First off I want to thank everybody who sent me emails on that last column about the French. What surprised me was how most of you agreed the French deserve a little gratitude for helping America and being good soldiers over the centuries. What with all the French-bashing on the web, I expected to get chopped into Freedom Fries for that column, and it floored me to get all that support.
And to all you pissed-off Albanian patriots who want my size-XL hide, just remember, John Belushi was fat too. What'd you all do if I got thin, anyway? You'd all have to come up with some new material. It'd almost be worth going on a diet....Naah.
I want to compare our two latest wars, Afghanistan and Iraq. Everybody's writing about what went wrong in Iraq, but the really interesting question is what went right in Afghanistan. It's hard to remember now, but we all thought Afghanistan would be the tough one and Iraq would be "a cakewalk."
Think back to October 200l. We were scared, and for damn good reason. Smoke was still coming up out of the WTC ruins. Every day there was a new anthrax case in the papers. Osama said he had lots of new tricks ready for us, and there wasn't much reason to doubt him after what he'd pulled off. We were going to invade Afghanistan, "the graveyard of empires," and take on the guys who'd wiped out a whole British army a hundred years back and gutted the Soviets in the eighties.
We started bombing the Taliban lines on October 7, 2001. The bombing didn't seem to be doing much good at first. The Talibs seemed too crazy-mean to scare. Our first two ground operations were disasters. First we inserted 100 Rangers and Delta guys into Mullah Omar's house. He wasn't home. Then we wasted our biggest local asset, Abdul Haq, a one-legged Mujahideen hero who was going to deliver the Pushtuns to us without a fight. We choppered him into the border zone where his kin hung out hoping he'd stir up the locals against the Talib. Instead they grabbed him and cut off his head.
It looked bad. All our enemies were cheering up. But we were cool and slow, the way an empire has to be. We kept trying new methods, and suddenly one of them clicked: on November 9, 2001, Mazar-I-Sharif, the key city in Northern Afghanistan, fell to the Northern Alliance.
We'll find out what did the trick up there when they declassify the documents in ten years or so. My guess is, after we figured out that bombing wasn't going to do it, and the Northern Alliance couldn't do it on the ground, we went to Plan B: shipping a few tons of gold bars to local Talib commanders to desert. It was a good investment, because a week after taking Mazar our proxies rolled into Kabul.
The Talibs ended up bottled up back where they started, in a big pocket around Kandahar to Kunduz. We did our next smart thing there: we told the Northern Alliance to stay put while we cleaned out the Talib from the air. You have to know when to let your local proxies do some killing, and when to tell them to back off. This was a time to keep them on the leash, because if they'd gone into the Pushtun zone they'd start another 100-year vendetta. Instead we did the killing from the air. Nice and impersonal, those B-52s. You can't hold a grudge against an arclight strike.
But when 500 captured Talibs jammed into an old fort near Mazar killed a CIA interrogator and swarmed out, we had the sense to turn loose our Northern Alliance friends, who were drooling at the thought of gutting all those Talibs. All we asked was that they handed us our fellow American, that little hippie John Walker Lindh.
Check this out: the CIA interrogator who was killed in that prison riot, Mike Spann, was the first American killed in combat in Afghanistan. That's how well we were doing. We'd been kicking the shit out of this "graveyard of empires" for more than a month and hadn't lost a single man.