Friday, 9 July 2021

The Graveyard of Empires

Pic courtesy

The news emanating from Afghanistan lately has a familiar ring.

 The same cadence emanated from Saigon on 20th April 1975.

There are some similarities when the situation is compared with Vietnam. Each conflict persisted for more than a decade, the most powerful military in the world has failed in its attempt to stabilise each country, and locals who supported the West's commitment are now in fear of their lives.

Both countries were utterly devastated by the conflicts. In the case of Vietnam, the best figures indicate that over 2 million civilians were casualties by 1975, and over 562,000 Afghans have been killed and about 6 million have fled as refugees since 2001.

Both countries were cockpits during the cold war, with the Russians invading Afghanistan on Christmas Eve, 1979, and the Americans deploying into Vietnam most significantly in 1965 after the Gulf of Tonkin incident.

The proxy wars fought were similar in nature and outcome, with the Americans supporting the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan, and the Russians the Communists in Vietnam.

There are also some significant differences.

The outcome for the Vietnamese was unification under a culturally Confucian style of Communism, but for the Afghans, although it is not yet resolved, the likelihood of a cohesive central government seems remote.

If history is a guide, and the country returns to default mode, a series of tribally based spheres of influence, competing with each other in a deadly struggle for land, wealth and raw power seems the most likely result.

The Talibs will have their work cut out trying to establish a national government.

Afghanistan has defeated both colonialism and enduring central governance for centuries.

The Duke of Wellington, who knew a thing or two about military attempts to establish empire, spoke in the House of Lords in 1838 condemning the British invasion of Afghanistan saying that the real difficulties would only begin after the invasion's success, predicting that the Anglo-Indian force would rout the Afghan tribal levy, but then find themselves struggling to hold the terrain of the Hindu Kush mountains. 

He noted that Afghanistan was a land with no modern roads, and called the whole operation "stupid" given that Afghanistan was a land of "rocks, sands, Deserts, ice, and snow".

I've blogged before about the difference in scale between the Australian casualty figures in Vietnam and Afghanistan, but this difference probably matters little in terms of the individual grief shared by their friends and families.

Whether our involvement in these wars was ill-advised or not, they died in the service of our country and should be honoured for that. Unfortunately, the enduring controversy about the behavior of Special Forces in Afghanistan has put at risk the reputation of those involved. They deserve better, just as those returning to Australia after Vietnam deserved better.

Whether the same honour is due to the politicians who committed them to both conflicts is another matter entirely. 

Given the history of well-intentioned, but ham-fisted attempts to impose Western-style democracy on a pair of countries whose cultural history would indicate that it was an impossible task, these governments were either completely ignorant or more focussed on domestic politics than the welfare and collective freedom of Vietnamese and Afghans.

You decide...

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Hugh White - Without America

Hugh White is always provocative, and doesn't pull any punches when it comes to criticising current defence policy. In 1995, he was appo...