The War in Afghanistan was launched on October 7, 2001 by the United States and the United Kingdom in response to the September 11, 2001 Al Qaeda attacks. It marked the beginning of President George Bush’s Great War against Terrorism. The Iraqi War refers to the United States-led invasion of Iraq which began on March 20, 2003. The invasion was prompted by the common belief amongst the US-led coalition that Saddam Hussein had managed to achieve nuclear and chemical warfare capability that could fall into the hands of terrorists.
In both the cases the United States and its allies have got bogged down in situations where it they can neither afford to pull out nor up the ante and charge forward. Robert McNamara who was the Secretary of Defense under President John F Kennedy and President Lyndon Johnson speaks about his experiences of war and the lessons he learnt from them during his eventful career in the award-winning documentary The Fog of War.
The very title of the documentary is a statement on the nature of war which McNamara says is “so complex that it is beyond the capability of the human mind to fully comprehend it.
” In the documentary, McNamara basically speaks about his experiences of the Cuban missile crisis and the Vietnamese War of the 1960s and 1970s. McNamara believes that the United States was able to avoid a war that would probably have turned nuclear and could still manage to get the Soviet missiles off Cuban soil primarily because it could empathize with its enemy.
The United States was able to appreciate the exact political situation Nikita Khrushchev was in when the confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States came to a head. In the face of his party hardliners Khrushchev needed a face-saving excuse to get out of Cuba and avoid a possible nuclear war. In the case of Vietnam, however, this was not possible as the United States did not know the Vietnamese well enough to be able to empathize with them.
The situations in Iraq and Afghanistan are also similar to Vietnam. Did the United States and it allies care to know the Iraqis or the Afghans well enough to be able to empathize with them? In the case of Saddam Hussein, the United States failed to appreciate the political circumstances that guided the actions of the dictator and clubbed him together with the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks. In doing so, they have created a situation which could have very well turned advantageous for the terrorists.
The situation in Iraq is now quite the perfect breeding grounds for terrorists who see the United States and its allies as the enemy that wants to destroy them and their religion. In Afghanistan too, despite all claims that the United States may make, for the Afghan the every American represents an enemy who has bombed their homes and killed their near and dear ones. Referring to his tenure in Ford, McNamara gives the example of their effort to analyze accident data to device ways and means to provide safety to people in cars.
Once they were able to get the accurate data, McNamara and his colleagues found that problems in packaging people in cars were the main cause of fatalities in accidents, and could come up with simple safety devices such as the seat belt which resulted in the saving of more than 20,000 lives every year in the United States alone. The importance of getting the data, and the accurate data, is quite evident in the case of Iraq and Saddam Hussein. Both the United States and the United Kingdom failed to obtain accurate data in the case of Iraq and also in the case of Afghanistan to a certain extent.
With accurate data not being available, things were bound to go wrong. The very next lesson that McNamara speaks of in the documentary becomes immediately applicable in the case of both Iraq and Afghanistan – the fact that what we see believe in and see can often both be wrong. McNamara cites the example of the supposed torpedo attacks by North Vietnamese patrol boats on the US destroyer Maddox on August 2, 1964 and again on the Maddox and its sister ships on August 4, 1964.
The August 2 attack was real enough, but President Johnson and the United States did not believe it to be true and chose to ignore it; the August 4 attacks were most probably conjured up by predisposed and stressed minds, but were taken to be real enough by the United State’s administration to launch attacks on North Vietnam. The dictum that we see what we choose to believe in is exemplified in the case of Afghanistan and Iraq. The United States believed that Iraq had manufactured nuclear weapons and that both Afghanistan and Iraq supported Islamic terrorists, and literally saw what they believed in.
These attitudes precipitated both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The failure to find Saddam Hussein’s stockpile of nuclear arsenal proved the belief long, albeit too late. The deteriorating conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan and the continued resistance of the people have also made it clear that the populations under seize hate the occupation forces not because Iraqis and Afghans are terrorists but because they perceive the Americans as aggressors. And more and more of the occupied people turn towards the terrorists.
Thousands of people have died from both sides of these wars. McNamara however feels proportionality should be a guideline of war. That raises the question whether the destruction of the Iraqi and Afghan societies and deaths of the thousands of American soldiers on the battlefield can be justified proportionally by the objectives that these wars hope to achieve. The end of global terrorism would demand a heavy price, but is this the right price to pay?
McNamara says that one has to engage in evil in order to do good, the deaths and destruction in Iraq and Afghanistan could very well be the necessary evil to achieve the good of ridding the world of terrorism and making it a far more safer and secure place for the future generations. Yet human nature will never change, and McNamara admits that every general makes mistakes in wars. So are Afghanistan and Iraq mistakes, or they still shrouded in the fog of war?