“The Belief in the possibility of a short decisive war appears to be one of the most ancient and dangerous of human illusions.” – Robert Lynd
“Wars begin when you will, but they do not end when you please.” – Niccolò Machiavelli
Alexander the Great for a brief period of time made his homeland, Macedonia, a country of 1.5 million people, mostly farmers, the superpower of its era. By toppling the mighty Persian Empire he created a vacuum in power he quickly proceeded to fill. He invaded rugged country we now call Afghanistan in 330 B.C.E. (then called Bactria) and it took him a bare four years to subdue it. He had conquered the much more powerful Persian Empire in only three, including much of modern Turkey, the Levantine littoral (including Syria, Lebanon and Israel), Egypt, and modern Iraq and Iran.
Needless to say, President George W. Bush, however great his pretensions, was not Alexander the Great. Nor did he have an Alexander serving him. Like Adolf Hitler, George W. Bush made the critical error of fighting an ideological war. His ideological neoconservative aims blinded him to the pragmatic considerations essential to the rapid and successful conclusion of the conflict. One need only read Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City (2006) to see just how out of touch with reality the neoconservatives crusaders were.
Instead of the modern form of blitzkrieg we like to call “shock and awe” he mired the United States in another Vietnam. And not only one.
Making the innocent country of Iraq his main target (where al Qaeda was not), Bush made a half-hearted attempt at Afghanistan (where al Qaeda actually was). That was still enough to topple the Taliban regime that was giving shelter to bin Laden and AQ but it was not enough to destroy either AQ or its mastermind. As Peter L. Bergen argues in his new book The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and Al-Qaeda (2011), the United States has pursued a misguided obsession with Iraq, conducted incompetently, undermine its efforts to defeat bin Ladin and al-Qaeda.
According to Bergen, the U.S. made three mistakes:
* Invading Iraq
* Guantanamo and coercive interrogations
* Almost losing the Afghan War
Worse, the United States compounded egregious intelligence errors with regards to Iraq by stepping blindly into what is in fact a civil war between a takfiri movement within Islam and mainstream Islam. As David Kilcullen, former Senior Counterinsurgency Advisor to General David Petraeus in Iraq explains in The Accidental Guerilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One (2009), al Qaeda (AQ) “and its associated takfiri terrorist movements” are really directed “at the status quo in Muslim countries.” The resultant caliphate would then serve as a “launching pad against the West, to re-make the world order with the Muslim world in a dominant position.”
Takfir, as scholar Bernard Lewis explains, is the “act of denouncing one who claims to be a Muslim as a kafir”(meaning “unbeliever”). This accusation of apostasy is a capital crime and is used by these radical Islamic groups to “condemn and silence their more moderate critics and opponents” (Bernard Lewis and Buntzie Ellis Churchill, Islam: The Religion and the People, 2009).
Islamic countries do not wish to see a worldwide caliphate and their own governments extinguished. Most Muslims do not want an unending jihad against the West. Thus, says Kilcullen, “we have not only waded into someone else’s domestic dispute but have also treated AQ as a peer competitor worthy of our top priority and full attention, thus immensely increasing AQ’s credibility and clout in its struggle for ascendancy over the ummah [religious community].”
Fortunately, writes Bergen, AQ also made strategic errors that have helped us. Errors like 9/11.
To be fair to President Bush, he said on September 16, 2001, “This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while. And the American people must be patient.” I remember those words. And I remember the words he spoke a few days later, addressing both houses of Congress, saying “Americans should not expect on battle, but a lengthy campaign.” We had a few hundred guys on the ground at that time in Afghanistan, not tens of thousands and we weren’t fighting any battles against anybody We hadn’t invaded Iraq. Our struggle against terrorism was at the outset the text-book definition of asymmetrical warfare. Nobody was anticipating the Trojan War.
Ten years later, U.S. troops remain in Iraq, though our combat involvement is (finally) officially over, we remain mired in Afghanistan, proving to the world that there is no Alexander the Great guiding our hand. As Bergen writes, “Al-Qaeda and America face each other in a conflict in which no short-term resolution appears possible.”
And the American people are fed up. A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey taken in December 2010 showed that “just 35 percent of survey respondents say they still support U.S. involvement.”
According to a new poll from the Washington Post, part of a polling process begun in 2007, Americans favor ending the war in Afghanistan at a ratio of 2 to 1.
According to the Washington Post,
After nearly a decade of conflict, political opposition to the battle breaks sharply along partisan lines, with only 19 percent of Democratic respondents and half of Republicans surveyed saying the war continues to be worth fighting.
Half of Republicans is not a compelling show of support for a war their president began, and President Obama has continued to pursue.
Osama bin Laden is still alive, and the most grievous blow he has suffered since the U.S. invasion came not from strength of American arms, but from pro-democracy revolutions in Islamic North Africa. Revolutions the United States is doing very little to support.
And there are Republicans who want to further compound America’s mistakes by building permanent bases in Afghanistan. Arch-conservative Lindsey Graham wants permanent U.S. bases in Afghanistan “in perpetuity.” Appearing on Meet the Press, Graham said:
“And if the Afghan people want this relationship, they are going to have to earn it. But I hope that they will seek a relationship with the United States so we can have an enduring relationship, economic and militarily and politically, and a couple of air bases in Afghanistan will give us an edge military, give the Afghan security forces an edge militarily to ensure that the country never goes back into the hands of the Taliban, which would be a stabilizing event throughout the whole region.”
John McCain made a call for U.S. bases there as far back as 2005, arguing that “Not only because of our appreciation of Afghanistan, but also we believe there will be vital national security interests in this region for a long time.” But according to the “Obama Plan” the U.S. is supposed to be out by 2014, handing over responsibility to Afghan forces.
We would be right then to ask what sort of withdrawal from Afghanistan could have any real meaning if the U.S. were to maintain permanent bases in that country. Already 50,000 American soldiers, support personnel, remain in Iraq. How many would be required to bolster the Afghan regime in the post-Great Recession world? And how meaningful can any Republican calls for fiscal responsibility be when the defense budget is not only not reduced in size, but increased? Is the United States broke or not? Are we withdrawing or not?
As Prussian military theorist Karl von Clausewitz wrote in 1832, “The first, supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish…the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into something that is alien to its nature.”
Unfortunately, as Peter Bergen points out, the Bush administration settled on an open-ended kind of war with no real objectives beyond a fuzzy and ill-defined destruction of world terrorism. If President Obama cannot fine-tune that objective, we may well be in Afghanistan in perpetuity.
Image from Boston.com