The Bog of History in Afghanistan

Douglas MacArthur is regarded as a great commander because he got some very important things right, most famously the Inchon landing. He also got some things wrong, such as his push to the Yalu River.

His catchy statement, “there is no substitute for victory,” was also wrong, though not so wrong as the armchair strategists who quote it out of context. In fact, “victory” is often an illusion, a will-o’-the-wisp that can lead nations and armies deeper into the bog of history until they disappear.

Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan had the foresight to avoid the bog, to halt inconclusive military operations in Korea and Lebanon before they consumed America’s strength. Such men are rare, and even more rarely honored for their actions.

Slightly amended, however, MacArthur’s statement applies to most politicians – presidents like Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon. Both were men whose fear of political defeat made retreat from unsound policy pronouncements on Vietnam impossible even when they no longer made sense. They hoped commanders in the field would compensate with combat forces to turn hope into reality. Johnson and Nixon discovered the hard way that “no defeat on my watch” is not a strategy or the basis for one.

Once again, an American president is under pressure to commit American forces to action in the hope the generals can salvage a failed effort. His military advisers are telling him this will o’-the-wisp will lead him safely through the swamp of muddled conflict to green pastures and still water. Unfortunately, the generals are urging him to look for victory in the wrong places, forgetting that American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan serve the interests of Iran and Russia far more than they do the interests of the United States.

When the problem of U.S. casualties in Iraq was dramatically reduced in 2007 with massive cash payments and political concessions to the Sunni Muslim Arabs fighting the U.S. military occupation, new problems arose for the United States that cash, concessions, airstrikes and gunfire could not solve: Iran expanded its national power in Iraq and consolidated its grip on Baghdad.

Today, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite Arab dictatorship dominates most of central and southern Iraq, and Iraq’s Kurds are also reaching their own accommodation with Tehran. Iran’s leaders are free to focus on the elimination of American, Israeli and gulf Arab influence throughout the Middle East.

Our large and pervasive military presence in Iraq alienated both the Sunni and Shiite Arabs while giving the Kurds an addictive taste of independence, a development with ominous consequences for their future survival in close proximity to Turkey.

Our impact on Afghanistan is similar with even more profoundly negative strategic effects in Pakistan.

Anyone sitting in the Kremlin must be delighted. After watching the United States squander a trillion dollars in Iraq while grinding its ground forces into ruin, Moscow can now celebrate the diversion of precious U.S. military and economic resources into Afghanistan while it turns its attention to the goal of controlling Ukraine and returning Russian military power to NATO’s eastern border.

None of these developments is surprising. What we in the United States and Britain have done in Iraq and Afghanistan is unknowingly illuminate the clash not between civilizations, but between modernity and antiquity. That clash is more acute in Afghanistan than Iraq, but it’s an insurmountable obstacle to nation-building in both places. We proclaim moral principles when justifying our actions, but we wreak havoc and destruction on a backward, ancient world we do not understand.

Our troops are not anthropologists or sociologists, they are soldiers and Marines who have been sent to impose America’s will on backward societies. The result is mutual hatred – not everywhere, but in enough places to feed what American military leaders like to call an “insurgency,” the same word the British Army applied in 1920 to the Irish rebellion.

What’s happening today in Afghanistan and what has already happened in Iraq is the application of questionable tactics without strategy, or what Sun Tzu called “the noise before defeat.” Vapid phrases such as “population-centric” or “killing is not primarily what we do” are the noise before defeat. The Muslim world does not want the United States to be its savior, nor does it want to “Westernize” through military occupation, regardless of the vaunted material benefits.

President Barack Obama’s real goal should be to make the Islamist terrorist bleed while the United States expends as little blood and treasure as possible.

We want to secure our interests; not to repeat the folly of Iraq in Afghanistan.

Col. DOUGLAS MacGREGOR (US Army Ret.) is a fellow at the Straus Military Reform Project and the author of “Warrior’s Rage: The Great Tank Battle of 73 Easting.”