Thursday, May 07, 2015

Losing the plot

I am have been working through the Hardcore History "Blueprint for Armageddon" series, recounting the history of the First World War. I'm in the sixth and final episode of the 23 hour series. It is both incredibly grim and exhausting to listen to. Also informative! But I can only take so much military history at a time so it has been a long slow journey.

What has always struck me about the First World War is how all of the major actors in that conflict quickly lost the plot. Russia entered the war to protect Serbia from Austria-Hungary. Germany entered the war to protect Austria-Hungary from Russia, and then attacked France because Germany knew that France had a mutual protection pact with Russia and that by declaring war on Russia that meant that France would soon enter the war to protect Russia.

Almost immediately every side completely forgot about their original goal. Germany continued to fight even after Austria-Hungary effectively collapsed as a military force. Its goal of protecting Austria-Hungary was unsuccessful, but Germany kept fighting anyway. Likewise, Russia continued to fight even after Serbia was defeated and occupied by the axis powers. Its goal of protecting Serbia didn't work either, and yet the Russians continued to fight. Indeed, the conflict that the entire world war was supposedly about--the fight between Austria-Hungary and Serbia over the independence of Serbia--had almost no role in the war at all after the first month or so of the conflict. Meanwhile, France, ostensibly in the war because of its alliance with Russia, continued to fight even after Russia dropped out of the war after the Tsar was overthrown in 1917.

That's what makes the whole war look so pointless. They all started fighting for a particular reason, and then kept fighting even when those reasons no longer applied. The logic of war took over. After demonizing the enemy to rally the people to war, they couldn't simply turn it off when the original goal became moot. Fighting itself became the reason for the conflict. Millions died for no concrete reason at all.

I think that is what has happened to the U.S. in Afghanistan. Originally, the Taliban was not the enemy. The enemy was Osama Bin Laden and his al Qaeda network, which was based in Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan. The U.S. demanded that the Taliban hand Bin Laden over, and after dithering for a brief period, they eventually refused claiming that they had an obligation to protect Bin Laden as their guest. So the U.S. and its allies attacked the Taliban, not to conquer Afghanistan, but rather to get to Bin Laden and al Qaeda.

Bin Laden is dead, and al Qaeda central is mostly gone, although remnants remain probably as much in Pakistan as Afghanistan. So why is the U.S. still fighting the Taliban? Are we trying to punish them for making the bad choice of protecting Bin Laden? (If so, how much punishment is enough?) Or did the American people lose the plot along the way, and now we are in an endless war with its own senseless logic?