Naming (and Ending) our Endless Wars
Name a thing right, and you own it. Name it wrong and it owns you. You fail to ken its essence, and it slips right through your fingers and bites you in the hand.
Maybe that’s what’s happened in our last few wars. Commenters to the liberal New York Times and the conservative Wall Street Journal seldom agree on anything, especially with regard to war. But they do agree on one thing. They both use the term “endless” to describe our current wars.
The reason is not hard to understand. Our really important wars were much shorter. We helped beat history’s greatest military tyrannies in less than four years (although for others World War II lasted six). We stamped out the scourge of slavery and our only serious domestic rebellion in about the same time. Our War of Independence—which our rag-tag army fought against the most powerful military that the Western world then had ever known—lasted only six and a half years. Yet our adventures in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan all exceed seven years now, and the last two are still in progress.
Our recent struggles have been with minor powers in the backwaters of the world. Yet still we haven’t been able to “close the deal.”
Were these “wars” the same as our great wars, we would have made short work of them, just as we did with Saddam’s tank battalions in Gulf I and at the outset of our current War in Iraq. In equipment, training and firepower, and probably in discipline, there is no match for our armed forces anywhere in the world, except perhaps in beleaguered Israel. So why did we lose Vietnam, and why have Iraq and Afghanistan taken us so long just to reach their present states of uncertainty?
Maybe naming conflicts right might help. To do that you have to start with the obvious: territory.
Our most important wars—our War of Independence and our own Civil War—were on our own territory. Until Vietnam, the first was our longest war. The second is still our bloodiest.
As we grew in power, our wars moved outward. In the twentieth century we fought two world wars primarily on the open seas and the territory of invaded victims of aggression. Only toward their ends did these wars enter the territory of the aggressors. They were classic wars of imperialism—remnants of the nineteenth century in the pre-nuclear age.
The aggressors in these wars were bound to fail in the long run, unless they had gotten something like the Bomb first. The rest of the world vastly outnumbered them. They had roughly disturbed the world’s peace and violated an innate human preference for stable borders. And unbeknownst to them, the world had already rejected their atavistic and racist philosophies in practice, not the least in multi-ethnic societies like China, India, the Soviet Union, and the United States. The twentieth century’s primary aggressors were fighting for a world already vanishing or lone gone.
After those big wars, an uneasy peace among major powers settled in. We call it the “Pax Americana.” But that, too, is a misnomer. It really was (and is) the Pax Nucleara.
Nuclear weapons made the price of aggression, invasion and outright imperialism too high. Since the Bomb’s advent 65 years ago, not a single nuclear power, with the possible exception of Israel, has suffered invasion in force, although a few have suffered border skirmishes. Maybe that’s why so many nations want the Bomb. As I have outlined in another post, it is the world’s first and only weapon that provides a near-perfect defense, through deterrence, but (as long as others have it) little incentive for aggression. It is the great equalizer and war stopper. It has halted imperial wars among major powers as if turning off a switch.
With this brief history, the tale of post-War wars comes into focus, at least for us. Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in Gulf I nicely fit the model of imperial aggression. But except for that one, all our wars since 1945 we have fought on the territory of a single foreign country (with some spillover to Laos and Cambodia in the case of Vietnam). That’s why all these wars—Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq—bear the names of a single foreign country. They were wars in which we got involved in a foreign nation’s internal affairs for ideological and geopolitical reasons.
The English language has only a few honest words to describe fighting inside a foreign country. They are invasion (including repelling another foreign power’s invasion), occupation, annexation (acquisition), and civil war (helping one side or the other).
General Petraeus and other military leaders offer a fourth word: “insurgency.” But with all due respect to the most able of our modern generals, I don’t think that word fits any of our post-War wars.
The word “insurgency” implies a dispersed, guerilla rebellion against some stable, settled internal order. It presupposes an internal government (which can be foreign to the locality) of some longevity and persistence, with relatively uncontested power.
In other words, an “insurgency” presupposes some real government to “insurge” against. If, for example, our Tea Mobbers and their fellow travelers were to elect their “Second Amendment solution” and take to the hills with small arms for the purpose of bringing down the Obama government by force, that would be an insurgency. For, despite all its problems, our federal government is still undisputedly in charge and has been for some time.
What happened in our post-War wars was nothing of the kind. In Korea, the first Kim’s North invaded the South with “Red” China’s encouragement and material support. With our help, the South fought its way back to the Yalu River and the border with China. Then Chinese troops entered and forced the fighting back to the originally agreed North-South boundary and our fifty-five-year stalemate. It was a civil war, with foreign assistance on both sides and perhaps some aspects of two invasions. But the invasions, if such they were, were temporary. No one today could credibly claim that China controls the North, or that we control the South.
Vietnam was the worst mischaracterization. It was an anti-colonial civil war of national liberation, in which the Vietnamese first fought the French and then us.
The very division into “North” and “South” Vietnam, with various western puppet governments in the South, was a failed diplomatic attempt to mischaracterize the war as one between two independent sovereign states, or an “insurgency” in the South. In reality, the war was a civil war for control of Vietnam’s territory by the Vietnamese, as distinguished from foreigners and foreign puppets. Our paranoid leaders, fearful of China and Communism and mesmerized by McNamara’s ludicrous “domino” theory, failed to recognize that Vietnam had for centuries fought for its independence from China and was not about to exchange Western masters for Chinese ones. China, which had lost wars of independence to Vietnam more than once, was smart enough to know that. So it let Vietnam bleed us, as Vietnam had done China before us, without intervening directly.
Iraq was a bit different. The present war started with our invasion, which was hugely and quickly successful. That’s what Dubya recognized with his premature celebration on the aircraft carrier.
But we didn’t have nearly enough troops for a successful occupation, as Generals Shinseki and Zinni had warned. So what followed was a civil war between the majority Shiites, whom our invasion had favored by removing the Sunni tyrant Saddam, and the minority Sunnis, who were fighting both to repel the foreign invaders (us) and get their disproportionate power back, with or without Saddam.
The worst of the Iraq war was hardly an “insurgency,” despite common use of that term. There was nothing to “insurge” against. We hadn’t the necessary force for a real occupation, and anyway we had turned sovereignty and civil power over to the Iraqis quickly. The “government” to which we ceded power was nascent and weak, with no claim on the full population’s allegiance, let alone any longevity or persistence. Not surprisingly, civil war followed, as the Iraqis sought to determine in their traditional ways—tribal loyalties, bombs and bullets, mixed with a strong dose of religious sectarianism—who would govern them and how.
When the civil war came, we tried to serve as honest broker, head banger, and nation builder. Low-level civil war is still ongoing, although the recent formation of a coalition government promises a new and more hopeful phase.
You might call Al Qaeda’s abortive attempts to create mayhem in Iraq an “insurgency” against the nascent government. But there was no real government at the time, except in name. More important, Al Qaeda’s “movement” was really nothing more than agitation by foreigners for their own ulterior motives. Natives could easily identify the foreigners by their dress and accents. The foreigners enjoyed little or no allegiance from any longstanding indigenous group. They were outsiders who quickly became outcasts.
Unlike in Vietnam, we recognized the situation on the ground. So we did not allow our fear of Al Qaeda to prevent us from letting the tough and secular Iraqis dispose of it in their own way.
Afghanistan followed a similar but less certain pattern. When we “invaded” in 2001, shortly after 9/11, the Taliban were the undisputed government. The nation was stable and peaceful, if not entirely happy. We hadn’t the force for a real invasion. We sent fewer troops even than to Iraq to “invade” a more populous and far larger country with much more difficult terrain. Conscious of the region’s reputation as the “graveyard of empires,” we didn’t have the will for invasion or conquest.
So we tried an “invasion” on the cheap. We exploited tribal and ethnic divisions between the northern Tajiks and the majority Pashtun, bribing and equipping the former to fight for us. We used overwhelming air power to support our “friends.” We gave little thought to politics and governance until long after the fact.
Even though so badly planned, the “invasion” phase of the war went quickly. A twenty-first century combined military, relying primarily on manned and unmanned air power, faced a nineteenth-century mobile guerilla force relying primarily on small arms. Again, we declared “victory” prematurely. But this time we had named our enemy from the start: the “Taliban.” Its outgunned fighters melted back into their people and the mountains, and we set our puppet government up.
As in Iraq, what followed was a civil war, which is still ongoing. But there is one crucial difference. In Iraq we didn’t take sides. We tried to serve as an honest broker, getting every faction to settle down, cooperate and build a prosperous nation with a semblance of democracy. Although the outcome is still in doubt, and although Iran and its proxies inside Iraq could still serve as spoilers, there well may be enough war weariness and common sense among Iraqis to turn the tide and end the now low-level civil war. Stay tuned.
But Afghanistan is entirely different. There we have most definitely taken sides. We have declared the Taliban our enemies and unacceptable and are fighting them with every means at our disposal.
So we have put ourselves in the position of an invading power supporting one side in a civil war. And the side we have supported is weak, unpopular, and corrupt, bearing every resemblance to a foreign puppet. In this respect, our war in Afghanistan, in its present form, looks much like our losing war in Vietnam.
So it all comes down to naming. Calling what’s going on in Afghanistan an “insurgency” fits our vanity and endorses the convenient fiction of our diplomacy: that we have occupied the nation and can control it, or that the Karzai government is in control. We presume that the Karzai government that we set up (with too few troops and too little understanding of the people) is the legitimate, permanent, actual ruling power of the nation.
Of course anyone who has traveled outside of Kabul knows that isn’t so. Afghanistan has been mostly up for grabs since the mujahedeen, with the help of our money and our Stingers, forced the Soviets out in 1988-89. If any single force can claim to have ruled the country undisputedly in the interim, it’s the Taliban. What we have there now is one of the modern world’s longest, low-level civil wars.
Once we name that war correctly—a civil war in which we have taken sides—three basic questions arise immediately. First, have we picked the right side? Or have we, as in Vietnam, picked the side that history will say, in retrospect, was the obvious and inevitable loser?
Second, if the historical outcome is still uncertain, what can we do to whip “our” side into shape, not just militarily, but politically and socially, so that it deserves the “victory” we hope for it? This, I suppose, is where “nation building” comes in. The more efficient, effective, and public-spirited the Karzai government gets—and the less corrupt—the more the people will accept it, and the larger the number of real Afghans who will enlist, train and fight to preserve and advance their communities.
The recent decision to have Afghan recruits live in and protect their own local communities was a brilliant idea. But so is the notion of reconciling with reconcilable Taliban.
Third, if we indeed picked the wrong side, what can we do to correct our mistake, back out gracefully, and insure a relatively peaceful transition to rule by the best of the Taliban and the best of “our own” together?
What we really care about is a stable Afghanistan with a path to a peaceful and prosperous future, which will not become a haven for international terrorists or a breeding ground for Islamic extremism. How we get there is not a matter of “winning” or “losing.” It’s a matter of day-to-day progress in war and peace, in fighting and bargaining, in destroying and building, and in learning and practicing local politics, the details of which no one but experts in war and history will know or care about in as little as thirty years. (See Vietnam.)
If we keep those basic realities in mind, and if we keep our eyes on our own limited goals, we may be able to get out sooner than we expect and with our basic objectives intact, not to mention our honor and our consciences. But to do that, we have to stop demonizing the Taliban, in the minds of our military, in the speeches of our political leaders, and in our popular press.
By and large, the Taliban seem no more primitive, violent or evil than the rest of the local, tribal culture in many of the more remote parts of Afghanistan. Maybe they do cut extremities off people they see as criminals. And maybe their handling of sexual and marital affairs is far too primitive and medieval for our sophisticated tastes.
But three things are apparent. First, native Afghan Taliban have no more in common with Al Qaeda than Iraqis did or do. The only real bonds between the two groups are a common religion (generally speaking, not in detail), primitive tribalism, Islamic hospitality for guests, and hatred of foreign invaders, which would be us.
If we can see the two groups clearly as foreigners to each other, with very different ultimate political and social goals, we can split them apart. If we are clever, we can get Al Qaeda marginalized or rejected in Afghanistan as another, more insidious kind of foreign invader. But to do that, we have to get over our Islamophobia and fear of the word “Taliban.” At a minimum, we have to understand—down to our troops in the field—that Muslims come in as many flavors as Christians or Jews.
Second, we have to understand that Afghanistan will remain a Muslim nation, with primitive and (to us) crudely violent tribal customs, no matter what we do. We can’t reboot Afghan culture; nor should we try. The only cultural goal we should set is letting girls (and boys!) go to school—a goal that Greg Mortenson has had no trouble achieving by non-military means. In the long run, achieving that goal will do more to change Afghanistan for the better than any military success.
We should not try to change or outlaw Sharia practice in general, far less for theft by corruption. If I saw my daughters bartered off as bribes, and my sons’ labor and my own money stolen repeatedly by corrupt police and local strong-men, I wouldn’t at all mind seeing their arms cut off or their eyes gouged out. I might even help. Maybe primitive crimes deserve primitive punishment.
Finally, we should stop thinking about Afghanistan in terms of our “victory” or “defeat.” It’s undergoing a civil war. Only the Afghans get to decide who wins. We may have precipitated the war in a paranoid and incompetent military spasm after 9/11, but it’s their struggle and their future.
Even if we stay in force until 2014, as the President now proposes, the Afghans and many Taliban will still be there long after we leave. And we ultimately have no more national stake in Hamid Karzai and his family as such than we do in the Taliban as such. We have different, special and limited aims.
So we’d best start thinking about what’s best for Afghans, and for our two, simple long-term goals in the region, not for the Karzai government. The sooner we can set that nation on a path to stability consistent with those goals and get our troops home, the happier everyone will be. And if we really care about Afghans, we can continue to give civilian, humanitarian, civil engineering and diplomatic assistance as long as is necessary, but from the outside, without being perceived as invaders or occupiers.
For that, we need to beef up our State Department, downsize our military presence, and endow a few fellowships for our best and brightest to study the British Foreign Office during the height of Britain’s largely successful imperial power. It would be a shame if our so-far-unblemished record as rank amateurs extended even more deeply into our imperial decline.