It’s fitting that President Donald J. Trump should address the nation regarding our recommitment to the war in Afghanistan on a day when most of the continental United States saw a total solar eclipse.
Historians would say that Afghanistan has eclipsed all our other wars. Not for nothing is Afghanistan known as “the graveyard of empires.” Certainly, it’s the graveyard of modern empires. The British in the 19th century and early 20th centuries and the Soviets in the 1970s got bogged down in wars there but left without the victor’s laurel wreath. We Americans have been fighting there 17 years, our longest war.
But Afghanistan has not been the graveyard of ancient empires. Lying as it does at the crossroads of the Middle East and Central Asia, Afghanistan has been conquered many times, most notably by Persian Emperor Cyrus the Great and by the man who admired him, the Greco-Macedonian king Alexander the Great, who cemented his mastery of the Persian Empire in 331 B.C.
Alexander’s conquest is instructive to us today. He waged a long guerilla war in Afghanistan; married the Afghan princess Roxane, who became his chief wife and mother of his heir, Alexander IV; and never returned home, dying in Babylon (in northern Iraq) a month shy of his 33 today. (For those interested in more, I recommended Frank Holt’s book “Into the Land of Bones: Alexander the Great in Afghanistan.”)
Whereas we, for all our wars, never want to stay. Now we will for the foreseeable future as the president increases the American presence in Afghanistan. It is a strange about-face for the man who as a private citizen and candidate condemned President Barack Obama’s Afghan strategy, pledging to put America first.
“My original instinct was to pull out, and historically I like following my instincts,” Mr. Trump said. “But all my life, I’ve heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office — in other words, when you’re president of the United States.”
When you’re president, you learn that while you may run for office on domestic policy, you’ll wind up governing on foreign policy. In fairness to any president, more than 300 million American lives hang in the balance. That’s a weighty burden. If we leave Afghanistan, we may have more resources for the homefront. But we may also create a situation in which others – notably the Iranians and Russians as well as terrorists – rush in for advantage.
There’s no easy solution in a rugged place that is still essentially a warlord society, one characterized by corruption, religious superstition and misogyny.
To succeed there, we may have to do what we have heretofore shown no stomach for: We’ll have to remain.