Tuesday, 18 June 2013

18 June: a day to remember, but perhaps not to celebrate

Before 1973, the United States had never lost a war. Why, back in the eighteenth century, they beat Britain, the foremost naval force on Earth at the time and also one of its greatest military powers. They repeated the trick thirty years later, in the War of 1812.

Thereafter, they won war after war, not always to the greatest glory of the nation: defeats of native Americans were impressive and comprehensive though perhaps hardly the stuff of which proud legend is born. They also kicked the stuffing out of Mexicans (repeatedly, including multiple invasions in the twentieth century), the Spanish and pretty well anyone else who tangled with them.

Why, in 1865 they even scored a notable triumph against themselves and conquering oneself has to be the great test of will, hasn't it? At any rate, it was a victory over the most militaristic section of the country, the Southern States who seceded from the Union and precipitated a Civil War that was catastrophic first and foremost for themselves.

And of course, in the bitterest conflicts they faced abroad, they tipped the balance in the First World War and won the Second, with massive help from the Soviet Union in Europe, to all intents and purposes alone in the Pacific.

Then came January 1973 and the Paris Peace Accords between North Vietnam, South Vietnam and the United States. Those agreements provided a fig leaf to cover US withdrawal in Vietnam, and withdraw they did. Two years later, the North Vietnamese completed their victory over the South, confirming that what had happened in 1973 was the utter defeat of the US-backed side in the conflict, and very far from the ‘peace with honour’ that had been claimed.

For the first time in its history, the US had lost a war.

As so often happens, the first occurrence of an event was quickly followed by others.

Some have been minor. Following a terrorist attack on a marine barracks that left 300 dead, the US was forced out of Lebanon in 1983 having achieved none of its goals; ten years later, US troops were killed in Somalia and their bodies dragged through the streets, leading to another humiliating withdrawal.

Far more serious are two new conflicts which the West is still trying to pass off as victories. In Iraq the fact that Saddam Hussein has been overthrown is presented as some kind of victory; the huge loss of life among the civilian population as well as among Western soldiers is talked down, as is the fact that the regime is increasingly a puppet of Iran. The latest disaster is in Afghanistan, where the Taliban grows in power and strength every day, while the government NATO put in power is mired in corruption and disarray.

Well, that went so well, let's try our luck again somewhere else
Today, 18 June, NATO handed over responsibility for military operations in that country to the Afghan military. It did so despite knowing that the Afghan army has been infiltrated by Taliban agents, many of whom have turned their guns on NATO troops; it knows too that the same army has established a mode of operation in which it pulls out of areas where the Taliban wishes to carry out a mission, and only moves back once that mission is complete.

In other words, handing over to the Afghan army is tantamount to admitting yet another defeat and preparing the ground for a return to Taliban rule.

The series of failures of American, or American-led, armed interventions that started with 1973 therefore continues its disastrous course.

It’s far from clear to me that this series of defeats does anything to further the cause of democracy or human rights, or even simply the interests of the West. The countries invaded suffer enormously. The cost to our nations is far from negligible either. Might it not be a good idea to cut our losses?

But far from our nations drawing any wisdom from this experience, West is now considering taking a more active role in the Syrian conflict. Initially that would mean arming the rebels, even though the main rebel units – which would undoubtedly get their hands on any weapons sent out there – are controlled by Al Qaida, and it was to root out Al Qaida that we first went into Afghanistan. There is also talk of a more active intervention, imposing a no-fly zone, which would mean committing NATO forces once more, if only in the air.

Ah, well. Here we go again. Proving, as if proof were needed, that if you don’t learn from your mistakes, you condemn yourself to making them again and again.

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