More Lives Lost in Vain

During the Vietnam War, President Lyndon Johnson and the military argued that we had to win in order to prevent communism from taking over other nations in the vicinity, the so-called domino theory. The military asserted repeatedly that provided we sent over more troops, they could win the war. They also argued that we needed to get the local people on our side, which, not surprisingly, we were never able to do. Government officials argued that we could not leave Southeast Asia because that would be admitting defeat; the families that had lost loved ones would feel their sons and daughters had died in vain.

Unfortunately, over 58,000 did die in vain. Another 150,000 plus Americans were wounded. Those figures ignore the million-plus North Vietnamese who lost their lives and the quarter of a million South Vietnamese who were killed.

What did we get out of the war? Nothing! Cambodia and Laos both did go communist, as did South Vietnam. Forty years later, this no longer matters. Now we have good relations with Vietnam and Cambodia. Tourists visit those countries by the thousands. Trade with them is booming. Had we not entered the war or had we abandoned it earlier, we could have established relations with Indochina sooner and avoided such horrendous casualties. The only thing to show for this war is a poignant monument in Washington, D.C., to the fallen.

Nearly 40 years later, after 9/11, the U.S. became angry and sent its military to get revenge. First we invaded Afghanistan, which had housed Osama bin Laden and his aides, even though Afghanistan proper had had nothing to do with the attacks on New York and Washington. In fact, the perpetrators had planned their operation in Hamburg, Germany. The ringleader was from Egypt; 15 of the terrorists were from Saudi Arabia; three were from the United Arab Emirates; and one was from Jordan. Right from the first, a number of neocons in President George W. Bush’s administration believed we should attack Iraq, a country that had actually been hated by bin Laden. In Afghanistan, the administration failed to pursue Osama bin Laden actively, leaving it up to the local warlords to go after him in the mountains of Tora Bora. The locals and al-Qaeda agreed on a brief truce, which gave the latter the time to escape, probably into Pakistan. The U.S. then turned its attention to conquering Iraq. In March 2003 our troops invaded that country.

Thus, within two years of 9/11, we had attacked two countries that had nothing to do with that strike, and our troops are still in both. Initially, our objective in Afghanistan was to capture or kill Osama bin Laden and his aides. As everyone knows, that effort failed. We also wanted to eliminate a refuge and hideout for al-Qaeda, and we may have succeeded in that. According to CIA reports, there are probably fewer than 100 operatives from that group in the country. Reports are that the Taliban has severed relations with al-Qaeda, who are no longer using Afghanistan as a safe haven.

Our objective in Iraq has never been clear. Except for removing their military dictator, Saddam Hussein, from office, our purpose in going into Iraq remains confused. There are many nasty dictators in the world; why take out this one? We claimed that there were weapons of mass destruction in that country, a claim which turned out to be untrue. But even if Saddam had had nuclear weapons, and few claimed that he did, the military in such a poor country had no means of using them against the United States.

Whether the U.S. has now established a democracy in Iraq is a matter of definition. What passes for a government in that country is riven with ethnic and religious divisions. Four months after electing a new parliament, the political leaders are unable to agree on who is to have what job.

For what purpose are we remaining in Afghanistan and in Iraq? We may be leaving the latter country, although our military seems reluctant to go. It is argued that the country will dissolve into civil war once our troops are gone. But can our troops do anything about a civil struggle? And should they do something? To the extent Americans become involved, we will be seen as playing favorites. We have already lost over 4,400 soldiers in that country, and staying longer mean more fatalities and more casualties. For what purpose?

The reasons given for staying in Afghanistan are even more specious. Proponents of fighting in that mountainous country assert that we cannot simply leave, for the Taliban would take it over. That seems improbable. Even before 2001, the Taliban had been unable to control the whole country. A number of provinces were ruled by warlords and not by the religious fanatics. The articulated U.S. objective has been to establish a viable government in the capital, Kabul, and extend its control over the whole country. This is a country in which most men and women cannot read. Transparency International rates it as the second most corrupt country in the world, behind only Somalia. There is no possibility of securing an efficient, honest government, a police force that is not corrupt, and a military that is effective. Even if we stay 10 years or longer we cannot achieve this goal.

Pulling out of Afghanistan will result in the Taliban’s taking over much of the country. That will be terrible for the women, who will be deprived of education, medical care, and many rights. It will, however, save American lives, which are now being lost at rates comparable to the losses in Iraq during the worst years. If the U.S. stays longer, even 10 years more, it will not result in a significantly better government. For one thing, it is impossible to educate people that fast, nor can you eliminate corruption that quickly. NATO troops have so far been unable to provide security in most of Afghanistan’s southern provinces. The one bright spot from pulling our troops out is that the Taliban will probably be more effective than the West in eliminating poppy growing, the staple of the heroin trade. Prior to our invasion, the Taliban had stamped out much of the drug trade as un-Islamic.

There is no purpose for the U.S. to stay longer in either of these wars. Keeping troops in Iraq and Afghanistan will only lead to more mothers who have lost children, wives who have lost husbands, husbands who have lost wives, and children who have lost parents.

Author: Thomas Gale Moore

Thomas Gale Moore is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in economics and has taught at the Carnegie Institution of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University), Michigan State University, UCLA, and the Stanford Business School. He has written numerous peer-reviewed economic articles and several books.