Commentary: Afghans show limits of U.S. power

We are not Supercountry.

Various American leaders boast we are "the indispensible country."

Hard to believe there are dozens of countries around the globe able to resolve their own problems for better or for worse without U.S. tutelage.

As our economy falters, China rivals our wealth, and our government is increasingly gridlocked, the one thing we can still do is send our army to resolve disputes.

In Libya, we could drop a lot of bombs shock-and-awe style, costing hundreds of millions of dollars, but we failed to end that war. We sent 140,000 troops and billions in tanks and helicopters and bombers to Iraq but still it exploded into sectarian violence which sputters today, as we leave, with car bombs exploding regularly. Afghanistan remains a mess despite all our firepower. We’re losing people every week from bombs buried in the road, car bombs and suicide bombers. Low tech but effective.

When famine strikes, U.S. power is on display as we become the last hope for millions. But even $2 billion in U.S. food aid leaves hundreds of millions hungry today. And by 2100 when the planet’s population nearly doubles to 10 billion people, according to a new UN report in May, U.S. aid will be even less capable of ending hunger.

These are limits to America's power.

The United States spends more on its military than all other nations combined. We enjoy a vast superiority in fighter jets, missiles, aircraft carriers, nuclear weapons, satellites and other lethal merchandise. But there is a limit to what we can do with this power.

In Vietnam, we could defeat North Vietnamese troops on the battlefield. But we could not force the South Vietnam army and people to put their lives on the line to defend a corrupt leadership. The North won.

Today we are fighting America’s longest war, trying to intervene in a conflict among Afghans, a people who do not easily submit to superior force. Since the Third Century BC, they have been teaching that fact to armies and generals infatuated with their military power: Alexander the Great, Britain, the Soviet Union, and now us.

I traveled across Afghanistan in the 1960s when the weak central government shared some of its aid money among provincial governors who ran their regions like warlords. Justice was rough but I felt safe.

In Balkh, the ancient capital of Bactria where Alexander lost so many of his troops, I slept out in the desert as the bells of camel caravans clanged in the starry night. The mayor rode out on horseback to invite us to sleep in the town hall for fears about our safety. Next day in the town, a short police officer strutted down the main street followed by two giant thugs. He summoned the trembling shopkeepers with the snap of a finger, intoxicated by his power.

Later, in 1988, I crossed from Pakistan into Afghanistan with mujahideen fighters as Soviet-made jets bombed Barikot, first town abandoned by the Russian-backed Kabul government. The village was burning and the dead lay under the rubble when we walked into the town.

Yet the fighters did not give in until the last Russian soldier left.

In 2004, an Afghan farmer who I expected would show gratitude for seeds and fertilizer given by a foreign aid program instead gave me his Afghan view of reality: “We destroyed our country to defeat communism. Now you Americans are the only super power. It’s natural you will help us.”

On a recent visit to the largely Tajik north of the country, I met with families who feared their daughters would be stolen by anyone with a gun, generally middle aged former mujahideen fighters.

My own daughters were 18 and 19 at the time and the thought of someone taking them out of school, locking them up and forcing them to marry some illiterate old gunman was a nightmare.

Try as we may, the Afghan people are not going to adopt women’s rights as their newest value. If we want to protect those 18 year old girls, it will take an American soldier in front of every Afghan home. Not 100,000 troops but 10 million.

Like I said – we are not Supercountry. There are some things we cannot do.

“We did not go into Afghanistan with the intention of rebuilding the country or maintaining a large, permanent presence,” wrote Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif) June 3 in the LA Times.

But that became the mission after we joined forces with the Northern Alliance to drive out the Taliban and al Qaida in 2002.

Once al Qaida was on the run, the U.S. mission didn’t creep forward – it leaped tall buildings as only Supercountry can do.

We poured in what has grown to become $113 billion a year and trained 125,000 police and 160,000 Afghan soldiers. We built 600 schools and 600 clinics. Thousands of miles of roads were rebuilt – some of them the same roads I had traveled on in 1967 when they were freshly paved with U.S. funds.

We have also lost 1,500 soldiers and more than 11,000 have been wounded.

But every night the fighters cross the Pakistan border to undo what we have done. The Taliban, al Qaida, Lashkar-i-Tayba, Haqqani Group, Gulbudin Hekmatyar’s group, the Uighurs and others are trained and equipped and sent to kill Americans and Afghans.

Pakistan cannot or will not control this flow of fighters – some say they deliberately want this flow to go on so they will determine who holds power in neighboring Afghanistan. America’s efforts to create a Switzerland in Central Asia seem doomed.

But why did we try to change a 10th century society into Europe or Nebraska? Why didn’t we just restore Afghanistan to the decentralized, very poor and traditionally conservative Islamic country it was in 1979 when the Russians invaded and the wars began?

Instead we bit off more than we could chew. As usual, we try to remake the world in our image.

It’s time to recognize our limits, weep for the girl victims of Afghan culture and withdraw to a single base from which five or 10 thousand U.S. troops could be an emergency force preventing a Taliban takeover.

U.S. forces serving as a tripwire did a good job of keeping peace in the Fulda Gap of Germany during the Cold War and in the DMZ separating North and South Korea.

Afghanistan seems determined to remain a backwater with or without US sacrifice.


Ben Barber has written about the developing world since 1980 for Newsday, the London Observer, the Christian Science Monitor,, Foreign Affairs, the Washington Times and USA TODAY. From 2003 to August, 2010, he was senior writer at the U.S. foreign aid agency. His photojournalism book — GROUNDTRUTH: The Third World at Work at play and at war — is to be published in 2011 by He can be reached at

McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.