Victor Davis Hanson: Afghanistan Agonistes

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern.]

The growing consensus is that the United States and its NATO allies cannot prevail in their aim of creating a stable constitutional government in Afghanistan, free of radical Taliban insurrectionists who will facilitate terrorism beyond their borders and seek to reinstitute their medieval theocracy.

We need to calm down and take a deep breath. Here are ten considerations that suggest that Afghanistan is hardly lost.

1. General Petraeus. By all accounts he is an historic figure. Take his willingness to step down from Centcom, after achieving global fame, only to enter into the Inferno of Afghanistan, at a time when he has seen nonstop service and dealt with health issues — and when there is not much that can be added to his reputation but a great deal that might diminish it in Afghanistan.

All that is in marked contrast, for example, to the 2003 behavior of Gen. Tommy Franks, who did the opposite: He retired abruptly after basking in the glow of a three-week victory — even as he saw the insurgency brewing — seemingly in order to capitalize on his newfound and transitory fame. Petraeus’s moral capital and past successes are worth a great deal, here and abroad, and bring a new dimension to the struggle — even though he will be apparently working with diplomatic personnel quite unlike the gifted and selfless Ryan Crocker.

Remember, he surged in Iraq without the sort of wide-scale criticism over his rules of engagement that has been directed at current counterinsurgency methods in Afghanistan. Again, for a national icon to willingly step down into the fray, when conventional wisdom is writing Afghanistan off, and under the aegis of former senators — Biden, Clinton, Obama — who deprecated his efforts when he most needed public support is nothing short of heroic. And that too will help for a while in rallying military and civilian opinion behind the effort....

10. We have no choice but victory. A failure in Afghanistan will reenergize radical Islam, as did the Soviet defeat, with implications that will affect everything from the current quiet in Iraq and the nuclearization of Iran to the behavior of Turkey, and the chances of more terrorist attacks within the United States. Failed invasions are more grievous even than lost battles. Those who think we can just leave Afghanistan and call it quits are sorely mistaken. Fairly or not, we are well beyond that: Either we stabilize the country, with all the accruing advantages from that achievement, or we withdraw in defeat and expect to reap a bitter harvest from that defeat.

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