History has been unkind to great powers seeking to subdue Afghanistan. All have failed. The vanquished include the Persian ruler Cyrus the Great, who invaded in the 6th century B.C., Alexander the Great, who rolled in 300 years later, the British in the 19th century, and the Soviets from 1979–89. Now it's our turn, and the situation is more complex than ever.
It's never been difficult to invade Afghanistan. The hard part has been maintaining control in a land divided by impossible geography and immutable tribal rivalries. Ethnic tensions that seem as fixed as the geography of isolation and warlordism always evaporate in the wake of outside intervention. The rival ethnic groups may fight a civil war (as did the Northern Alliance of Tajiks, Hazara, Uzbeks, and Turkmen against the Taliban), but they have generally made common cause to expel any foreign body.
In his recent book The Great Gamble, a must-read, Gregory Feifer describes how the Soviets tried to explain that they were in Afghanistan to help restore order, but the central government they set up faced spontaneous resistance. With an uncertain grasp on the center, they were even less able to exert authority in the open and mountainous countryside, where even the local drinking water had to be regarded as an enemy. Rural Afghans, calling themselves mujahideen or "holy warriors," refused to tolerate invaders, no matter how friendly they claimed to be. The mujahideen were outgunned so they formed small, highly mobile guerrilla units to ambush the ponderous Soviet forces. Snipers were ideally situated on the heights overlooking the threading roads. Soviet airpower was of little use against mujahideen hiding in caves. They fought only when the conditions favored them against soldiers who hardly knew whom they were fighting. When, in exasperation, the Soviets randomly unleashed their firepower to avenge the deaths of their comrades, they crystallized a virtually unanimous opposition among the people. The Soviet soldiers fought to stay alive, but their enemy was fighting for his beliefs and his land.
Most Afghans are Pashtuns—Sunni Muslims—and so were the "Students of Islamic Knowledge" who emerged as the Taliban, many of them after years of indoctrination in Pakistan. They took over in 1996 and imposed their version of a strict Sharia law and were natural hosts for al Qaeda, another Sunni grouping attached to the even more extreme Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia. We invaded only when the Taliban refused to eject al Qaeda and were welcomed by the population at large who'd suffered many cruelties. Now many Afghans have come to see us as representing yet another "imperial" army impervious to local culture. Gen. Stanley McChrystal understood this when he said, "If the people view us as occupiers and the enemy, we can't be successful and our casualties will go up dramatically." Long-term success clearly depends on the emergence of a large number of well-equipped Afghans ready to keep a civilized order within the bounds of Afghan culture.
Why be so concerned about Afghanistan? The answer is clear. Practically all the jihadist plots against the West in the recent past lead to one part of the world: the tenuous border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Both have hosted al Qaeda training camps. Their graduates in terror include Ramzi Yousef, who masterminded the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993; Ahmed Ressam, who plotted to blow up LAX airport in 1999; the people behind suicide attacks on two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998 and the USS Cole in 2000; all 19 of the September 11 hijackers; the leader of the 2002 Bali murders of more than 200, mostly Western, tourists; the ringleader of the 2005 London subway bombing; those who plotted to blow up passenger planes leaving Heathrow and attack Ramstein Air Base.
The Taliban were prepared to lose everything after 9/11 rather than give up Osama bin Laden. They have grown closer since. Let's remember, too, that al Qaeda doesn't just want a safe haven. It seeks a Muslim caliphate established in a Muslim state to rally Muslims worldwide. Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri explained soon after 9/11: "Without achieving this goal, our actions will mean nothing."