Why the Afghanistan war won’t end soon

The American insensitivity towards civilian deaths over the years seems to be having a strong backlash.

All foreign combat forces are due to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014  [GALLO/GETTY]

Ever since the United States endured defeat in the Vietnam War the American political establishment has tried hard to restore national and international confidence in the role of military power in favourably resolving conflicts. America has continued to invest more than the next ten countries combined in constructing the most deadly and versatile war machine that has ever existed, and yet it has never in all its history felt as insecure. Something is fundamentally wrong, perhaps several things.

After the Vietnam experience weakened the national appetite for overseas military involvements, the more aggressive members of the Pentagon derided this reluctance to endorse wars of choice as the “Vietnam Syndrome”. Successive American presidents from both parties tried their best to end this mood of self-restraint. Ronald Reagan, for instance, lamented that “For too long we have lived with the Vietnam Syndrome.” George H.W. Bush (Bush I) after the 1991 victory in the Gulf War joyfully exclaimed: “We have finally kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all.” Unfortunately, this turned out to be an accurate prediction, with the result that arguing against overseas abuses of American military power became again “a hard sell”, especially since the 9/11 attacks.

It did seem for awhile that it was possible to achieve a political success for the United States in any military encounter in which the enemy was foolish enough to do what Saddam Hussein did: engage in conventional warfare against an adversary with vastly superior firepower and complete control of the skies over the battlefield. As a result, the sovereignty of Kuwait was restored. Again in the Kosovo War, although at much greater cost than had been anticipated, NATO prevailed from the air without suffering a single casualty, managing to induce Serbia to give up its control over Kosovo, effectively liberating the Albanian majority population from hated and oppressive Serbian rule. 

Military dominance seemed efficient within such a setting. What such examples reveal are two exceptions to the dismal Western experience since World War II of seeking military solutions in non-Western settings: Western military power can succeed if the confrontation is confined to conventional battlefield combat; such interventions can even achieve their political goals if the outcomes seem consistent with the territorial right of self-determination, that is, the ending of foreign rule and occupation as in Kuwait, and Kosovo.

The big mistake made by Western policymakers in the post-colonial era, currently on display in Afghanistan and Libya, as well as lingering in Iraq, is to merge two types of conflict situations. The Vietnam Syndrome correctly identified counterinsurgency warfare as problematic, that is, the effort to achieve regime change on the basis of an American led intervention seeking to override the dynamics of self-determination.

The two phases of the Iraq War are illustrative. The first phase involved the quick battlefield victory over Iraqi forces, the capture of Baghdad, and the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in the central square of the city. George W. Bush (Bush II) celebrated this apparent victorious sequel to the Gulf War in May of 2003 by unfurling the banner “mission accomplished” while he spoke to American troops from the deck of an aircraft carrier.

After the fact, such a celebration became an embarrassment during the second phase of the Iraq War that focused on the political and economic restructuring of the country under the neoliberal auspices of foreign military occupation. It was here that the Vietnam precedent gave a second life to the Vietnam Syndrome, or should have, suggesting that indigenous resistance to foreign occupation can significantly neutralise the impact of military superiority, and that the politics of national self-determination enjoys historical agency as well as political and moral support from world public opinion.

Lost in translation

This is the setting that has demonstrated over and over again that reliance on military superiority in battlefield situations does not translate into the desired political outcome, which is the essential message of the decade-long Vietnam War that should have sounded the death knell of counterinsurgency warfare, but didn’t.

It is notable that David Petraeus is the most influential American military figure of the past decade despite being associated with essentially losing efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Petraeus rose through the ranks of the military establishment as a result of his role in rewriting the US Army Manual of Counterinsurgency Warfare. This text supposedly applied the lessons of the Vietnam War, not in the Bush I and II senses of fighting conventional wars on battlefields, but in the more challenging manner of uncovering the secret to the use of American military power to overcome nationalist resistance to foreign military occupation.

In the manual Petraeus encouraged sensitivity to the indigenous culture, respect for the human rights, and promotion of economic development, policies that if applied would contrast with American behaviour in Vietnam. And yet there is a fallacy: the violent imperial intrusion remains as unpalatable as previously to an occupied non-Western population. When Obama became president in early 2009 Petraeus reportedly persuaded the new American leader to replace the commander in Afghanistan who was oriented toward a conventional war fighting strategy with his handpicked counterinsurgency specialist, General Stanley McChrystal.

When McChrystal was dismissed a year later after talking insultingly about White House leadership in the Afghan struggle, Petraeus took over as the commanding general for the next year, gradually expanding the war by means of a surge of troops combined with a ten-fold increase in drone attacks. Such an approach seemed to reenact the Vietnam Fallacy.

Western interventions in the early 21st century are almost certain to encounter violent and persevering national resistance that must be eliminated if stability is to be restored. To reach such an outcome inevitably alienates a substantial portion of the population being “liberated”, especially as it is unavoidable that the pressure to avoid casualties for the intervening party naturally shifts the human burdens of war, producing civilian deaths, devastation, and massive displacement at the site of struggle. When American forces do eventually depart, or are forced out of Afghanistan, it may provide temporary encouragement if policymakers and their think tanks are inhibited in advocating military intervention by the presence of an “Afghanistan Syndrome”.

The flawed Libyan intervention under NATO auspices, with strong American participation, again shows how low the learning curve has fallen when it comes to Western reliance on military power. Instead of claiming “security” or “democracy promotion” as in Iraq and Afghanistan, the justification in Libya is “humanitarian”.

The Western led “coalition of the willing” managed to twist enough arms to win an ambivalent authorisation from the UN Security Council for a narrowly circumscribed use of force to establish a “no fly zone” to protect Libyan civilian urban centres allegedly under threats of massacre by Gaddafi forces. Almost immediately the intervention, supposedly undertaken primarily for the protection of Libyan civilians entrapped in the city of Benghazi, morphed into a campaign for regime change in Tripoli on behalf of shadowy opposition forces. Whatever the outcome of this civil strife, the experience again shows that military superiority of foreign powers, even if overwhelming, tends to devastate the country being “saved” without being able to achieve its political goals at acceptable costs. NATO is currently recoiling from its initial enthusiasm for the intervention, and seems to be searching for a diplomatic face-saving escape route from this Libyan quagmire. It has replaced its original martial melody with the now more congenial rhythms of “compromise”.

Flawed policy

Why do intelligent people persist in doing stupid things? If we had a completely convincing answer to this question we would have a far clearer understanding of the dysfunctional underbelly of US/NATO foreign policy.

To get such clarity, we probably need to delve into the collective unconscious of the warmakers, but even without such Freudian probes, there are some obvious dark forces at work in the West. For Europe especially, but also the United States, there is a definite nostalgia for the colonial period when military intervention was efficiently triumphal and conspicuously rewarded with prestige, markets, and resources. There lingers in the West a sense that there must be a way to restore those happy days of global ascendancy despite the formal elimination of colonial rule. Closely connected with this residual imperialism, given some credibility by way of economic globalisation in the 1990s, is the parallel adherence to the realist belief that it is military power that continues to shape world history.

What follows from this search for explanations is what might be described as “militarism”, here defined as the compulsive or addictive reliance on hard power for conflict resolution that is not altered by repeated experiences of failure.

Militarism needs to be distinguished from military power, which can be rationally used to achieve posited goals under certain conditions. Militarism is functional for power elites to the extent that it produces a dysfunctional confidence in the effectiveness of military power that insulates itself from criticism and corrective responses. This enables the military machine to be funded far in excess of its rational relevance to security and other national interests. Under such circumstances those sceptical of military approaches can only hope for non-use as reliance on intervention has recently meant huge increases in expenditures, sacrifices lives, and resulting devastation and massive suffering for foreign lands.

This is what has been happening throughout this period of the decline and fall of European colonialism, and more dramatically in the course of the American effort to take over the task of projecting Western power globally during the last half century. A certain geopolitical plausibility was attached to this huge peacetime investment in military power as long as the Cold War lasted. The US/Soviet rivalry could be understood as a characteristic great power struggle that was fortunately contained by fears of a third world war fought with nuclear weapons. But that plausibility ended when the Soviet Union collapsed, and strategic conflict between leading states shifted its nexus to economic competition. Despite the American initiation of ‘the long war’ after the 9/11 attacks, the idea of achieving security through military dominance became increasingly diversionary, anachronistic, and a persuasive explanation for a series of humbling defeats.

Humbling yes, even humiliating, but not the advent of humility, and that is the crux of the problem. The shooting down of an American Chinook CH-47 helicopter in Afghanistan on August 6th is illustrative. It cost the lives of the 38 persons on board, which included 22 Navy Seals from the elite special forces unit that killed Osama bin Laden in May. Rather than take this as a warning sign that the counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan was heading for a Vietnam ending, the response of Washington was to call it “a one-off incident” that was not to be regarded as “any kind of watershed or trend”. A Pentagon spokesperson, Col. Dave Lapan insisted, “We still have the Taliban on the run.” The civilian leaders sounded the same note. The new Secretary of Defence, Leon Panetta, declared “We will stay the course to complete that mission.” And Obama went along: “We will press on and succeed”.

In looking at the American media coverage, it was almost impossible to learn without reading deep into the story that there were also seven Afghan commandos on board the helicopter who also died in the incident. Obama reinforced this jingoist line of response by saying, “My thoughts and prayers go out to the families and loved ones of the Americans who were lost earlier today in Afghanistan.” Not a single word of condolence was expressed for the Afghan victims.

In my view such selective inattention helps us grasp why counterinsurgency is a failure in the world of today. The NATO press release was somewhat more attuned to an acknowledgement of the Afghan dimension of the struggle, reporting that the shooting down of the helicopter “resulted in the death of 38 Afghan and coalition troops”. It is true, of course, that it is natural for the United States to grieve more strongly for the loss of its own soldiers, but to avoid even mentioning the Afghan losses seems morally unacceptable and politically damning.

We don’t do body counts

A similar American insensitivity was exhibited a few years ago when Donald Rumsfeld, as Secretary of Defence, explained that the Pentagon kept no statistics on civilian casualties during the Iraq War. In one sense such attitudes are part of the counterinsurgency mentality. Our casualties are the only ones that matter, except for keeping score in the war by showing that we are killing many more of “them” (their militants) than they are of “us” (our troops). No wonder resistance to such foreign military occupation in this post-colonial period motivates recourse to suicide bombing, that desperate expression of the nationalist will to resist that is a dire warning to the occupier that their time is running out.

There is another disturbing aspect of the helicopter incident. During the latter stages of the Vietnam War there was a rising tide of anger at home about the needless sacrifice of American lives. Veterans spoke out against the war as did family members of slain soldiers. No longer. One lesson that was learned by the military establishment from the Vietnamese experience was to get rid of the draft, and rely on a volunteer army. Beyond this, those dying are rarely from the American middle classes, but from the poorest sectors of American racial minorities.

There is no peace movement in the United States despite wars that have lasted over a decade. And in the face of the growing doubts about carrying on the Afghanistan War much longer, in large part reflecting financial strains, Obama is able to say, without arousing any societal or media pushback: “At this difficult hour all Americans are united in support of our men and women in uniform who serve so that we can live in freedom and security.” I think the time has come to say that American freedom and security would be far more benefited by bringing the troops hope as rapidly as possible, closing hundreds of overseas bases, and dedicating a large portion of the resources released to restore confidence in America’s future within its own borders, which means jobs, education, and repairing infrastructure. 

It was Albert Einstein who reminded the world that “doing the same thing over and over again and expect different results” is “insanity”. Whether American militarism is better regarded as insanity or addiction is not so significant, but that its compulsiveness discourages a proper diagnosis and cure is a distressing reality. It has led to a succession of prolonged bloody confrontations that bring misery and encourage extremism. It is this pattern of lethal repetition in overseas military intervention under American auspices that is best understood, in Einstein’s sense, as “insane geopolitics”.


Richard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Research Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has authored and edited numerous publications spanning a period of five decades, most recently editing the volume International Law and the Third World: Reshaping Justice (Routledge, 2008) and Achieving Human Rights (Routledge 2009).

He is Chair of the Board, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and Director, Global Climate Change Project, UCSB. He is currently serving the fourth year of a six year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. 


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