The Afghanistan government’s recent release of dozens of imprisoned terrorists, many of whom had killed Americans, was a galling betrayal of those Americans who died defending Afghanistan against the Taliban terrorists — as well as those Americans who have returned home with arms or legs missing, or with minds traumatized beyond repair.
If we learn nothing else from the bitter tragedy of the war in Afghanistan, it should be that we should put an end forever to the self-indulgence of thinking that we can engage in “nation-building” and creating “democracy” in countries where nothing resembling democracy has ever existed.
It would be a feat to achieve one of these objectives, but to achieve both at the same time is a gamble that makes playing Russian roulette look like a harmless pastime.
F.A. Hayek said, “We shall not grow wiser until we learn that much that we have done was very foolish.” Nothing is more foolish — and immoral — than sending men into battle to risk their lives winning victories that are later lost by politicians for political reasons.
That started long before the war in Afghanistan. Vietnam was a classic example. Years after that war was over, the Communist victors themselves admitted that they lost militarily in Vietnam, as they knew they would. But they won politically in America, with the help of Americans, including the media — as they also knew they would.
The war in Iraq was more of the same. American troops won that war but our politicians lost the peace. Terrorists have now taken over, and raised Al Qaeda flags, in some Iraqi towns that American troops liberated at the cost of many lives.
How did this happen? It happened much the same way it happened in Afghanistan. We insisted on trying to create a “democracy” in the Middle East — a place with a history going back thousands of years, without a single democracy.
What we created instead was a local ruler, placed in charge as a result of the blood and treasure of Americans, but independent of us, because he won an election that we insisted on holding — as if there are no prerequisites for democracy.
To compound the problem, we had members of Congress constantly talking about pulling out of Iraq, and demanding a timetable — despite what military madness it is to tell your enemy when you will be gone.
With American military support likely to be temporary and Iran’s military presence next door certain to be permanent, how surprising is it that Iraq’s leadership took Iran much more seriously than it took the United States?
Today, the Iraqi government is much more accommodating to Iran than to the United States, despite the fact that Americans put them in power. The very same scenario was repeated in Afghanistan, with President Obama himself announcing a timetable for the withdrawal of American troops.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai saw the handwriting on the wall — and what it said was that American support was temporary but the Taliban was going to be around long after the Americans were gone. He too decided that it was better to try to get on the good side of our enemies, in this case by turning loose some terrorists.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
After World War II, the American military took over the governments of Japan and West Germany. We did not start out by setting up some local leader who would be able to put his own interests above ours and work at cross purposes against us. Nor did we announce to the whole world when we planned to start reducing our troop levels in these countries.
Under the unchallenged supremacy of General Douglas MacArthur, Japan was indeed turned into a very different country, one in which democratic institutions could be phased in, at whatever pace the circumstances made prudent. Something similar happened in West Germany.
But this was not something that could be done quickly or on the cheap, with politicians sounding off in Congress about pulling out, and trying to micromanage from thousands of miles away. If we can’t be serious, we have no right to send young Americans out into the hell of war.
Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.
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