Frozen conflicts and forever wars

The chaotic scenes now playing out as the Taliban take over Afghanistan have unsurprisingly drawn comparisons to the collapse of the South Vietnamese government in 1975. But there have been many similar instances, though most were a little slower: the end of Indonesian rule in East Timor (now Timor L’Este), the French withdrawal from Algeria, and the earlier Russian withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The common feature in all these cases is the attempt by an external (sometimes neighbouring) power to impose and then sustain a government of its choosing, usually in the hope that it will ultimately secure the support of the majority of the population along with international acceptance. The usual outcome is a long period of relatively low-level conflict, during which it can be made to appear that a successful outcome is just around the corner. In some cases, actual fighting ceases and is replaced by a ‘frozen conflict’, in which life proceeds more or less normally most of the time, but without any final resolution.

Very occasionally, these attempts succeed (the US invasion of Grenada is one example, and I expect commenters can come up with more). But far more commonly, the external power eventually tires of the struggle and goes away. Alternatively, frozen conflicts can continue more or less indefinitely, as with Israel-Palestine.
If successful interventions are the exception rather than the rule, it’s natural to ask why they are so popular? Certainly, the military-industrial complex benefits from war and lobbies for it, but the same is true of any activity that involves spending a lot of public money. Then there are psychological biases which seem to favor both starting wars in the expectation of an easy win and persisting when the conflict drags on.

But learning takes place eventually. After taking part in centuries of bloody conflict, all around the world, Europeans seem mostly to have tired of war. And in the US, weariness with ‘forever wars’ seems finally to be eroding the belief that armies can solve complex problems in other countries

58 thoughts on “Frozen conflicts and forever wars

  1. J-D: – “I’ve got a question for you: do you think it would be a good thing for Australia to intervene militarily in Afghanistan to protect people from the Taliban? Why or why not?

    I’m not a military expert, but I’d suggest unilaterally, Australia would not have the military capacity to re-engage in Afghanistan to protect its people from the Taliban. Doomed to fail.

    I’d suggest at the moment there is no ‘appetite’ by any of the coalition partners who were in Afghanistan to re-engage. IMO, the opportunity to help the Afghan people has well and truly been squandered and lost through incompetence, corruption and/or many bad decisions by many players, I’d suggest, beginning with the unnecessary invasion of Iraq.

    But, future circumstances/events – like another ‘9/11 type’ event, etc. – may change ‘appetites’.

    I’d suggest one should expect there will now be very many refugees heading out of Afghanistan that would not necessarily be doing so if the coalition partners had not made so many bad decisions leading to the present situation. This risks destabilising the region further. IMO, trying to put the scrambled egg now back into its shell is impossible. We, some more than others, all now have to live with the consequences.

    Consequences that will likely get many more people killed – like with our responses to COVID and the climate emergency.

  2. Geoff Miell,

    We never should have gone in. It was obvious it was morally wrong on balance AND going to fail.

    This brilliant article says it far better than I could:

    https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/why-military-interventions-fail/

    I would add that most interventions do not have genuine humanitarian objectives. They involve the self-interested geostrategic motives of the major powers and their inconsequential little allies, like Australia. Only major powers can really intervene, after all, and they usually mess everything up. Their humanitarian claims are a fig-leaf for self-interest. The great majority of interventions leave the situation much, much worse. History proves it over and over again.

  3. Ikonoclast: – “We never should have gone in. It was obvious it was morally wrong on balance AND going to fail.

    What do you think the US and coalition partners should have done after the so-called “9/11” events? Accept al Qaeda staying in Afghanistan under the protection of the Taliban to continue to plan and launch more attacks on more western territory targets and citizens?

    As I said to J-D: “I’d suggest history shows appeasing tyrants, despots, terrorizers and death-cultists usually doesn’t end well.

  4. I’m not a military expert, but I’d suggest unilaterally, Australia would not have the military capacity to re-engage in Afghanistan to protect its people from the Taliban. Doomed to fail.

    If you’re prepared to suggest that Australia would have the military capacity to protect the people of Afghanistan from the Taliban, then are you prepared to suggest that there’s somebody who does have that military capacity and, if you are, on what basis are you prepared to make that suggestion?

    Nobody can be considered at fault for failing to do something which it is not within their power to do.

    I’d suggest one should expect there will now be very many refugees heading out of Afghanistan that would not necessarily be doing so if the coalition partners had not made so many bad decisions leading to the present situation.

    That may well be so, but it also may well be that the decision to launch a military intervention in the first place was one of those bad decisions. Do you think it was a good decision? Why or why not?

    What do you think the US and coalition partners should have done after the so-called “9/11” events? Accept al Qaeda staying in Afghanistan under the protection of the Taliban to continue to plan and launch more attacks on more western territory targets and citizens?

    Do you think that the military intervention in Afghanistan stopped such attacks?

  5. Sorry, I just saw that I made a mistake in drafting that comment: of course, my first sentence should begin ‘If you’re prepared to suggest that Australia would not have the military capacity …’

  6. An oldie but a goldie below, though an update now might best be extended to cover “One hundred and ten years of the West bombing the Arabs – and maybe 93 other random, who cares exactly how many anyway, Muslim groups”.

    Ninety-three years of bombing the Arabs
    By GAVIN GATENBY 20 August 2004
    https://web.archive.org/web/20180522091757/http://www.brushtail.com.au/july_04_on/bombing_arabs_history.html

    “Before you scoff, try this general knowledge test on a few well-read, politically literate friends: Ask them to name the first town in the world where civilians were indiscriminately bombed from the air.

    More likely than not, they’ll cite Guernica, the Basque town reduced to rubble by aircraft of the German Condor Legion during the Spanish Civil War. If they’re really up on their history, they’ll know it happened in 1937 and they’ll mention Picasso’s famous painting of the atrocity.

    That answer is wrong, and symptomatic of a Euro-centric view of history that’s led western politicians to gravely underestimate the nationalist feeling and visceral distrust of the West that now has the US-led coalition bogged down in Iraq.

    In fact the Guernica answer is wrong by a quarter of a century. It was the Italians, hell-bent on acquiring an African empire, who got the ball rolling. In 1911 ..

    .. The British … In May 1919 they attacked the cities of Afghanistan, dropping six tons of bombs on Jalalabad and inflicting 600 casualties in a dawn to dusk raid on Dacca. Then, on Empire Day, they hit Kabul with history’s first four-engine bomber raid. The British Government even offered poison gas bombs to their Indian Viceroy…”

  7. NYT Aug 25, 2021
    I Commanded Afghan Troops This Year. We Were Betrayed.
    By Sami Sadat -General Sadat is a commander in the Afghan National Army.

    ..So why did the Afghan military collapse? The answer is threefold…

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