Right after the September 11 terrorist attacks, news outlets reported that it was the first attack on the continental United States (excluding Alaska and Hawaii) since the War of 1812. They said it was a new phenomenon: a foreign leader who hid in another country from which he had effectively declared war on the United States. When they said that they showed their ignorance of American history, and in matters of foreign policy ignorance of history is a very dangerous thing. There is a saying that those who do not study and learn the lessons of history will repeat it, meaning that they will not recognize a situation they are confronted with and will repeat the mistakes that were made by their forbears. And so it seems to be today, in terms of our war in Afghanistan and our pursuit of Osama bin Laden.
Let's go back to March 9, 1916. Foreign invaders attacked the United States. They first attacked the 13th Cavalry regiment of the United States Army, seizing over 100 horses and mules, then stormed into the town of Columbus, New Mexico, burning much of the town and killing two dozen people (both soldiers and civilians,) some of whom were shot in the head, execution-style.
The attackers came from Mexico and were led by Francisco "Pancho" Villa, already a notorious revolutionary. Villa, despite being pursued by U.S. troops still found time to cross the border again and attack the town of Glen Springs, Texas on May 15 of that year, killing one more American.
Because there were then still Mexicans alive who remembered the Mexican War with the United States (1845-1848) Villa's raid was cheered across Mexico.
This was the first attack by a foreign attacker upon United States territory since the War of 1812 and it prompted an immediate angry reaction from the United States. General "Black Jack" Pershing led 10,000 American troops into Mexico in pursuit of Villa. Their stated goal was to pursue Villa 'to the ends of the earth' if necessary, and either kill him or bring him back to face a court of justice. They had some success with disrupting and damaging Villa's organization (in fact, a young Lieutenant named George S. Patton is credited with killing Julio Cárdenas, one of Villa's top commanders.)
However, Pershing's expedition marched 2,000 miles through Mexico and while they did engage Villistas (and occasionally other Mexican revolutionaries) they never caught up with the man himself. Pershing later admitted to having been "outwitted and out-bluffed at every turn." In short, the Pershing expedition was a failure that did more to strengthen Villa by raising his popularity than it did to hurt his military capability.
The expedition eventually ended in January, 1917. The United States was well aware that Villa was still lurking someplace in Mexico and border security was beefed up. Pershing and his troops were soon after on a ship to Europe to fight the Kaiser's army (with more success than they had against Villa, I might add.)
Villa had been celebrated as a hero across all Mexico at the time, as Mexicans were more than happy to see him giving the proverbial finger to the United States. However when Pershing left, Villa was back to just being Villa. And Villa had left a wide trail of bodies all over Mexico as well and made a lot of enemies. So it is not so surprising that a few years later, on July 20, 1923, someone ambushed Villa while he was driving his car and riddled him with bullets. The Federales, Mexican police, claim it was them but many sources suggest they just showed up to take pictures. Live by the sword, die by the sword.
Let's fast forward to the present. On September 11, 2001, we saw the second organized foreign attack on U.S. territory since Villa and the first since World War II.
Americans were outraged and the country rallied together in support of a war in Afghanistan to defeat the Taliban rulers of the country and their al-Qaeda allies, and either kill or capture Osama bin Laden.
Although I almost never support war, believing it should be a last resort, I felt then that the Afghan war was necessary.
I also felt (like many others, and expressed very directly by Al Gore in the summer of 2002) that we should finish the job instead of putting it on the back burner to go fight another war. However, whatever one may think of Iraq what is done is done and we are now back fighting in Afghanistan.
Much has changed however. Far from being on the offensive, we have become primarily tied down to defending the cities and a few military bases. Our 'support' rests with the popularity of a government that few people outside the capital support or even acknowlege. International borders (especially that between Afghanistan and Pakistan) are either ignored by the enemy or used as a 'terrain feature' by them to their advantage. Recently we have been looking for another way to send supplies to Afghanistan because we can't even guarantee our own supply convoys in terrain that is so mountainous, craggy and rocky that the enemy can literally advance to within a few yards undetected. And, they blend into the civilian population giving our troops the unpalatable choice between sitting and waiting for them to attack us before we can respond or shooting at people who very well may in fact be civilians. In short, we have become the Soviet Union. Ironically, Russia recently answered our call for another land-based supply route and negotiated with other former Soviet republics to allow us to use the same supply routes in from the north that they used to use. One wonders whether this gesture from Putin and Medvedev was made from good will or with a sly grin, because they know very well how vulnerable those other routes are, and can't wait to see us fighting the same war they fought and lost.
Into this situation we have dumped thousands more troops. I wish them success, but I am not optimistic that we will achieve it. There was indeed a window to finish off the Taliban in Afghanistan (and maybe get bin Laden) but that window has long since been closed. A nascent antiwar movement, rethinkafghanistan.com has recognized this too and is calling on American soldiers to be withdrawn from Afghanistan if the present offensive in Helmand does not achieve its objectives and help stabilize the country.
But if we leave won't bin Laden again be a threat to attack the United States?
Yes, he will. But staying there doesn't guarantee that he won't. Further even if we leave there is no reason we can't continue to hunt for him via collection of intelligence, covert operations and the use of unmanned aircraft.
At this point, I would suggest that as long as we stay we are probably helping him hide. He is still fairly popular among the Pashtun, the tribe that is most strongly identified with the Taliban, and among some other Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Being pursued by the United States gives him the equivalent of a 'get out of jail free' card with many of the locals who don't want to make trouble for the man who is still throwing a finger at America. But if we leave he will have the same problem that Villa did-- he's left a wide trail of bodies (including Afghan, Pakistani and muslim bodies) that he will have to answer for, and sooner or later one of his local enemies will catch up to him, just as they did to Pancho Villa.