A recent headline about the failure to withdraw from Afghanistan got me thinking about the “endless war” talk that’s been going on for at least the last decade. It ties in with the “war weariness” narrative that started less than two years into the Iraq War, a war weariness felt by a population that sacrificed little or nothing. They were just tired of seeing it on the news.
But there’s something there. The point just is not necessarily what the pundits think it is.
“The Long War” as some have called it didn’t start on September 11th, 2001. We’d been clashing with jihadi elements for a long time before that. The Iranian Hostage Crisis began with a Shi’a jihadist revolution, that immediately targeted Americans. It has been pointed out that the US directly supported the Shah, whose Savak secret police could rival the KGB for brutality at times, thus making the US the revolutionaries’ enemy, justifiably. (It should be pointed out that most countries in the region have equally repressive police forces, including the “good” ones who are still our allies.)
But the Islamic Revolution, like just about every other revolution in history, promptly proved itself every bit as bad, if not worse, as the Council of Guardians and the Pasdaran promptly took control of 90% of the country’s wealth, instituted a Shariah regime every bit as repressive as the Savak, only more ubiquitous, and, like revolutionaries everywhere, promptly set out to export the revolution, violently. Hezbollah killed more Americans prior to 9/11 than any other terror group. The Marine Barracks Bombing in Beirut in October of 1983 was theirs.
It’s still going on, in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, and elsewhere. And that’s just the Shi’a side.
The Sunni had less reason to come after us; after all, the CIA unwisely deferred to the Pakistani ISI during the Soviet-Afghan War, resulting in the majority of US funds going to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who was far more of a hardline Salafist jihadi than the other major muj leaders, such as Massoud and al Haq (both of whom were later assassinated by the Taliban). The US aided Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in ’91. And yet, Al Qaeda targeted Americans in Somalia in ’93 (the Battle of the Black Sea in Mogadishu, immortalized in Blackhawk Down, was later cited by Bin Laden himself as the proof that the Americans were a paper tiger, and therefore the next major target, since the Soviet Union had folded), in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in ’98, and the USS Cole in Aden in 2000.
The point above is twofold. First of all, we’ve been at war with fundamentalist Islam (leaving aside the examination of the fact that “fundamentalist” Islam is true Islam as it was taught from the seventh century on) for a lot longer than just the last eighteen years. Second of all, the wails about “endless war” and “end the wars in the Middle East” leave aside one basic fact that I’ve been harping on for years:
It only takes one side to start a war. It takes both sides to end it.
There is no way to unilaterally “stop” a war. The belief that we can do so is as misguided as the belief that we’d overthrow Saddam in a few days, be welcomed as liberators, and Iraq would suddenly become a flowering Jeffersonian democracy between the Tigris and the Euphrates. It is superpower hubris at a far higher level than the “imperial hubris” that was often bandied about in the early ’00s.
Both sides have to agree that there is nothing further to be gained by the war. And the other side isn’t going to do that. They’ve demonstrated it over and over and over. And there are two reasons for that. One is religious. The other is cultural.
Jihadis are fanatics by nature. They have expressed their hatred for all not of their particular sect of Islam in no uncertain terms since the beginning. And despite what has happened in the last 18 years, they haven’t been broken. Even in the places where some of their groups have been, they’ve only bounced back. (ISIS is regrouping as we speak; their “caliphate” might be dead and buried, but the group isn’t gone.)
But that’s only the first part. The second, as I said, is cultural. And it’s a cultural blind spot that’s already hobbled us, and that we can’t seem to get past.
These societies are primarily tribal. In one sense, that’s an advantage for our side; tribal groups don’t tend to get along with anyone outside the tribe. It’s also been a liability, as we’ve ignored that tribal “human terrain” in large part, thinking that if we just made them mingle, they’d learn to be a melting pot like us. So, we’ve brought ANA units consisting of Tajiks and Uzbeks down into Pashtun territory, where the hatreds can flare up.
But deeper than that is the lack of understanding that many of these tribal societies live by feud. Blood feuds are something that some Americans used to understand; look at the Hatfields and McCoys. But those days are largely over, in some respect because the high-tech atomization of American society has reduced the cohesive nature of extended family. Even as Western telecommunications become widespread in the Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia, the cultures are not magically changing.
Which means that blood feud is still a factor. Regardless of the cause, Americans have killed their kin, which means that the feud must go on.
The wars aren’t going to just end because history shows that feuds only end when one tribe or another is wiped out. And that’s not likely to happen in either direction.