I was jesting with a friend the other day about how the U.S. could win the Afghan War. There were two ways, I suggested. The first is to relocate about 10 or 20 million Americans to Afghanistan and declare it the 51st state. Then wait a generation or two. The second was to withdraw all American forces and declare “mission accomplished.” Half-measures that fall in between these options are doomed to fail, which is what we’ve been witnessing since the fall of 2001.
In Afghanistan today, the Taliban controls more territory than ever, the drug trade is flourishing, government corruption is endemic, yet the U.S. military/government continues to speak of progress. This “spin it to win it” approach to the Afghan War is nothing new, of course, which is why the following article that I wrote in 2010 is still relevant.
President Trump had a sound instinct in seeking to end the Afghan War. He was talked out of it by the military. For all his faults, Trump knows a loser policy when he sees it. Will he have the moxie to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan?
No More Afghanistans (originally posted in 2010)
In grappling with Afghanistan, President Obama and his team of national security advisors reveal a tendency all too common within the Washington beltway: privileging fleeting and reversible signs of local success while downplaying endemic difficulties and larger patterns of strategic failure. Our latest intelligence estimates, we are told, show signs of progress. But of what sort? The Taliban appears to be extending its hold in the countryside, corruption continues to spread in the Karzai government, and the Afghan National Army remains unreliable, all despite (or rather because of) prodigious infusions of cash courtesy of the American taxpayer.
The president and his advisors would do well to toss aside the latest “feel good” intel and pick up a good book on war. I’d recommend Summons of the Trumpet: U.S.-Vietnam in Perspective, by Colonel (later, Lieutenant General) Dave Richard Palmer. “One of the essential ingredients of [national] preparedness,” wrote then-Colonel Palmer in 1978, “is a diligent and honest study of the past, an intellectual examination of historical successes and failures.” True to his word, Palmer quoted Major G.P. Baldwin, who wrote in 1928 of the Russo-Japanese War that:
The [Russian] government, the press, and the people as a whole had no enthusiasm for the war, indeed failed to understand what the nation was fighting about … Such support is necessary in any war … Unless the people are enthusiastic about war, unless they have a strong will to win it, they will become discouraged by repeated [setbacks] … no government can go to war with hope of success unless it is assured that the people as a whole know what the war is about, that they believe in their cause, are enthusiastic for it, and possess a determination to win. If these conditions are not present the government should take steps to create them or keep the peace.
Palmer cited these words at the end of his probing account of America’s defeat in Vietnam. Though I don’t agree with all of Palmer’s conclusions, his book is stimulating, incisive, and compelling in its concluding vow: “There must be no more Vietnams.”
Let’s consider the points that Baldwin and Palmer raise in light of today’s situation in Afghanistan. Are the American people enthusiastic for this war? Do they have a strong will to win it (assuming the war is winnable on terms consistent with our interests)? Do they know what the war is about (this seems unlikely, since nine out of ten Americans can’t seem to locate Afghanistan on a map)?
If the answer to these fundamental questions is “no,” and I believe it is, shouldn’t our government and our troops be withdrawing now? Because I don’t see that our government will seek to mobilize the people, mobilize our national will, tell us clearly what our cause is and why it is just, and persist in that cause until it is either won or lost. And if I’m right about this, our government had best work to “keep the peace.”
Some of the reasons Palmer cites for why Vietnam was such an “incomprehensible war” for the United States bear careful consideration for President Obama’s policy review. These reasons include that few Americans knew exactly why we were fighting in Vietnam; that it was a “limited war” during which most Americans “sensed no feeling of immediate danger and certainly no spirit of total involvement”; that no “unifying element” was at work to suppress internal doubt and dissent, common elements in all wars; that the struggle was not only (or even primarily) a military one but one in which economic, political, and psychological factors often intruded; and that a cultural gap of great perplexity separated us from both our in-country allies and our enemy, a gap that “foment[ed] mistrust and misunderstanding.”
In light of these points, Afghanistan may qualify as a new “incomprehensible war.” Let’s not be distracted by the minutia of the latest intelligence reports and their uncertain metrics of “success.” Unless we can give convincing answers to General Palmer’s questions and points – and unless we can wage a war that doesn’t entail destroying the Afghan village in order to save it – our only sound course is expedient withdrawal, followed by a renewed vow: There must be no more Vietnams – or Afghanistans.
5 thoughts on “Winning the Afghan War”
The devil would be in the details on moving 10-20 million Americans. Are we using “homesteading”? If so, is the US Gov’t buying the land from its current owners?? Or simply imperialistic “displacement”? It’s an interesting thought, and perhaps worthy of an alternative history book. My current working theory is that the Afghans will alter the immigrants’ viewpoints. In any event, I thank you for today’s mindworm.
The US doesn’t need a standing army, especially one of gigantic half-million person size. But it does have such a useless, expensive force, which is being increased in size irregardless of the fact that there is no threat of a ground invasion from any country. Canada and Mexico are quite benign in that regard. The Founding Fathers recognized this simple fact in the Constitution which includes: “To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years” in contrast to: “To provide and maintain a Navy.” It made sense then and it makes sense now.
Since this huge useless ground force exists, and the US national security has rather arbitrarily designated its necessary enemies, there is a strong tendency to use the army. Campaigns must be devised, medals must be earned, profits are welcome, weapons must be tested, and the world must see that the US means action so they’d better stay in line.
Afghanistan, that small poor mountainous tribal land-locked country on the side of the planet, full of illiterate people who want to be allowed to live their lives, qualifies as a campaign site. The words repeat and echo through the years: Nine-eleven, terrorists, safe haven., defend freedom, turn the corner.
There are three foreign countries who have different interests in Afghanistan because of its geographical position as the keystone country to central Asia, and they support the war’s continuation in various ways, so this is really a proxy war. There’s no war end in sight as those difference are irreconcilable.
I thought I was astute with geopolitics Don Bacon, but who are the “3 foreign countries” you are referring to?
Sorry: US, Pakistan and India. The US has been attacking Pakistan’s client Taliban, overthrown its Afghan government, and killed many of the Taliban leaders. Pakistan arch-enemy India has a large financial interest in Afghanistan including infrastructure, mining and transportation. Pakistan naturally dislikes an Indian presence on its western border (as well as its eastern one).
LikeLiked by 1 person
Aaha! Thanks Don Bacon. I’d have never ‘thunk’ it! The Indians I know are “interesting” to say the least: They “hate” Pakistan, yet it’s their biggest trading partner! How in the world you can do good business with “hate” is beyond me*…
I also learned it was Gandhi who split them off from India; again surprised me. Their reasons vary: some claim it best ‘Moslem’ Pakistan be split off from non denominational India. Yet there’s plenty of Moslems living in India; and that doesn’t bother them!
*We finished the evening with gin & tonics. “How the hell did you get rid of Churchill so fast?” “Oh, that was easy. Gandhi was a charismatic bureaucrat, nothing more. People like Churchill don’t understand such things, + he was broke from 2 unnecessary wars.”
Gandhi was far smarter than our bemedaled ‘Generals’!
Comments are closed.