Afghanistan: What Comes of Limited War
The recent disaster in Afghanistan, however spectacular, was part of a pattern, the pattern of failed American interventions since the Second World War.
Previous misadventures might not have entailed needless bungling of the kind just displayed over a few days to an astonished world. No one expected the withdrawal of military forces before civilians, in such hasty neglect that vast quantities of armaments were abandoned to the enemy and American and allied Afghan civilians left to their fate. Neither did observers anticipate the preemptory departure from Bagram, rendering a vulnerable Kabul airport the only avenue of egress. And then came the sickening spectacle by which American forces avenged the troops killed in a botched withdrawal through the slaughter of innocents, wrongly taken to be terrorists.
And yet this failed mission is really the last element of a series. Since the 1950s, America has intervened in defense of other nations under attack (South Korea and South Vietnam), or to liberate a nation recently conquered or seized by a coup (Kuwait, Grenada), or to change or provide relief from an existing regime (Iraq, Panama, Somalia, the Balkans, Libya). The initial attack upon Afghanistan, of course, was to strike back at those who actually had attacked the United States or abetted the attackers. But the mission soon became one to transform the government there, such as it was, into a pro-western democracy.
In Vietnam, Iraq, Somalia, and ultimately Afghanistan, the commitment was defined, at least in part, as for the benefit of a foreign civilian population, whose freedom from oppression (starvation, in the case of Somalia) would be protected by American arms. Our leaders sometimes articulated strategic justifications but on other occasions proclaimed our disinterested altruism, to be paid for in American blood and treasure.
We accordingly expected each time to be received with gratitude, as liberators and benefactors, by those whom we came to help. Military planners might not have supposed that Vietnamese, Iraqis, Somalis, and Afghans would duplicate the cheering throngs that greeted American troops in 1945. It was assumed, however, that those we befriended (in our own minds, at any rate) at least would become our enthusiastic allies. That spirit of camaraderie proving elusive, we set out to “win the hearts and minds of the people.”
Winning the hearts and minds of the people required limiting our military response, or at any rate, diverting it to include activities unrelated to making war. The building of schools and infrastructure and the staging of elections proceeded, while hostilities continued and the enemy remained undefeated. We tailored operations to avoid civilian casualties, or to promote an amicable resolution of the conflict. The enemy, cognizant of our aversion to killing civilians, of course, took full advantage by placing himself among them at every opportunity. But no matter -- killing civilians is not “who we are.” In Iraq and Afghanistan, we prosecuted our own troops for shooting the wrong way during highly irregular warfare. We dared not repeat the My Lai massacre, and perhaps went somewhat to the opposite extreme in order to avoid the suggestion that we had.
A foreign occupier will not long receive gratitude, no matter how much the indigenous population originally desired his presence and assistance. According to Machiavelli, “One must always offend those over whom he becomes a new prince, both with men-at-arms and with infinite other injuries that the new acquisition brings in its wake.” Machiavelli, of course, speaks here of conquest, which despite the Left’s accusations was never the American objective. But to invade and fight for years in someone else’s land is not to win his heart and mind. To expect gratitude for foisting the latest western notions of individual liberty and equality (“gender” and “transgender” equality, in particular) upon an Islamic population, moreover, is to leaven tragedy with farce.
American strategy was also limited by fear of direct confrontation with the Soviet Union and China. Particularly in Vietnam, the decision a priori not to invade North Vietnam appeared attributable to fear of repeating the events of November 1950, when the surprise Chinese attack threw American forces out of North Korea.
Except for conflicts in our own hemisphere, in limited geographic areas where our might was irresistible (Panama, Grenada, Dominican Republic), every American military intervention since the Second World War has met with frustration or outright defeat. In that connection, it is unnecessary to rehearse the sad results of Vietnam, Iraq, and now Afghanistan.
Though the Korean conflict ended with South Korea still in existence, recoupment of the loss inflicted by the Chinese attack consisted only in restoring the status quo ante: the original boundary between North and South. Continuing to full victory and the liberation of North Korea in the judgment of Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Omar Bradley would have “involve[d] us in the wrong war, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy.” (testimony before Congress, May 15, 1951). He recommended instead “a policy of patience and determination.”
In response to the foregoing, General MacArthur famously observed, “Once war is forced upon us, there is no alternative than to apply every available means to bring it to a swift end.” For “war’s very object is victory, not prolonged indecision.” And “in war there can be no substitute for victory.” Has prolonged indecision not been the characteristic of every military mishap since MacArthur spoke those words?
The carnage of war is not alleviated by taking care at the outset that it all be for naught and that the dead, paraphrasing Lincoln, shall have died in vain. If such destruction as is necessary to victory, including the destruction of the innocent, is unpalatable, the nation’s leaders should not undertake war and must accept the consequences of not making it. If those consequences are enslavement by a conqueror, the calculation perhaps will become simpler.
In that context, the purpose of this country making war is to preserve the liberty and security of the American people, and then only when no alternative to war is available. War also may be necessary to uphold national commitments, in the form of treaties or truce terms. As Winston Churchill put it: “There is… one helpful guide, namely, for a nation to keep its word and to act in accordance with its treaty obligations. This guide is called honor.” Obviously, this requires the greatest circumspection in giving promises to fight for another country. Such undertakings must serve American strategic interests, not foreign civilian populations whose safety and sympathies limit our tactics.
Any war will become “endless” and “unwinnable” if the commanders choose to wage it by halves. A democratic nation will not sustain MacArthur’s “prolonged indecision,” and if generals do not effect an outcome using every violent means at hand, the bitter conclusion must come: withdrawal, either in abject failure or with no conclusive result save death.
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