“The war in Afghanistan is over.”–Nancy Pelosi.
It’s over, finally over. I can’t believe it. We got through it. The war is over! Drink in the moment. Savor it. Call your friends, break out the champagne, plan the parades. The troops are coming home. The war is over!
Or wait–maybe not. For a country at peace there certainly seems to be a lot of fighting going on in Afghanistan. Over the past several days Coalition forces have been fighting Taliban forces in Zabul Province, near the Pakistan border. Over 100 enemy troops have been killed and it is believed that some senior Taliban leaders are now surrounded. Meanwhile family, friends, neighbors, dignitaries, and townsfolk turned out in Scituate, Massachusetts to bid farewell to Sergeant Michael J. Kelley, killed in a rocket attack June 8 in the southeastern Afghan town of Shkin. War over? Not quite.
Pelosi’s assessment of the conflict’s termination had nothing to do with the military situation on the ground. She was simply engaging in a bit of legalistic judo over the Guantanamo issue. The Pentagon has stated that the enemy detainees can be held for the duration of the war. Fine then. The war is over, let them out. A very clever ploy, but it leaves one with the uncomfortable feeling that Pelosi might actually believe what she said. If nothing else it demonstrates her failure to conceptualize the nature of the unconventional war we are in.
How in fact do you know when this kind of war is over? There is no ceremony on the deck of the Missouri or in a railway carriage with documents signed and side-arms surrendered. Generally a defeated insurgency or band of terrorists, like an old general, just fades away. Attacks become less frequent and less violent; the opposition makes fewer defiant statements; high level enemy leaders are captured, killed, or vanish into obscurity. Peace comes on little cat feet. You know you’ve won when nothing happens.
It seemed like peace was at hand on May 19, 1839, when General Alexander Macomb, commanding general of the U.S. Army, declared an end to the Second Seminole War, a brutal insurgency that had been raging in the Florida swamps since December 1835. The number of attacks had diminished in recent months, and the Indians had agreed to lay down their arms and remain on their reservations. Life went back to normal. On the morning of July 23, 1839, Captain William S. Harney and 26 troops of the Second Dragoons were ambushed in heir tents by around 200 Seminoles in what became known as the Caloosahatchee Massacre. About 17 dragoons were killed, and the rest, including Harney, escaped into the wilderness and were later rescued. Looked like the war was on after all. It lasted until 1842, when the final armed Seminole band was rounded up. It was our longest war before Vietnam, and proportionately our most deadly ever. Hardly anyone remembers it, but maybe more people should.
So if nothing is happening it does not always mean you’ve won. Maybe the enemy is simply waiting you out. Maybe they are planning an attack even more devastating. After all, nothing was happening on September 10, 2001. It seemed as though the terrorists who had been threatening our country and striking at us abroad were deterred. The day before the 9/11 attacks did not seem very threatening, yet the United States was in extreme peril, as the next morning would demonstrate. Since then there have been no comparable attacks on the U.S. homeland. Does that mean the war on terrorism is over? I suppose we could release the detainees and find out.
–James S. Robbins is senior fellow in national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council and an NRO contributor.