Small World: War as a way of life

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

Over 100 people were killed and another 150 badly wounded in a Taliban suicide attack in the Afghan capital Kabul last week. A terrible toll, but not surprising in one of the longest, deadliest, costliest wars the United States has ever engaged in. So far, the 16-year, undeclared conflict has taken the lives of 4,500 members of the U.S. armed forces; maybe $2 trillion has been spent or obligated; and tens of thousands of Afghans have been killed.

It didn’t used to be that way. I grew up while World War II was fought in Europe and the Pacific. There was never the faintest doubt that we would emerge victorious, just as we had done in the first Great War and the war with Spain before that. Our freedom-loving ideology backed up our unflinching confidence. They — the powers of the Old World — might start wars; we never did (leave aside minor police actions south of our borders and in Asia).

We’re still proud of our beliefs, generosity and fairness when we enter into a fight. But the ideology doesn’t seem to carry us to victory as it did before. Since the Korean War, we haven’t managed a clear-cut victory. In all honesty we have been on the losing side and we know it. Why is that? What has happened to our fighting spirit, our competence on the battlefield? Here’s my list:

For the five decades of the Cold War, we prepared for the big clash with the feared two other super powers. We thought we might have to fight a great conflict again in Europe and the Pacific. That was the direction in which our strategic and industrial development took us. But the new enemies we actually met in battle had minimal gear. We had precision weapons; they had (have) roadside bombs; we had tanks; they had pickup trucks with suicidal drivers.

They engaged their entire population; we chose a volunteer force. Death came every day for them; for most of us it was a distraction, easily ignored — a war fought by someone else, someone we were glad to employ with the best combat gear money might buy.

Another great difficulty emerged to make our recent wars quite different. The days of imperialism — the decades of developed countries having their way — came to an end. The rules of the enemy, unlike our texts, were not written down and studied in universities. The motivating forces of the “little people” were taught in mosques and bazaars. These new ideologies of nationalism and religion were based in good part on emotions leading to fanaticism. Hard for us to fathom, much less deal with them as civilized gentlemen. They could always fall back into their villages as Chairman Mao taught them to do. Our well-financed school systems couldn’t turn out Arabic or Pushoon speakers.

But let’s turn back to Afghanistan and what is to be done there. Our first error was a big one but not out of character with the times. When the Russians sent forces in to prop up a coup-bred communist-led regime in Kabul, we reacted with Cold War zeal. Indigenous guerrilla groups — the Taliban chief among them — stood in the way. We supported these religiously driven men. We thought we could control them. They had other ideas.

Actually, we might never have had any problem with the Taliban, who could take care of themselves. Our problem was with Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda. With those terrorists driven off, we should have declared victory. Instead we opted to go after the Taliban as well and to fashion Afghanistan into a modern society and state. This was the ignorant choice we were to repeat throughout our mistaken Middle Eastern adventures.

For decades we had lived with the autocratic regime of the Asad family in Syria. Its border with Israel was calm if not friendly. The Syrians actually cooperated with us in antiterrorist operations. Now we seem decided on sending our troops into the area to impose our concepts of how they should behave. Washington thinks Afghans, Syrians, Iranians, and Iraqis (potentially) are our enemies. None of them, however, threatens a significant American interest. Not our security; not our economic wellbeing.

The answer, in short, is for Washington to pull back, to cut our losses, and to recognize our limitations and limited interests. Let those folks who are intent on turmoil work out their own futures. We have paid our dues to the region.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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