War Without End

Long wars are a cancer. They drain the life of a country by depleting its resources and exhausting its energies, leaving in the end but a hollow rind of the patriotic fervor often found at their outsets. Those who look back on the Vietnam War and the vitriolic civil reactions it spurred are prone to forgetting the– albeit cautious– support for the war in its early years that grew weary and largely withered with time. With the deadline for US withdrawal from Afghanistan being mitigated again by an agreement to keep 9,800 American troops in the country, the US mission there is shaping up to be potentially longer and equally fruitless.

Rhetoric and political posturing aside, the war in Afghanistan has not been a success. Judged by the goal professed at its outset– the elimination of the Taliban and those responsible for the attacks of 9/11– it has largely failed. The Taliban not only survives but now enjoys greater diplomatic recognition than it did in 2001, having been allowed to establish diplomatic offices in Qatar. Judged by the goal of establishing peace, stability, and democracy in Afghanistan, the results are similarly dismal. The US-supported government in Kabul is flanked by insurgents mere blocks away in a city where crossing the street at the wrong place is sometimes a life-threatening act. As Americans are told that the Bush and Obama administrations have succeeded in eliminating threats and ‘liberating’ the Afghan people, fears persist in-country that when US troops do finally leave, the country is destined to devolve into civil war between Taliban remnants and tribal warlords who rightfully refuse to be subjected to their rule.

Given the seeming inevitability of that fate, it is understandable that the Afghan government would ask for a continued US presence to steady their stilts, and neither Obama nor any US president would want to pull the plug in that dam and allow the country to fall into chaos on their watch. The recent flurry of criticism by the media for Obama’s choice to withdraw troops from Iraq when he did is surely not an experience that he wishes to live again. Yet therein lies the impossible scenario of Afghanistan: by the failure of American leaders past and present to name the enemy and eliminate him, we are now adrift in an unending conflict with neither the hope of stabilizing the country under our current strategy nor the resources and resolve to commit to a strategy that would achieve a lasting peace. The situation that has manifested in Iraq under ISIS is a startling one, but it is not likely to be unique. We may well see a crisis on the order of that in Iraq and Syria come to fruition in Afghanistan when US leaders come to terms with the fact that only a desperate act of immense scale– one that we are not willing to nor likely should undertake– can change the fate of Afghanistan now.

There will surely be those who deny it, those who claim that Iraq was won by the Bush administration and that all Obama had to do was keep the peace, but a country that depends indefinitely on an occupying force to maintain even a semblance of stability is no symbol of victory. Were it true that Iraq was won by 2008, no withdrawal under Obama should have threatened it. The US presence there could hold down the fever, but by 2007 lacked the momentum and political will to fight the disease. In the same way, maintaining US forces in Afghanistan will not change what is to follow when they leave. It only kicks the problem down the line to the next generation of politicians, diplomats, and soldiers. But as more soldiers have died in Afghanistan in the last five years than in the previous eight, the question of when the denial will end becomes more urgent.

Sadly, despite the immeasurable courage, commitment, and skill of America’s men and women in uniform and its intelligence operatives, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have failed to make the world safer for Americans or the people of those countries. The choice of US leaders not to challenge the legitimacy of theocratic governments or the political teachings of Islam– indeed, their flailing efforts to defend it at every turn–have led to the instatement of Islamist constitutions in both countries and the creation of US-sanctioned governments that, by virtue of their own Islamic foundations, can offer no principled opposition to extremist groups like the Islamic State. No amount of lives lost or years of superficial stability under the current approach will alter that failure.

With the announcement of the 9,800 left to continue in Afghanistan, are we to believe that a victory that was not achieved when we had nearly 100,000 troops and roughly 50 nations involved in the war is to be achieved by the few who remain? And if not, on what basis are we risking the lives of US servicemen and women? Put simply: why do we persist in fighting conflicts that we do not intend to win? There are no good answers, and the platitudes offered in their place are a disservice to those who have served so nobly in defense of their country. Each year this country honors its servicemen on Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and Independence Day. This writer has been to multiple events in the last few weeks alone that are begun with a request for all veterans to stand and receive applause for their commitment to their country. These are all noble, profound acts of respect that speak to the character of our culture as surely as they do that of our veterans. But there can be no higher honor and no greater tribute to our soldiers than to refuse and condemn any endeavor that asks them to venture their lives without an adequate and well-defined purpose. If America’s political leaders value their service as they so often claim, they will not persist in supporting engagements that we do not intend to win and they will not ask them to risk life and bodily harm in causes that bear a only a tenuous relationship to American national security and the defense of our people.

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