We have been engaged in military operations in Afghanistan for seventeen years. Sometimes it appears that the war will go on forever. If our leaders had been keen students of history, perhaps this could have been avoided.
The Romans conquered most of Great Britain in the 1st century, A.D. Caledonia was that part of northern Great Britain that we now call Scotland. Despite near genocidal operations against the inhabitants of Caledonia, the natives fought back fiercely. Eventually, the costly ravages of guerilla warfare caused the Romans to retreat. In the early 2nd century they built Hadrian’s Wall, marking the northernmost extent of Roman control in Great Britain.
More than a thousand years later, in the late 1200s, Edward I, King of England, used a Scottish dynastic dispute to claim suzerainty over Scotland. When he moved his troops into the highlands a bitter civil war erupted. Some Scots favored Edward, but others were willing to give their lives for Scottish independence. This was the time of William Wallace and Robert Bruce, lions of Scottish history. The English had the advantage of numbers and superior military equipment, and in the big battles (with the notable exceptions of Stirling Bridge and Bannockburn) they usually prevailed. However, as soon as the big armies went away, the Scots came out of the hills and picked off the English garrisons one by one. Seems familiar, does it not?
Despite their numerical and other advantages, the English were never able to subdue the Scots. Finally, with the accession of a Scottish king to the English throne in 1603, there was a dynastic union of the two kingdoms: and in 1706-7 the Acts of Union formally joined England and Scotland together as the Kingdom of Great Britain.
Move forward 500 years from Stirling Bridge and Bannockburn.
In 1807 the French Empire under Napoleon I was at the height of its power. Almost all of Europe was under its control. The French armies seemed irresistible. French and Spanish armies invaded and occupied Portugal in 1807. Shortly afterwards civil unrest erupted in Spain, and French troops were sometimes brutal in their attempts to restore order. Napoleon then forced the Spanish to place his brother, Joseph Bonaparte, on the Spanish throne, and full-scale civil insurrection soon followed. The ensuing conflict gave rise to the very first use of the term “guerilla war.”
British and Portuguese forces eventually secured Portugal, using it as a safe position from which to launch campaigns against the French army and provide whatever supplies they could to the Spanish. At the same time, the Spanish armies and guerrillas tied down large numbers of Napoleon’s troops. These combined regular and irregular allied forces, by restricting French control of territory, prevented Napoleon’s marshals from subduing the rebellious Spanish provinces, and the war continued through years of stalemate.
In 1812, when Napoleon set out with a massive army on what proved to be a disastrous French invasion of Russia, a combined British, Portuguese, Spanish army under British General Wellesley, future Duke of Wellington, pushed into Spain and defeated the French in a series of battles. The French commanders, no longer able to get supplies and men from a depleted France, finally led the exhausted and demoralized French forces in a fighting withdrawal across the Pyrenees during the winter of 1813–1814.
The years of fighting in Spain were a heavy drain on France’s military power. French communications and supplies were severely stressed and their units were frequently isolated, harassed or overwhelmed by partisans fighting an intense guerrilla war of raids and ambushes. Spanish armies were repeatedly beaten and driven into the hills, but they would regroup and relentlessly hound the French. This erosion of French resources led Napoleon, who had unwittingly provoked a total war, to call the conflict the “Spanish Ulcer”.
In some respects, does that not that seem a bit like our present situation in Afghanistan?
How does a conquering army control a defeated people? Sometimes it is achieved through the willing cooperation of the former governing authorities. Rome often used that method very effectively. When that does not work, the occupying force must resort to more extreme methods. In German occupied Europe, for example, the Nazis did not hesitate to murder thousands of often innocent civilians whenever they thought such measures necessary to constrain the locals. Other conquering armies have sometimes resorted to genocide. If the indigenous population has been liquidated and replaced, control is no longer a problem. Of course, actions of this kind would not be tolerated by the citizens of the United States or by most western democracies.
That brings us back to the subject of the United States and Afghanistan. Our reasons for going into Afghanistan in the first place were just and proper. The government of Afghanistan had allowed Al-Qaeda to use its territory to organize an attack on America. We had to destroy Al-Qaeda’s capability to attack us and, if possible, bring the instigators of the attack to justice. The destruction of Al-Qaeda’s offensive war capabilities was accomplished very quickly, and their leader went into hiding. At that moment we might have come home. We could have monitored the situation, and if Al-Qaeda had reemerged as a real threat to the homeland, we had the capability to quickly strike again. Instead, our leaders decided to keep American troops in Afghanistan and free the Afghan people from the repressive yoke of the Taliban. We wished to infuse these primitive hill people with appreciation for the benefits of Western enlightenment. Unfortunately, significant numbers of Afghans preferred the Taliban to the presence of an army of infidels. The situation slowly took on the characteristics of a guerilla war much like those long-ago conflicts in Scotland and Spain.
We have been engaged in Afghanistan for so long.that it would no longer be easy to withdraw.
Our motto should always be, “Look carefully before you leap.” And we must reflect on the lessons of history. In the words of George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”