We study history to take a glimpse into our past, to gain knowledge as to what motivated people, what mistakes they made, and how we may build upon their experience so that each generation becomes greater than that that preceded it.
The Bush administration is making an interesting claim to support their war on terror; when asked about what lessons he has drawn from Vietnam, he answered “we’ll succeed unless we quit”. The Bush lesson being, had Nixon not called for total withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973, and we pressed on, the American intervention would have been victorious. Had we pressed on, America would have been forced to answer the question, what is victory? Would victory have been the complete obliteration of South Vietnam, ending the north-south “civil war”, or perhaps maybe it would be the reformation of South Vietnam into a democratic entity. Who knows, however, because that question was left unanswered in our past, the question has risen again.
Another historical lesson we may draw on to better understand Iraq can be seen in a statement made by Dick Cheney recently.
CHENEY: Remember with me what happened after in Afghanistan. The United States was actively involved in Afghanistan in the '80s, supported the effort against the Soviets. The mujahideen prevailed and everybody walked away. And in Afghanistan, within relatively short order, the Taliban came to power. They created this safe haven for al Qaeda. Training camps were established, where some 20,000 terrorists trained in the late '90s. And out of that, out of Afghanistan -- because we walked away and ignored it -- we had the attack on the USS Cole, the attack on the embassies in East Africa and 9/11, where the people trained and planned in Afghanistan for that attack and killed 3,000 Americans. That is what happens when we walk away from a situation like that in the Middle East.
Once again, the presiding wisdom of the Bush administration is that, if we do not leave, then we will win. By most accounts, the US mission in Afghanistan that had taken place during the Carter, Reagan, and Bush (41) was a resounding success. The mission was to halt the spread of Russia and communism into Afghanistan following the removal of the Shah. The United States funded, trained, and armed the mujahideen for many years until the Russians withdrew in 1989. Victory!... or not? The question however is, did we walk away? We accomplished our mission and did not have the foresight to anticipate the rise of the Taliban; at the time there really was no impetus to stay any longer than the mission at hand required. We left the country in tatters; they experienced nearly a decade in guerilla warfare against communist rule leaving their infrastructure broken, the best and the brightest of the country had left out of fear leaving Afghanistan with no leadership outside of the mujahideen factions, we left an awful situation. This is leaps and bounds different from both Iraq and Vietnam. We did not leave because we were in many ways “losing”. We had won. It was just a shortsighted victory.
Today, if is somewhat the fault of the United States that Islamic terrorism persists with the strength we are currently witnessing. The Mujahideen are by definition very similar to the extremist jihadists. They were fighting the specter of atheist communism and promoting the strength of armed and political Islam. We raised them to power.
What was the United States to do in the 1980s? Were US troops to remain in Afghanistan until democracy was spread from border to border; were we to depose the theocratic state that we funded in exchange for secular leadership? Such a campaign is on par if not more daunting than the current Iraq situation. Never would it have been as obvious that the United States was using political puppets to serve its own worldly interests.
The only lessons we can learn from Vietnam and Afghanistan are that if we remove ourselves from regional struggles, regardless if we began them or not, the United States can retreat to a semblance of isolationism and peace for a short while. The lesson is not that if we remain, that victory is immanent. Such a conclusion is not only ridiculous, but irresponsible to the men and women that volunteer for our armed forces. To achieve “victory” in Iraq, we will most likely be in Iraq for an untold number of years, more than a few of those years will be devoted to figuring out what victory is in the first place. If we learn anything from Afghanistan it is this: even if we achieve victory, how long will it be until we discover that our victory was short lived and our conditions for victory short sighted? What other regional conflicts are we not foreseeing by our actions and what new enemies are we creating?