West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd refers to himself as “a student of history.”
In fact, he is history.
The longest serving senator in the history of the legislative branch of the federal government, the former majority leader of the chamber, the constitutional scholar who several presidents (Democrats and Republicans) considered as a potential Supreme Court nominee, the long-ago southern stalwart who reconstructed himself as a supporter of civil rights and an early backer of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, he is an epic figure who speaks with an authority steeped in the wisdom gained from having personally experienced what others know only from books.
Byrd became a hero to anti-war activists in 2002, when he employed his knowledge of history and his personal experience of being a senator throughout the Vietnam fiasco, to warn against the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Byrd was not listened to by the Bush administration or Democratic leaders in the Senate.
But his opposition to the Iraq mission was proven was at a thousand turns during the year that followed George Bush’s launch of an unwise and unnecessary war.
With the continuing U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, and particularly with an expansion of that presence, Byrd says, “we risk adding the United States to the long, long, long list of nations whose best laid plans have died on the cold, barren rocky slopes of that far off country of Afghanistan.”
Grounded in the history he knows so well, and in the personal experience both of having visited Afghanistan and of having watched past presidents follow fantastical advice and end up in disastrous wars, Byrd’s speech is an essential statement.
It is, as well, wise counsel from a senior senator to the man whose presidential candidacy he championed.
Barack Obama should listen to Robert Byrd and the call of history.
Here, then, is Byrd’s speech, titled “The Grave of Foreigners” and delivered at what historians will recognize as a critical turning point for Obama’s presidency:
Mr. President, I am a student of history, and a firm believer in applying the lessons of history to present and future planning. There is no profit in making the same mistakes over and over again, and no future in building on a foundation of shifting sand. Our military planners and our Afghanistan policy analysts as well as members of this Senate would do well to spend some time considering the history, geography and cultures of Afghanistan.
Throughout the long centuries, Afghanistan’s geopolitical value has been its location along the great Silk Road that carried both trade goods and armies between Europe and Asia through the forbidding Hindu Kush Mountains. Afghanistan has limited natural resources and a climate and a geography that produce very little for export, so the fiercely independent tribes that populate this harsh and barren land have long earned a living instead from the goods and the armies that travel across it. Tribesmen have used the dry, rocky plains and the steep, bare, cavern-riddled mountains to great advantage to extort both armies and traders for security and shelter, or as a base from which to raid.
In weary succession, rulers and nations have witnessed their dreams of conquest and their dreams of empire in Afghanistan dashed. From Alexander the Great in 326 B.C., to Genghis Kahn in the 13th Century, to the British in the 19th Century and to the Russians in the 20th Century, no invading army has ever conquered Afghanistan, earning it the sobriquet “Graveyard of Empires” or “Graveyard of Foreigners.” In one horrific example, in 1842, the British lost more than 16,000 troops and civilians in a single 110-mile retreat from Kabul to Jalalabad. History tells us that Afghanistan does not take kindly to foreign intervention.
Yet here we are, discussing a proposed counterinsurgency strategy that would vastly increase the U.S. presence in Afghanistan in the vain hope of spawning the establishment of a Western-style modern democracy and economy in a land that in many areas and in many ways is still frozen in the time of Alexander the Great.
As a junior U.S. Senator, I traveled to Afghanistan in the 1960’s. It was an eye-opening experience. Men were treated like beasts of burden, actually pulling carts like oxen. Living conditions were primitive. Corruption was widespread. While life in Afghanistan’s cities has changed somewhat in the intervening decades, many of the scenes I see in the news still look very familiar to me. The fundamental changes that are wished for by some NATO and U.S. planners, particularly in the least-developed rural areas where the tribal, theocratic Taliban rule is most entrenched, would certainly be a long shot and likely will be quite unwelcome.
Mr. President, what is really at stake for the United States in Afghanistan? We all know that Afghanistan is not a threat to us militarily. The Taliban is not a threat to us militarily. Al Qaeda, however, is a demonstrated threat to us with ambitions and a philosophy that must keep us vigilant. But the link between al Qaeda and Afghanistan is a tenuous one, based only on the temporary expediency of location, an expediency that has already been replaced as the al Qaeda leadership has moved, and may move again.
Building a Western-style democratic state in an Afghanistan equipped with a large military and police force and a functioning economy based on something other than opium poppies may or may not deny al Qaeda a safe haven there again. It will guarantee that the United States must invest large numbers of troops and many billions of dollars in Afghanistan for many years to come, energy and funds that might otherwise go toward fueling our own economic recovery, better educating our children or expanding access to health care for more of our own people. And yet there are many here in this body — the Senate — who believe we should proceed with such a folly in Afghanistan. During a time of record deficits, some actually continue to suggest that the United States should sink hundreds of billions of borrowed dollars into Afghanistan effectively turning our backs on our own substantial domestic needs — all the while deferring the costs and the problems for future generations to address.
Our national security interests lie in defeating — no, in destroying — al Qaeda. Until we take that, and only that, mission seriously, we risk adding the United States to the long, long, long list of nations whose best laid plans have died on the cold, barren rocky slopes of that far off country of Afghanistan.