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Letter: Manton Discusses Eighth Anniversary of Invasion of Afghanistan

October of 2009 marks the eighth anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, an invasion that has lasted longer than World War II. In these eight years, the United States has made no more progress than the Soviet Union made eight years into its invasion of that country back in the 1980s. The nation that defeated the central and axis powers and held the U.S.S.R. and Warsaw Pact at bay through the deterrence of massive military response can’t vanquish an enemy that has no navy, no air force, no military-industrial complex, no planet-wide military and diplomatic alliances, no place in the global market, and no arsenal of such lethal contrivances as nuclear weapons, nerve gas, fuel-air explosives, and enhanced radiation devices.

The United States and its allies are losing the war against international terrorism in the classic example of insurgency vs. military giant (barbarians/Romans, Finns/Soviets, American colonists/British, Viet Cong/Americans) because they never understood its fundamental nature in the first place. An enraged elephant can’t defeat a colony of determined army ants no matter how many of them it tramples upon. It can only avoid them and, using its great strength, erect barriers that they will find insurmountable and unable to perform their tasks.

What do I mean? In the 1990s the Clinton administration was rightly criticized for handling international terrorism much like a routine law enforcement matter as though terrorists could only function as isolated criminal gangs. The Bush and Obama administration was, and is, criticized for addressing the problem as one strictly military in nature. It’s far more complex than either of those things: it’s part and parcel of the whole problem of modernity and the clash of civilizational values thereof. In 1960, for example, Moslems growing up in Egypt or Saudi Arabia saw modernization and the West in terms of modern medicine, electricity, sanitation, and the oil industry. Today, in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Moslems are moving away from the secularism their parents embraced and toward religious fundamentalism much as the United States has done in some respects. (It would be difficult, for example, to picture Truman or Eisenhower expressing the overt religious sentiments that have been expressed by U.S. presidents since Carter). They grow up taking the material comforts and technology of the modern world for granted but are disillusioned because - and this is also true of people outside the Islamic world - man does not live by McDonald’s alone. Material wealth and freedom mean nothing if they arrive accompanied by spiritual and intellectual impoverishment; crass consumerism, childish gadgetry, and the mindless worship of celebrity athletes and entertainers leave human beings empty shells. In such a world, the clergyman who can convince young radical Moslems that hijacking aircraft and crashing them into buildings does not reflect the true teachings of the Koran is worth more than an entire platoon of marines.

It is very likely that the U.S. will fail to subdue the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan and be compelled to withdraw its military forces. In the end, however, international terrorism is fueled by an ideological mechanism that will eventually run out of steam and stumble over its own intransigence just as Puritanism did at the end of the 17th century and just as international communism did at the end of the 20th century. In the meanwhile, it needs to be contained and dismantled piecemeal with a multitude of solutions fitting given situations and crisis’. Yes, occasional military strikes conducted against terrorist targets will be necessary. Yes, such controversial techniques like assassination of terrorist leaders and the torture and execution of captured terrorists will be required. (The rights of thousands of innocent people not to be murdered being more important than the “rights” of terrorists conjured by pie-in-the-sky law professors who evidently have little of value to teach their students about the real world and the nature of human conflict). And yes, houses of worship will have to be monitored, clergymen kept under close watch, freedom of religion more adequately defined, and transglobal communications systems censored. Perhaps, too, an international effort to abolish the global arms trade and economic sanctions against those nations that flood the world with weapons that invariably fall into the hands of terrorists. And certainly the militarization of the U.S. border to prevent illegal crossing by potential criminals and terrorists.

What’s being done in Iraq and Afghanistan, what’s been done these last eight years, not only defies sanity but will have no more significant impact on international terrorism than the Vietnam War had in bringing down international communism. The irony, too, is that the United States in Afghanistan is making some of the same mistakes made by the Soviet Union even though its intent is benign.

Paul Manton