Early in World War II, as the Japanese were closing in on the Philippines, US President Franklin Roosevelt ordered General Douglas MacArthur, the legendary commander of American forces in the Pacific, to leave the islands. MacArthur, who had earlier rebuffed that suggestion, was forced to leave. As he left, he announced, “I shall return.” Two years later, MacArthur returned, victorious, and went on to conquer Japan itself. He later declared that “there was no substitute for victory”.
The five-star general was from a different age – the Americans who hadn’t lost a single war. There was pride in their ranks. Even when facing D-Day, the greatest battle in the history of war, an American general could say, “I pity the SOBs we are going up against!”
But those days are gone. The US has only won one out of five major wars it fought since WW2 – the Gulf War. Somehow, the Americans have lost the art of winning wars.
So, why is the most powerful nation in history losing wars? A brief review of what occurred in Afghanistan, where the Americans have ignominiously exited as the Soviets did three decades ago, will be instructive.
The war in Afghanistan started when Osama bin Laden, using Al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan, masterminded the 9/11 attacks on the US in which about 3,000 people died. When the Taliban refused to expatriate Osama bin Laden, the Americans invaded Afghanistan.
Unlike many in our region, I think the Americans had perfect justification for war. Lest we forget, those are the same bastards who attacked Dar es Salaam and Nairobi in 1998, killing hundreds of people. They had it coming.
Within two months, the Taliban were inevitably toppled. They retreated to the southwest, and inside Pakistan from where they waged a protracted guerrilla war. That is where things started to go wrong for the Americans.
The Taliban had learned from Vietnam that the US didn’t have the resolve to withstand a long-drawn-out war. Therefore, they bided their time, and launched suicide attacks to frustrate them. It worked – the war reached a stalemate, leading some to argue that Afghanistan was a no-win war.
So, as the Americans exited, the Taliban gleefully moved in to fill the void. They now claim that they control up to 80 percent of Afghanistan. That’s possibly an overstatement, but it clearly highlights the magnitude of the US’ failure.
In my opinion, this war was winnable. We should remember that the Americans always managed to achieve their short-term objectives – they overthrew the Taliban and, in Obama’s troop surge, they routed the Taliban in their very strongholds. But when it came to long-term objectives, they failed miserably. As a result, they squandered a golden opportunity to deal a deadly blow to jihadism. So, what went wrong?
One, they were conflicted in their intentions. While their stated objective was to stop Afghanistan being used as a terrorist base, they were not clear what kind of terrorism they were targeting, and how to end that.
Long before the invasion, Afghanistan was a jihadist paradise. Men went to Afghanistan, became battle hardened, then exported jihadism elsewhere. The multinational group of jihadists who carried out the massive 1993 World Trade Center bombing were also graduates of this jihadist academy.
That cycle had to be ended. The message should have been clear – if you come to Afghanistan, you will inevitably die here. That way, the Americans would have made the world safer by taking out the riffraff. There shouldn’t have been a safe haven. But the Americans allowed too many of those, giving the Taliban opportunities to regroup.
Two, the Americans have been involved in many frivolous wars since WW2. As a result, they have become overextended and war-weary. Hence, with the stakes usually too low, they pretend to fight without fighting – dropping MOABs and using drones here and there, but only a few casualties are enough to send them into panic mode. As a result, they don’t win decisively enough to deter future enemies from encroaching on their interests.
Think of the Iraq War. While it kept distracting the US from focusing on the real war in Afghanistan, it was completely pointless. It is difficult to motivate people to die for a pointless war. That’s why you send as minimal a number of soldiers as possible.
In Afghanistan, NATO deployed only 100,000 troops. If a troop surge of only 40,000 brought about a dramatic change, what if a proper force had been mobilised? The Taliban’s backbone would have been broken for good. Contrast that with WW2 where the allies were ready to deploy close to 2 million troops to Japan! That was a real war.
Three, America’s preoccupation with being nice. There was much talk of winning hearts and minds, even at the expense of the objectives of war. The Americans sank as low as striking a deal with the Taliban! This is the group that had terrorised the Afghan people, doing exactly what ISIS did in the Levant. What do you talk to them about? Whether they will keep you as pets or not?
Political correctness made the Americans fail even to identify jihadism as the ideology it was fighting against and expose it intellectually. As a result, just as the Americans were spending billions to rebuild Afghanistan, future jihadists were being trained in that same country!
Wars are nasty, and should be avoided by all means. However, when the use of force becomes inevitable, the force must be overwhelming to guarantee comprehensive victory. The Americans are failing by forgetting the first principles – that war is a life and death matter. They shouldn’t start wars if they aren’t ready to end them.