Generals and politicians are often accused of being too ready to fight the last war. This is a dark way of putting the axiom that Carl von Clauswitz framed positively from a soldier’s perspective, to wit, that surprise plays a more important role in a successful military strategy than tactics.
Ironically in Afghanistan at the bleak start of the 21st Century, our Canadian political leaders are prepared to fight the last peace. As a result, there will be no surprises, and victory will elude us. There will only be stalemate and the drip, drip, drip of Canadian blood and treasure, and, eventually, withdrawal.
So, while there are other, darker reasons for the Canadian role in Afghanistan, the debate is framed in the context of extending freedom, protecting the homeland and eventual total victory because that is the way we have been conditioned to understand war and peace through the lens the last great conflict in which Canada played a significant role — the Second World War.
What is not so obvious, because of the overwhelming role World Wars I and II played in the creation of Canada’s “postwar” self image, is that those great conflicts between industrialized nations in possession of vast technological resources, with populations crowded into great cities and divided by political ideas, and the ultimate dénouement in 1945 in unconditional surrender by our foes and total victory for us, not to mention the prosperous peace that followed, was an exception in history.
World War II in particular was a historical outlier even beyond the social, technological and cultural state of Europe in the 20th Century in that by mid-war the understanding percolated through the German national psyche that collectively Germans had been duped by a madman. Furthermore, after Aug. 6, 1945, it was clear to the Japanese leadership they faced an enemy quite possibly prepared to re-use a unique super-weapon to obliterate their culture utterly.
Such conditions no longer prevail on this planet, and are unlikely ever to prevail again.
Historically, war has been much more likely to be a long, bloody grind involving roving armies and independent agents moving through a rural population, both capable of living off the land and holding atavistic cultural and religious beliefs. In such conditions, neither side could achieve a meaningful victory in the short term.
Since World War II, war has been more likely to be a variety of the same thing, a quasi-imperial domination of a rural population by technologically advanced powers who are ground down over time by a determined insurgency culturally impervious to such ideas as “progress,” surrender or the futility of resistance.
In such insurgencies, even without the Pakistani ISI next door to help, victory eventually goes to the insurgents, though more often with a whimper than a bang.
This is surely the case in Afghanistan, historically a vast meat-grinder of imperial ambition. Indeed, Afghanistan is the perfect Petri dish for insurgency — a large population with a deep cultural and religious preference for resistance, virtually immune to modernity, spread thinly over a vast country, engaged in subsistence farming, thus capable of living off the land, with no way for its enemies to distinguish resistance fighters from other elements of the population.
As a result, the soaring rhetoric we have read in recent days in the Globe and Mail and other Canadian media about sacrifice, freedom and ultimate victory — as if Afghanistan were Europe in 1945 — is largely meaningless and, in the sense that it perpetrates a scam on a people conditioned to think of war in the context of the peace that followed World War II, deeply contemptible.
The Afghan Army, the Afghan National Police, will never stand up so that our troops can stand down, to paraphrase an American leader now thankfully departed from the scene. The Taliban, so called, will never surrender or be eradicated. Western-style political and religious institutions and attitudes will never be instituted. There will never be “liberation,” victory parades, or even set piece battles for our forces to win conveniently as if this were France or Holland in 1944 and 1945.
Certainly our prime minister and his doppelganger at the head of the increasingly meaningless Parliamentary Opposition have the historical perspective to understand this well, even if the media and many rank-and-file politicians do not.
That is why it was necessary for them to secure Canada’s continued participation in Afghanistan through deceit and the appeal to the misleading paradigm of Canada’s last great peace.
We were lied to, of course, about the government’s intention to withdraw our soldiers from Afghanistan in 2011. This should have been obvious, but many of us were duped by the media’s continual portrayal of the prime minister as a leader determined to proceed with “the planned 2011 pullout of combat troops.”
Now we are being told that our soldiers’ role will only be that of trainers and advisors, “inside the wire.” This too will be revealed as a lie.
Canada’s political leaders have their reasons for desiring our army’s continued presence in Afghanistan. They do not believe ordinary Canadians would support them if those reasons were stated plainly.
Canada’s military leadership likewise has its reasons to be enthusiastic about a continued combat role — though they certainly understand the strategic reality of Afghanistan and are likely to say “enough” long before our politicians.
For these reasons, the conflict in Afghanistan will continue to be presented to us through the deceptive and distorting lens of World War II.
This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, Alberta Diary.