Not For The Last Time

A serious post on a tragedy we are witnessing. To do so, I am putting on my former politics and historian lecturer hat this morning. If you are not interested, the time to click away is now.

We are all seeing Afghanistan’s fall to its Taliban Islamist extremist group – which holds, among other reactionary (which hardly seems a strong enough word) views, that women are not the equal in any way to men – due to the evaporation of the internationally recognized government there. Following the withdrawal of most U.S. and allied troops in late 2020 and early 2021, that government that had collapsed seemingly overnight…

…had been brought into being since 2001 largely fostered by the U.S. after the U.S. toppled the previous Taliban regime.

U.S.-led forces had overthrown that mid-1990s-2001 earlier Taliban “government” in the last months of 2001. The U.S. did so because that domestic Afghan Islamist extremist “government” had given sanctuary to the Islamist terror group that had launched the suicide attacks on the U.S. on September 11, 2001. The U.S. had considered that Taliban Afghan “government’s” support for those attacks to be an act of war akin to the Japanese militarists’ surprise air attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on December 7, 1941.

[New York’s Twin Towers. Photo by me, 1991.]

No one situation is ever exactly the same as another one, of course. And is the US “perfect?” Of course not; far from it. But if you follow US foreign policy closely what we are seeing and reading currently is very familiar. There appear to be basically “four stages” of various public/media international opinion on U.S. “less than successful” intervention efforts since 1941 (the beginning of active U.S. involvement in World War II), and they tend to follow this order (although Stage 2 and 3 “critiques” may also broadly overlap):

  • Stage 1: “You can’t just do nothing! Look at those images! They are cutting off heads and starving people! There are going to be millions of refugees. Don’t you care? Your Declaration of Independence words, do they mean anything? Do American lives mean more than the lives of those desperate people? Look at that disaster!”
  • Stage 2: “Well, you are there now and you are learning it isn’t Nebraska. You simply don’t understand the culture, the history, and the languages. You need to invest lots more money in schools and infrastructure and most of all listen. Not everyone is a potential American, remember. You are so naive, and you are getting so much wrong.”
  • Stage 3: “The reason for the resistance to your heavy-handed troops is obvious: You imperialists are just doing this for arms makers. All you ever do is invade other countries to get rich. You care nothing about people. Yeh, yeh, you say you want to withdraw, but we know you really want to rule the world.”
  • Stage 4: “God, how can your president pull out your troops now? Look at the chaos and suffering! There are going to be millions of refugees too and they are all your fault! It’s a disaster!”

We are it sadly appears now well into “Stage 4” regarding Afghanistan.

[US Marines at Kabul airport accepting a child handed up to them by desperate Afghan parents. From srvsgear on Instagram.]

It may seem difficult to grasp the connection, but from the U.S. perspective this situation in Afghanistan overall has come about primarily because of WWII; the idea of U.S. troops in Afghanistan in “1930” would have been inconceivable. That is not to say that some in the U.S. had not had at times (since the end of its civil war in 1865 in particular) vague “ambitions” abroad; most noteworthy was the (stupid and mercifully brief) 1898 war with Spain, which led to the U.S. taking the Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. On the whole, though, the U.S. largely “retreated” into “isolation” in 1918 after helping win World War I; in the two decades after it was a member of no military alliances and never joined the League of Nations, which was the forerunner to today’s United Nations.

After World War II (1939-1945), however, the country resolved it would from now on be “engaged” with the rest of the world in a way it had not been before its involvement in that second conflict began in 1941; and most importantly it would maintain a much larger military in peacetime than it had ever had in its history. The main reason for both: Americans did not want to be dragged into a “WWIII” started by some new madman in another faraway land. Hitler and Hitler’s ally the Japanese militarists made an impact on the American foreign policy psyche, and even arguably “scarred” it, in ways that many non-Americans I have always suspected do not entirely grasp.

More fundamentally, probably at least partly because of its founding on an idea (“all men are created equal” in the Declaration), a sense of self that to become an American is a choice rather than a matter of mere birth, and a regular stream of new immigrants and therefore with so many Americans’ recent family trees, and even families, extending to elsewheres, a hard to put your finger on “moral impulse” has since U.S. independence in 1776 existed among many Americans. The fates of people abroad (even if they as Americans were not always being kind or fair to some Americans right at home) has always been present in many Americans’ consciences. The sense that they as Americans have some “moral responsibility” to do “something” for those beset overseas is therefore not new...

[A 1794 France scene from Conventions: The Garden At Paris. Photo by me, 2021.]

and existed even back when it was a small country of just a couple of million people – with almost no military, so no one in power in Europe or elsewhere really paid much attention to it or in the slightest “feared” it.

It is worth bearing in mind too that if the planned suicide attackers had been discovered pre-takeoffs on those four planes that morning of September 11, 2001 and the planes stormed by the police and the FBI, it would have been major news in that likely there would have been a great deal of debate at having arrested 19 Arab/Muslim foreign men (“They were just students!”) who had not actually done anything wrong… yet. Indeed as I recall carrying boxcutters – the items we learned from communications (including passengers using mobile phones) from the planes (especially UA 93) those 19 terrorists were using to attack flight attendants, pilots, and passengers – was then still permitted on U.S. airlines. So having those merely in their possessions was probably not technically a legal reason to have arrested them.

Yet had those men been dragged off those four planes pre-departures, “9/11would have been snuffed out before it happened. Imagine that had been so. The subsequent history of the U.S. (and some of the world) would have almost certainly been so different we cannot now even begin to guess what course it might have taken instead.

Similarly, on a much larger scale, the U.S. army in 1917 when the U.S. entered World War I was so small, inexperienced and ill-equipped (initially men drilled with broomsticks because they did not have rifles) that it needed to be trained for a year by the British and the French before large numbers of Americans could go into the front line to fight the German Kaiser’s battle-hardened veterans. After quickly reducing upon the war’s end the hurriedly-created 2 million man U.S. army of 1918 to about only 100,000 by 1924, it was kept so small that in 1939 the U.S. still had an army smaller than ROMANIA’S. The minuscule U.S. army of the late 1930s obviously did not help deter Hitler, Italian dictator Mussolini, or the Japanese militarists, in the slightest from their aims of conquest.

So is the U.S. military budget in 2021 “too high?” Given the U.S. economy is much bigger than in 1945, that is a purely subjective question. What we can say for sure is that since 1945 – unlike pre-1914 (WWI) and pre-1939 (WWII) – and the existence of a large peacetime U.S. military, while there have certainly been regional conflicts and occasional madmen out there, there has also obviously been no outright “WWIII.”

When some strongly criticize US “interventionism,” such critics rarely condemn U.S. troops invading Sicily in 1943, or Normandy in 1944, or kicking in the gates to Nazi concentration camps, or even battling for South Korea from 1950-53. Invariably they talk about “South Vietnam,” or Iraq in 2003, or Afghanistan since 2001. What is happening now in Afghanistan will assuredly not be the last time the U.S. will face this sort of a crisis and challenge, because unfortunately our world likely always will have “Stage 1s” out there somewhere.