Sunday, June 27, 2010

The History of the Afghan War

The history of wars is mainly written by the victors. The winners usually consider it their "spoils of war" to define just what the war was fought over and how they came to prevail. The bigger the war, the better the reading.

This historical recasting of war can go on for decades, sometimes centuries. There are still people writing about medieval wars and bookstore shelves have not been graced with the final tomes on any of the 19th and 20th century wars either - not by a long shot.

But what of wars that don't turn out all that well? What of Vietnam? What lies in store as historians poke through the ashes of Afghanistan?

Nobody seems to be writing much on Vietnam any more. The reading public's appetite for that seems to have collapsed with the arrival of the new wars, notably Iraq and Afghanistan. There really hasn't been that much written about Iraq but, then again, the real historical milestones of Iraq will occur after the American armies have departed.

What will be written about the Afghan war? How long before the Keegans and Dyers weigh in? Is Afghanistan the stuff from which great books are spawned? Don't count on it.

Even Vietnam had some pretty big battles. The struggles in the Ia Drang valley, the invasion of Cambodia and the Ho Chi Minh trail, Tet 67, Khe Sanh, the airwar over the North, the final rout. There's been nothing remotely like that in the Afghan war, or at least in our limited part of it.

You see, we really don't have a narrative to tell. Ours is but a chapter in a war chronicle that begins decades before we arrived and will end, if it ends at all, long after we've left. Just as the godless Soviets have their chapter so will the Christian crusaders have theirs. There'll be endless comparisons between those two adventures but neither will cast the storyline of the Afghan war because neither was or will be decisive of the key issues. What we have done, in essence, is but to babysit an unresolved civil war. Even Churchill couldn't have found a book in that.

We're not going to be able even to maintain the myth that we drove out the Taliban. We didn't. The Northern Alliance warlords, mainly Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara, defeated the Taliban. We provided combat support, principally air power, that broke the deadlock that prevailed before we showed up. That's hardly defeating anyone. We didn't control the Northern Alliance. In fact they alarmed us when, despite our urging that they slow down, they ignored us and proceeded to simply overrrun Taliban strongholds like Kandahar.

There won't be any epic films about Afghanistan. There's nothing particularly stirring in images of an infantry patrol getting whacked by a buried explosive device. Even the enemy isn't dramatically compelling. Farm boys with Korean war vintage small arms scurrying about through irrigation canals don't really have that John Wayne thing.

No, sorry, but making anything out of this thin gruel is simply too arduous. Even catchy titles don't spring to mind. I think this forlorn little conflict is destined to go down the memory hole. The saddest part is that I believe there is a book that needs to be written about Afghanistan. It would be the story of what can happen when hubris latches on to incompetence in political leadership and when expedience subverts sacrifice in the field. It is the story of war waged on lies and manipulation. It is the story of criminals in high places who escape unpunished, leaving nothing standing.


ck said...

My old Concordia History professor posted something different at my blog. Here's his article if you're interested:

The Mound of Sound said...

I read the post CK but it wasn't terribly enlightening. The link between Singapore and Afghanistan was awfully weak. These conflicts bear no resemblance to each other no matter how this fellow claims otherwise. He completely omits mention of how Singapore fell. What possible similarities can be found in pre-Taliban Afghanistan and pre-Japan Singapore? It's like comparing apples and parrots.