“Time in jail and time in the jihad mean nothing to us. Your watch’s battery will run down, and its hands will stop. But our time in the struggle will never end. We will win.”
– Rahman, Taliban Subcommander, quoted by Sami Yousafzai, 10 Years of Afghan War: How the Taliban Go On, Newsweek
We had a war on poverty. We had Medicare and Medicaid, Food Stamps, and the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. The latter begat the Community Action Program, the Job Corps, and VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America). We had the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. We have still, after decades’ worth of shell games, program shunting, and reorganization, some 92 major programs. We’ve spent, I am certain, adjusted for inflation, trillions… many trillions, tens of trillions.
We had a war on drugs. We made them illegal. We set law enforcement agencies across the country to combat drug use. We created new federal anti-drug agencies and programs. It has cost us, again, trillions. We’ve locked up as many as a million citizens a year over them. We’ve ruined lives. We’ve invaded at least one sovereign country. We’ve intervened in many more countries. We’ve set some countries into continuing civil war over our vice.
Lately we’ve been in a war to bring a country living in the seventh century all the way up to the late eighteenth. We wanted equal rights for females in Afghanistan. We wanted no more girls’ noses cut off, no more acid in young girls’ faces. We wanted an end to honor killings, female genital mutilation, and burqas and purdah. We wanted to stop arranged and forced child-bride marriages. We wanted to stop the extensive sex slave trade in women, girls and, yes, boys. We wanted the public beatings and executions of women to stop. We wanted literacy for all. We wanted prosperity without growing opium. We wanted democracy.2
We sent our young men and women, and those of our allies, to bleed for this. We spent our treasure and our allies’ (though mostly ours) without stint. We sent Provincial Reconstruction Teams. We sent lawyers – too many lawyers…way too many lawyers. We sent doctors and nurses. We sent police advisers. We sent engineers. We built roads and bridges, schools and clinics. We built homes and dug wells. We fed the hungry and healed the sick. (Jesus must have been proud.) We sent – by which I mean our civilization sent – feminists by the truckloads.
The seventh century won.
That’s right, forget it; we lost. That war is over or, at best, a walking corpse. It was doomed from the beginning. It was an exercise in overweening arrogance from the beginning. It was impossible; the harder we tried, the more impossible it became. It was stupid; the more intelligent the people we sent, the harder they tried, the more stupid the effort became. The more we kowtowed to enlightened sensibilities – and especially enlightened feminist sensibilities – the more certain it became that Afghan women would remain in their little seventh century patriarchal hell, made all the worse by the distant and distorted glimpses we gave them of twenty-first century feminist heaven.
“Nothing is stronger than custom.”
–Ovid, Ars Amatoria
“Custom, then, is the great guide of human life.“
–David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding
“An opinion can be argued with; a conviction is best shot.”
–T. E. Lawrence, The Evolution of a Revolt
Could we have won that war? Could we have actually brought Afghanistan forward into the comparatively modern eighteenth century? I’m inclined to doubt it, for two reasons. One is that the people who insisted on it – the feminists and the neocons3, basically, plus the international community of the very, very caring and sensitive – were also the people most opposed to any method that might have worked. In a way, that was good, since it would probably have done quite a bit of harm to our national reputation and self-image, both, to have built a mountain of skulls to rival anything produced by Genghis Khan, even if we could have talked to troops into doing it. Conversely, though, to have tried for this, oh, just evah-(sic)-so-wonderful-feelgood-fantasy while refusing any of the means that might have led to it was a waste. Worse, it’s been a bloody waste. Worse still, it’s been a ruinously expensive bloody waste.
The second reason, though, was more telling. The people we’ve been fighting? Yeah, open up a really modern dictionary to the word, “tough” – there should be a two by three color glossy of a Pashtun. They are immune to our blandishments. They regard what we see as progress as decadence, and godless decadence at that. Why should they care for democracy? Allah has already legislated all the important things and His laws are not subject to repeal by man.
Whatever we think we might be willing to do or endure to keep our daughters free, independent, educated and out of burqas? They’re willing to do or endure 10-20-50-100 times more of to ensure the opposite. They’re secure in their conviction that this is not only right, but godly, and that whatever price is paid for it, there will be a final reward to dwarf that price.
If we won’t shoot that conviction, there’s no use is wasting our time, our treasure and the blood of our soldiers, trying to argue with it. If we won’t shoot that conviction, there’s no bribe we can offer to match Allah’s.
Does that mean, then, that I’m calling for an immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan, to spare the lives of our troops and cut our financial losses?
It does not.
There were always two war objectives or, arguably, three. One was the impossible and illegitimate set of objectives discussed above. Another was the propaganda objective, “Freedom.”4 But the other was much simpler, much easier, and much more in accord with the reason we went to war in the first place.
Those reasons? Well, in the rush to nudge Afghanistan closer to the modern age, politicians and generals (Lord, forgive us our redundancies) may have forgotten a large empty space on the New York skyline, the gaping hole in the Pentagon, and that roughly 757-shaped depression in Pennsylvania.
The legitimate reason we went to war was to prevent Afghanistan from being used as a base to attack us again, and to frighten anyone else who might want to rent a little space to Al Qaeda into thinking twice and then declining to do so.
We may have already won that war, or close to it. No, I don’t know that we have, but there are (so one hears) prisoners we’ve taken who wish they’d turned Omar and Osama over to us in 2001. There are households aplenty there in mourning for the loss of husbands, fathers and sons. Even the most fanatical Taliban fighter, leader or politician has to worry a bit about the contamination we’ve inflicted on their women and girls, if only for the trouble it will cause him to fix it and the reduction in bride price he’ll get from a noseless girl.
The short version, the conclusion, is this: We’ve lost the war that was never winnable, but that was the war that didn’t matter to the United States. Let’s win the one we can win, the one that does matter to us – the one to convince the Afghans high and low that letting their land be used as a base against us is a painful proposition.
1 Isn’t it funny how often the same names keep turning up around disaster? We had Robert Strange McNamara in charge of ruining both the Edsel and the Vietnam War. And the Architect in Chief of the early Iraq Fiasco, Donald Rumsfeld? Yep, you guessed it, or near enough, anyway: Rummie served from 1969 to 1971 as Director of the War on Poverty’s rather blunt spearhead, the Office of Economic Opportunity. Forget democracy. Forget meritocracy. We seem to have become an aristocracy of arrogant idiots.
2 I say “we,” but in fact there is no “we.” The United States is, and pretty much always has been, philosophically and politically bifurcated. The emphasis placed on those things, from female rights to democracy, was always a sop to one or a few of those political and philosophical fragments.
3 Neocons, by the way, are no such thing – which is to say, they are not conservative. In the main, they are clean cut, suit-wearing, East Coast liberals, with vast faith not only in their own immeasurable (because non-existent) wonderfulness, but also in applied military power and the prospects for social engineering on a national scale. There was a reason why they were once dubbed “Socialists for Nixon.” Some claim that they’ve changed since the Cold War. The skeptical look on my face? It’s sincere.
4 It was never about freedom and it is insulting when politicians try to tell us it is.
Tom Kratman is a retired infantry lieutenant colonel, recovering attorney, and science fiction and military fiction writer. A political refugee and defector from the People’s Republic of Massachusetts, he makes his home in Blacksburg, Virginia. He holds the non-exclusive military and foreign affairs portfolio for EveryJoe. Tom’s books can be ordered through baen.com.