November/December 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 8
If we seek guidance from history as to the outcome of our determination to rout out the terrorism being harbored by Afghanistan, history will at best have a mixed set of messages for us.
First, Afghanistan and the terrorists it helps will be difficult to conquer or to subdue. Sporadically from 1839 to 1880, Britain tried to defeat the Afghans and prevent them from harassing India. This was at the northwest frontier, where fierce and unrelenting conventional tactics did not work in the brutal Afghan country. When in 1979 the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, they too were defeated. They withdrew in 1989. Russian generals and all military observers warn that conventional warfare tactics and even thousands of troops cannot win against fierce and fanatical warriors who care little about losses.
Second, history also teaches us that there are many military struggles that can be won even by small forces. History tells us of the British conquest of all India with tiny forces under the inspiring leadership of Robert Clive, a civilian administrator with no military background. In more recent times, there are many examples of forces that “could not possibly win.” One that comes quickly to mind is the overwhelming British defeat of the invading Argentinean force in the Falklands. Mrs. Thatcher was told by all her military advisers that it would not be possible to mount a successful counterinvasion because Britain was some 7,000 miles away. Also, those experts had in mind the inherent difficulties always faced by troop landings against an occupied island. Nevertheless, in a very short time the forces of the Argentine military junta were routed at comparatively little cost.
Then, too, we should recall the many predictions of doom that were “certain to happen” if we took on Iraq’s mighty army in our attempt to rescue Kuwait. That one required fewer than 30 days of preliminary aerial bombardment and less than 100 hours of infantry fighting before the Iraqis stumbled back home.
So it is possible to use the lessons of history in many ways. History is always instructive, and it is far wiser to know history even if we may not be able to use it as a guide to the future in all instances. In the case of the September 11 horror, we must first identify with all reasonable certainty the targets and networks and people responsible for those mass murders, and then we must with unrelenting intensity use every means at our command—military, economic, and diplomatic—to destroy those who committed these acts and those who helped them, and we should not be misled or diverted by any talk of “exercising restraint” or giving a “measured response.” These acts of terrorism were immeasurable in their violence and viciousness, and our goal must be to make it clear that everyone who participated in such acts faces complete destruction.
We may have to make some new history, just as in many ways the Gulf War did. If so, we and our allies should be prepared to do it. President Bush and his administration are well launched on the proper path.