Trap and Blank Check: A Cautionary Note About Bush and Afghanistan Published in 2001

By Kenneth Maxwell

On. 6 October 2001, Kenneth Maxwell published a piece on Afghanistan on a Brazilian website, which unfortunately no longer exists.

But The WayBack Machine has preserved the article, which is published in Portuguese.

We have made a translation using the translation tool DeepL Pro and here is the article translated from the Portuguese and a reminder that remembering history before charging into creating another historical failure is indeed a good idea.

Jalalabad, an ancient fortified city in northeastern Afghanistan, guards the road linking Kabul to the Indian subcontinent via the notorious Khyber Pass. In 1954, as a young student, I learned to shoot in Jalalabad. My Jalalabad, however, was a red-brick replica of the original fortress in Afghanistan. It was near the center of the market town of Taunton, in the southwest of England, and was home to the Somerset Light Infantry. The Army cadet unit to which I belonged was affiliated to this regiment and, consequently, we were allowed to use the old firing stand for target practice.

In 2001, like millions of other people living in New York, I became the target.

The main bases of al Qaeda, the terrorist network of Osama bin Laden, who is blamed for the destruction of the World Trade Center, are presumed to be around Jalalabad.

As the British Army was reduced and became an all-volunteer force, the Somerset Light Infantry, like many old regiments, was merged with other units at the end of the 50s. The barracks at Jalalabad ended up abandoned. I vaguely remember that the royal blue ornaments on our ceremonial sashes were awarded as an honor, we were told, after the first Afghan War, when the regiment defended Jalalabad. I then went to check the story.

In 1842, the British “Army of Indus”, with 38,000 soldiers and 30,000 camels, marched into Afghanistan to enthrone a malleable puppet ruler, a feeble old man who had been deposed some 30 years earlier. Indigently commanded, overly self-confident and facing a widespread uprising led by the mullahs, the British were forced into a humiliating capitulation in Kabul. As they retreated along the mountainous 144-kilometer road between the Afghan capital and Jalalabad, they were slaughtered by Afghan villagers. Seventeen thousand perished, including European and Indian soldiers and 12,000 liveaboards; only one man, Dr. William Brydon, a military doctor, made it to Jalalabad alive. It was the most humiliating disaster suffered by the British Army at any time and in any place.

The Somerset Light Infantry, besieged in Jalalabad, held out for a hard winter. The following spring, a new army was sent from British India to take revenge on Kabul. The punitive expedition besieged the Afghan capital and destroyed Kabul’s great covered bazaar, one of the wonders of Asia. The British then retreated, recognizing on the throne of Afghanistan the same ruler whose overthrow they had intervened for five years earlier. He proved to be a reliable ally, albeit an independent one, for the next 35 years – until the end of the 1870s, when the British repeated their mistakes and the Second Afghan War took place, with similar results to the first. It was on this famous occasion that the then beleaguered General Roberts telegraphed the Viceroy of India asking for “reinforcements, tea and sugar”.

In recognition of the resistance at Jalalabad in 1842 and providing what little British honor remained after the first Afghan disaster, the young Queen Victoria ordered the Somerset Light Infantry to be called “Prince Albert’s Own”, in honor of her beloved Germanic husband. The regiment adopted “Jalalabad” as its motto of arms. The infantry’s yellow vestments were replaced by royal blue, the only regiment not directly serving the Queen to obtain such an honor, and the incongruous replica of the Jalalabad fortress was built in Taunton.

The First Afghan War is being re-evaluated, not only in Washington, but also in Kabul. Afghanistan was the locus classicus of the “great game”, when imperial powers fought for geostrategic advantages in a distant, imperfectly understood, inhospitable and dangerous place, almost always with little success. Intervention, betrayal, massacre and revenge became the grim reality of those desolate mountain passes over the centuries. In the end, the game was not worth playing; a “tournament of shadows”, as Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac so aptly called it in a splendid recent book on the competition for empire in Central Asia.

Two conclusions can be drawn from the experience of the Afghan wars.

The first is that foreigners who invade Afghanistan with territorial ambitions will unite the different Afghan tribes and ethnicities against each other; and even if Afghans don’t like each other very much, they like infidels even less.

The second is that the exercise of skillful political influence, the use of inducements to build alliances and the threat of a plausible punitive military force can, if the seizure of territory is not the objective, sustain regimes in Kabul which, if not allies, at least may not serve as a refuge for enemies. By this logic, the British were forced in their relations with Afghanistan to prefer “influence” to “occupation”. It was in many ways the origin of the concept of “indirect rule”, in which the British upheld traditional hierarchies and exercised power from behind the throne. Soviet Russia in the 1980s forgot the first of these lessons with regard to Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden is now waiting for the Americans to make the same mistake in 2001.

In the final analysis, perhaps what the terrorists really wanted with the attack on American territory was to set a trap, precisely in order to provoke an intervention, not as President Bush said after the attacks “at the time and place the U.S. chooses” to retaliate, but where bin Laden has already set himself up with a tempting target.

It was a mistake to call bin Laden and his accomplices “cowards”.

This ignores the essential fact of their motivation.

The suicide squads that hijacked civilian airliners at Logan Airport in Boston and Dulles Airport in Virginia on September 11, 2001 and turned them into manned missiles had no fear of death. Bin Laden doesn’t fear it either. He attracts it, in fact, if he can, by his own death, provoke a reaction from the West that will unify the Islamic world against the West and, with that, throw the largest number of oppositionists into the streets of secular governments in Muslim-majority countries, such as Egypt, Pakistan, Indonesia and Jordan, in order to overthrow them and replace them with Islamic fundamentalist regimes opposed to the West.

This trap is practically impossible for the United States to avoid. Political leaders in democracies find it very difficult not to respond promptly with decisive action to the murders of so many citizens, who were working quietly, slaughtered with savage determination on a perfect sunny morning. In Washington, the humiliating carving on one side of the Pentagon is a daily reminder of the audacity, success and brutality of the challenge.

One certainty about what happened in New York and Washington on September 11 should be self-evident: the United States has paucity of information about bin Laden and his terrorist network not only in Afghanistan, but about the specific targets he had chosen to attack, or when, or where it would happen. It is also clear, or should be by now, that the terrorists have excellent information and understanding of the United States, its capabilities, weaknesses, vulnerabilities and, one can assume, the predictability of their responses. Since bin Laden planned his action and deployed his forces in complete secrecy and was able to establish the time and place of his attacks completely unnoticed by the most sophisticated and expensive intelligence-gathering organization in the world, it is not farfetched to expect that he would have planned the unfolding events just as effectively. He must have counted on a punitive military attack by his enemies on Afghanistan from the outset.

Thus, any American military response – if it is to be successful in the tremendously hostile geographical terrain of Afghanistan – will be entirely dependent on the accuracy and readiness of the intelligence service that the United States has on the ground in Afghanistan. It is unlikely that even the most intemperate American general would be foolish enough to follow the example of the British Army of Indus in 1842 and attempt a permanent land invasion of Afghanistan or think of holding territory there other than for a relatively short time to surround bin Laden and destroy his headquarters.

But for this to work it will require the reliable cooperation of the fractionated Afghan guerrilla forces opposed to the Taliban (which protects bin Laden), or even the Taliban itself, if bribes or other inducements can be offered and accepted. This has proved elusive and unreliable, but it has worked a few times. The US Special Forces have the training, capability and equipment to do the job, as does the British Special Air Service (SAS), but they need to know exactly where they are going and they need the element of surprise. Achieving this in Afghanistan will be a monumental challenge.

Bin Laden also knows that the U.S. military’s record in recent special operations is not the best. The botched attempt to rescue the American hostages in Tehran in 1979, for example; the experience in Panama in 1989-90, where, despite the overwhelming presence of the American armed forces and their deep knowledge of the country, the United States needed almost two weeks to locate General Noriega; or the disastrous hunt for Somali leader Mohammed Farah Aidid in Mogasihu in 1992-93; not to mention the buffoonery of the first, aborted landing in Haiti, where the resistance was ridiculous. Bin Laden must realize that the US doesn’t have the stomach for such a fight, especially if it’s bloody.

This also means, unfortunately, that the first American soldiers to be captured by al Qaeda or the Taliban will be treated with inhuman atrocity and the resulting images will be sent to the voracious media and repeated ad nauseam to American audiences. A ground operation in Afghanistan, however brief, promises to be a severe clash of wills. The old foxes in Washington know this, which is why they ask for “patience” and persistently warn that it won’t be an easy fight or one without casualties. They also know, for this reason among others, that this first battle of the 21st century cannot be lost.

In order to fight on the ground in Afghanistan or effectively provide logistical and military support to the Taliban’s Afghan enemies, US and British forces need nearby bases to send military force into the country. Thus, the cooperation of Afghanistan’s neighbors, particularly Pakistan to the east and Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to the north in allowing the use of bases is essential. The partners are far from ideal; none is a democracy, all face opposition from Islamic fundamentalists.

Each of these neighbors of Afghanistan sees a great incentive in preserving its internal stability and it is in their interest that bin Laden is neutralized, captured or handed over by diplomatic means rather than by war. Washington obviously hopes that intimidation, coupled with the credible threat of military action, as well as clandestine bribery and support for the Taliban’s enemies in Afghanistan, will persuade the Taliban to hand over their Arab “guests”. But there is little time for persuasion: the fierce Afghan winter is just around the corner, making the military option even more terrifying.

Russia is a key component of any military response. The rapprochement between Russia and the United States over Afghanistan has the hallmarks of a diplomatic revolution. If this new alliance is consummated, it will be no less dramatic in its consequences than the diplomatic revolution that took place in the middle of the eighteenth century in Europe, when alliances between the great powers changed, turning former allies into enemies and former enemies into friends. If such a dramatic change in US-Russian relations is consolidated, it will mark the most significant reorganization in international relations since the Russian Revolution and the end of World War I in 1918. The Bush administration has many people with solid experience in Russian relations.

Before September 11, this seemed to make them ill-prepared for a new world dominated by economics. Today, this may allow them to finish the rapprochement with Russia initiated by the administration of the current President Bush’s father. If George W. Bush has been consistent in one thing since he took office in January, it was in making it clear to the Russians that, from the American point of view, “The Cold War is over”.

The reasons for the Russian reaction to the terrorist attack in New York and Washington are somewhat obvious and motivated by self-interest, but such are the forces that always trigger diplomatic revolutions. Russia, after all, has old scores to settle in Afghanistan and faces continual opposition from the Chechens, who carry out terrorist attacks inside Russia against civilians. Russian support will be essential if the United States is to obtain vital areas of action for any effective military intervention in Central Asia and concrete approval for the former Soviet republics – Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – which are on Afghanistan’s northern border, to provide bases for US and British special forces. If these covert military operations succeed, then a new “post-Cold War paradigm” will indeed have been established. Along the way, it will mark a huge change in US policy: gone are the days of muddled Clintonism; back to realpolitik.

The events of September 11 have led to a renewed sense of solidarity among developed countries, particularly between Europe and the United States. In the European Community, public opinion polls show high levels of support for joining the United States in a military response: two-thirds in most countries, including France, which is only a few percentage points below the traditionally high British support (79%). This shows a profound contrast with opinion polls in Brazil, for example, where the same percentage of the population is against military retaliation and where 78% oppose Brazilian participation in any military action. This Western European support for the war on terror is understandable; Britain, Germany, France and Spain have suffered from terrorist attacks in recent years, many of them causing many civilian deaths. Yet opinion polls also show strong support for the extradition of bin Laden and his terrorists to face trial and little tolerance for any punitive attacks involving large numbers of civilian deaths.

The battle, of course, will not only be fought abroad. Responding to bin Laden in Afghanistan is only part of the puzzle facing President George W. Bush and his advisors. What is new in the situation facing the United States since September 11, 2001, is that a terrorist attack of complete surprise and unexpected magnitude took place on its own territory, an attack without any precedent in the scale of civilian deaths. Internal terrorism is certainly not new; Oklahoma City is the worst case. Nor is a foreign terrorist attack unprecedented; the World Trade Center itself had been attacked before, in 1993.

Several prestigious US commissions, tasked with examining the terrorist threat and preparing recommendations on what countermeasures were needed, had also warned of the possibility of a catastrophic terrorist attack aimed at killing the maximum number of people. But even though these reports were probably read by the terrorists, the US government and Congress stood still, gave no answers, and during the 1990s concentrated on distributing the remnants of prosperity rather than on the “maybes” pointed out so soberly by the distinguished former senators, retired generals and academic experts who made up these panels.

These commissions, however, focused their attention almost exclusively on nuclear, chemical and biological threats against the civilian population, all of which remain terrifying possibilities to this day. What no one anticipated was the audacity of the scale of the attacks when they came: none of these commissions, as they say, “thought ahead”. And while it’s easy to blame today, it’s unfair to do so. The very magnitude of the simultaneous attacks on New York and Washington is entirely new for the United States. The loss of a sense of immunity from the world and the vulnerability of its efforts is incredibly profound.

In any case, the recommendations of these anti-terrorism commissions have been taken off the shelves, dusted off, and have served as a starting point for many of the ideas that are rapidly being put into practice in the wake of the Pentagon and World Trade Center disasters. Some of these ideas are good, others bad. In short, they focus the debate on domestic rather than external responses to terrorist attacks. What are the bad ideas? Hasty discussions, for example, about the assassination of foreign leaders, as if the sad farce of the mafia sending explosive cigars to eliminate Fidel Castro or the unnecessary wear and tear on the United States that resulted from its close relations with murderous regimes from Guatemala to Chile had never happened.

An exponential increase in the state’s investigative power without a careful analysis of the consequences also has a sad history full of bad reactions that have rarely prevented terrorism or uncovered spies, from the government’s fear of anarchists in the 1920s to macarthyism in the 1950s. And none of these reactions will tell us much about what went wrong on September 11, 2001, the real initial step for any investigation.

Again, a few things should be obvious.

First is the chronic lack of coordination between and within the agencies and departments of the U.S. government, concerned with national defense and public safety. Second is the culture of avoiding responsibility that permeates the US bureaucracy, part of which is surely caused by America’s litigious culture. The most obvious measures for airport security, for example, the admittedly lax security in the United States compared to Europe, have never been implemented, a factor that anyone who travels frequently realizes. At Boston’s Logan Airport, security was a patronage service – the director of security was chauffeur to the governor of Massachusetts.

Here too, market ideology can reach the point of absurdity, with politicians opposed to the standardization of airport security under federal authority claiming that this would be an attempt to “socialize” functions better performed by the private sector. First of all, the events of September 11 showed the complete inadequacy, already known to anyone who looked into the matter, of delegating this vital service to commercial companies that spend as little as possible on guaranteeing basic security for their passengers: the same companies that today seek to recover tens of billions of dollars out of the taxpayer’s pocket, when tens of thousands of dollars spent intelligently beforehand could have prevented the catastrophe. These billions in loans to the airlines are only the beginning of the financial impact on the already fragile economy that was attacked by bin Laden.

Public opinion polls show that 90% of the American public support President Bush’s performance – the highest of any U.S. president. More than 85% are in favor of military action of some kind against the perpetrators of these horrors. With the impact of the thousands of deaths of innocent people going about their daily lives only now beginning to be understood, especially in New York, the incentive for swift and fleeting action is enormous. However, what is needed is a scalpel, not a steamroller.

The big question in the coming weeks will be which of these the United States chooses to use, not only in terms of military intervention abroad but also in response at home. Opting for a steamroller that demonizes the Islamic world and unifies it can only serve fundamentalist purposes, and will certainly consolidate opposition to the West. Curtailing the West’s most celebrated and arduous historical achievement, the protection of individual freedoms, will also give victory to those who fear these freedoms most of all.

Thinking back to my student days and visits to the Jalalabad fortress so many years ago for shooting practice, I used to pick up ammunition from the sergeant on duty as he checked the rifles for my company. One day, I signed a receipt at the foot of a sheet of paper. The sergeant put his huge hand over the blank space between my signature and the end of the ammunition list. “Never sign a blank sheet of paper,” he told me in a serious tone. ”

Anything can be written in the empty space and only you will be held responsible.”

From that day on I never did, although until now I can’t remember exactly why. In the spirit of national and community solidarity so palpable in these dark weeks following September 11, the American people are signing many blank sheets of paper for President Bush, in the hope that he knows what he’s doing.

Credit Graphic: Photo 4001515 | Afghanistan © Steve Mann |