‘You Have Been in Afghanistan, I Perceive’

President Trump’s decisions to withdraw from Syria and to start drawing down the number of our troops in Afghanistan should come as welcome news to all Americans. The pointless wars in the Middle East and the Hindu Kush have been going on since 9/11—longer if you count the entirely unnecessary incursion into Iraq in 1991—and have brought only misery in their wake. If Trump does nothing else but put an end to the endless wars bequeathed to us by the house of Bush, his will have been a consequential presidency.

That these orders have seemingly resulted in the resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis is not necessarily a bad thing. Trump is a churning force, as his track record already shows, and if his appointees disagree with his policies, then they go, not the policies. Just ask Jeff Sessions and Rex Tillerson. Like John Kelly, currently on his way out the door as White House chief of staff, Mattis is a distinguished officer in the United States Marine Corps—but no conservative. As anyone who understands the USMC knows, Marine officers are not ideologues; indeed, by training they are apolitical, owing their allegiance to the Constitution and the commander-in-chief. I’m not sure whether this is still true today, but when I was a kid growing up on various Marine duty stations, they didn’t even vote.

A great many on the Right disagree with Trump. They fear “chaos” and “instability.” But we have been living for decades with presidents (George H.W. Bush, take a bow) who made a fetish of stability and in so doing condemned the world to the very definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and hoping for a different result. Thus we have had the eternal “peace process” between the Israelis and the Palestinians for the simple reason that no one seriously desires a definitive solution.

Nonetheless, a solution is only a solution when it is dispositive. This is something our current generation of politicians and warfighters do not wish to acknowledge: hence, the endless war that Bush I began against Saddam Hussein for no particular reason (did or does anyone really care about Kuwait?); was left unfinished; was restarted in the wake of 9/11 by Bush II—again, for no particular reason, since Saddam had little or nothing to do with the attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. Here we are, 18 years later, with only dead and maimed American soldiers to show for it. Neither Iraq, if it survives, nor Afghanistan will ever be Jacksonian democracies, nor do their inhabitants wish them to be.

This is not to denigrate the heroism of our troops, nor their skills. They may well be, as many say, the best warriors we’ve ever put in the field. But, just as in Vietnam, they’ve been allowed to fight, but not to win. Essentially, they’ve been told to play to an eternal draw, just enough to keep the lid on things over there, but not to materially affect the political structures in place. Thus, by mouthing the liberal pieties in Bush II’s second inaugural address about how the desire for freedom is the natural human condition (it plainly is not) and that America’s duty is to spread the gospel of liberty throughout the world (ditto), our rulers have obscured the lethal realities of our presence overseas.

These are not easy, or happy, conclusions to reach. But we must ask: what have we gotten from our misadventures?

Saddam may have been a tyrant, but he was just one of many, especially in that part of the world. Whether he abused his own people (what tyrant doesn’t?) may have been cause for editorial-page fretting, but not for bellicosity. In effect, both Bushes made the same mistake JFK and LBJ made in Vietnam: thinking that inside every foreigner was an American yearning to get out, when even a cursory glance at the history of Southeast Asia or the Islamic ummah should instantly have disabused them of that notion.

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, nothing has changed and nothing ever will change. The last outsider to have any effect on the region was Alexander the Great, and he did so at the point of his sword. Since then, Islam has come and gone and come again, the British fought two wars there, and the Soviets first signaled their systemic vulnerability by not being ruthless enough in their attempt to conquer the “country.” Had they applied the same tactics they used on Hitler’s Germany to Afghanistan we might be living in a very different world today, but they did not. And so now the Soviets have vanished while the Afghans live on in their remote and savage land.

As for Syria, the last foreign occupiers to have a positive effect on that parlous place were the Crusaders, who established the Principality of Antioch, which included Aleppo, in the late 12th century; it collapsed about a century later. Since then, Syria has been the plaything of various warring Muslim factions but offers no menace to American national security, and is far too weak seriously to threaten Israel. As in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, we have no strategic or economic interests in those areas, especially as the United States has emerged once again as the world’s leading energy producer.

The way to deal with these places, therefore, is to withdraw and leave them to their own devices. Sure, the Russians will fiddle around the edges if only to keep their hands in the game and to create an object lesson for their own restive Muslim minorities. So what? The “kingdom” of Saudi Arabia in all likelihood won’t last much longer than Bohemond’s did. As for the religious clash between Sunni and Shi’a Islam, represented on the chessboard by the Saudis and the Iranians, we can only hope that they both lose, and lose badly.

The first words uttered by Sherlock Holmes to Dr. John H. Watson, M.D. are: “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.” This startling deduction was made on the detective’s assessment of his future amanuensis’s physical condition: a wounded war veteran recently returned from the battle of Maiwand during the Second Afghan War. This Holmes can see at a glance, including the good doctor’s enervation from enteric fever.

But it doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to see that the endless war has been bad for America, and the sooner it’s ended, the better for all of us. Only then can the tremendous damage to American foreign policy brought on by the Bush-Clinton-Bush-Obama succession of insufficient presidents be remedied, and the nation start to heal.

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Photo Credit: Manjunath Kiran/AFP/Getty Images)

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About Michael Walsh

Michael Walsh is a journalist, author, and screenwriter. He was for 16 years the music critic and foreign correspondent for Time Magazine, for which he covered the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. His works include the novels As Time Goes By, And All the Saints (winner, 2004 American Book Award for fiction), and the bestselling “Devlin” series of NSA thrillers; as well as the recent nonfiction bestseller, The Devil’s Pleasure Palace. A sequel, The Fiery Angel, was published by Encounter in May 2018. Follow him on Twitter at @dkahanerules (Photo credit: Peter Duke Photo)