The last President to have taken part in actual combat left office nearly twenty years ago. It’s a little-remarked milestone buried amid a great deal of posturing by leaders who want to talk the talk without having walked the walk. Since then, we have gone from a draft dodger to a man who never had to bother dodging, a commentary on a generational shift from a period when military service was not alien to the Yale and Harvard campuses. Meanwhile, the country remains in a conflict without end.
Obama will complete his pullouts on a campaign schedule, but that will not end the war. You cannot end a war that you did not begin. The sustained conflict we are in did not begin when we entered Afghanistan or Iraq, it will not end just because we leave.
The Afghanistan victory lap is as much about disguising the ‘cut and run’ phase; as it is about reminding the folks in Virginia and Iowa that the man on television parachuted in, cut the throats of all of Osama’s guards, shot him in the face and then made a topical quip. Waving around Bin Laden’s head is a good way to distract them from the fact that the United States has lost the war in Afghanistan, that Obama’s own strategy there failed badly and cost numerous American and British lives, and that we are turning the country over to the Taliban.
Afghanistan and Iraq were part of a strategy for containing and draining the fever swamps of terrorism. That strategy failed for a variety of reasons, not the least of them being that we failed to learn the lessons of Vietnam. The Obama Administration alone managed to roll out a “hearts and minds” strategy and a brief push to intimidate the other side into coming to the negotiating table for a face-saving withdrawal. It’s almost a pity that Obama wasn’t old enough to have to dodged the draft. At least that way he might have actually known something about the Vietnam War.
Instead we have come away with thousands of casualties, living and dead, often left with poor medical care, at rates that this administration is determined to hike up. We have generals who don’t know how to win wars but know how to behave in mosques and female cadets from West Point are being dressed up in hijabs and taken to Jersey City so that they might learn how to relate to Muslim culture. And most of all the war isn’t over.
The enemy was never a few peasants in Afghanistan, beating their wives, growing their drug cash crops and murdering their daughters over a slight. They are bastards and they generally hate us, to the extent that they are aware of us, much as they hate their neighbors from a different ethnic group. But, left to their own devices, they would only be a threat to their own female relations. They are our enemies, but they are not the enemy.
Bin Laden didn’t come out of Afghanistan. He came out of Saudi Arabia, and he found refuge in Pakistan. And those are two countries that we would never think to touch, because the former owns us, and the latter has sizable numbers and nuclear weapons. Instead we went after the low hanging fruit, the Taliban with their burkas and hatred of women, and a vicious tyrant stewing in his isolation. Both of them needed putting down, but doing so brought us no closer to winning the war.
Rather than dealing with the sources of terror, we focused our attention on stabilizing zones of instability on the theory that it was easier to bring order to those zones than to go directly to the source of the problem. And we were wrong. Policing Iraq and Afghanistan proved to be very expensive and put us to the task of trying to hold together broken societies. There is a reason that unstable places are unstable. There is also a reason why Saddam and the Taliban were in power.
The real lesson of Korea and Vietnam was that getting stuck fighting a proxy war was a losing proposition. Both wars were expensive, bloody and damaging to morale. The Soviet Union did not have to bleed much to inflict a great deal of damage on us. That was a lesson that we taught it in Afghanistan, but that just put us into another proxy war, except this time we were the ones giving away the weapons to the enemy of our enemy.
The dead and wounded of those wars were fallout from a guiding strategy that believed that war with the Soviet Union was unthinkable and saw the conflict in terms of stabilizing potential trouble spots before the Communists could take them over and making common cause with anyone on the ground to keep them out.
That first clause got us into Vietnam, the second clause got us into Afghanistan. Now the second clause has gotten us to back the “moderate” Taliban and the “moderate” Muslim Brotherhood and every other monstrous nightmare that we can append the word “moderate” to. And if we go on this way, our only real hope is that Islam, like Communism, self-destructs before we can self-destruct.
For now we are self-destructing. The elementary purpose of war is to destroy the other side’s ability and will to make war upon you. Destroying our ability to make war is still beyond them, but they have done a fine job of destroying our will, aided and abetted by their paid public relations firms, by the ACLU, the New York Times, the Democratic Party and yes, the Republican Party.
Past the initial devastation that we visited on the Taliban and the Republican Guard, nothing that we did in those places was going to destroy the other side’s ability and will to make war on us. Not that the notion was ever on the table since we had never defined the other side, except loosely in terms of “extremists” who misunderstand their religion and think that it tells them to make war on us, when it actually tells them to give us a big hug and buy us flowers for Infidel’s Day.
But if we are going to think about how to win the war, rather than just grit our teeth and submit to another round of bombings and TSA inspections, while the domestic Muslim population continues to grow and grow, then we are going to have to think in terms of destroying their ability and will to make war on us. And that’s not as tall an order as it seems.
We don’t need to win their hearts and minds, and unless we clone Mohammed and put him through an intensive course in loving America, we don’t have a shot at doing that. Islam is a religion which believes that order and justice come about when Muslims dominate non-Muslims. That’s not a misunderstanding, it’s their religion. It’s also not our problem so long as we keep that religion and its attempts to impose their order and justice as far away from us as possible.
Forget convincing them that they shouldn’t want to kill us, that’s not our job. Our job is to convince them that trying is futile. That the consequences of trying to do it will hurt them more than it hurts us. In our own clumsy fumbling way we have unintentionally made some progress in that direction. Muslims now understand that a large scale terrorist attack may result in an invasion followed by years of reconstruction in which the infidels will have power over them while militias roam the hills and streets fighting it out with the infidels and making life unlivable.
Iraq and Afghanistan may be lost, but they are still object lessons. The militias will claim victory, but few Muslims want the same mess to happen to their own country. Al-Qaeda is unpopular because together with us it made a big mess and made life unlivable. Rather than bringing Islamic justice and order, it ushered in a state of chaos and violence. The opposite of the stability that Islam is supposed to bring. Al-Qaeda has more range than ever, but its depth is an inch thick.
The message that we sent is that attacking us is going to be inconvenient for them, when the message that we should have sent was that it was futile. That was the message we could have sent if all they had seen of us were smoke plumes and sudden death. Instead of allowing them to see soldiers traipsing around, choppers evacuating our wounded and realizing that we bleed just as easily as they do.
And even that is largely beside the point. Military resources have to be employed where they will do the most good. Where they will win the war. And that means going after the heart, rather than a finger. It means fighting the enemy, rather than the enemy’s pawns and indirectly funded militias.
If we are going to destroy the ability and will of the enemy, then we have to do go the source of the money and ideas, and for that matter much of the manpower, in this conflict. It would mean looking at how the money we have poured into the Gulf has allowed the tribal monarchies to buy up power here and to spread their influence and fund Islamic militancy around the world. And then we would have to do something about it.
There are plenty more Bin Ladens out there. To defeat them, we have to deal with the financial and ideological infrastructure that fuels the Jihad, which runs out of the desert across the region, and then to Asia, Africa and even America. Taking on Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates; would be a genuinely gutsy call, not because they’re militarily formidable, but because it would force us to break out of the box that we’ve been living in. The box that says there are no large scale conflicts, only police actions that keep the peace and prevent the enemy from spreading too far.
War with the Soviet Union was ruled out because it was too big and had nuclear weapons. War at the heart of the Muslim world is ruled out because there are just too many Muslims and besides those countries are our allies, our best hope of defeating… well them. And so the war remains unwinnable because it remains unthinkable.
It’s much easier to drop bombs on some tribesmen in Yemen or Afghanistan than paying a call to the Saudi King, It’s much easier to send soldiers out to win hearts and minds in some hopeless part of the world, than to bring the war home to glittering cities closely interlinked with Western business interests like Riyadh, Doha and Dubai. It’s easy to put down a lunatic like Gaddafi or an old fashioned Arabist tyrant like Saddam or Assad, but who would contemplate doing the same thing to the House of Saud or the Al-Thanis?
We can cut off the head of the snake or we can shake a stick at it, or learning to wear heavy boots. So far we’ve shaken our sticks loudly and impotently and we wear heavy boots and take them off at the airport. That’s the game we’re playing and it’s a loser’s game.
To defeat the enemy, we have to defeat the enemy. And that means destroying his wealth, his backers, his intellectual leaders and the energy source that provides the momentum for the conflict. The Muslim world is not a single indivisible whole, but there are men with great wealth and power, operating out of the historical stomping grounds of Mohammed, who are trying to make it one. They are the enemy and if we do not destroy them, they may destroy us.