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Myths About "Unwinnable" Afghanistan

Author: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, Senior Fellow for Women and Foreign Policy
February 17, 2011


The future of the war in Afghanistan is hotly debated around Washington. Hearings are promised--the latest from Sen. John Kerry's Foreign Relations Committee--as a growing number of reporters, lawmakers and activists wonder why we are in Afghanistan and what the United States can gain by remaining at war in this remote, conflict-scarred and presumably ungovernable nation.

Look more closely at the conventional wisdom on Afghanistan, however, and it is clear that some facts have been left out of the well-trod arguments about the "unwinnable" battle that has become America's longest war:

1) Afghanistan was never a state, and it will never function like one.

In reality, Afghanistan has functioned as a nation-state for more than two centuries, and its army and bureaucracy reach back to the 19th century. The country survived the strategic face-off between the United Kingdom and Russia, known as "The Great Game," as a nation-state and, in more recent memory, suffered through a bloody four-year civil war in the early 1990s precisely because each of the country's ethnic groups wanted the prize of the land: control of its capital, Kabul.

Even the Taliban was not happy to have roughly 90 percent of the country when it took power in the 1990s, fighting until 2001 to wrest control of the remaining northern sliver in order to lay claim to the entire Afghan nation.

As journalist and longtime Afghanistan observer Ahmed Rashid noted in the Financial Times, "Afghanistan has been a nation-state since 1761 - a good deal longer than four of its immediate neighbours (Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan).

"Even though Afghanistan has suffered severe internal wars and coups, falling victim to the entire gambit of 20th-century ideologies, the country and its people have shown remarkable resilience."

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