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Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Wars Are For Winning–The Shameful Abandonment Of Afghanistan

The fall of Kabul to the Taliban evokes brutal reminders of the fall of Saigon, and the images of Afghans desperately trying to get on US transport planes are frighteningly similar to those of similarly desperate Vietnamese who clung to the ladder of the last helicopter out of Saigon.

Image result for images last days of saigon helicopter on roof of american embassyImage result for images last plane out of kabul

Except for history-blind, idealist American military strategists, there could only have been few observers who felt that the Taliban could be beaten and eliminated. Afghanistan had never been conquered – not by the Persians, the Ottomans, the British, or the Soviets – and anyone who thought that the support of American troops and its political assistance to Afghan administrations the country would become democratic, secure, and strong was just whistlin' Dixie.

Even a cursory look at recent history would have shown that any armed intervention in Afghanistan would end up badly, especially when the US had no clear objectives. Was it to teach the Taliban a lesson? To annihilate them? To set the girls and women of the country free? To establish a liberal bulwark against Iran and Pakistan?

No one, except politically naïve White House planners, could have believed that American engagement in democratic reforms would eliminate the corruption that is endemic to all puppet regimes; or believed that a country unused to democracy or any semblance of it, riven by religious divisions and hostilities, and divided by persistent ethnic, tribal, and political conflict could ever be anything but a chaotic, failed state. This same hopelessly idealistic world-view led to disaster in Iraq.  

Invading (liberating) American troops which overthrew Saddam Hussein quickly retreated and ‘left democracy to the Iraqis’.  Instead of establishing a harsh, unforgiving, and punitive military rule designed to eliminate any remaining anti-democratic terrorism and anti-social movements; and offering no timelines for withdrawal, no escape clauses, no political or military openings, the United States made all the wrong assumptions about power, ethnicity, territorialism, and nationalism.

Without a clear idea of what victory was, and hamstrung by even more idealistic notions of protecting civilian lives, the US effort was doomed from the start.  The United States could have invaded, dominated, and controlled every major city in Iraq and established a brutal and uncompromising martial law; and such will would have been a complete and total defeat of Saddam Hussein, his army, and his supporters.  Looters and dissenters would have been shot.  

Merciless house-to-house searches would have been carried out. Public executions of those who violated martial law would have been common.  The American army would have been feared and respected.  Such unsparing and merciless enforcement of the occupation would have eventually led to a more stable and rehabilitated society.  The Romans came, saw, and conquered; but they stayed, and as a result half the world owes culture, administration, law, and infrastructure to them.

This same temporality and idealistic impatience has been at work in Afghanistan. The United States has been in Afghanistan for twenty years, says Biden. “Isn’t that enough?”.  Enough for what?ask historians.  There are fifty wars in world history that lasted 100 years, and the Hundred Years War in England was but one; and these wars were conflicts of constant battle and death.  The twenty years of American presence in Afghanistan was not a period of war but one of pseudo-occupation.  There were desultory civilian and deaths during that period, but nothing like the wars of Europe and Asia.

The American exceptionalism that led the US into the protracted, failed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and blinded White House after White House has persisted for decades and is evident in the US approach to Iran.  The mullahs will listen to reason, American diplomats and military strategists contend, because we are right.  War, nuclearization, civil strife, territorialism, terrorism, and expansionism are not the way to world peace, to a better, more compassionate, more enduring world. Except that no mullah this side of the Caspian ever gave it a second thought.

America felt that winning the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese was the key to success, especially when its limited bombing of the North had little effect whatsoever. It bombed harbors, military redoubts, and the Ho Chi Minh Trail, but left the cities, villages, and hamlets alone.

Wars are not fought to spread democracy, to liberate women, or to depose dictators.  Nor should they be vindictive acts to wreak vengeance.  Nor should they be impressive displays of military might.  They are meant to annihilate the enemy; and the United States, despite its humiliating defeat in Vietnam, continued to hold on to its ‘hearts and minds’ strategy and its ‘no casualties’ approach to warfare.  

The Taliban were never defeated, only set back, held in check, and deferred while cosmetic changes were effected in Government-controlled cities.  Burkas came off, women walked and drove without male support, elections were held, and all looked hunky-dory – the American miracle was working.

Meanwhile the Machiavellian powers of the world pay no attention whatsoever to this self-serving, failed policy.  Goodness, kindness and ‘doing the right thing’ have no meaning whatsoever in Afghanistan, Iran, China, or Russia.  Only national interest should be at the center of foreign policy. Donald Trump understood this and was not hesitant to express his commitment to ‘America First’.  Russia, China et al see the Biden Administration’s policy of political exceptionalism, a casualty-averse military strategy, and an impossibly idealistic progressivism as weak and intellectually corrupt and to be taken advantage of.

American political and military hesitancy was not always the case. There was a purity and singularity of purpose guiding Allied armies across Europe and American forces across the Pacific.  In WWII there were no questions of geopolitical advantage, negotiation, or temporizing.  After Pearl Harbor America woke up from its military slumber and led the campaign against the Nazis and fought bloody, uncompromising, and ultimately victorious battles from Guam to Tokyo.

All resources were mobilized in World War II.  The American economy was quickly converted to a wartime machine.  American men were recruited from every class and region to fight the Germans and the Japanese.  Washington propaganda which vilified Hitler and Tojo portrayed them as evil, stoked ethnic and racial hatred, and coalesced the country into an irresistible force of might and destruction.

There was no question of bombing enemy cities.  Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki were not considered off-limits and no distinction was made between combatants and civilians.  We were at war not only with Hitler, Tojo, and their armies, but with the countries of Germany and Japan themselves.  We made no distinction between the regimes who started the wars and the people who supported them.

All American wars since WWII have been lukewarm and hesitant.  The magnanimity shown by the US to both Germany and Japan in the post-war period leaked into the Pentagon, morphed into versions of American Christian exceptionalism, and led us to fight half-heartedly.  MacArthur had the vision to win conclusively and absolutely in the Korean War but was fired instead of leading his armies into China.

Escalation of the war in Vietnam and the all-out annihilation of the enemy was never a serious option.  Bombing North Vietnam ‘back to the Stone Age’ was never seriously considered.  Not only did it risk internationalizing the war and engaging a Chinese enemy who was as implacable and motivated as the North Vietnamese; but because our moral philosophy was changing. 

Winning at all costs was not an American thing to do if those costs included innocent lives.  The war in Vietnam, then, became one of American attrition.  Long before our military resources were depleted, our resolve was gone, and we were sent packing.

The war in Afghanistan reflected the same lack of clarity and singularity of purpose. For all intents and purposes the war was to wreak vengeance on the country which harbored Osama bin Laden; and once he was eliminated whatever resolve and geopolitical reasoning there was to remain in the country evaporated.

Once again, hearts and minds were foremost, and scorched earth strategies were off the table.  It would not have been inconceivable for an overwhelming American military force to take over and occupy every major city and town in the country, to rule it with relentless severity, and to neutralize the enemy.  If we had considered all this, more than likely we would not have gone to war; but if we were so determined, then the Curtis Lemay approach might have been successful.

This military indecisiveness and hamstrung operations would be bad enough; but US foreign policy designed to prevent war while securing American interests has been just as indecisive and myopic and trapped within an outmoded vision of American exceptionalism and Christian charity.  We have come a long way from the realpolitik of Henry Kissinger and even farther from his historical mentor, Machiavelli.  Even if we could be convinced to act boldly in our self-interest, the current administration cannot figure out what that self-interest is.

Finally, we are hobbled by our Christian morality.  We cannot understand how al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Boko Haram, or Hamas can blow up civilian busses and indiscriminately massacre children. The radical Islamic enemy is evil.

The enemy is not evil or immoral seen within their perspective.  They are simply more explicit about their goals and more determined and ruthless in their tactics.  The ends justify the means, they say; and are no different than our firebombing Dresden and Tokyo or dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  We have ‘evolved’ to what we consider to be a more progressive and humane military policy and thus weakened ourselves.  They have acted no differently than the marauding armies of Genghis Khan or those of the Crusades.  Take no prisoners.

Military strategists talk of ‘asymmetrical warfare’; but they have not considered the skewed geometry of our war with radical Islam.  How can we possibly defeat an enemy if we don’t play by his rules? Enemies from the Taliban to al-Shabab know that we will always keep most of our firepower in the stockade and that we will only fight careful wars.  Not only do we not want to harm civilians, we organize our battles as much to limit American casualties as to wreak havoc on the enemy.

War is hell, and we should do our best to avoid it.  But since this is an utter impossibility, we should only fight wars that are clearly and unequivocally in our national self-interest; fight them to win; and win at all costs.

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