country from 2009 to 2011, told me, “Given the geographic constraints and geopolitical realities, it is not at all clear why Talbott thought this was so.”

Asking more questions not only can create greater peace in the world. It also can create true love at home. “Making Decisions With the New Map” (page 84 in our book) describes how I thought Dorothie was crazy for looking at new cars several years ago. Our older car was only six years old and we typically keep cars for at least ten years. Instead of treating her like she was crazy (my old map mode), I asked Dorothie what I was missing. Her answer, which I’ll leave to that section of the book, opened up a new perspective and I now thank Dorothie every time I drive the car we bought as a result.

It’s high time that we asked more questions both in our homes and in the world. One of the first shifts needed to create a winning strategy in Afghanistan would be to stop proclaiming that we will win and start asking how we are going to extricate ourselves while causing as little harm as possible to that nation and ourselves. That would be a real win because it would shift our foreign policy from empty posturing to one that recognizes the limits of our power.

Martin Hellman

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, since 1982, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book, co-written with my wife Dorothie, with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." It's on Amazon and a free PDF can be downloaded from its website:
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