Missing the Point in Afghanistan ─ Starting Wars Almost Always Escalates Violence toward Uncontrollable, Undesirable Strategic Effects
© 2010 Peter Free
27 July 2010
Deadly violence always escalates out of control
Americans consistently miss the point about war-making. Military violence always escalates out of predicted control and almost always defeats any reasonably achievable, beneficial strategic purpose.
Afghanistan is an example.
Are we the dumbest students in humanity class, or simply among the most violent?
After centuries of bitter experience, why is it so difficult for us to understand that deadly force has to be:
(i) limited in purpose,
(ii) very precisely directed, and
(iii) closely contained in its effects ─
if it is to be strategically effective?
World War II was the rare exception to the use of large-scale military force, not the rule.
Consider civilian law enforcement’s (a) philosophy regarding the use of deadly force and (b) why that psychology-based model evolved
Law enforcement’s defensively-oriented deadly force model is, almost always, the only reasonable solution to situations requiring armed violence.
Police are trained to kill as a last resort and only when someone’s life is directly and imminently endangered by someone else. (That rule, for example, would eliminate attacking Iran or North Korea.)
Cops are taught (and most believe) that “collateral damage” to innocents is unacceptable.
Hence, Special Weapons and Tactics Teams’ rely on evacuating and cordoning off dangerous areas and choosing weapons that are narrowly suited to operating in narrowly-selected kill zones.
Tactical teams spend years honing the skills that allow them to kill this person, and not that one, when good and bad guys are clumped together.
Police instinctively know that killing or wounding innocents is going to make their law enforcement mission more difficult by turning the community they serve against them.
Why do we act as if collateral civilian deaths in foreign countries operate according to a different psychology?
The strategic reality is that our military does not have the luxury of operating in civilian law enforcement’s generally non-violent context
The psychology that guides civilian law enforcement’s use of deadly force applies worldwide. However, unlike civilian law enforcement, our military does not have the luxury of operating in peaceful environments.
Soldiers are where they are because the overall context is bloody and out of control.
Combatants cannot be expected to control unconfined situations in the way police SWAT teams manage to constrain limited threats. Troops cannot be expected to reliably minimize collateral damage, when someone is shooting at them from inside a group of non-combatants.
General McChrystal’s collateral damage-reducing rules of engagement in Afghanistan escalated risk to our troops. This is especially true because our adversaries, worldwide, have learned to hide themselves among non-combatants. That trend began most visibly in Vietnam.
Therefore, when we order our military people not to defend themselves for fear of harming proximate non-combatants, we hand victory to our enemies and kill our own people in the process. Yet, at the same time, killing non-combatants is also self-defeating.
We should not put our military in strategically unwinnable situations. The price of war almost always outweighs benefits. Except, perhaps, to the plutocrats and corporations who profit from bloodshed.
Once battle begins, both sides devolve into barbarians. We justify murderous impulses by dehumanizing our adversaries.
The only humanity left joins brothers and sisters-in-arms. Everyone else is predators’ game.
This survivally-valuable impulse is hard-wired in our genes. Strategists and political leaders who ignore this are either idiots or gaining something personal by inflicting suffering on others.
The “war is bad” rule applied to Afghanistan
Our leaders continue to be unanimous in saying that invading Afghanistan in 2001 was a good idea. They have amended their earlier un-nuanced pro-war statements to say that we should have left after Al-Qaeda was forced out.
In view of what I have written, that is a strategically untenable position.
Our leaders’ usual logic (in defense of the initiation of the war) is that we needed to move Al-Qaeda out of the country. But no one seems to consider that, had we left after doing so, Al-Qaeda would have returned. Unless the Taliban managed to keep them out. But we moved the Taliban out of the country, along with Al-Qaeda.
It paralleled our initial stupidity in Iraq, where we treated everyone as an enemy ─ until General Petraeus accepted the wisdom that we could turn some of our former Iraqi enemies against Al-Qaeda on grounds that made sense to them.
If we analyze Afghanistan with insight, we recognize that our invasion gained us nothing that outweighs the harm it caused. We simply moved a portion more of the terrorist problem into Pakistan, where much of it originated.
The invasion of Afghanistan probably made us more enemies, and the place has become a life and money-sucking piece of geography that will dramatically weaken us militarily and economically.
History warned us this would be so.
As history-ignorant as our culture is, no one paid attention. The people who paid, and continue to pay, the price for our vapidity are our military sons and daughters and Afghani and Pakistani innocents who never meant us harm.
Strategically and morally, it would have been better to deal with Afghanistan in the same we deal with terrorism everywhere else. By a combination of police work, intelligence, and limited military means.
There is nothing historically, geographically, or demographically unique about Afghanistan that should have led us to believe that conquering its geography would bring peace to the anti-terrorist world.
It would have been wiser, if less emotionally satisfying, to have treated Afghanistan as an anti-terrorist law enforcement problem, rather than as a large-scale military one. There is nothing about that essentially fictional nation that made it a promising target for conquest or nation building.
Had we been less thoughtless and more genuinely politically courageous, we might have been able to turn Afghanistan into a training ground for anti-terrorism skill-building short of war.
What to do ─ admit error, make an orderly retreat, and implement more precisely-directed terror-fighting techniques
We need to accept that invading Afghanistan was a bad idea. We need to get over the idea that we can avoid admitting serious error.
Making this admission will harm no one. It will save many.
Nobody in the military died, or will die, in vain. Duty, courage, honor, death and survival on the battlefield have personal intrinsic merit and meaning.
No one in combat wars for great goals. Combatants fight for each other. They will have earned their worth, simply by serving their closest peers. Their terror, valor, service, and suffering have value, regardless of our culture’s obscene stupidity in injecting them into terrible situations.
If you don’t believe this, visit Arlington National Cemetery and sit quietly among the stones.
There is nothing about success or failure in the silence.
The proper way out of Afghanistan is to recognize that the Taliban will take over. It is a movement endemic to the Pashtun people, who occupy much of that territory and Pakistan.
Many people who supported America will pay a terrible price when the Taliban gains control. Although it is true that Afghani culture recognizes a relatively easy to-and-fro-ing among enemies that is quite unlike Vietnam.
A genuinely humanitarian nation would let these pro-American people emigrate to the United States.
What national guilt there is in letting down our allies in Afghanistan should be borne by the politicians and members of the public who supported this lunacy.
Guilt is not always a bad thing. We might learn from it. Though I am not optimistic, given previous lessons from Vietnam and Iraq, which we have already forgotten. We seem to be living in an age of narcissistically personal excess.
Our withdrawal from Afghanistan should be orderly. Perhaps we can retain strategically well-considered footholds. Perhaps not. Sometimes our alienating presence outweighs its benefit.
In the end, we will implement the terror fighting techniques that we employ everywhere else. Just as we should have done from the beginning.
It is time for President Obama’s Escalated Folly to end.