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Kevin Nicholson on Afghanistan: Fighting in the Graveyard of Empires

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I am also angry with hundreds of politicians and generals who have allowed the war in Afghanistan to stumble forward, without a clear strategic mission, over the course of two decades.

By: Kevin Nicholson

One of the most frustrating aspects of politics, as a candidate, is that you often feel like you are fighting ghosts – or more accurately, cockroaches and rats. The cockroaches and rats of politics swarm about your feet in the dark, biting and nipping at your ankles, doing their best to pass their diseases onto you, only to then recede back into the dark when you move to stomp on them. I certainly felt this during my U.S. Senate campaign in 2018.

But I experienced the same sensation much stronger, and much earlier, while fighting in Afghanistan in 2008 and 2009. I have lost family and friends in Afghanistan, I left behind my wife and child for months when I deployed there myself, and I am disgusted by the way that President Biden has haphazardly thrown away the sacrifices of so many in his horrifically executed attempt at ending a war.

That said, as a veteran, I am not only angry with Joe Biden and the incompetents who staff his White House – I am also angry with hundreds of politicians and generals who have allowed the war in Afghanistan to stumble forward, without a clear strategic mission, over the course of two decades.

Afghanistan has been termed the “Graveyard of Empires,” not due to military prowess, but due to its unforgiving terrain, lack of societal and material development, and the insidious, terroristic, back-handed and vermin-like tactics of many of its fighters. In short, it’s like a carnival mirror house out of a horror movie; down is up and the reverse. You fight enemies who you cannot kill because you cannot find them. People shoot at you from a hilltop before disappearing, or lay bombs to kill you – or their own neighbor – and are long gone by the time the bomb detonates. You can ask the same question five times of the same person, and they will give you five different answers, in the space of five minutes. It’s maddening.

I lived this experience during my time in Afghanistan during 2008 and 2009. Much earlier, Greeks, Persians, Mongols, Sikhs, Brits and Soviets all lived a similar experience on the very same ground. Given this history, one would expect politicians and generals to consider these lessons before initiating conflict in Afghanistan. Most of the American political class did not.

To be clear: the United States was right to attack Afghanistan following the September 11, 2001 terrorist assault on our nation. That terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon was launched from entities then largely based in Afghanistan. The decision to attack and destroy those entities is not in question. What is in question is the strategic objective of the war that followed the initial attack on the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

As a veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq, I have long thought that the only achievable victory in Afghanistan was the creation of a regionalized Afghan security force that can deter, and sometimes destroy, local security threats. Nothing more. This may seem simplistic, but remember that the strategic and straightforward objective of World War II was the destruction of the Axis Powers. All stop. The Marshall Plan came after the war was done.

That concept is a far cry from an effort that was long centered on “winning hearts and minds” in Afghanistan through billions of dollars that were purportedly poured into infrastructure projects, to include schools, roads, and dams. Estimates show that around $20 billion of the $134 billion in reconstruction funds were stolen, wasted, or abused. In a cruel irony, there can be little doubt that some of those billions were used to kill Americans and NATO allies.

Much has been written about the growing disconnect between those who serve in the military and the rest of American society, and this criticism is true. The number of veterans serving in the U.S. Congress is now the lowest it has ever been since the end of World War II; down from 73 percent in 1973 to 17 percent today. That said, many of those veterans serving in Congress have also largely missed the point on Afghanistan, and failed to call for a clear mission if Americans were to continue to be deployed to combat there.

Events of the past several days make it clear the worst-case scenario – the one scenario that we could not afford – is likely to occur: Afghanistan will return to Taliban control. Lest Americans forget, these are the people who once turned their nation into a terrorist training ground.

Further, despite the talk of “never forgetting” September 11, 2001, it is also apparently
necessary to remind everyone – from the politicians to the generals to many American citizens – that terror sponsored in Afghanistan has a high likelihood of landing on our doorstep.

Joe Biden is incompetent, and he helped to cause and exacerbate the mess that is Afghanistan, but he is not alone on that count in Washington D.C. Ultimately, we need more serious people to lead our nation – leaders who understand the implications of their decisions, who can benchmark threats against historical events and patterns, and who can assess strategy, risk and common sense in a way that most members of the American political class simply cannot.

Until this changes, we will continue to live out the nightmare of repeating our mistakes.

About Kevin Nicholson

Kevin Nicholson is a businessman and volunteer president and CEO of No Better
Friend Corp., a conservative public policy group in Wisconsin. He is a combat veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps (Iraq, 2007 and Afghanistan, 2008-2009) and was a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2018. Follow him on Twitter @KevinMNicholson

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