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American Diplomacy
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October 2017

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Afghanistan is Not Our Longest War
by David T. Jones


There seems to be a new truth that whoever starts a column about Afghanistan, adds the descriptive phrase, "Our longest war." Or words to that effect.

One is not exactly sure why the writers seek to belabor this sobriquet. Perhaps they believe their readers are sufficiently ignorant that they need to be reminded about the duration of our Afghan commitment.

More likely, they oppose our commitment in Afghanistan and wish to prompt readers to protest that the United States should simply "declare victory" and depart, washing our hands of the results (a la Vietnam) from any aftermath. Or that no casualties are "worth it" in a far away land that most Amcits still would have difficulty locating on a map.

But it depends on how you are counting to describe Afghanistan as "our longest war." Some additional comparatives for those with a bit of historical memory:

  • The Korean War, which began in 1950 and continues to this day (67 years and counting). Active combat with heavy casualties may have ended in 1953; however, this fighting was concluded by an "Armistice" rather than a peace agreement. Consequently, there have been alarms and excursions along the truce line and offshore waters during which soldiers and civilians have died. Active combat could resume at any time;
  • The so-called Cold War, enduring roughly from the end of WWII in 1945 until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. This conflict ran approximately 45 years, depending upon where you start your counting. During this period, there were multiple "proxy" wars during which Washington and Moscow tested each other’s commitments and willingness to sustain confrontation and containment. One obvious example was our faceoff with Cuba between 1961 and 2016. Another was Afghanistan where we funded and supplied (through cut outs) weaponry including antiair missiles for Afghan rebels fighting against Soviet combat troops. Another was Middle East conflict with Washington arming Israel and Moscow providing weapons and training for most other combatants, notably Syria and Egypt.

Or for the more historically inclined:

  • Combatting insurgency in the Philippines following our seizure/conquest of the islands during the 1898 Spanish-American War. Depending on various counting rules, our efforts to suppress "Moro" rebels in Mindanao lasted between 1898 and 1913 (or 1928); and    
  • The "Indian Wars" which arguably including fighting between Indians and colonists virtually from the time the first European colonists arrived in North America.  Both British and Americans enlisted Indian allies against each other in the Revolutionary War and War of 1812 (and Indians fought both British and American colonists throughout). But more specifically, colonists/American soldiers sporadically fought Indians from Independence in 1776 until 1923 (approximately 150 years), with mutual massacre of the most vicious nature the standing rule.

Thus Afghanistan is almost trivial in terms of U.S. forces in active military commitments. In 16 years of fighting in Afghanistan, the USG has lost 1,856 in "hostile action." Compare this figure with 2,499 dead on the first day of D-Day combat on Juno and Omaha beach. Or addressing Iraqi Freedom (2003 to June 2016) "total deaths" of 4,424. Compare these losses with WWII battles of Tarawa (20-23 Nov 1943) with 1,696 KIA in 72 hours and Iwo Jima (35 days in 1945) with 6,821 killed.

Somewhere we have lost, or at least misplaced, societal perspective over military sacrifices. The WWII casualties came from a population base of 140 million. And U.S. society bore them with anguish but willingly. But can anyone contemplate national willingness to sustain losses of 50,000 dead that we absorbed in saving Korea from communist domination? Or another 50,000 dead in our failed effort to prevent communist domination of Vietnam/Laos/Cambodia?

Not even from a population of 330 million when all armed forces members are volunteers and the selective service draft abolished for over a generation.

We move ever closer to a conclusion that every life is too precious to lose except under the most compelling circumstances. One suspects that it would require intergalactic invaders of Star Wars dimensions to galvanize U.S. and/or global resistance.bluestar


Author David T. Jones, a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer, served as Minister-Counselor for Political Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa. He is frequent contributor to American Diplomacy and other publications as well as the co-author of Uneasy Neighbo(u)rs, a book about U.S.-Canada relations.



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