What do history's most notorious despots have in common with many of the flag-waving, patriotic politicians of our day? Both groups rise to power through the exploitation of fear, which has become a societal plague. There have been widespread casualties. We need an antidote. Feardom offers its readers a much-needed immunization.
An officer fighting in Afghanistan submitted a letter to the highest ranking defense official over the war, which reads in part:
We should honestly admit that our efforts over the last eight years have not led to the expected results. Huge material resources and considerable casualties did not produce a positive end result—stabilization of military-political situation in the country. The protracted character of the military struggle and the absence of any serious success, which could lead to a breakthrough in the entire strategic situation, led to the formation in the minds of the majority of the population of the mistrust in the abilities of the regime.
The experience of the past years clearly shows that the Afghan problem cannot be solved by military means only. We should decisively reject our illusions and undertake principally new steps, taking into account the lessons of the past, and the real situation in the country…
This frank assessment of the situation in Afghanistan came after several years of ongoing fighting to eradicate enemy forces determined to resist the military’s presence. Its plea for an entirely new direction, a study of relevant history, and an honest analysis of the progress and circumstances in the country they are occupying is most welcome.
Unfortunately, this letter was not written by any American soldier, nor by anybody in the coalition of forces currently fighting in Afghanistan. It was written over two decades ago by Colonel K. Tsagalov, addressing the newly-appointed Soviet defense minister, Dmitry Yazov.
Like Ghengis Khan, Alexander the Great, King George V of Britain, and most recently, the Soviet Union, America is wasting blood and treasure in the historical graveyard of past empires. Just last night, after several weeks of deliberations, including nine meetings with his war council, Mr. Obama announced a “surge” of 30,000 additional troops to aid in the never-ending and abstract mission given to the active duty military forces and contractors—this after upping the number by 34,000 in March. Ignorant of the foolishness of such a campaign in light of previous attempts by other empires to do just the same, America is being led into the same quagmire that other military superpowers have succumbed to.
Perhaps in no other scenario has the phrase “he who does not learn from the past is condemned to repeat it” been more relevant, especially in terms of death and destruction. The Russian military historians tasked with producing the official history of the Soviet war in Afghanistan apparently agree, as their assessment had this to say:
The Soviet government and the Soviet high command did not study Afghanistan’s national-historic factors before committing Soviet forces. If they had, they would have found a history of many centuries of resisting various conquerors. The Afghan considers any foreigner carrying weapons as an alien occupier.
If this cultural sentiment remains true two decades later, would increasing the number of occupying forces by 30,000 really achieve “Operation Enduring Freedom’s” stated goal of toppling the Taliban (to say nothing of actually catching that ever-elusive Osama bin Laden)? Critics assert that the escalation of troop levels is like trying to put out a fire by dousing it with more gasoline. Personally, I think that the golden rule has always been a far more powerful analogy in cases of war.
Consider, if you will, a future where China looked with great interest to the oil fields in Texas, and declared them a “vital interest”. Shortly thereafter, China released a statement as follows:
An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Texas oil fields will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the People’s Republic of China and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force. (Sound familiar?)
Two months later, tens of thousands of Chinese troops landed in several locations along Texas’ borders as part of a strategic “shock and awe” campaign. A swift and short-lived attack on the state capitol and various headquarters of oil companies resulted in a quick transition to complete Chinese rule of Texas’ government and oil industries.
Texans, however, are not identified only by their government, and far less by one of their leading exports. The blood running through those veins carries a deep strain of independence and resistance to oppression. While China did indeed gain control over key resources and infrastructure, they did not gain control over the entire geographical area. Banding together in militias, neighborhood watch groups, and national guard units, the well-armed citizens of Texas began a passionate resistance movement to expel the foreign invaders and regain control of their land and its resources.
Faced with this fierce and unrelenting enemy, the Chinese forces tried a multi-faceted approach to victory in Texas: they aggressively weeded out the resistance fighters in key cities such as Houston, San Antonio, and Dallas; they began a construction campaign to build up Texan infrastructure that had been neglected for years due to the American economic decline; and they provided free food, clothing, and medicine for needy citizens, and candy for the children. The goal, of course, was the win the hearts and minds of the people, so as not to have to be embroiled with them in military conflict for ages to come. Also, the photos of smiling Texans receiving assistance from the occupying forces helped ameliorate any concerns back home with politicians and the media, thus satisfying the Chinese by and large that they were welcomed and beloved by the majority of Texans.
They also provided training to Chinese-sponsored Texan security forces, and vowed to continue their presence until these individuals could be trusted with defending the new government China had helped create.
Despite the aforementioned strategies, the reality would, of course, be that China had invaded Texas, displaced hundreds of thousands of people, destroyed key infrastructure, and killed who knows how many innocent individuals. Texans would be, in our surely unanimous opinion, the justified party repelling an aggressive occupying force from their own land.
Just as the very presence of Chinese forces would serve at a catalyzing rally cry to swell the resistance’s ranks, so too has the American military’s presence created enemies faster than they can be killed. In such a scenario, a speedy withdrawal is the best solution.
In too many ways, Afghanistan is the new Vietnam, and as anti-war sentiment becomes more widespread domestically, the comparisons between the two situations will continue. In Afghanistan alone, we’ve now seen 20,000 people killed and 53,000 injured. Troop morale is low, divorces and depression are high, and at least as of now, there is no end in sight to this war.
So, what is to be done? We can continue to be the occupying aggressors like China was in my fictitious scenario, and we can continue to add more fuel to the fire we’re allegedly trying to put out. In doing so, however, we will simply be accelerating the arrival of the same fate meted out to other empires who have been repelled from their respective invasions of Afghanistan. Just as the Soviets learned some lessons in retrospect, so too can we learn from our own history. On the ninth anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, President Reagan said the following:
Self-determination, the right to freely choose one’s own destiny, has been the central point of the Afghan struggle. The Afghan people have clearly demonstrated that they will resist any effort by outsiders to impose a leadership on them. We have held that any decision about the government in a free Afghanistan will be — must be — the free choice of the Afghan people alone. With the end of foreign occupation, I am confident that the Afghan people will be able to take charge of their own affairs and get on with the formidable task of rebuilding their country.
If we want to save face and avert this inevitable disaster, and, more especially, if we value the lives of the individuals who are being assigned to the perennial graveyard of empires, then it is time to bring the troops home.