Conquerors immemorial have known that the secret to successful occupations is to let the guys who surrender stay in charge of the yokels. We are presently bogged down in two quagmires because we haven’t learned that lesson.
Iraq’s government and security forces are incompetent and corrupt, the Kurdish situation remains unresolved, and nobody seems confident that the country will ever be able to function as an independent state again. Oh, for the good old days under Saddam Hussein! Whatever you want to say about the son of a sand dune, he didn’t need a field manual to figure out how to run his country. Neither did Mohammed Omar’s Taliban need a book on how to run Afghanistan. They have lived in the neighborhood for a very long time.
Decapitating regimes through military force is the most foolhardy of foreign-policy acts. The Prussians discovered this the hard way in the Franco- Prussian War. They defeated the French Army at Sedan and took Napoleon III prisoner along with 140,000 of his soldiers. But the war dragged on for months because the French formed a new government and a new army and kept fighting. They didn’t like the idea of Germans occupying their country. Imagine that.
Few military victories have been more stunning than the fall of Baghdad during Operation Iraqi Freedom, but the fighting continues almost seven years later. We supposedly ousted the Taliban from Afghanistan eight years ago, and we’re still trying to oust them. We’d be better off by far if we had never invaded either but worked instead with the power structures already in place. As Tip O’Neill said, “All politics is local.”
Now we can’t bring Hussein back, and whether Nouri al-Maliki can manage to hold Iraq together remains to be seen. We may yet end up with the three-state solution that Joe Biden proposed in 2006. But whatever falls out, it will only work if we back away. We will never understand Iraq.
Nor will we ever comprehend the political and social complexities of Afghanistan. As is true in most countries engaged in a guerrilla-style civil war, it’s impossible to tell the civilians and insurgents apart. Which Taliban are we fighting? There seem to be quite a few. What about the other outfits like Hizb-e-Islami and the Haqqani network? How do the warlords figure in? The tribes?
If there are any good guys in Afghanistan, they aren’t part of the corrupt Karzai government that we’re propping up. As one Afghan put it, seeking justice from the regime “is like going to the wolves for help, when the wolves have stolen your sheep.” But calling the Afghan population the “center of gravity,” as our top military leaders do these days, is also a mistake. Populations may be a critical factor in foreign relations but only to the extent that they influence the real strategic center of gravity, political leadership. That’s why fictional aliens don’t step out of their spaceships and say, “Take me to your tired, your poor …”
Our success in terminating World War II was a result of leaving the political institutions of our vanquished enemies intact. Germany’s Karl Doenitz signed a piece of paper that said “Onkel” and the war in Europe was over. One of our biggest mistakes in Iraq was ousting Ba’athist leaders who knew how to keep things under control. Our biggest mistake in Afghanistan was putting Hamid Karzai in power; he clearly doesn’t know how to keep things under control. The closest thing Afghanistan has to a political leader is Omar, who was its de facto head of state from 1996 to 2001. If we ever hope to get our arms around the situation there, we’ll have to deal with him.
Making cozy with Omar will rub many in Washington the wrong way, but doing business with your enemies is what foreign policy is about: we hardly have a contemporary ally that we haven’t fought a war with at some point in our relatively short history. In Iraq, we lowered levels of violence by bribing the guys who were shooting at us. Successful conduct of foreign policy is a slutty business.
Nobody will argue that these are nice men. Hussein did horrible things to his own people, and Omar’s Taliban are a grim lot, but let’s face it: they’ve done less harm to their countries than we have in the process of removing them, so who is the actual bad guy? A great fallacy of our counterinsurgency doctrine is the notion that we can win the hearts and minds of whatever freedom-loving people we happen to be blowing to smithereens.
An even greater delusion is that we actually do counterinsurgency. We don’t counter insurgents; we are the insurgents. We’re the ones who remove existing governments. We’re the ones who prop up puppets. The people we call insurgents are trying to take their countries back from us.
We’ve spent the last eight years proving that history’s mightiest nation can’t fix the world’s problems at gunpoint. We can do things to encourage good behavior and discourage bad, but we can’t have our way all the time. We need to develop a sense of tolerance—and we can afford to. Jingoistic slogans to the contrary, the oceans protect Barack Obama’s America just as they protected George Washington’s. Nobody has the resources to invade and occupy us. Nobody ever will.
And despots tend to bring about their own demises. Libya’s Mohammar Khadafi has become a farcical gasbag. Saddam was already a toothless tinhorn when we invaded. The best way to cope with Kim Jong Il is to stop paying attention to him. He doesn’t have a pot to cook in. Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a jackdaw with a penchant for the taste of his foot, but he’s not the real power in Iran: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is the country’s supreme leader. Hugo Chavez isn’t worth glaring at. No one can compete with us militarily, and the world’s economy would collapse without us. Terrorism has become the weapon of choice against us, but it is best combated through policing and non-military political means.
We have two choices in Afghanistan. We can mount an enormous counterinsurgency operation and allow the effort to drain us like it drained Britain and Russia, or we can let cooperative elements of the Taliban share power in their country. That may lead to Omar becoming head of state again, but so what? Nobody thinks Karzai is worth a handkerchief-load, and we know he hasn’t been legally elected.
What about al-Qaeda? National Security Adviser James Jones says the group is down to fewer than 100 fighters according to the “maximum estimate,” and Gen. Stanley McChrystal admits that he sees little sign of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Why would we want to occupy an entire country for the sake of tracking down 100 terrorists who aren’t there?
We might be able to coax a strongman like Omar into playing ball with us on al-Qaeda. If he doesn’t, we have other alternatives. Our surveillance and airpower are sufficient to ensure that al-Qaeda doesn’t rebuild its infrastructure, and our internal security is significantly improved since 9/11. The Department of Homeland Security is nobody’s idea of a great government institution, but we have a focus on countering terrorism within our borders that did not exist eight years ago. Today, nobody swimming in the alphabet soup—NORTHCOM, NCIS, NORAD, CIA, FBI, USCG, etc.—wants to be the sorry slob responsible for letting another terror attack take place.
There’s a reasonable fear that if we let the Omars of this world take over their countries we’ll eventually create another Hitler, but the real Hitler kicked off World War II with the world’s best army. None of these little Hitlers will ever challenge our military superiority. So the question becomes how much military we need to keep them from becoming too annoying.
Half the force we now have would still be overwhelming. The key to effective use of that much power is to use it sparingly. But we have yet to find a cure for our perverse tendency to molest the world or to understand that the mother of our intervention is not necessity. After World War II, the size and shape of our arsenal kept a general war from breaking out between us and the Soviets, but when we committed ourselves to small Third World wars, we didn’t do so hot.
No one will take us on in a symmetric military confrontation now. We’re hanging on to a high-dollar force so that we don’t have to use it. That’s fine—to an extent. Our military can serve a vital function as a force in being, one that extends a controlling influence without actually deploying and fighting. But using it to depose tinhorn strongmen like Hussein and Omar is an errand for fools, as we have so foolishly proven.
Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (retired), writes at Pen and Sword and is the author of Bathtub Admirals, a lampoon on America’s rise to global dominance.
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