Just like we struggled to understand why, with the fall of South Vietnam’s capital of Saigon in 1975, we lost what was then our longest war in history, today – with the ongoing fall of Afghanistan’s capital of Kabul – we will soon struggle to understand why we lost our new, longest war as well. In both cases, indicators that victory was unobtainable existed long before American blood was ever spilled on those battlefields. There is a common link in the “kryptonite” that led to our defeats in two conflicts ending nearly half a century apart.
China’s rule of Vietnam for over a millennium eventually triggered the latter’s evolution toward a national identity that ultimately transitioned into a spiritual obsession. This was reflected by Vietnam’s commitment to fight and expel all foreign occupiers, no matter how long it took to do so. A Vietnam yearning to remain independent found itself fighting China practically every century of its 1,000 years of independence. During the 20th century, it evidenced this obsession by defeating five countries – Japan, France, the U.S., Cambodia and China. Its nationalist spirit proved to be kryptonite for any nation taking it on, arguably giving birth in the 20th century to Vietnam’s “greatest generation” of warriors.
The reason U.S. victory in Afghanistan was unobtainable is perhaps best understood by sharing an 1892 Rudyard Kipling quote and the facts concerning a 2011 U.S. Army case against Green Beret Sgt. 1st Class Charles Martland. The case involved both a moderate and extremist interpretation of an Islamic practice. Interestingly, while moderate Islam was practiced by our Afghan allies and extremist Islam by the Taliban, both sanctioned the practice in question.
Foreign practices can run afoul of Western social mores. Such was suggested in a line of a famous Kipling ballad in which he wrote, “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” While lamenting a lack of understanding by the British of customs embraced by inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent under their rule, today the reference is applicable to suggest that two things, such as cultures, are so different from each other that they lack any basis for establishing common ground.
While serving in Afghanistan in September 2011, Martland came across an Afghan police commander brutally raping a child. He pummeled the Afghan, only to later be prosecuted by his command for doing so. While the Afghan’s action was criminal under U.S. law, it was permissible under Afghanistan’s Islamic law. Only a hard-fought five-year legal battle saved Martland from being separated from the Army as he was ultimately exonerated. But the acceptability in Islamic culture of raping a child and its unacceptability in Western culture clearly underscored the fact that the practice was one upon which “never the twain shall meet” eye-to-eye.
The Martland case tells us when there is little that two allied countries share in common values, a unified commitment needed by them to achieve the same political goal is lacking.
While national identity was the source of strength for the enemy we fought in Vietnam, in Afghanistan the values of Islamism provided a source of strength for the Taliban. Islamism teaches that the greatest rewards in eternity, sexual and otherwise, await believers who die fighting to spread it globally, seeking all other religions’ subjugation to it. Taliban fighters are thus imbued with a source of strength our Afghan allies lacked as there were no similar heavenly rewards awaiting them should they die fighting for democracy.
The Taliban take this belief with them to the battlefield, giving them the psychological advantage of not fearing death – kryptonite against non-believers who, gradually, are worn down by the Taliban’s refusal to surrender.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claims Islam is not a divided religion. He says, “There is no moderate or immoderate Islam; Islam is one.” But while the Quran is Islam’s bible from which all teachings flow, the fact that extremist interpretations have fed Muslim aggression ever since Prophet Muhammad’s death suggests Erdogan is wrong. The dual interpretation emanates from contradictory verses appearing in the Quran, which medieval scholars resolved by applying the concept of abrogation, mandating that the later verse controls. In most cases, however, that later verse is one of intolerance or violence.
While the U.S. demonstrated during the Persian Gulf War it could soundly and quickly defeat a Muslim army, it was not a victory achieved against a diehard Islamic extremist force committed to fighting infidels to the death. While extremists have suffered battlefield setbacks, they only temporarily disrupt their march forward. The reality is that one generation after another continues to be indoctrinated with this mindset. It is evidenced by the Taliban’s resilience against the U.S. and NATO. It is a mindset that has been manifested as well in ISIS, which, suffering setbacks earlier at the hands of President Donald Trump, is reemerging worldwide today as a force with which to still be reckoned.
While our enemy’s source of strength in Vietnam and Afghanistan differed, we failed to recognize that it provided them with tremendous strength to fight a relentless war while simultaneously draining our own strength to nurture democracy in lands where it really is not fully appreciated. Such resilience only lays the groundwork for long wars.
The impact of future relations with these 20th and 21st century adversaries will have diametrically opposite results. A victorious Vietnam was content to lick its wounds, establish itself regionally and tolerate America’s existence within the world community, ultimately embracing rapprochement with us. That will not be the case with the Taliban who are only determined – now more than ever based on their victory – to spread Islamism regionally and beyond, while exercising their intolerance of an infidel America.
As we will one day discover, the Taliban’s war against us will not end with the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan. It will prove to be but a temporary lull in hostilities by which the Taliban will regain strength now in order to take the war to America later.
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