As America pulls its troops out of Afghanistan, it is evacuating thousands of civilians as well. The twenty-year occupation was such a miserable failure (magnified by Biden’s disastrous exit strategy that has seen our troops chased out by enemy combatants within gunshot range) that those in Afghanistan who sided with America would be in danger if they stayed behind.
The Taliban, one of two groups President George W. Bush swore to oust when he ordered the invasion in 2001, will be left in absolute control of the country.
The United States experienced a similar failure after years of fighting in Vietnam and, though there is still hope for Iraq, has had its share of troubles there too (albeit that President Trump’s order to use heavy-handed force went a long way towards bringing peace to a place in danger of being overrun by the terror group ISIS).
The question – aside from whether America should even be involved in nation-building – is why? Why is the world’s most powerful military routinely defeated by poorly armed and funded groups? Why is America unable, with trillions of dollars, endless power, and a culture that is envied around the world, to win the hearts and minds of civilians in territories it occupies?
Large empires (like it or not, America is a type of empire) have long been able to set up stable and friendly governments in client states. The U.S. itself did so in Japan and Germany following World War II, and Japan, like Afghanistan, was not imbued with cultural norms familiar to Americans. So why are we unable to do it now?
Our military strategists, generals, and politicians endlessly discuss how modern occupations should be handled – counterterrorism measures, specialized troop training, unmanned drones. But if they were going to solve the issues we faced in Afghanistan, they would have done it ten years ago. The reality is that they cannot solve them, because they lack one simple thing – political will of the kind it took to reform Japan.
As President Trump realized when he took the gloves off of the U.S. effort in Iraq (starting with his use of America’s most powerful non-nuclear bomb and the order to U.S. troops to discard the cautious rules of engagement implemented by the Obama administration) military might is a hammer, not a scalpel. Regardless of how easily a “surgical strike” can be pulled off using a satellite-guided bomb, taking out a terrorist leader in a car or a couple of goons hiding in an attic will never break the back of a determined resistance, especially one supported by the local population. Every day of war hardens the resolve of the resistance, and wears down the resolve of the occupier, until the occupier leaves or until someone has the strength to see to it that the resistance is forcefully broken.
I don’t wish to insult the Japanese nation, or imply that this level of destruction is always warranted, but following World War II, Japan was a mess. Virtually every major city had been burned to the ground. Nearly every house in those cities was a smoking pile of rubble. Nearly every factory was out of commission, and the population was slowly starving to death. A people whose sons had proudly flown suicide missons to take U.S. Navy ships out of action were reduced to begging their American conquerors for food. They had no more stomach for war.
The American military hierarchy, starting with top commander General Douglas MacArthur, was prepared to be generous to the defeated Japanese – just so long as the Japanese people rebuilt Japan the way America wanted. Unlike in Afghanistan and Iraq, there would be no “sensitivity” to traditional Japanese culture, except as it fit into a new, westernized and democratized version of Japan. There would be no tiptoeing around the subject of change.
The Japanese emperor was allowed to stay in office – so long as he relinquished all real power, and admitted to his people that the myth of his being a god – a myth that thousands of Japanese had died to protect – was just that. Japan could retain other religious traditions, but MacArthur had the country flooded with Christian missionaries. MacArthur disbanded the Japanese military – by means of a new Japanese constitution which his staff, not the new Japanese government – wrote, and which he pressured the government (with some support from the people) into adopting. And when a brief rise of Communism in Japan threatened American interests, conservative U.S. and Japanese leaders quickly stamped the movement out.
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And then there were American culture and political norms. With the strong encouragement of the American military, jazz and big band music became the background noise to which Japanese workers repaired and rebuilt. Books and lectures on what it meant to be a democracy flooded the streets. Baseball, all but banned during the war, was encouraged to the point that it effectively became Japan’s national sport, and American movies that had not been allowed in Japan previously played in every theater.
By the time the country became independent again in 1952, little remained of the old. Japan has not posed a real threat to America now for over sixty-five years.
Thus, if America ever goes to war again (it will) or attempts to nation-build (ideally not) it must exhibit the political strength, first to crush all resistance to the point where its enemies fall to their knees and then, if nation-building is tried, to rebuild everything from the basement to the roof. Remodeling just one or two rooms will never be enough, and if Americans are not willing to go the distance, we shouldn’t try.