Wednesday - July 21, 2010

Category Image The Searchers in Afghanistan

I was watching and thoroughly enjoying my now favorite John Wayne movie, The Searchers, for the first time the other day and a thought struck me that we've fought a war like the one in Afghanistan before.  It was called the Indian Wars. 

In the Indian Wars after the Civil War, the US Army was fighting in a sparsely inhabited country against an enemy that was largely insurgents but also able to call up moderate sized paramilitary units who were well trained and very knowlegeable of the local terrain.

There are of course differences.  The Indians tended to be somewhat nomadic, and Afghans tend to live in villages.  Although some of the Indians had a sort of religious fervor, their religion supported their war aims rather than created their war aims as does Islam in Afghanistan.

But the similarities are pretty strong.  A largely ignorant population living in wretched conditions with a mostly stone age culture piggy backing on modern civilization for some basic tools and rudimentary commerce tried to resist a modern mililtary.  In both wars, the United States military fought or is fighting the war with a less than full effort.

What can we learn from the Indian Wars to help us in the Afghan war?  First and foremost, we learn that an insurgency does not always win.  Perseverance on the part of the United States can overcome a very determined insurgency.  We also learn that kinetic military actions are usually a sign of taking a step backwards in winning the war.  Custer may not have had to make that disastrous charge if promises were kept to the Indians (or if he had a lick of sense that day, but that's another story).

We need not admire all the acts taken by the United States to note how the war was won over a couple centuries or decades, depending on how you measure it.  The Indians were channeled into reservations if they wanted to retain sovereignty.  So far as I've been able to tell, any Indian who wanted to live off the reservation was generally free to do so, so long as they acculturated into western civilization.  They may have experienced some racism and other challenges, but they were generally tolerated, as can be attested by the innumerable people who have a combination of Indian and white or black ancesters.

What are the keys to success in the Indian wars that might apply to Afghanistan?  The primitive culture must be pre-empted by our modern culture.  We cannot allow them to continue living like they have been.  We must build roads, create a thriving economy based on the newly discovered minerals and other potential sources of wealth.  We must begin the process of educating people and erasing the impact of the Madrassas.  The United States had a policy of punishing school children for speaking in native languages.  While this seems unfortunate for linguists and cultural studies, it certainly did help eliminate the warrior culture of the plains Indians.  Perhaps a similar approach would work to eliminate the jihadist elements of Afghan culture.

I haven't heard of any attempt to get the Afghans to become accustomed to buying Western goods and participate in Western economies.  The more they become accustomed to interacting with us and benefitting from our immensely superior technology and markets, the less likely they will be to bite the hand that feeds them.

Many insurgent Indians sought refuge in Canada or Mexico and launched occasional raids into the US from those places.  Similarly, the Taliban and Al Qaeda seek refuge in Pakistan and other places.  We can see that this is troublesome but not fatal to succeeding in stopping an insurgency.

I'm not saying that Afghanistan and the war on terror is a simple matter, and we need only cut and paste our tactics and strategy from the Indian Wars to win in Afghanistan.  I am suggesting that the Indian Wars show that we can win in Afghanistan.  I think I'll be taking some reading material with me to Afghanistan as an additional source of insight.  

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