February 17, 2017
Blog Post Week 7
In his book, Brother Enemy: The War After the War, Nayan Chanda explores the conflicts in Southeast Asia after American withdrawal from Vietnam and Cambodia. He focuses his analysis on the dealings between the Khmer Rouge, the Vietnamese Communists, and the Maoist Chinese to paint a picture of just what went wrong after the United States decided that the fight in Southeast Asia was not worth keeping up. Chanda is quick to exterminate any hope of a unified region, stating that there never really was a chance for peace with the region in the state that it was in. There were too many contrasting ideologies, cultures, and histories. Chanda makes an especially great emphasis on the most latter, citing military operations dating back to the era of Confucius, to explain many of the deeply rooted rivalries which arose once more in the absence of American might. Ultimately, Chanda resigns that there was no stopping what he calls the “Third Indochina War”, citing conflicting outlooks and agendas between the major players in the region. This is a position that I also take. Chanda is absolutely right in claiming an inevitable conflict after American withdrawal, and one can draw almost direct parallels between the Third Indochina War, and the current situation in the Middle East, with the United States making the same fateful blunder in both scenarios.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the United States requested that the Afghan Taliban government hand over the mastermind behind the act of terror, Osama Bin Laden. When the Taliban refused to do so, the United States declared war on the abusive, corrupt, and dark-age-minded group. In doing so, a chain of events was set into motion where for the following 8 years, The United States would have to become increasingly involved in the Middle East. After the overthrow of the Taliban, a power vacuum was created, into which the United States stepped. And while this was a big role to fill, only two years later, a much larger role had to be filled as well, with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. American occupation in Afghanistan and Iraq would continue until the Obama Administration’s act of withdrawing troops, beginning in 2011. This withdrawal, while nowhere near as abrupt as the withdrawal of U.S. troops leading to the fall of Saigon, led to many of the same issues that arose after American withdrawal from Southeast Asia.
Many pundits are quick to point out the brutality and depravity of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, but the unappealing truth of the matter is that through this brutality and might, the Iraqi state was an integral piece in keeping the Middle East under control. Extremist organizations and groups may have existed, but none dared to make political moves or begin their respective conquests, for fear of retaliation from the region’s resident guard. When the United States removed this guard in 2003, it quickly filled the power vacuum that it, itself, had created. As long as the United States stood in this vacuum, there was relative stability in the Middle East. Peace was assuredly far from acquisition, but the region could at least enjoy predictivity, reduced violence, and policing by a power that actually recognized the Geneva convention. The United States’ fatal mistake, however, was the same as it had been over 30 years before: withdrawal. Or, at least, withdrawal in the manner chosen.
Much like during Vietnam, the American public was tired of warfare. Soldiers were featured on the news in bloodied clothes, death counts rose, peace rallies fermented, and a sense of disassociation took over. Americans forgot their mission in the Middle East. And President Obama, keeping in promise to one of his campaign platforms, started to withdraw American security forces from Iraq and Afghanistan. This is where the power vacuum which Saddam Hussein left behind, opened once more. The Iraqi security forces, trained and armed by the United States, were supposed to fill this vacuum for continued stability. But their presence was little more than a joke to the extremist groups ready to take over at the first opportunity. Only a few years after the United States withdrew from the Middle East, the so-called “Islamic State”, or more appropriately, Daesh, began its takeover. Using the Syrian conflict as cover, Daesh spread over the Middle East like a cancer, quickly overshadowing any previous extremist group and even earning the scorn of the previously dominant Al Qaeda, which called Daesh “too extreme”. Today, Daesh has killed millions of civilians in Iraq and Syria, as well as killing countless Westerners in terrorist attacks across the globe. Their conquest over regions once stable has undone much of the work done by the United States after 9/11. The Middle East, it appears, is in yet another war, much like the Third Indochina War, and much for the same reasons as the latter took place.
While one can argue against the benefits of U.S. involvement in both Southeast Asia and the Middle East in the first place, once both respective regions had been occupied, the United States had a sacred duty to the people of those regions to fight the imposing evil forces and not to abandon. The sacrifice of South Vietnam to the communists was disgraceful, and the sacrifice of the Middle East to Daesh, shameful. In both cases, the United States underwent policy change as well as detrimental pressure from forces within which forced the nation to abandon its ideals, morals, and duties. The Third Indochina War only became inevitable as soon as the final American helicopter left the skies of Saigon. And Daesh only became inevitable as soon as the last formidable battalion of U.S. troops left active duty in Iraq. At this point, it becomes necessary to state that the wars led by the United States in Vietnam and the Middle East were horrible affairs, leading to millions of innocent deaths and unspeakable atrocities. But as bad as these conflicts might have been, what has followed them has always been worse: genocide, economic breakdown, terrorism, and remnant instability. Americans must remember, going forward, that while the price of victory will always be high, the price of defeat is much, much higher. It is simply always someone else who ends up paying it.
Question: Should the United States have done more to stabilize Iraq before withdrawal? If so, what could they have done to prevent the rise of Daesh?