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More is Less in Afghanistan

Posted on June 2, 2010

The Law of Diminishing Returns

Recently General McChrystal was quoted as saying that Marjah in Helmand Province is a bleeding ulcer. McChrystal is under pressure from every side to produce better, faster, and more effective results. We have more troops in Afghanistan than we have ever had, and yet the security situation continues to deteriorate. Many don't know what the mission is and wonder how they will know when the mission is "accomplished."

Nangahar, Afghanistan

Kabul, Afghanistan

As much as outsiders have tried to create the country in their own image, Afghanistan has been able to absorb the blows of superpowers and remain essentially the same. The interesting thing is that the people trying to change it often change more than the country does even after Herculean efforts of well-meaning governments, NGO’s, and coalitions.

Uzbek fighters, Kabul, Afghanistan

Afghan mujahadeen with surface to air stinger missile, near Jalalabad, Afghanistan

Over the years, I have been back dozens of times on assignment for National Geographic, Time Magazine, ABC News, and other news outlets. I have spent time in Afghanistan during invasions, retreats, truces, and relative peace. Almost every time I returned, the power centers had shifted.

Kabul, Afghanistan

U.S. soldier with an interpreter punishing an Afghan recruit by making him crawl in the mud.

Kabul, Afghanistan

Today we have many more soldiers, contractors, and NGO’S than we did five years ago, yet it is far more dangerous today than it was then. We are getting fewer results with more boots on the ground. That tells me that we do not understand the country, the people, the history, the terrain, the language, the religion, the culture.

Everyone wants Afghans to live in a peaceful country where families and communities can thrive, but our strategy to achieve that goal is often built on misunderstandings, faulty assumptions, and a stunning ignorance of the lessons of history.

No one knows how long the bleeding ulcer will keep bleeding, but if history teaches us anything, it is that Afghanistan has been the graveyard of empires from Alexander the Great to the Soviet Union.