In December 2014, NATO ended its combat mission in Afghanistan. Pretty much everyone knows that the mission was a failure and the ending premature. Military experts, both in service and retired can’t help frowning when they are answering simple press questions about the situation in that unhappy country Hardly anyone in public life wants to say it aloud because we are all more or less tired of war, of that war in particular.
The bulk of US forces is slated to leave we don’t really know when. There are conversations going on to decide how much of a residual force is to be left behind and in what roles. It could be any number from 10,000 down to four or five. The US and NATO are acting in this respect as if they had won the war and the residual force issue was mainly a formality. Strange! Between the successful invasion and today, about 3,000 (1,800 military KIA and 1200 contractors) Americans lost their lives in Afghanistan, all volunteers thinking they were doing something positive. In the same period about 500,000 people died on American roads, most of them not volunteers.
The war fatigue about Afghanistan tells us much about ourselves that is deplorable because there hardly ever was a war more justified than this Afghan war. Americans have lost the memory of the still fairly recent events that led to our military engagement there, and of NATO’s. Or else, they are pretending not to remember because it’s convenient not to. Let me be a little inconvenient for a short while. Below is a brief reminder.
On September 11 2001 in a well-planned, superbly executed and inexpensive terrorist attack, unknown assailants assassinated almost 3,000 Americans and foreign residents of the US in three different places. US intelligence agencies quickly identified Al Qaeda as the perpetrator. The leader of this terrorist jihadist organization, the late Osama Bin Laden obliged a short time later by bragging about the attack on video. Bin Laden was then known to be operating in Afghanistan with several hundred, or several thousand Arab and other non-Afghan jihadists.
Afghanistan was then largely ruled by one of several military organizations, the retrograde, reactionary Taliban (“students of theology” many of whom could barely read though they could recite the Koran in a foreign language – Arabic.) The US requested that the Taliban government – with which we had yet no quarrel in spite of its inhumane treatment of women- turn over Bin Laden to the US for trial. I mean by “inhumane,” such things as forbidding little girls from going to school and forbidding male doctors from examining female patients, in a country where there were only a handful of female doctors. (Note that it you put the two prohibitions together, you have a recipe for the extinction of women over time.) There was also the occasional shooting of female adulterers at the half-time of soccer games.
The Taliban government refused to turn over Bin Laden for trial. On October 7th, the US and the UK invaded Afghanistan with the express purpose of overthrowing the Taliban. The war was conducted with an alliance of anti-Taliban Afghan fighters with a more or less secular ideology. It involved US and UK aerial forces and handful of special forces from both countries. It only lasted a couple of weeks. The Taliban fled Kabul and other big Afghan cities.
Other NATO countries quickly joined the US and the UK as was their legal obligation. They contributed to varying degrees, some of them to a shamefully weak extent. Flagging resolve was visible from the start. Belgium had 33 personnel there, NATO member Greece had 8 (eight). Other NATO countries contribute significant contingents but they were often hemmed in by severe restrictions. The Germans, for example, brought in as many as 5,300 personnel but they operated under a long list of “don’t” that could be fairly summarized as : “Don’t fight unless you have to.” Reading the stories of military participation by other countries is like discovering a narrative of allegedly military forces elbowing one another out of the way to serve in non-military roles, including offering dental services, airport guard and, of course, the ever-popular training of others….The Turks, whose presence in a Muslim country could have been invaluable let it be known that they did not really wish to be involved. (Reminder: Turkey is a founding member of NATO. For forty years, it was protected from Soviet invasion by American bombers.)
After this initial military triumph, the American/ NATO effort went awry. What began as a punitive expedition morphed into a mission to win hearts and minds, just like in Vietnam where it did so much good! The president we installed in Afghanistan turned against us. As I write, Afghanistan has experienced a more or les democratic transition with the two top winners of the last elections sharing power, an unstable arrangement in most cases. Little girls still go to school in the cities but teachers, even in Kabul, the capital, express fear for the future of girl schooling. It appears from press pictures that there are no Afghan women in public places not wearing the all-covering shador. The country is still called the “Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.” (Imagine the “Christian United States of America.”)
The US, NATO, the whole Western Democratic world, democratic nations elsewhere are leaving behind a fiasco. The country was not secured militarily against a return of the Taliban, who now have even better reasons to shelter terrorists bent on spilling American and Western blood. The hearts and minds of Afghans were not won.. It’s not even clear what separates the Taliban from those supposed friends we leave behind except for a thin Westernized elite, the product of student exchange programs joined by returnees from emigration. There have just been too many assassinations of NATO personnel and other terrorists acts by men in “Afghan government uniforms” to allow any confidence that there will be a stable Afghan government not hostile to our world.
I even wonder if the execution of adulterous women is not still on the book there. I am pretty sure blasphemy is. (I don’t know with what penalty. It may be less than capital punishment.) Apostasy – changing one’s religion – is at least illegal, if not worse. I doubt the leopard changed its spot. Perhaps, there are two leopards in Afghanistan as a result of 14 years of our intervention, and one is allowing us to feed it, at least for a while. I think no lesson was learned by us or by other democracies. The US is even providing a permanent war chest for any future dictatorship, secular or religious in the form of artificially high opium prices: Let the US legalize drugs and the price of opium in Afghanistan (where most opium in the world is grown) will plummet to the level of the price of broccoli immediately. It’s not going to happen. That one is entirely our fault, not the Afghans’.
Not only did we fail in extirpating terrorism in Afghanistan, the world is much more propitious to it than it was on the eve of 9/11. In the west, there are unending insurgencies in Mali and in Niger. There, they burn books and destroy tombs whenever they get a chance. It seems that the small French armed forces, with several African allies, are holding the line. Take note: Military interventions sometimes work, even with small forces. In Nigeria, next door, an insurrection that calls itself ” Non-Islamic Education is Forbidden” burns alive whole villages (in addition to books and schools). North of Niger, a violent civil war is tearing Libya into a non-state where Islamists seem to be winning or, at least holding their own. They feel safe enough there to produce a short movie of the ritual assassination of 21 men chosen for being Christians. The assassins said it was specifically because they were Christians. They also bragged that they were now almost at the gates of Rome. (In their sick, ignorant seventh century minds, Rome is the center of Western civilization.) Egypt, itself, next door, has returned to the familiar safety of military rule. There is not much protest there from local democrats about this development. I think it’s because they now realize that they are only a handful, in two cities, in danger of being engulfed by a sea of religious fanatics. The Egyptian government is asking the US for technical help in running the military hardware we sold the country over a period of years. The American president is thinking on it, saying neither yes or no. Perhaps, his administration is considering the implications for global warming.
The monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula seem stable but it’s not completely clear what the deep pillars of their stability might be, or if they even exist, or, if they do, how deep they are now that the oil manna is drying up. The US and other Western countries have now fled the Republic of Yemen where two different kinds of jihadists are fighting it out. Both hate America. Utter barbarism has returned to eastern Syria and northern Iraq, complete with religiously sanctioned slavery and child rape. Jordan is barely hanging on. Its government is begging for gasoline and bullets. We are thinking on it because the cost could be as high as one tenth of New Hampshire’s budget. Lebanon is holding its breath and Israel wisely keeps its counsel. Perhaps, the Israeli political class figures that religious fanatics are not worse as neighbors than the secular Arab terrorists of the sixties and seventies, or only by a matter of degree. I am confident that Israelis have their several contingency plans, should things turn even uglier. Everyone one knows that Israel has nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them.
Moving NNE, beyond Afghanistan itself, we have the perennially failing state of Pakistan, perennially propped up by US aid. This does not prevent it from having nuclear weapons. No cause for worry, right? Pakistan is where religious fanatics frequently firebomb mosques during Friday services. Brave warriors of their religion machine gunned more than one hundred school children there recently.
Largely ignored by the mass media: the tremendous economic dislocation violent jihadists impose on others at little cost to themselves. In Nigeria alone, there are 1.5 million refugees created by Bokom Haram atrocities (WSJ02/16/15). Pakistan was split from India in 1949 to provide a specifc home for Muslims. The experiment failed. The average Muslim in India is much freer in every way, including religious, than the average Muslim in Pakistan. When Pakistan falls apart further, perhaps its military leadership will make the wrong move, the area will be re-absorbed by India. (Dream on!)
Fortunately, there is an island of stability in that horrible region. It’s the theocratic, authoritarian and corrupt Islamic Republic of Iran. Perhaps, as a result of Mr Obama’s efforts, the mullahs will turn nice. Perhaps, they will abstain from sponsoring further conventional terrorism; perhaps, they will abstain from nuking Israel; and if they do nuke Israel, perhaps they will refrain from setting one of our cities on fire with one of their new long range, missiles capable of carrying nuclear heads.
Yes, I am a little alarmed. Shoot me!
Now, for the cause of these horrors: If you follow my mental journey on a map, from Mali NNE, you will soon notice that all the countries I mention have camels.Camels generate, or at least, they encourage terrorist practices, the killing, maiming, and enslaving of non-combatants. I am being careful enough here, I hope. I assume that camels are not on the list of “word alerts” of political correctness. I don’t want a visit from the FBI, or from the campus police either.
In a little corner of this burning region, the out-manned, out-gunned Kurds do what they have always done: They defend themselves against all aggressors, at any cost, with or without external help. Note that the Kurds also have camels but they don’t burn prisoners alive
“We can’t be the policeman of the world,” they say. Watch what happens when there is no policeman because the US quit. I hate to admit the obvious as much as anyone but it’s the obvious.
Sure enough, we are not responsible for the whole world but we are certainly responsible for our own safety. Everything else is shameful, that simple.
A generation ago, we defeated decisively the 10,000 tanks, the thousands of bombers, the countless intercontinental missiles of the communist Soviet Empire. Now, we have become frightened of amateurs in flip-flops equipped with looted military supplies.
Afterword: The following Muslim-majority countries are reasonably peaceful, each under it own brand of more or less secular despotism:
Burkina Fasso, Mauritania, Chad, Algeria, Turkey, Azerbaidjan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan, and Bangladesh. The Maldives, Indonesia, and Malaysia are neither aflame nor despotic. In the later country, a ten-year legal process ended up recently in the confirmation of a former Prime Minister’s conviction on sodomy charges. A little earlier, the highest court in the land confirmed that the word “Allah” – which simply means “God” in Arabic – can only be used by Muslims. Arabic is no one’s language in Malaysia. (Would I make this up?)
And then, there are the small miracles of Senegal and Morocco. The first is a poor but real democracy on the west coast of Africa. The second is an old-style theoretically absolute monarchy that runs a limited but quite real democracy. The sultan or Morocco is also its formal religious leader, “Commander of the Faithful.” Food for thought
And the greatest miracle of all is little Tunisia, where the Arab Spring started and its only real survivor. What happened?