Afghanistan really is another Vietnam …

After nearly 20 years, four presidential administrations, and thousands of deaths, the United States armed forces precipitated a departure from Afghanistan, marking one of the most significant foreign policy disasters in American history.  Why was this such a disaster?  Because the Taliban, whom the United States removed from power in 2001, reclaimed authority over Afghanistan with little resistance from the American trained and equipped Afghani military forces.  The United States invested nearly $1 trillion and thousands of lives only to see the pre-war status quo return.  

Why did America send forces to Afghanistan?  

American foreign policy in the Middle East radically changed after the events of September 11th, and the immediate objective of President George W. Bush became the elimination of al-Qaeda and the capture or kill of its leader, Osama bin Laden.  The Bush administration immediately clarified to the world that no distinction would be made between terrorists and those who harbored terrorists.

Bin Laden and al-Qaeda had been hiding out in Afghanistan for years at that point, and of course,  conducting a number of terrorist attacks against the United States.  For a variety of reasons, the ruling members of the Taliban refused to turn over bin Laden and his followers to the United States.  The Bush administration and the American people were in no mood to negotiate, thus the American mission included not only eliminating al-Qaeda, but removing the Taliban from power.

In its mission, the United States incorporated the Northern Alliance (an amalgam of Afghani rebel groups), Great Britain, Germany, Italy, Australia, and Canada.  In the first two years of this war, this coalition effectively removed the Taliban and dispersed al-Qaeda.  The time since then included a great deal of counterinsurgency work, slowing stamping out the remnants of these groups.  The coalition has been very effective in killing the enemy, holding cities, and occupying territory.  However, the United States could not stay in these towns forever, nor could they eliminate every member of these groups.  Despite 20 years of fighting, the Taliban always held certain regions of Afghanistan and maintained a sizable base of support from the people.

What mistakes were made in this war?

Sadly, this war was doomed to failure from its inception because the United States did not learn its lessons from the Vietnam War.  

The United States chose the wrong objectives.  After the attacks on September 11th, the United States would settle for nothing less than direct military action to apprehend or eliminate responsible parties.  In seeking justice for those attacks, they made the mistake of attempting regime change in Afghanistan, a nation with a history as the ‘graveyard of empires’ (see: Soviet-Afghan War).  

No, the Taliban would not willingly give up bin Laden or his al-Qaeda followers, but would it not have been possible to send American forces into Afghanistan with the mission of attacking terrorist bases and ignoring Taliban forces unless they attempted to disrupt the American mission?  This type of military action would allow Americans to pursue and eliminate its enemy while refusing to engage in a long term project of overhauling a nation’s political and governmental system.  

The objectives chosen by the Bush administration sent the United States into almost a virtually endless conflict because it not only declared war on terrorism, but did not distinguish between terrorists and those who harbored them.  A war on terrorism is a war on an idea, and there will always be terrorists in the world.  The United States cannot police the entire world.  Simply put, America spread itself too thin.  This problem became more salient after the start of the Second Gulf War in 2002.

In Vietnam, the United States also chose poor objectives.  Rather than focusing on helping a poor nation victimized by imperialism, the United States was concerned about the spread of communism and stopping it at all costs.  The country was too afraid to lose a proxy war to the Soviet Union and this guided their intervention in a nation they had long ignored.

Regime change doesn’t work without wholesale support from the people.  After the Allied victory in World War II, the United States had tremendous success in its occupation and rebuilding of several nations.  In Europe, American forces established a strong military presence in both Germany and Italy.  In Japan, the United States solely took control and took a firm position in South Korea.  American influence undoubtedly affected these nations and the establishment of new governments in the post-World War II era.  American cultural imprints are still visible today in these places.  So, why has the United States failed to repeat these successes?  

In the cases of Germany and Italy, their nations and societies were not radically different from American culture.  A common Western cultural vibe translated to an easy transition away from the ugliness of fascism.  Also, these nations needed the help of the United States to push back against the aggression of the Soviet Union.  They wanted an American presence far more than they wanted a Soviet presence.

There is a similar truth in Japan and Korea.  Though these Asian nations were not akin to the Westerners in culture, they did have the problem of the Soviet Union looming over them.  In fact, many historians now believe Japan surrendered to the United States not because of the atomic bombs, but out of a fear of the Soviet Union moving its forces from Europe to assist the United States in the Pacific.  Surrendering to the United States would garner much more favorable terms after the war than surrendering to the Red Army.  Moreover, surrendering to a ‘miracle weapon’ like the atomic bomb would allow Japan to maintain some sense of honor in defeat. 

In both Vietnam and Afghanistan, regime change didn’t work because the people were never unified behind it.  In the case of Vietnam, the United States failed to understand that vast majority of people saw them as the next iteration of colonizers who would pick up where France left off.  The American government propped up weak and corrupt administrations in South Vietnam and Afghanistan which neither controlled the entirety nor had the support of their people.  

It’s also fair to characterize the situations in Vietnam and Afghanistan as internal struggles, rather than external problems of Europe, which sought to protect Western nations.  The divisiveness in Vietnam and Afghanistan meant a unified nation needed for genuine change probably wasn’t going to happen. 

The United States never learned that more troops, more money, and more bombs cannot always win a war.  Groups like the Viet Cong, or the Taliban, are true believers in their cause.  They fight for different reasons than an invading army, and as such, they are willing to lose large numbers of men to achieve their objective.  In Vietnam, the United States killed the enemy at a ratio of nearly 20 to 1.   The ratio is somewhat similar for the 20 years the United States has operated in Afghanistan.  

Don’t let anyone fool you into thinking the United States military isn’t capable of winning a war in the sense of achieving tactical objectives.  The American armed forces clear villages, find and eliminate enemy combatants, and do so with stunning efficiency.  This does not mean the military always wins a war.  An army can achieve its tactical objectives without achieving its strategic objectives.  The enemy in both Vietnam and Afghanistan demonstrated they would continue fighting regardless of the losses.  In the two decades of this war, American troop losses were at 2,442.  Consider the length of time and the losses inflicted on the Taliban, this is a small number.  (Losses in Vietnam were close to 60,000.) Unless the United States killed every last man in the Taliban, they were not going to achieve the victory they sought.  Just like in Vietnam,  citizens were eventually wondering why we were there and if the cost in dollars and human life was worth it.  

No one established a clear exit strategy.  Despite two decades to plan a real exit strategy, four presidents failed to establish one.  Government officials never wanted to create a deadline for leaving, believing it would only encourage the Taliban and other terrorist groups to hold out until American forces left the country.  The policy of multiple presidential administrations was to stay until the military completed its task. 

Unfortunately, the propped up government in Afghanistan (and previously in South Vietnam) relied too heavily on American armed forces as a permanent crutch, one which would never leave until the job was done.  American support in terms of personnel, military hardware, and money seemed like a never-ending spigot which the democratic Afghani government never was too interested in turning off.  President Joe Biden remarked this past week that one more year, or five more years would not make a difference in achieving this objective.  Much like in a game of poker, it’s time to fold the hand when you realize it cannot win.  Yes, you put a lot of money into the pot, but there’s no use in throwing away more resources at a losing proposition.  

Eventually, the American government treated the situation in Afghanistan like Vietnam.  We would leave when the Afghan military could stand on their own and slowly draw down our number.  In the 1970s, President Richard Nixon called it ‘Vietnamization.’  No one created a clever name for it this time, but it’s the same terrible plan — which is no plan at all.

Does the Taliban represent a threat to the United States?  

Yes, and no.  In the traditional military sense, the Taliban has a fighting force of somewhere in the neighborhood of 70,000 men.  The quick fall of the new Afghani government meant that quite a bit of the military hardware provided by the American armed forces haas now fallen into the hands of the Taliban.  Of course no one wants modern military equipment to fall into the hands of some bad people, but the Taliban, as a ruling entity of Afghanistan, is not going to attack the United States.  

The concern Americans should have about the Taliban is the same concern from 20 years ago.  The Taliban provides safe haven to terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, where they can operate training camps and conduct planning for attacks against the United States and its allies.  

Also, we should have a serious concern for the individuals left behind in Afghanistan.  In the absence of the Taliban, women gained significant measures of freedom and equality.  Now, the radically strict Sharia Law implemented by the Taliban threatens those gains.  Afghanis who assisted the American military as interpreters, informants, or soldiers face retribution for their actions.  These individuals are so concerned about Taliban rule that they swarmed American airplanes leaving the country and were clinging to the landing gear of aircraft as they took off.  People literally fell to their death rather than live under Taliban rule again. 

Who bears the blame for this disaster?  

Four presidents bear the blame for the policies which led to a terrible result in Afghanistan.  President George W. Bush initiated these policies, established poor objectives, and left future presidents in a situation where ending the war would be unpopular.  Bush created a broad based conflict when a more precise objective was needed.

President Barack Obama followed a sad pattern of increasing American personnel in the region and failing to follow through on timetables at removing troops after these troop surges.

President Donald Trump initiated peace talks with the Taliban during his tenure, and created a deadline for May 2021 for American withdrawal from Afghanistan. 

Now, current President Joe Biden oversaw a withdrawal of American troops which appears haphazard, at best.  Incidentally, the failure of the Afghan military to put up a fight against the Taliban reflects poorly on America as a whole.  However, Biden is the current occupant of the White House, and the buck stops there.  Success or failure rests on him. 

The American people must also take on some of the blame. For years, we supported a broad based war that presidential administrations and Congresses carried on without any real exit strategy. Armed conflicts need definitive, measurable objectives so that we may apply pressure to our government if they do not achieve those goals or if they do achieve them and do not return the military home.

We now must swallow the bitter pill of failure.  Biden did what other presidents probably wanted to do.  He abandoned a foreign policy which wasn’t working.  America’s national interests in Afghanistan could not be sustained without a near permanent military presence.  Neither Biden nor any successive presidents could justify sending more Americans into harm’s way.

Citizens in the United States have rightfully expressed concern about a potential humanitarian crisis we are leaving behind.  Yet, there are humanitarian crises all over the world where we have no military forces.  Do we not also care about those people?  The United States cannot solve every problem of the world.  Attempts to do so continually undermine our credibility when there is a vital interest where American force is warranted.  

Genocide: Never Say ‘Never Again’

Man’s inhumanity to man 

Makes countless thousands mourn! 

— Robert Burns

Never again.  This phrase of renown has echoed through the last 75 years of history.  After the insidious actions perpetrated by the Nazi government in Germany, the refrain of ‘never again’ echoed throughout the world.  

Years of appeasement by the powerful nations of the world allowed Hitler and the Nazis to accumulate such power that they were able to establish and implement a systematic method for exterminating an entire race of people.  The deaths of millions of Jews in concentration camps shocked the world.  

The subsequent Nuremberg Trials represent one of the most significant actions towards human rights in the post-World War II era.  The winning side of the war, the Allied Powers, established accountability for how a government treated human beings.  In 1948, the United Nations created the Universal Declaration of Human Rights whereby nations recognized the inherent rights of human beings.  The UDHR, however, was a declaration, and not a binding document according to international law.  

Decades later, the United Nations created the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.  The treaty recognizes that citizens of signatory nations will receive fundamental rights, including freedom of speech, freedom from torture and slavery, due process, self-determination, equal protection under the law, and the inherent right to life.

In addition to these measures, the UN General Assembly approved Resolution 260 (in 1948), written by the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.  The UN resolution defined genocide and established punishments for this crime.

The United Nations and the international community created policies and a rallying cry for never allowing genocide to happen again, but it has failed miserably in preventing genocide.  The nations of the world either lack the power or the wherewithal to act on behalf of people who cannot help themselves.  

The late 20th century 

In 1988, then dictator Saddam Hussein ordered commander (and cousin) Ali Hassan al-Majid to utilize military power to destroy the Kurdish population living in Iraq.  Al-Majid had settlements destroyed, inhabitants deported or shot, and other regions poisoned with chemical weapons.  By the fall of that year, most of the Kurdish population had been driven away, killed, or otherwise driven underground.  Hussein’s forces only relented because they believed they had eliminated enough of the male Kurdish population to prevent the group from resisting Hussein’s rule.  The Iraqi military destroyed more than 4,000 villages, nearly 2,000 schools, hundreds of hospitals and clinics, along with numerous mosques and Christian churches.  Human rights groups believed at least 50,000 people died in concentration camps, however the number may as high as 182,000.  

Hussein and al-Majid eventually paid for their crimes, but not because of the international community’s actions.  The Iraqi dictator and the members of the Ba’ath Party were executed after the American-led Second Gulf War in 2003.  Until the ‘regime change’ in Iraq, the international community seemed to have no problem in letting the actions of Hussein go unpunished.

In 1994, the small African nation of Rwanda was embroiled in the a civil war between the majority Hutu group, and the ethnic minority known as the Tutsi.  The Hutus perpetrated acts of violence against the Tutsi that left nearly 800,000 dead while over 500,000 women were raped, all in the span of a few months.  

Remains from mass graves in Rwanda

The Rwandan genocide was particularly disturbing in its speed and brutality, where Rwandan military personnel hacked people to death with machetes and forced civilian Hutus to participate in the killing, offering the Hutus additional food or money to kill Tutsis.  The violence was so severe that mass graves are still being found.

During the genocide, the United Nations authorized a peace keeping force to maintain some actions, but the mission itself was limited in its scope and by the time it received the necessary authority to take real action, the genocide ended when the Hutu backed government collapsed.  Decades later, and very few perpetrators have been tried, let alone convicted and punished.

In the 21st century, we have seen a continued genocide in the Sudan, where state sponsored militias harass, forcibly relocate, rape, and kill villagers in the Darfur region.  The government in the Sudan responded to violence in Darfur with military force and arming multiple paramilitary groups, which escalated into a genocide against the inhabitants of Darfur.

The nationalistic makeup of the nation, ethnic differences, and religious diversity also made various people targets of various militia groups.  Accounts vary about the number of deaths, but most experts put the number at near 500,000 with countless more victims of various forms of violence.  The descriptions of the use of rape as a means of ‘ethnic cleansing’ are deeply disturbing. 

Former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has been convicted on corruption charges and currently awaits trial for crimes associated with genocide.

The violence in the Sudan has not stopped and now, neighboring Ethiopia is experiencing a similar wave of genocide in the Tigray Region, where the native Tigray people face the same horrible violence the world continues to ignore. 

Ongoing genocide 

In 2011, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad faced widespread criticism for economic woes, widespread unemployment, corruption, and a host of other problems (brought on by his own ineptitude).  Assad responded to large scale demonstrations with a violent crackdown, sparking a civil war which is considered ongoing.

Assad’s regime represents a minority rule in Syria, and the opponents of this government largely come from the majority Sunni Muslims living in the area.  In the last 10 years, the Syrian military has engaged in systematic killing of civilians who did not take up arms in the civil war.  

Syrian refugee resettlement

The reports of violence against civilians reads like so many of the other genocides the world has seen:  forced relocation, unlawful detentions, rape, and summary executions.  The Assad government also used sarin gas on innocent civilians, which prompted the infamous ‘red line’ from the Obama administration and former Secretary of State John Kerry.  For a very brief moment, it seemed that Western intervention might be a possibility, but Assad sidestepped that disaster by promising not to use chemical weapons again.  He didn’t cross the ‘red line,’ and seemed content to kill people through conventional weapons.

Though the US backed the Syrian rebels, it lacked the strength of a more direct involvement and the Assad regime has reestablished control of most of Syria.  Moreover, the suffering of the Syrian people has not ended.  More than 500,000 Syrians have died and millions more were displaced in a refugee crisis that saddled Turkey with 3.6 million (of the 6.7 million) people they lack the means to help.  (Incidentally, Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands were the only Western nations to step up in any significant way.)

China currently is in the midst of a genocide against the Uyghur people in the Xinjiang province.  The Uyghur people are one of the 55 recognized ethnic minorities in China, and they are a Turkic people with a predominantly Muslim religious background.

Fears of extremism caused the Chinese government to take drastic measures against the Uyghur population in Xinjiang.  Police surveillance looked for ‘signs of extremism,’ such as men growing beards, or abstaining from alcohol.  These individuals were targeted and later, placed in detention centers where ‘reeducation’ occurs.  

In these camps, the Uyghur people are forced to sing songs praising Chinese communist government, learn the Chinese language, write self-critical essays, and other strategies designed to eliminate Uyghur culture and religion.  Attempts at resistance by detainees have been met with verbal and physical abuse.

Demonstrators take part in a protest outside the Chinese embassy in Berlin to call attention to China’s mistreatment of members of the Uyghur community i.

Beatings with metal prods or whips have been described as common.  Prisoners have received electric shocks.  Doctors forcibly placed IUDs in women to prevent pregnancy and injected them with various medications that would halt or significantly alter their menstrual cycles.  Forced abortions, rapes, and deaths have been commonly reported by those who have escaped from their captors.  Human rights groups estimate that around 2 million Uyghurs are living in concentration camps.  A current report of the crimes of the Chinese government can be found here.  There is no doubt of the Chinese government’s intent to destroy these people and stamp out their cultural presence.

What’s the international community doing?

The United States, Great Britain and other allies in Western Europe have called out the Chinese government for their actions through the UN’s Human Rights Council, but it appears unlikely that any direction action will come from the UN, considering that China is a permanent member of the UN Security Council and could veto any serious resolution against it.  The likelihood of the General Assembly acting in any significant way seems equally unlikely.  

Newly minted Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other American diplomats have strong words for the Chinese about their persecution of the Uyghurs, but the matter has already complicated talks between the two major powers of the world.  Blinken and his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi, exchanged not so pleasant words in Anchorage, Alaska last week.

The meetings between the United States and China opened in a spicy exchange, where Yang noted the US needed to stop attempting to force democracy on nations when Americans don’t have much confidence in it.  He also claimed the US was the ‘champion’ of cyber attacks and critiqued the history of human rights in America.

Blinken responded, “That system [rules based diplomacy] is not an abstraction. It helps countries resolve differences peacefully, coordinate multilateral efforts effectively and participate in global commerce with the assurance that everyone is following the same rules. The alternative to a rules-based order is a world in which might makes right and winners take all.  And that would be a far more violent and unstable world for all of us.” 

In terms of diplomacy, these are strong words from both sides for an opening day salvo.  Diplomacy is a significant means of conducting business, but while the United States and other nations attempt to push China off of its current course, people are suffering in Xinjiang.  

The common theme amongst these genocides is that the world can act in a punitive fashion after the damage is done, but we are not preventing genocide.  The phrase ‘never again’ seems pretty hollow when we consider that these terrible acts have long been known to the world.  

International activity in combatting genocide responds too slowly, and the situation will not change any time soon.  Why not?

Effective deterrents do not exist.  In past instances where political leaders faced trial or some form of accountability, their comeuppance did not happen until many years after the fact, if at all.     Moreover, if anyone is held accountable, it’s often not the rank and file of a political, military, or paramilitary group who engage in the violence.   When people know they will not face accountability for their actions, they will commit evil acts of violence.

There are no incentives to intervene.  The instability and death from these genocides often takes place in lesser developed nations where more advanced nations lack any motivation to act.  Any nation must justify a military response to their own people, and these nations have decided that it’s simply not worth it to put their armed forces in harm’s way.  For many nations, they lack the personnel to even risk an intervention.  The only way to sell this to the citizens of a nation is to appeal to their humanity.  It isn’t working.

For instance, imagine being an American diplomat in the 1990s, attempting to sell the American people on the idea of intervening in Rwanda.  Citizens in more developed nations like the United States look at the economic decision making involved and decide the risk is greater than the reward.

Regional powers often prevent action.  Major powers within regions of the world often benefit from the political turmoil which results from a genocide.  For instance, the madness of the Syrian Civil War benefited Russia.  The Syrian government purchased arms from the Russians and allowed their comrades to maintain a military base within their borders.  Russia had no reason to want to see Bashar al-Assad removed from office.  It was also a tangential benefit that maintaining Assad’s government thwarted a policy goal of the United States.  

In cases such as the persecution of the Uyghur people, China is the regional power.  Their military strength, economic potency, and permanent seat on the UN Security Council make it unlikely anyone involved in their genocidal actions will answer for their crimes.  

Poor policy choices from the past.  Intervention by the major powers of the world might happen if so many poor interventions had not occurred in the past.  For instance, the United States’ actions in invading Iraq in 2003 proved to be a foreign policy mistake that tarnished our reputation and used up any political capital.  The false pretenses which led to the invasion and subsequent violence after the removal of Saddam Hussein destroyed the credibility of the American government to effectively intervene in the future.  

Any desire to help people in need have been met with skepticism.  Policy disasters like the Second Gulf War require decades to fix, if they can be repaired at all.  In the case of the Syrian Civil War, American opposition to Assad was criticized as an excuse to once again involve itself unnecessarily in the affairs of a Middle Eastern nation.  

National sovereignty matters.  One of the important facets of any nation’s existence is their own sovereignty, the power to make and enforce their own policies without outside interference.  No nation in the world is truly willing to cede their ability to govern their own people to international law.  Despite conventions, treaties, and other resolutions designed to establish a coherent body of rules, it’s mostly lip service.  This is particularly true of major world powers such as the United States, China, Russia, Great Britain, et al.  They will not allow other nations to dictate policy to them.  Their own right to rule as they see fit trumps the opinions of the world.   

These add up to one inevitable conclusion:  the international community lacks the will to act.  And maybe, for the foreseeable future, this isn’t going to change.  Until then, we should stop the talk of ‘never again’ when it seems to be happening far too regularly.  We talk a good game about deploring genocide, but actions (and inaction) tell us everything we need to know about our priorities.