Archive for April, 2008

Bad Memories

April 12, 2008

In a hilarious op-ed piece that was published yesterday in the New York Times (, columnist David Brooks pointed out that Americans have trouble remembering things, bad things in particular, that happened in the past.  He said that this notion has implications for individuals interacting with one another in society as well as for international relations.


There is certainly a danger that the lessons from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will be forgotten by political and military leaders.  The Iraq war is a brutal reminder that large scale insurgencies are very difficult to quell, and the US should avoid waging counterinsurgencies whenever doing so is not in its vital national interests.  Like the American war effort in Vietnam, getting involved in the conflict in Iraq was avoidable; in fact, we created it. 


However, the US military should not forget how best to conduct counterinsurgency operations like it did in the years between Vietnam and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. 


During that time period, former President Richard Nixon wrote a book called No More Vietnams, and a high level American military officer declared “We don’t do counterinsurgency.” 


In other words, American leaders argued that the US should never get involved in non-conventional battles.  The conflict in Afghanistan between Taliban insurgents and NATO demonstrates that, while the US should be wary of taking on counterinsurgency missions, sometimes getting involved in them is unavoidable if the US is going to pursue its national security interests.  Following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the Bush administration wisely chose to overthrow the Taliban regime in Afghanistan that was harboring and supporting Al Qaeda, the terrorist network behind the attacks on New York and Washington.  After the Afghan government was toppled, the Taliban and its Al Qaeda allies initiated an insurgency campaign in an effort to drive out the US and regain power.  Since then, the American government has been faced with two options: stay in Afghanistan and prevent it from becoming a terrorist state hostile to the US, or withdraw and allow Al Qaeda to regain its old sanctuary.  Neither option was good, but continuing to fight Al Qaeda and its Taliban supporters was certainly the least bad option and continues to serve America’s interests. 


US should not forget its past mistakes.  Fighting insurgents, who are often nefarious characters, in an attempt to protect friendly governments sometimes appears to be a smart and moral thing to do.  However, the costs of doing so often outweigh the benefits because the insurgency is either taking place in a part of the world that has little strategic value to the US, or defeating the insurgents without taking actions that would be unacceptable to a democratic society is impossible.  In such cases, the US should refrain from committing large numbers of American troops to those conflicts.  However, assuming that the military will never have to perform counterinsurgency operations is folly, and neglecting to prepare for them will be costly in terms of blood and treasure.