The conflict in Afghanistan is often referred to as “the longest war in American history.” From that, you might infer that wars are normally brief. Not so.
A few examples: The Arab-Byzantine wars began in the seventh century and continued for more than 400 years. The Ottoman-Hungarian wars began in 1366 and continued until 1526. The Reconquista in Spain was fought over a period of 700 years.
It’s true that America’s wars have been of relatively short duration. But many also have been intensely lethal. The Civil War, which began in 1861 and ended in 1865, cost 600,000 lives. The U.S. engagement in World War I started in April 1917 and ran until November 1918; more than 53,000 Americans were killed. We fought for three years and eight months in World War II; the death toll: almost 300,000. The Korean War lasted three years with 33,000 lives lost. Vietnam: more than 10 years and more than 47,000 making the ultimate sacrifice.
We’ve been fighting in Afghanistan for 16 years. More than 2,000 heroes have fallen. Every single one was a tragedy. Still, it should be clear that we’re looking at something different in the current era: a long-duration, low-intensity conflict.
I’d argue, too, that it would be more realistic and helpful to think of Afghanistan as one battlefield in what by now should be recognized as a great war against the West.
The conflict can be traced back to Iran’s 1979 revolution and the founding of the Islamic Republic, a Shia theocracy committed to what its leaders called jihad. Sunni rivals soon began to arise. The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 were one result.
Until then, most Americans had not appreciated the seriousness of the threats developing in the Middle East. We ignored Iran’s rulers even after they sent Hezbollah, their Lebanon-based terrorist proxy, to bomb the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983. We viewed hostile non-state actors as minor irritations. Even the bombings of two of our embassies in Africa in 1998 didn’t change that.
Today, American troops are fighting jihadis — again, that’s what they call themselves — in both Afghanistan and Syria, while Islamist terrorists strike often in Europe and occasionally in the United States. It’s a bad situation and it will get much worse if these enemies continue to advance, recruit and acquire resources — nuclear weapons among them.
With this as background, President Trump last week made a difficult decision. His gut instinct was to exit Afghanistan. Many of his most ardent supporters urged him to do so. But he became convinced that he’d be repeating President Obama’s most consequential error: the withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, which allowed the Islamic State to rise from the ashes of al Qaeda in Iraq — a force American troops under the leadership of Gen. David Petraeus had decimated, along with Iranian-backed Shia militias during the “surge.”
An American defeat in Afghanistan — and that’s how it would be perceived, spin it as you will — would supercharge jihadi groups in the Middle East and beyond. If they see us as no longer willing or able to take the war to them, they’ll be pleased to double their efforts to bring the war to us. And millions of Muslims around the world who have been dubious about the modern jihad project would conclude that warriors capable of making Americans turn tail must enjoy divine endorsement.
Meanwhile, in nuclear-armed Pakistan, Islamists in key government positions would see such an outcome as proof that they have been wise to support the Afghan Taliban and that those keen to align with the United States have been backing a weak horse.
The approach announced by Mr. Trump last week differs from that of Mr. Obama in several respects. Terrorist safe havens across the border in Pakistan are to be tolerated no longer. Our enemies will not be told when to expect us to stop fighting. All instruments of American power — military, diplomatic and economic — are to be integrated for maximum impact.
Misgivings — I have a few. First: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson followed up on the president’s Afghanistan speech by promising that the U.S. would “support peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban,” a process he said could lead to “reconciliation.” If we’ve learned anything about the Taliban and other allies of al Qaeda (and some in the State Department apparently have not), it’s that Islamist warriors seek victory or martyrdom — nothing else will do.
What if the worst and most hard-core elements of the Taliban are eliminated? Would those who survive be less ideological, more willing to lay down their arms, talk and take jobs in government ministries? I suppose that’s possible. But it’s hardly probable.
Second: A grand strategy is still required for the larger conflict. It would be an enormous error to prevail over — or “reconcile” with — Sunni jihadis in Afghanistan only to concede Syria, Iraq and Lebanon to Shia jihadis led by Iran’s rulers.
Those rulers have grand ambitions. Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and, of course, Israel — all are on their menu. And, though it gets little publicity (and was not included in Mr. Trump’s speech), they, too, have been assisting the Taliban. In addition, Iran and Hezbollah are quietly penetrating Latin America.
What’s necessary if we intend to win this intergenerational conflict, this long, world war? A “sustainable sustained commitment,” is the phrase Gen. Petraeus recently used in a conversation I had with him. If that sounds daunting, if the prospect of outlasting our enemies is more than we can endure, there is an alternative. It needn’t take long and it can be described in few words: retreat, submit and surrender.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.
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