(I had submitted this article to The Wall Street Journal op-ed pages on October 24, 2009).
U.S military involvement in Vietnam had ramped up significantly by the time President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The young president had committed U.S ground troops in Vietnam. It was a premature battle similar to the rush into war in Iraq. Kennedy had committed the United States to the Cold War since his inauguration. He wanted to push back the Soviet menace. He had defined the Cold War for Ronald Reagan to follow through 20 years later. It was a necessary war similar to today’s war against terrorism in Afghanistan since 9/11.
The United States had lost the battle in Vietnam and won the Cold War. There are many lessons that can be learned from it.
The second labor of Heracles, the Greek hero, was to slay Hydra. She had many heads which would rise after being cut off until the deathless head was separated from the trunk of the snake and buried. Such has been the story of terrorism since the Shah of Iran, backed by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), ousted the country’s duly elected prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953.
The unpopular Winston Churchill of 1945 upon his reelection in 1951 as prime minister had secretly plotted to defend British oil interests in Iran from their nationalization by Mossadegh. The “iron curtain”, as he had characterized Stalin’s Soviet Empire, had become the ideological battle ground in the Middle East for Truman’s Western alliance in the battle between east and west, the twain that was seen as never to meet.
The date of the nationalist Mossadegh’s dismissal by the Shah of Iran, August 15th 1953, strangely coincides with the date of independence of India and Pakistan from the British Empire in 1947, only six years earlier. Winston Churchill had not liked the independence of the Indian subcontinent. Indian independence was due to a nationalist named Gandhi who had driven British economic interests out of India. The loss of India meant the end of the British Empire. Its long end to the forces of democracy had begun on July 4, 1776 in America.
Churchill did not want such anti-British nationalism to become contagious around the rest of the world. So, he had conspired with Eisenhower to install a monarch in power in Iran by dismissing democracy citing oil. America had veered from the path of pursuing freedom abroad in its geopolitical calculus involving its post-war alliances and rising enemies. The fading Churchillian British imperialism morphed into the rising push for democracy around the world by the United States against the anti-democratic statism of the Soviets.
Churchill could not see the distinction between ethnicity and language. This is how he had also seen the United States. After all, the ethnic English were not the same people as the ethnic Latin. Yet, even until the time of Isaac Newton, most of Europe of was Latinized. Newton had written his magnum opus, The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, in Latin which traced its roots in the British isles to Julius Caesar. Latin had bequeathed its empire to English. One language to another. Not the supremacy of one people over the others.
Churchill’s civilizational hubris, his ill-founded belief in the superiority and hence the justifiable domination of the English speaking peoples or the ethnically English over the others, had a lot to do with nudging the United States away from the sage advice of George Washington in his farewell address. Empires do not die easily.
The post-war European West, allied with the United States since Harry Truman’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the Knights Templar of the 20th century, weighed more for the United States in the coalescing Cold War against the Warsaw Pact led by Russia, sidelining the pursuit of democracy in the rest of the world which had become a pawn in the new great game of geopolitics. The crusades which began with Richard I for England had resurrected themselves on August 15, 1953. European enlightenment and modernity had acquired the texture of the Middle Ages.
The labor of the pursuit of virtue around the world by the United States had thus also germinated hydras in the name of realpolitik which culminated nearly 50 years after 1953 in the attacks of Osama bin Laden on September 11, 2001. The time has come to bury Hydra’s deathless head.
NATO, after the Cold War and the end of the Warsaw Pact, is learning the lesson which Churchill had refused to learn and which the United States failed to realize with its focus on freeing Europe: that self-determination is the same whether it is for the Germans and the Russians or for the Afghans, Iraqis and the Iranians. It was the same for Gandhi and Mandela. Nationalism is a good thing as long as it is democratic, secular and peaceful. It helps balance geopolitical self-interest with our common humanity. It is time for the United States to rebuild trust with the rest of the world after Mossadegh.
The United States and NATO, in the festering conflict in Afghanistan with the Taliban, in their recent tentative agreement of defense ministers over the need for more troops in Afghanistan, appear to be converging on the necessary war after the premature distraction of Iraq. The deep differences between Europe and the United States over when and how to replace Saddam Hussein in Iraq, a war intended by former president Bush even before 9/11 as unfinished business from the first Gulf War in 1991, appear to be healing over the need to end the war in Afghanistan which was responsible for 9/11 and was the breeding ground for the subsequent terrorist attacks on European soil.
At the current troop levels the only option available to the United States is to destroy all the Taliban strongholds in Afghanistan and in the border regions with Pakistan by carpet bombing those areas with the ex ante consent of the United Nations Security Council. American ground troops can then follow with the help of Pakistani troops under American command to conduct counterinsurgency on the ground to rebuild the country, as we had done in Western Europe after World War II, before exiting Afghanistan.
Former Pentagon general Eric Shinseki who is currently serving in the Obama administration was correct before the Iraq war that more troops were needed. So were the neo-conservatives in Washington. But the issue was that not enough troops were available in the all-volunteer armed forces of the United States to execute regime change in Iraq. Conscription is not an option to commit only Americans, as the neo-conservatives wanted, to a war which must be ended in Afghanistan to benefit the entire world, not just the United States.
If the Pentagon General Stanley A. McChrystal’s well-founded request for more troops for a reinvigorated counterinsurgency effort against the Taliban is to be met, the NATO endorsement is a necessary prelude to a necessary war, with the expectation that NATO’s endorsement is seconded by the commitment of combat personnel and equipment by the governments of the other NATO countries besides the United States to complement the recent Pakistani efforts in their neighborhood against the insurgents. Pakistan appears to be finally understanding this. And so must the other NATO countries.
It is also to the benefit of Russia and China to bring the permanent U.N Security Council members to a consensus on the strategy and tactics of ending Afghanistan if these two Cold War countries want to see a post-NATO world in Europe and elsewhere around the world.
More troops to end the war in Afghanistan are feasible only if everybody has their skin in the game.