When generals in a democracy say “we are losing the war,” it tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Whether true or not, such pronouncements inevitably become powerful psychological weapons in the hands of our enemies, and are thus better left unsaid, at least in public. Our military caste somehow manages to remain ignorant of such elementary aspects of modern asymmetric warfare. At the highest levels, our system tends to produce military commanders who are highly competent in doing what they’ve been trained to do, but lack the imagination and originality necessary to deal with the unexpected. Occasionally, genius is indispensable, but one would search in vain for a Napoleon or an Alexander among our generals. Instead, we produce Westmorelands and McChrystals. As the comment above would seem to demonstrate, we also produce political imbeciles who have somehow concluded that we can turn the situation around by throwing gasoline on the smoldering fires of defeatism.
The result is as inevitable as it was predictable. One detects an increasing stench of defeatism in the media, not only from its usual sources on the left, but from the right as well. For example, today CNN treats us to the umpteen billionth “ghost of Vietnam” story to appear since our troops went into combat. No doubt they’re preening themselves on their originality. USA Today joins the crowd in reporting on the resignation of Matthew Hoh from the State Department, with the usual highlighting of such weepy remarks as “”I have lost understanding of and confidence in the strategic purposes of the United States’ presence in Afghanistan.” Great job, Matthew! That’s bound to get us back on the right track. ABC News chimes in with more judiciously chosen quotes from Hoh’s letter, such as, “To put simply, I fail to see the value or the worth in the continued U.S. casualties or expenditures of resources in support of the Afghan government in what is, truly, a 35-year-old civil war,” Ah, yes, the “civil war” meme. That old chestnut is sure to please traditionalists. Look at the web pages of the Wall Street Journal, Foxnews, the Washington Times, etc., and you’ll find the same stories spun in almost the same way. Apparently defeat in Afghanistan is as palatable to the right as it is to the left if only it discredits Obama.
Say what you will about George W. Bush, he was unmoved by the ebb and flow of defeatist propaganda during his administration. He really did “stay the course,” in spite of the derisive remarks of the usual know-it-alls. As a result, the Iraqi people have at least a fighting chance of avoiding a slide back into dictatorship or theocracy. He was no philosopher king, but at least he was made of sterner stuff than Obama. The President appears more inclined to apologize to our enemies than fight them, and he is likely casting about for some graceful way to skedaddle in Afghanistan even as we speak. The increasingly shrill tone of defeatist propaganda will make it easier for him.
Well, what of it? As noted above, these developments were abundantly predictable and, given the limitations of our military leadership, probably inevitable. Is there a lesson here? Not really, other than the one that we should have learned a long time ago; modern democracies are anything but steadfast in fighting determined insurgents, particularly if their populations are as fickle and spineless as the current citizens of the United States. If we send in the troops, we should do so only with a well considered plan to get them back out again, and that with alacrity, before the famously insubstantial national backbone once again turns to jelly. In retrospect, the remarks of our much abused former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, sound remarkably prescient. For example, from a speech delivered in February, 2003:
Afghanistan belongs to the Afghans. The objective is not to engage in what some call nation building. Rather it’s to try to help the Afghans so that they can build their own nation. This is an important distinction. In some nation building exercises well-intentioned foreigners arrive on the scene, look at the problems and say let’s fix it. This is well motivated to be sure, but it can really be a disservice in some instances because when foreigners come in with international solutions to local problems, if not very careful they can create a dependency.
A long-term foreign presence in a country can be unnatural. This has happened in several places with large foreign presence. The economies remained unreformed and distorted to some extent. Educated young people can make more money as drivers for foreign workers than as doctors and civil servants. Despite good intentions and the fine work of humanitarian workers individually, there can be unintended adverse side effects.
Our goal in Afghanistan is to try and not create a culture of dependence but rather to promote [inaudible]. Long-term stability comes not from the presence of foreign forces but from the development of functioning local institutions. That’s why in the area of security we have been helping to train for example the Afghan National Army. Our coalition partners have been training the police. And the goal is so that Afghans over time can take full responsibility for their own security and stability rather than having to depend on foreign forces versus for a sustained period.
When Rumsfeld was in office, an abundance of geniuses appeared who assured us they knew how to do his job much better than he did. In retrospect, we probably should have ignored the geniuses and paid more attention to him. The next time we feel the yen to embark on another military adventure, we should reflect on the fact that some of the biggest cheerleaders for such projects in the recent past became hand-wringing, hysterical defeatists a disconcertingly short time after the troops were actually on the ground. We will surely have an abundance of such heroes to “help” us the next time around as well. Before we commit our forces to another ill-considered war, we’d do well to recall that there are legions of Matthew Hohs in our midst, useful idiots who are adept at persuading themselves that collaboration with the enemy is both a noble moral good and a patriotic duty. They will always be with us, and they will always make the cost of victory higher the longer our troops are engaged.
UPDATE: I take it from John McCain’s cry in the dark that he has also noticed that the water is up to our chin and climbing. Of course, he’s right. We can win in Afghanistan. The enemy is much less formidable than he was in Vietnam. It’s a matter of national will. In fact, that’s just the problem.