A Trillion Dollar Bridge to Nowhere
by PETER FARMER
June 12, 2012
Sixty-eight years ago today - the 6th of June 1944 - Anglo-American forces stormed ashore at Normandy and began the liberation of Western Europe from Nazi tyranny. Soon, the last survivors of that day will pass into history. As we reflect on the meaning of their sacrifice, we should also pause to remember the hardships and suffering of a new generation of soldiers fighting in places like Afghanistan.
Our troops continue to pay the price - American and coalition soldiers are still being killed and wounded in on-going operations. On May 23rd, U.S. Army 2nd Lieutenant Travis Morgado, of San Jose, California, 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry, was killed by an enemy IED (improvised explosive device) in Zharay, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan - he is the 1,852nd American to lose his life in what has become America's longest war. Like his comrades in arms, he was a volunteer who willingly stepped forward to do the dirty and dangerous job of the combat infantryman.
As a nation, we owe the fallen and their families a debt of honor and gratitude that cannot be repaid. However, we owe them something more: a realistic appraisal of the wars we ask them to fight. Although everyday citizens do not decide whether to commit troops to battle, we - through our elected and appointed leaders - are still part of the chain of responsibility that sends men like Lt. Morgado into combat and possibly to their deaths.
We must hold our leaders accountable and assure that our soldiers are not risking their lives unnecessarily for ill-conceived or illegitimate ends. Too many citizens have forgotten or ceased caring about the war, or do not make their voices heard. Others give pro forma praise "for the troops," but are otherwise uninvolved. This is the road to ruin; history has shown that cynical politicians have few if any qualms about using soldiers as "expendable assets" - aka cannon fodder - for the attainment of political or other aims.
Why are we still in Afghanistan? The terrorist and jihadist networks and bases that haven't relocated have been smashed, and al-Qaeda mastermind Osama Bin Laden has been hunted down and killed. We should have declared victory and brought our troops home long ago. In fact, every day we keep our forces in theater is a victory for our enemies. Here's why...
Muslims are commanded by the Koran to wage jihad (holy war) against the infidels - non-Muslims - with the intent of converting, subjugating or killing them. For more than a millennium, the Islamic world (Dar al-Islam) has fought a civilizational war against the non-Islamic world. Significantly, the Koran calls the non-Islamic world Dar al-Harb, which means "House of War." This is a potent reminder of what is at stake. This age-old conflict, which virtually none of the political leaders of the western world are willing to acknowledge publicly (save the heroic Geert Wilders), is none the less very real, despite its various ebbs and flows over the centuries.
Before 9-11, Bin Laden and other leaders within al-Qaeda faced a serious dilemma: they had the will to attack the United States, but lacked the means to bring the war to U.S. soil on a sustained, large-scale basis. They did not (and do not) possess the vast conventional military forces of a large nation-state. The solution they arrived at was tactically and strategically brilliant - they would launch a terrorist attack so dramatic and horrific that it would provoke an enraged United States into overreacting in a way that would ultimately inflict damage upon itself.
Therefore, one strategic aim of the 9-11 attacks was to lure the United States military into battle on unfavorable terms and on enemy ground, where its enormous advantages in war-fighting and technology could be - at least to an extent - nullified. Jihadist leaders knew that the only way they could inflict significant damage on the U.S. and its military was through a drawn-out guerrilla war, aka "death by a thousand cuts," in which we could be weakened a little at a time via a steady trickle of battle deaths, hundreds of billions in expenditures, and a divided, war-weary public at home. In other words, the Vietnam template adapted to the 21st century.
The proper response to the 9-11 attacks was not a long-term military presence in Afghanistan, but a punitive raid. The idea of such a raid is to hit the enemy as hard and as quickly as possible, inflicting maximum damage in a limited amount of time, followed by an immediate withdrawal of one's forces.
Instead, our leaders failed to look into the hearts, minds and motives of our enemies, and played right into their hands. George W. Bush et al. upped the ante by engaging in nation-building. The moment Bush and his advisors started talking about making the Muslim world "safe for democracy," like some modern-day Woodrow Wilson, our effort was doomed to failure. Not for nothing is Afghanistan called "the graveyard of empires." Every day we stay in that third-world backwater plays right into the hands of our enemies. This is especially true now that it is plain that our forces aren't being allowed to fight to win by the present administration.
The Second World War was the last unambiguous victory won by the United States in a major war, and also the last declared war fought with the advice and consent of Congress. Since the Vietnam era, America's political/military elites increasingly have indulged in politically-correct notions about the nature of war that are, frankly, utter nonsense. America's fighting forces are tactically and operationally superb, but as history shows, excellence at this level is insufficient to win wars; a nation must have a coherent and attainable grand strategy to have any hope of triumph - and we do not have one. In the decade since the 9-11 attacks, no American leader - of either party (with the exception of Allen West) - has had the moral and political courage to publicly describe the enemy we are fighting in plain, unambiguous language, and no senior general/admiral has been able to set forth a coherent, attainable plan for the waging and winning of the war in Afghanistan. Indeed, as one commentator aptly put it, the war has become the ultimate "Trillion Dollar Bridge to Nowhere."
How can you possibly win a war you won't even acknowledge you are fighting, against an enemy you refuse to name, using a strategy build upon flawed assumptions and an inaccurate view of reality? The answer, of course, is that it cannot be done.
In World War One, General Sir Douglas Haig sent hundreds of thousands of British "Tommies" across "No Man's Land" and into German machine-gun fire, because he and other senior officers were too stubborn and prideful to face the new realities of war. Haig was promoted to Field Marshall and received a peerage, while ordinary soldiers died for his stupidity. It was said in the press that the British soldier was "... a lion led by asses." Today, the American soldier is in much the same dilemma as his British forbearer in the mud of Flanders. He is risking his life fighting for ill-defined goals in an undeclared war - by leaders who care little how his life is spent or how much he suffers. These same leaders, political and military alike, no longer seem to possess the knowledge or will power to win wars, and seem to regard the whole enterprise as some sort of game to be waged for their personal aggrandizement.
Our country fought and won World War Two in under five years. That conflict spanned the globe, and demanded a unified effort from the entire nation as well as the Allied coalition of which we were a part. Afghanistan has taken more than twice that long and we have virtually nothing permanent to show for the effort. Nation-building has been a monumental failure. Western culture and civil society cannot be transplanted intact into the Islamic world; over the centuries these things grew and developed in the soil of Judeo-Christian western civilization. Expecting them to take root in the harsh soil of the Islamic world, which has no comparable traditions or values, was/is naïve and foolhardy. If we are to engage in nation-building, we should be doing it one place and one place alone - right here in these United States, where our infrastructure and industrial base are decaying and in disrepair and millions of our fellow citizens cannot find jobs.
The long twilight struggle against Islam and our other foes will continue, but its center of gravity no longer lies in Afghanistan.
We owe it to the fallen to demand that our leaders win the wars in which our soldiers are fighting. If our leaders cannot or will not devise a strategy to that end, then we should demand our involvement in Afghanistan cease immediately. Either find a way to win, or bring the troops home.
Peter Farmer is a historian and commentator on national security, geopolitics and public policy issues. He has done original research on wartime resistance movements in WWII Europe, and has delivered seminars on such subjects as political violence and terrorism, the evolution of conflict, combat medicine, and related subjects. Mr. Farmer is also a scientist and a medic.