Why we let our young soldiers die in Iraq and Afghanistan
In Afghanistan and Iraq, United States forces are trying to fight a shadowy enemy that does not wear uniforms, while being told to protect corrupt governments. But here is the really disturbing parallel between the current conflicts and Vietnam: Washington is drawing out the troop presence in Afghanistan and Iraq long after any justification has expired, in order to postpone that moment when it must be admitted we did not succeed.
America won’t fail in Afghanistan or Iraq — but won’t succeed, either. Lives are being sacrificed so that American leaders can continue pretending otherwise.
A terrible price
Lack of success is different from failure. The United States military wins nearly every battle, and in Afghanistan and Iraq, most U.S. soldiers and aircrew have behaved in exemplary fashion. But the United States has not known success — we have not stopped Afghanistan and Iraq from being horrible places. Inconclusive outcomes, neither success nor failure, seem likely now. American leaders seem incapable of facing the prospect that a vast expense of blood and treasure has been directed toward an inconclusive outcome.
This is why we keep having public flare-ups on the Afghan and Iraq situations. In the most recent, former Afghanistan commander Stanley McChrystal was called to the White House and fired for speaking to a rock-and-roll magazine, while Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele is in a storm about dopey remarks he made on Afghanistan under a picnic tent. If anyone could imagine what a realistic successful conclusion of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars might be, American energies would be focused on seeking that. Instead the energy is diverted to name-calling and finger-pointing.
Allowing our soldiers to die
It is shameful to allow more of our soldiers to die so that our leaders can avoid admitting mistakes. To postpone the moment when the United States admits it did not succeed in Afghanistan and Iraq, the country’s leaders, Democrat and Republican alike, keep opting to drag out U.S. presence in these conflicts. Exactly as during the final years of Vietnam, the young are dying so that the old can postpone admitting mistakes.
Shameful, too, is the lack of concern for civilian deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq. In most cases, the killing of civilians by U.S. forces in these nations has been by error, not by intent. But to the dead it’s all the same. U.S.-caused civilian deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq are barely mentioned in American political debate . The civilians being killed by Western forces in these nations are anonymous members of strange societies that America doesn’t like, so America doesn’t care about them. Small wonder, especially in Afghanistan, that no matter how many bad guys our side kills, the following day there are more.
The invasion justifications have long since expired
In 2001, the United States was attacked by forces based in Afghanistan. America had a clear self-defense right to strike back, and nearly all the world’s nations indicated support for America’s counterattack on Afghanistan. But that was nine years ago!
Last month, CIA Director Leon Panetta said the number of al Qaeda still in Afghanistan is “relatively small — at most, we’re looking at 50 to 100, maybe less.” Tens of thousands of combat soldiers, and frequent airstrikes, cannot be justified by a search for 100 people. In order to postpone the moment when U.S. forces leave Afghanistan, Washington has redefined the mission, which is now to hunt the Taliban. The Taliban are awful people – but they are awful people who have nothing to do with the national security of the United States.
As for Iraq, it can be argued that in 2003, to depose the dictator Saddam Hussein, and destroy any Iraqi atomic weapons program, constituted legitimate grounds for the United States invasion. In a year, Saddam was captured and inspectors had learned there was no Iraqi atomic weapons program. By spring 2004, the United States had done what it set out to do in Iraq — why didn’t we just leave? Simply leaving would have been the honorable course. Six years later, we are still there.
Why are we still in Iraq and Afghanistan?
Officially the continuing U.S. presence is to stabilize the country – the real reason we stay is to postpone the sectarian bloodbath that may occur when the United States withdraws. Yet U.S. departure has always been inevitable. Whatever is going to happen in Iraq when the United States leaves, will happen when the United States leaves. Postponing that moment only raises the death toll.
In Afghanistan, U.S. forces are now staging a “counter-insurgency” campaign. What are the insurgents doing? Resisting our occupation. It’s circular: we are there to fight the people who are fighting us because we are there. The Afghanistan government may be the most corrupt on Earth; that U.S. soldiers are dying to defend a corrupt government is a horror. If we left Afghanistan, would the Taliban take over? Perhaps, and that would be a dark day.
Do we owe it to the fallen to continue?
Would leaving Afghanistan or Iraq now mean earlier sacrifices were in vain? More than 5,500 United States armed service members have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, all with the idealistic hope that these places would be improved by their sacrifice. Senator John McCain recently said the United States should commit to staying in Afghanistan indefinitely — decades if necessary — because that “would make the war more winnable and hasten the day when our troops can come home with honor.”
Senator McCain, a Vietnam veteran, knows his generation of warriors was denied its victory parade through Times Square, and other forms of recognition — there was never a moment when the Vietnam War was won, and the tickertape fell. But United States forces could have fought in Vietnam for many years more and that war never would have been “won.” That was not the fault of those who served in Vietnam, it was just the reality. What was happening in Vietnam was fundamentally political, and military organizations cannot solve political problems.
Today, regarding Iraq and Afghanistan, there is no scenario that leads to a declaration of victory and fireworks around the Statue of Liberty. That is not the fault of the United States military. Our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan already have covered themselves with honor. They have bested Saddam and routed al Qaeda, creating a chance for Iraq and Afghanistan to someday evolve into better places. Would the fallen want more U.S. soldiers to die, just so admission of the lack of a victory-celebration outcome can be postponed for another election cycle?
The choice not made
The cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts is between $1 trillion and $2 trillion, depending on factors such as long-term benefits to disabled veterans. If the United States had spent half that amount building schools and hospitals in these nations, instead of trying to identify people to shoot at, would Iraqis and Afghans today love Americans? Perhaps. At this point, the chance has been lost.
When the next time comes, let’s remember that just because the United States has the world’s greatest military — and that use of that military is manly and dramatic for presidents — does not mean sending in our armed forces is necessarily the smart move.
What the past tells us
On the day he died, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was polishing a speech he planned to deliver that week. The speech contained this remarkable line: “More than an end to war, we want… an end to this brutal, inhuman and thoroughly impractical method” of settling differences.
The key word in Roosevelt’s speech is impractical. Bombs and artillery were the only solution to the Nazi menace. But mainly, war is impractical — usually it doesn’t work. War is not working now in Afghanistan and Iraq. Why must we continue to postpone, at the cost of soldiers’ and civilians’ lives, the day on which this is admitted?