After the successful May-June 1940 evacuation of Britain’s army from Dunkirk’s beaches, Winston Churchill famously pricked the British people’s balloon of elation by noting that wars are never won by retreating. Flash forward 71-plus years to the weekend of 10-11 September 2011. If you were listening closely, you would have heard Churchill ruminating grumpily from the great beyond that “wars are never won by wallowing in self-pity and annually ripping scabs off old wounds . . . and they are still never won by retreating.”
While many Americans engaged in what is now a well established—if macabre and effeminate—yearly death festival, U.S. soldiers and Marines were fighting the rearguard actions of two lost wars against Islamist militants. Having been blocked by the leaders of both parties from winning in either Iraq or Afghanistan, these young men and women are now dying in a pair of lost causes that are being prolonged by political considerations relevant to the 2012 presidential election.
In Iraq, al-Qaeda and other Sunni groups have reestablished themselves and are preparing to take on the deeply anti-U.S. Shia government in Baghdad that was created with the approval of presidents Bush and Obama and the assistance of General Petraeus. American interests in the Persian Gulf region are more at risk today because of the unnecessary war in Iraq than they were when Saddam was in power. And as they watch the disaster for U.S. interests unfolding in Iraq, the best antidote the bipartisan architects of the U.S.-led invasion and the consequent boost to Iran’s regional power can suggest is that we leave three thousand U.S. troops behind to help “maintain order.” Such a force would have as much chance of maintaining order in Iraq as the 7th U.S. Cavalry had in maintaining order among the Lakota and Cheyenne on that grassy ridge in Montana in late June 1876.
In Afghanistan, there is no way to obscure our defeat as Obama, Hillary Clinton, McCain and others have labored to do in Iraq. The Taliban-led insurgency has spread across Afghanistan, and the pattern of their operations has grown familiar and apparently unbreakable. The insurgents are ascendant in any area of the country they choose to occupy until NATO forces arrive. At that point, they move out of NATO’s path to another region and establish ascendancy there. All Petraeus and his counterinsurgency advisers were able to do with the troop surge is what had been done before: U.S. and NATO forces dominate any piece of ground they stand on out to a distance defined by the reach of their weapons. Beyond that small area the insurgents are in charge, and as soon as coalition forces depart they reacquire control of the ground on which NATO stood. Interestingly, this is exactly the reality the Soviets encountered in the 1980s and that the British encountered a century earlier. Perhaps Petraeus’s counterinsurgency gurus—John Nagl, David Kilcullen, etc.—should have read a little history pertinent to their task.
The icing on the cake of the U.S.-NATO failure in Afghanistan, however, came in the early morning hours of 13 September 2011 when the Taliban launched multiple, coordinated attacks in Kabul, including one in an area known as Wazir Akhbar Khan—reputedly the city’s best-protected area and the location of NATO headquarters, the U.S., U.K., and other embassies, and offices of major Western NGOs.
While the BBC is so far reporting relatively light casualties, the insurgency’s ability to carry out this multi-target and multi-location operation in the Afghan capital lays bare the depth of the U.S.-NATO failure in the country. Nearly a decade into the U.S.-NATO occupation of Afghanistan no section of the country is secure; not even the heart of the capital. Apparently only six Taliban fighters kept Afghan and NATO forces engaged for over twenty hours in the Wazir Akhbar Khan district
One of the surge’s two major goals—as defined by Obama, Clinton, Petraeus and McCain—was to train Afghan military, security, intelligence and police forces so they could maintain stability without the aid of foreign forces. On 13 September, all those services failed: they had no intelligence that warned of the attack; they did not detect Taliban fighters moving into position for attack; and they could not repel the attackers without the help of U.S. and NATO troops.
The surge’s other main goal was to attach the loyalties of Afghan citizens to Karzai’s government. This is another unattained goal; indeed, the always-limited public support for the Karzai regime seems to be eroding. The Taliban could not have deployed in Kabul for the 13 September attacks without logistical assistance and intelligence provided by some of the city’s inhabitants as well as from its penetrations of the regime’s police and security services. Five years of hearts-and-minds campaigning by McChrystal and Petraeus have yielded failure; our enemies have grown stronger and more popular, and the Karzai regime’s viability still depends wholly on the presence of Western bayonets.
When the withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan are complete, President Obama—or whoever is president—will dress up the retreats-without-victory reality as some kind of success. Given the chronic unwillingness of Americans to face facts (and the dread of their leaders to present facts to them) the electorate may well believe such nonsense. Across the Islamic world, however, there will be no such misapprehension. In their zero-sum-game world, Muslims—especially young Muslim males—will perceive that Allah allowed mujahedin armed with Korean War-era weapons to defeat the U.S. superpower in the two Islamic countries it had invaded and occupied.
Given that perception is reality, the U.S. retreats are very likely to galvanize the current generation of young Islamists just as the mujahideen’s defeat of the Red Army in the 1980s spurred bin Laden and his generation to jihad. This, in turn, will ensure that the smarmy and undignified spectacle of the annual 9/11 commemorations will not only continue but will be amplified by a steady inflow of the names of Americans killed in America by the Islamist fighters whom the U.S. government has knowingly failed to defeat.
Image by James McCauley