GRAVEYARD OF EMPIRES

By Mickey Skidmore, AMHSW, ACSW, MACSW

Most of us embrace the likelihood, that when we go to the doctor, their effort to assist us often will include medication. Medication is the primary (healing) tool in their toolbox. They fix things with a pill. Surgeons are a specialised sub-category of the medical establishment that emphasise surgical interventions and procedures as their primary healing tool. And despite the amazing advances that can be accomplished with medical surgeries today, most of us also acknowledge that approaching a surgeon for every medical ailment, concern or issue may not be the wisest course of action. Likewise, trying to kill a fly with a bazooka might be a bit over the top as well — or perhaps not the most efficient means of addressing the concern.

Like many of us, I have been reflecting on the recent withdrawal of NATO forces in Afghanistan. And some of my initial thoughts are at least initially associated with the medical analogy above. I am struck by the way we talk and think about this. There are obvious parallels to the fall of Saigon in the mid 1970’s with statements about “losing the war.” And I’m certain an argument can be made that America has lost another war. Yet I’m not certain that this is a helpful way of looking at these events.

It occurs to me that it may not be accurate to think of military action in such straight-forward terms. In my lifetime, WWII may be the only example that comes to mind with a clear military conflict that concluded with the surrender from one side yielding to a victor. So, to say or imply that the war in Afghanistan was lost, or that the Taliban defeated anyone may not be the most accurate depiction of these events. Like they have done for thousands of years, they have outlasted any military regime attempting to influence their Governmental or Tribal structures. Perhaps it is more accurate to characterise it as more of a military campaign; but again, one that had become increasingly vague and increasingly impossible to determine or measure a successful outcome.

It has been widely accepted, even by those who served in Afghanistan that the military mission had shifted (perhaps multiple times) and with each shift became increasingly vague about the actual objectives. It was widely accepted amongst the rank and file that “success” in Afghanistan was becoming increasingly elusive. Perhaps this is because the mission had shifted increasingly towards Nation building rather than a clear and distinct military objective or purpose. And thus, attempting to accomplish Nation building objectives via utilisation of the military is not significantly different that going to see a surgeon for an infection.

Eisenhower is widely credited with identifying the phrase “military industrial complex.” He attempted to warn about the creeping influence of such a mentality or political force. Yet, our language is marked by multiple references to so many things with a military contexts or reference:  the “war on drugs”, the “war on poverty”, the need to commit to a “war footing” in dealing with climate issues. It has almost become unconsciously accepted as part of our cognitive preconceptions. And it has a cumulative impact of intellectually wearing us down. 

There would appear to be a clear indication for Nation building in Afghanistan. However, this is work that is best done with a range of international NGO’s (Peace Corp; Doctors without Borders; and numerous others) rather than the military. The military machine has enormous capacity to address nearly any issue in ways regular institutions can not. Yet, it is not always the best or even the wises course of action or resource to deal with everything.

It is understandable that many of those who have served in Afghanistan may be questioning their contributions (“what was the point of it all…?”). And there seems to be little disagreement, that in hindsight, perhaps the decision to withdraw could have been executed differently. But in time, I am hopeful that all those who served can know that their presence absolutely was worthwhile and made a difference — even if the larger expectations of the military establishment may not have been (fully) realised.

This cycle has been unfolding in Afghanistan for thousands of years. This is not the first time that Afghanistan has outlasted outsiders attempting to influence, coerce or impose governmental change their vastly multi-cultural country. And there is a good chance that other military regimes and empires will fall to a similar fate in the future.