Friday, February 24, 2012

History Teaches Us Nothing

"There is no present or future, only the past happening over and over again, now." - Eugene O'Neill

President Obama sent a letter to Hamid Karzai, the President of Afghanistan apologizing for the inadvertent destruction of several copies of the Koran at a US Airbase.  The destruction and the subsequent violence that has ensued as a result has once again brought a war that many of us have either forgotten about or at the very least give little thought about back into our consciousness.  Of course, this being the silly season of presidential elections, the opposition party couldn't wait to deride the President for his action of apology.  Mr. Gingrich, first out of the chute on this said: "There seems to be nothing that radical Islamists can do to get Barack Obama's attention in a negative way and he is consistently apologizing to people who do not deserve the apology of the president of the United States period,"

Of course, that is nonsense.  It is classic misdirection from Mr. Gingrich. President Obama apologized for the incident because it was the right thing to do, not because he was attempting to appease anyone. If someone makes a mistake, apology is the correct response, not belligerence. You get nowhere suggesting that "because they are who they are, no apology is necessary". Hubris never succeeds, it only inflames and instigates more trouble. The act of apology is correct and mature. It harms the US not one bit, and to suggest this shows weakness is preposterous.

But the point of this post is not the political aspect of Afghanistan.  What I'd like to discuss is our lack of collective memory.  We seem to have forgotten the lessons of Vietnam.  We seem to have forgotten the idea that perpetual war is not a good idea for anyone.

We've been in Afghanistan militarily since October of 2001.  We are going on 11 years this October in a conflict that doesn't seem to end and our presence there doesn't seem to improve the situation one bit.  Since the invasion,  we've lost over 1900 US soldiers and another 1000 coalition forces.   Civilian deaths amount to about 17,000 lost directly or indirectly as a result of the war, with over 2 million people displaced from our homes. 

The President has direct a policy for troop draw down to end combat operations by 2014, and to have between 20 and 30 thousand troops removed from Afghanistan by September of 2012.  So,  if everything goes to plan, we should see our men and women home and out of combat in about two years.  That would make our engagement in Afghanistan a 13 year affair, longer than any other combat operation in American history.   Vietnam was essentially a 10 year war with major escalations by LBJ in 1965 and the last of the US forces leaving Saigon in 1975.

We can look back on the Vietnam experience and pull a few lessons from it. 

First,   fighting an idea is difficult.  We committed soldiers to Vietnam in order to "contain" communism.  We were all taught in our civics classes about the "domino effect", that if one country fell to communism, then all the surrounding countries would soon go that way and it would be a major threat to America.  So, we committed thousands of lives and billions of dollars to the cause.  60 thousand US Soldiers dead, hundreds of thousands wounded, over 3 million Vietnamese dead, and what happened?  Vietnam fell to the communists.   Did communism spread over the globe and destroy the American way of life? I think the evidence suggests otherwise  Was it worth it?  I think most people say no. .

Now we have Afghanistan.  To be sure, we have lost significantly fewer people but I question the sanity of a long-term invasion force over a people that have never been conquered.  As far back as Alexander, nations have attempted to conquer and control Afghanistan but have never succeeded.  The reasons for this are many, but one particular reason is the diversity of control.  Afghanistan has no cohesive governance. It is a country of tribes. Pashtuns and Tajiks are the dominant ethnic presence in the region with many other tribal communities headed up by elders versus any form of formal governance.  The people are fierce in their defense of their lands.   

Our cause in Afghanistan is pretty myopic.  Ostensibly we are at war with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.  The people in this country are much more than radical Islamists and terrorists.  They are very much people of the land and tribe.  If you harm a member of the tribe, regardless of reason, you have made an enemy.  If you need proof, simply read some of the journals of soldiers from the former Soviet Union who were part of that failed conquest. 

The problem that Afghanistan presents is the same problem that Vietnam presented to President's Johnson and Nixon.  They were stuck in the notion that if they ended hostilities too soon, then communism would take over and spread like wild-fire.  Conversely, the war inhibited their abilities to focus on matters at home.  LBJ's War on Poverty and the internal domestic programs and achievements were overshadowed by the War to the point that Johnson, who only a few years earlier won a landslide election against Barry Goldwater, realized he probably couldn't win a second term and decided to retire, giving us Richard M. Nixon.

Today,  President Obama has much the same issue.  We are spending vast amounts of our money and blood fighting a war that seems to be so out of touch with reasons we went there in the first place.  Al Qaeda is not isolated to Afghanistan.  They have presence in over 60 countries in the world and we see both Somalia and Nigeria starting to be base camps for Al Qaeda operations and influence.   Focusing so much energy in Afghanistan when it is clear they will not be launching attacks against the West from there is a mis-guided view in my opinion.  We need to draw down rapidly and get our people home.  As to what happens to Afghanistan when we leave, it's pretty safe to say the same thing that happened when the last invasion force left.  They will grow their opium, fight amongst themselves,  keep to a radically conservative religious theocracy, launch some trouble into and around Pakistan and life will go on.

We have committed ourselves as a nation to go after terrorists.  We should continue to do that and not get mired in a long-term occupation with countries who do not want us there.  We will never win these people's hearts and minds, so we need to get out of their countries. 

It is however time to come home from Kabul and Kandahar,  we aren't wanted and our presence is not making things better there.

Tell me what you think,


1 comment: