The New York Times has just reported the announcement of a deal between the US and the Taliban that will end our armed involvement in Afghanistan within 14 months. That is good news. It has been obvious for years that we will never get any closer to our objective of an Afghanistan in our own image than we have now--which was not close at all. Like the Viet Cong in South Vietnam, the Taliban have commitment, organization, and sanctuary that the successive Afghan governments we have sponsored never had. We insisted on real elections as well as the forms of democracy in Afghanistan--as we did not in South Vietnam--and as a result, our client government is now fighting over the results of the last election. There is an excellent chance that the Taliban will control most of the country within another three years. That will not necessarily have any real impact on the security of the United States, any more than the loss of South Vietnam did. It frees us of a burden that we should never have undertaken.
The defining foreign policy experience of my generation was of course the Vietnam War, but its legacy was far more complicated than many of us ever realized. Bill Strauss and Neil Howe wrote nearly 30 years ago that the only thing that Boomers agreed upon about Vietnam was that their elders had mismanaged it--either by starting it in the first place, or by failing to win. The Vietnam debacle did influence the leaders of the GI and Silent generations for nearly two decades. Even though, as Theodore Draper pointed out many years ago, no establishment figure ever suffered for supporting the war, the Nixon, Carter, Reagan and Bush I administrations avoided any similar quagmires, no matter how anti-Communist their rhetoric might have been. George H. W. Bush and James Baker deserve particular credit on this score. They settled the conflict in El Salvador with a compromise and stuck to a limited objective in the first Gulf War. The restraints began to come down under Bill Clinton, who signed a Congressional revolution committing the US to the fall of Saddam Hussein. They came completely off under George W. Bush.
Even before 9/11, we know now, the Bush II Administration was contemplating an invasion of Iraq. 9/11 shifted their focus to Afghanistan. Then began a series of wars and interventions, first in Afghanistan and Iraq, and later, under Barack Obama, in Libya, toppling yet another government with disastrous results, and in Syria, where we could do no good. My contemporaries were convinced that they could transform third world countries with air power, encouragement, and a search for effective, friendly clients. They couldn't.
As early as 1974, when the Ford Administration decided to intervene covertly in the Angolan civil war, I was shocked to see how few people seemed to have learned some obvious lessons from Vietnam that I never abandoned. American intervention in third world civil wars could wreak havoc and sometimes maintain a friendly regime in power but it rarely if ever seemed to get it on a stable footing. When 9/11 occurred it was less than two years after I had published American Tragedy. Just a couple of weeks after it, the journal of the now-defunct Historical Society asked me to contribute to a short symposium on its significance. I too had been affected by 9/11, of course, and I knew we had to take some action in Afghanistan, but I hadn't forgotten what I had learned before either. This is what I wrote.
No Clear Lessons from the Past
by David Kaiser
On December 8, 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt labeled the attack on Pearl Harbor a “day that will live in infamy,” and Congress declared war on Japan.Three days later the United States was at war with Germany.Three years and nine months later, with about 300,000 young Americans dead, our enemies were entirely defeated, and the creation of a new world began.The destruction of the WorldTradeCenter and the attack on the Pentagon may have had a similar emotional impact upon the American people, but the task of eliminating the threats posed by terrorism makes the Second World War seem almost simple by comparison.It is most unlikely that we will suffer 300,000 people killed over the next four years, but it is equally unlikely that we will have eliminated terrorism by then either.
Although the United States seemed woefully unprepared when the Second World War broke out—all the more so since the Pacific fleet had been crippled—both the problem we faced and the eventual solution were already quite clear.As Churchill put it in his memoirs, the new coalition of the Soviet Union , Britain and the United States had many times the combined resources of Germany, Italy, and Japan, and the eventual destruction of the Axis was only a matter of production, mobilization, and deployment—that is, of time.We understood both the threat—the Axis military forces—and the appropriate response—the eventual conquest of two medium-sized countries, Germany and Japan . Despite many further reverses during 1942, the allies rapidly achieved superiority and reached their objectives.
Comparisons between September 11 and Pearl Harbor—focusing on America’s unpreparedness and the emotional shock felt by the nation—have already become commonplace. Beyond that, however, this historical analogy offers little guidance. The threat is not a purely military one, nor can it be easily dealt with by military means.Apparently, the threat is a large, well-trained organization—allied to other similar organizations—based in a remote and unfriendly country, but living everywhere and nowhere. Osama bin Laden has made clear that he wants to eliminate American influence, and the regimes that depend on it, from the Middle East. His weapon is not traditional war, but terror. Ideally, terrorists represent a problem for law enforcement rather than the military, but law enforcement agencies in various Middle Eastern countries allow them to operate—some from ideological sympathy and some out of fear.In theory, that deprives these governments of all legitimacy and makes them enemies of the United States. In practice, it may make the problem we face insoluble for many years to come.
World reaction suggests that the United States can now build a broad coalition designed to make it impossible for organized terrorism to operate anywhere— a coalition including not only Western Europe and our Asian allies, but also Russia and other former Soviet States, which have already been victims of terrorism themselves. Arab states such as Egypt and Algeria, well accustomed to terrorist threats, also seem willing to participate. But even if we set aside Iraq, the full cooperation of the predominantly Muslim nations is highly unlikely.
Although we now have a right and a duty to strike at any perpetrators we can identify, it seems to me far from certain that the kind of precision strikes in which the American military now specializes will be able to destroy Osama bin Laden, much less his organization, within Afghanistan. That country is very large—approximately 1000 by 400 miles of mostly mountainous terrain—and has a population of more than twenty million people. The Soviet Union had no success operating there; can our army expect much more? Can we really commit the resources necessary to establish law and order in a hostile country in which Muslim fundamentalists are the strongest political force? Can we conquer Iraq, which the Bush administration clearly suspects of complicity, at the same time? Is the western world prepared to re-occupy large portions of the Middle East for decades to come?
And there are further concerns. Bin Laden and his associates could flee to a neighboring country—Iraq is mostly likely. Is there any doubt that they would continue trying to mount fresh outrages? New security measures may make another incident like September 11 unlikely, but other kinds—some even worse—are entirely possible. Won’t a greater American presence in the region increase the number of their recruits? Might it not actually topple some friendly governments?
The new anti-terrorism coalition which must now form—and which needs, if at all possible, to work through the United Nations—must discover effective means of putting pressure on states that refuse to cooperate. These may include refusing to allow their nationals to live abroad—a draconian measure, certainly, but one that seems to be both logical and appropriate, given the difficulty of distinguishing innocent people from terrorists who threaten thousands of people. But perhaps most important of all, we must enlist all the nuclear powers of the world in an attempt to inventory and secure every single nuclear warhead in their possession. Clearly, the men who flew planes into the World Trade Center would have detonated such a warhead if they could have gotten their hands on it. This is the most urgent problem that we face.
Given the nature of modern society and its vulnerabilities, we will not be safe from hijackers and bombers until effective and cooperative political authorities essentially rule the world. Missile defense will do nothing to bring that about. No matter what happens, we will probably have to endure more attacks for at least ten years. We must try to establish some momentum toward a true new world order, and the role of traditional military force in this process is anything but clear.
David Kaiser, a historian, teaches at the U.S. Naval War College. He is the author of American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War (Harvard University Press, 2000) .
Certainly some of my comments were not born out. Bin Laden did flee Afghanistan, but not to Iraq. he fled to Pakistan, where the government evidently sheltered him for about a decade. I did not realize the extent to which the transformation of the Middle East would become the goal of the Bush Administration, pushing anti-terrorism into the background. The threat of nuclear terrorism turned out to be overblown. Many of my concerns however have turned out to be more than warranted. And because the establishments of both parties remained committed to this hopeless war, Donald Trump will now reap the political benefits of disengaging from it. I am very happy to see that the whole, I kept my head while many around me (and above me) were losing theirs. I was not the only one, but we were too few. Now the attempt to extend the American empire seems to have led, by a circuitous route, to its global retreat, and perhaps to its end.