To War or Not to War

Par Akil Alleyne le 26 août 2011

President Barack Obama has finally declared his intention tobegin a phased withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, in a gradual process to be completed by 2014. America is thus lowering the curtain on its long, bitter slog through a society that has already stymied more than one imperial interloper. Perhaps more significantly, the US pullout appears to be garnering something approaching bipartisan support. Even some Republican presidential candidates like Mitt Romney are now averring that the president is right to make America scarce in Central Asia. There are obviously countless ways to look at President Obama’s decision, and as many judgments to be made about it. I prefer to focus on what I see as the fundamental lesson to be learned from the tortured US mission in Afghanistan: the importance of picking one’s fights wisely.

To my way of thinking, there are two general criteria on which the decision to go to war should be based. First of all, is the war necessary? Second of all, is it winnable? It is useful to examine how the last true morass in which the US got bogged down, Vietnam, was turned into such an abattoir. Despite the hackneyed use of that war to caution against every new American military adventure, rarely have the correct conclusions been drawn from it.

In the Korean War of the early 1950s, the coalition fighting to reverse communist North Korea’s invasion of the South was ultimately shoved back by a massive Chinese counterattack. This taught US policymakers that China was loath to tolerate any anti-Communist beachheads on its border. A decade later, North Vietnam’s location next door to China enabled Moscow and Beijing to supply the Vietnamese communists with relative impunity. Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon could not eradicatethe enemy’s supplies at the source without risking another direct—and possibly nuclear—confrontation with China. Thus they settled for carpet-bombing North Vietnam and slaying as many Viet Cong guerrillas as they could until the South Vietnamese army could defend the country independently. Unfortunately, the South Vietnamese army proved incompetent and unreliable, and the regime for which it fought grew corrupt and autocratic. Both this and the military havoc wreaked on the country alienated South Vietnamese civilians in droves, pushing many into the Viet Cong’s waitingarms. Moreover, the North Vietnamese possessed greater patience—and a far higher tolerance for bloodshed—than the American peopledid. All of these factors and more made the Vietnam War basicallyunwinnable.

Furthermore, in training its sights on Southeast Asia, the United States had picked a fight with the wrong commies. North Vietnam never did truly serve as a bastion of Soviet-sponsored subversion or aggression. Like Marshal Tito’s Yugoslavia, Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnam was Marxist, but neutral between the dueling superpowers, fearing Russian and Chinese as well as American domination. In fact, Hanoi had barely emerged victorious before it found itself at war with its Communist neighbors in Cambodia and China before decade’s end. This made the Vietnam War unnecessary from its very inception.

I view the true lessons of Vietnam as follows. First, be carefulnot to target enemies whose threat to national security is unclear, for that leads to unnecessary war. Second, avoid fighting counterinsurgencies in locations where the rebels’ supplies aregeographically untouchable, for that leads to unwinnable war. The Bush Administration, in its hegemonic hubris and profound historical ignorance, learned not one of these lessons. The guerilla warfare that followed the toppling of the Taliban and the Ba’athistsin Iraq caught Uncle Sam with his striped pants down. Having never seen these insurgencies coming, the Pentagon put too few boots on the ground to grapple effectively with the guerrillas in either country. Hence the belated troop “surge” implemented by President Bush in Iraq in 2007, and the more recent surge in Afghanistanwhich President Obama ordered shortly after taking office and which has now come to an end. These have to be two of the deadliest games of catch-up ever played.

Meanwhile, the Taliban have found supplies and shelter in neighboring Pakistan, while Iraq’s Shi’ite militias benefit from aid from their coreligionists in adjacent Iran. The US military cannot tackle Iran directly, and the Pakistani government has so far proven unable—or perhaps unwilling—to suppress the Taliban sympathizers within its own borders. (The fact that US commandos found Osama bin Laden holed up in a large residential complex in a major city, apparently unmolested by Pakistani authorities, casts further doubt on Pakistan’s trustworthiness.) Once again, the US has gotten itself—and its NATO allies—into a scrap with guerrillas whose sources of supply are all but untouchable. The fact that US forces have yet to win the hearts and minds of most Afghan and Iraqi civilians only compounds these colossal blunders.

Conclusion: the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq may well prove to be unwinnable.

The news that Saddam Hussein possessed no weapons of mass destruction and posed no threat to anyone outside Iraq’s borders grew stale almost a decade ago. At this point, it almost goes without saying that the Iraq War was unnecessary. The initial casus belli in Afghanistan, however, was virtually unassailable, complicating the question of that war’s necessity. Al-Qaeda had planned the greatest civilian mass slaughter in American history from its caves in Afghanistan and executed it with flying colors. Their ruling Taliban allies refused to turn the perpetrators over to the US to be brought to justice. Therefore Al-Qaeda, Taliban and all had to go.

Yet the Taliban regime was toppled, and the country cleansed of Al-Qaeda bases, almost eight years ago. The counterinsurgency that ensued has aimed to enable the Afghan government to prevent the Taliban’s return to power on its own. It has also struggled to bequeath to Afghanistan at least the basic framework of a stable, durable democracy. On both counts, the war has thus far gone atrociously. On at least the latter of those two counts, the same can be said for Iraq. Both countries’ new constitutions establish Islam as the state religion and enshrine Islamic sharia in the laws of the land.Afghanistan’s criminalization of conversion from Islam to any other faith and its legalization of intramarital rape bode ill for the flourishing of the tolerance that makes true democracy possible. Thebackward cultures that enable such injustices make for a shaky foundation on which to build governments of, by and for the people.

The initial military campaign in Afghanistan, then, was bothnecessary and justified. The sanguinary nation-building, democratizing effort that followed it, however, may not be.

So why the reluctance to “bug out” of both conflicts? Once again, a comparison with the ignominious US retreat from Vietnam in 1975 comes in handy. The US withdrawal was indeed followed by a bloodbath; not for nothing did thousands of Vietnamese refugees flee the country’s Communist crackdown in the late 1970s. The disco era also saw Marxist forces gain strength throughout what was then still known as the “Third World.” From Nicaragua to Grenada to Angola to Afghanistan itself, it seemed that America’s defeat in Vietnam had emboldened its enemies to seek ever greater advantage. Nor was it only the Soviets and their clients who concluded that the US was in fact a “paper tiger,” to use Mao’s memorable phrase. Iran went Islamist in 1979, and has been a persistent thorn in America’s Middle Eastern flank ever since. Shortly before Syria invaded Lebanon in 1976, President Hafez Al-Assad is said to have sneered at Henry Kissinger: “You’ve betrayed Vietnam. Someday you’re going to sell out Taiwan. And we’re going to be around when you get tired of Israel.”

When the US beats a premature, hasty retreat from a conflict to which it has committed immense amounts of blood and treasure, anti-American forces worldwide take note—and take advantage. Osama bin Laden, for example, took inspiration from the US retreatfrom Somalia in 1993, concluding that the Great Satan lacked the belly to quell a protracted insurrection. Thus American war hawks’ insistence on “staying the course” should not be dismissed out of hand. Islamist forces, whether Sunnis sympathetic to al-Qaeda or Shi’ites allied with Iran, will not be kind to any country the US leaves in the lurch.

President Obama, then, in deciding to begin withdrawing US troops from the so-called “graveyard of empires,” now inevitablyrisks allowing that war-torn land to collapse into even greater mayhem. This could pave the way for the Taliban’s eventual return to power. As tragic as this outcome would be for the people of Afghanistan, however, it might not necessarily threaten US or international security. America’s withdrawal from Vietnam, for instance, caused a humanitarian catastrophe, but this left the US unscathed, mainly because the Vietnamese communists never sought to do any international dirt in the first place. As for Afghanistan, thegoal of the war there was to demolish Al-Qaeda, or at least to destroy its capacity to attack the US and other targets. The Taliban fought on long after Al-Qaeda was largely driven from Afghanistan,suggesting that their alliance with the terrorist group was not integral to their rule. Therefore, even if the country fell back into their hands, this need not mean a revived Al-Qaeda presence in Afghanistan—which remains the most important consideration. It is conceivable that the US could end the war and yet still carry out surveillance and narrowly targeted counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan to keep Al-Qaeda from ever setting up shop there again.

I would hate to see a recrudescence of Taliban tyranny in Afghanistan as much as anyone, if only for human rights reasons.Nonetheless, given Afghanistan’s democratic deficiencies, it makes little sense to keep wasting NATO lives and tax dollars on a militarized nation-building effort with dubious chances of success.As long as we destroy Al-Qaeda’s ability to spill innocent blood, we may have to deal with a newly empowered Taliban—especially if the alternative is seemingly endless war. As the National Post’s George Jonas has written, “By 2004…the government of Afghanistan…[was] no longer supporting terrorists or plotting against the West. […] By Dec. 7, 2004, our soldiers could have gone home from Afghanistan. The military mission was over. The war was won.”

In the century or so since the United States first emerged as a world power, it has grappled with guerillas in at least four conflicts,beginning with the Philippines after the Spanish-American War. Itultimately suppressed the Filipino rebels partly because they enjoyed no outside benefactor, from which they would have been geographically cut off anyway on their tropical archipelago. The UShas not enjoyed that advantage in any counterinsurgency it has waged since then—not in Vietnam, Afghanistan or Iraq. How many prolonged bloodlettings will it take for Washington to learn its lesson?

To war or not to war: that is the question. Foreign policymakers in Washington and elsewhere must consider the aforementioned factors before answering that question. If the US is to continue to lead the free world, its leaders must develop a knack for avoidingthese dead-end conflicts in the first place. Being—and remaining—the world’s greatest power means knowing when to stay off the warpath. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.



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