Thursday, October 15, 2009

Educated Guesses, Past Lessons, and Brave New Worlds

I admit I have been reluctant to write about the War in Afghanistan for each and every one of the reasons and reservations shared by most Progressives. For starters, this is an inherited, hand-me-down conflict that is not Mr. Obama's War and I am not motivated to hang an undeserved albatross around his neck. While I understand the reasons why the President has committed troops, precious resources, and money we really don't have to win this fight, I wonder if this is the best way to refute the long-held conservative myth that Democrats are unwilling to take up arms to defend our country. Republicans love to invoke President Carter and in so doing, never let us forget the depressing sight of a downed helicopter, destroyed by impact---the final resting place of Marines deployed on a hastily conceived and poorly planned rescue mission to Iran to liberate hostages. Obama should be given credit for seeking to counteract that conception, but Afghanistan might not be the best means to accomplish said objective.

Some have tried to make a tentative contrast between this war and Vietnam, which is neither an accurate, nor a congruent comparison. Many leftists, myself included, were understandably quick to draw parallels between the Iraq War and that horribly divisive protracted conflict, and indeed, some of those characterizations did hold water. It also helped that the war was being waged quite incompetently and by our political opposition. However, this struggle easily resembles nothing we have dealt with before and if I were forced to make any contrast with other wars in our nation's history I might concede that it is more closely akin to the Korean conflict. Both are sloppy, inexact, confusing, and contradictory affairs that are as confusing to those who lived, fought, and died as they are to scholars and pundits attempting to make sense of them. When our Afghan struggle draws to a close, whenever that shall be, few concrete conclusions will be drawn and those attempting to point at evidence to support their assertions will have their work cut out for them.

Afghanistan nor Korea have many clearly defined objectives, satisfying victories, nor demoralizing defeats, but what they do have are perplexing stalemates reluctantly adopted to avoid the very real fear of expanding the fight to nearby hostile regions or adjacent unfriendly nations. The Korean War might very well have been the first instance in American history where we realized superior military force does not necessarily translate to resolute and inevitable victory because, in part, acting too aggressively threatens to draw in neighboring countries and, in so doing, transform proxy war into hot war. Creating a wholesale conflagration between major players is as much bad policy and potentially catastrophic outcome then as it is now. Nearly sixty years ago, the United States could not afford to start a declared war between itself and the Red Chinese, specifically since a war with the Communist Chinese always ran the risk of a shooting war with the Soviet Union. Nowadays, particularly when one contemplates how much of our debt China holds, I can't help but be grateful that cooler heads prevailed. Though China may own us, their own developing economy is dependent upon our recovery, and if we fall, so do they.

In Afghanistan, we are utilizing a strategy honed in Iraq which believes that the best way to combat terrorist groups and in so doing eliminate them is to use small, precise skirmishes in a highly strategic fashion. The gloriously sweeping open field battles of yore may forever be a thing of the past. What we are trying to avoid, of course, is expanding the fight into Pakistan in means other than the occasional specifically targeted bombing raid. Even so, resentments have been created when we act in that fashion, particularly because Pakistan's leaders believe we are threatening their sovereignty in launching raids, though it must also be added that they themselves have never firmly committed to eliminate Al-Qaeda from within their own borders. Threatening the stability of the entire Middle East is the foremost omnipresent threat we must keep in mind and while a wholesale invasion of neighboring countries might be a temptation to some, it is hardly any solution. Warfare in the Twenty-First century has proven to be a different kind of containment that puts out fires as they are discovered and faces a guerrilla enemy who recognizes full well that the only way to stay alive to fight another day is to resort to a strategy of hit and run. In an older era, this was considered unsightly, cowardly, and against the unwritten rules of engagement. The Taliban feels no shame, nor any compulsion to adhere to a antiquated standard that, if adhered to, would quickly lead to its demise.

In Korea, the one wholesale success of UN forces was General Douglas MacArthur's amphibious Inchon landing, which succeeded in occupying almost all of the Korean peninsula. In response, Chinese dictator Mao Zedong deployed a exceptionally large contingent of troops to combat the threat and reclaim lost territory. These soldiers owed a large share of their funding and support to Soviet leader Josef Stalin, whose infamous paranoia might have worked in his own favor for once in this situation. As such, UN forces were driven back past the 38th Parallel and into South Korea; it is at this juncture that the war reached an unsatisfying Mexican standoff which still is in place today. The Korean War technically never ended. A state of war still exists between North and South, though it has been superseded by an long-standing truce. The effects of this can be seen today with the saber-rattling and manipulative posturing of the North Korean government, particularly with its desire to obtain a nuclear program or at least its desire to play cat-and-mouse with the rest of the world.

Though the United States may have the most formidable weaponry and military, this alone will not necessarily produce victory. I often doubt whether war over terrorism will ever be firmly declared with any satisfaction, or whether the best we can ever hope for is a kind of mutually agreed upon ceasefire and even partition. The only way one could really destroy every terrorist cell would be to either invade or bomb a garden variety of countries, most in the Middle East, which would inflame tensions around to the world to such a fevered pitch that World War III would certainly become a strong possibility. Changing the mindset of those won over to a combination of radical Islam married to terrorist tactics might be a better option. Proving how such attitudes are counter-productive, counter-intuitive, and ultimately futile would be needed strategies in accomplishing this task.

A combination of skillful diplomacy and a policy of military containment would seem to be as plausible as any strategy yet attempted. In saying this, I hasten to use the phrase "military containment" because it is beholden to another age where it served as frequent justification to stem the spread of Communism. Perhaps we ought to redefine for our own age what containment really means, and in this regard, I don't think it connotes long term occupation of any country. I do not have the answers and do not advance a strategy, because I am as flummoxed as even those in charge seem to be. Even those in the driver's seat of this operation have little more than educated guesses themselves upon which to justify their decisions and my hope is, as always, that we will embrace the most sensible course of action and always be willing to learn from what came before, regardless of whether it is welcome or unwelcome.

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