Matthew Riemer: Winning Isn't Everything

Published: Thu 10 Apr 2003 11:41 AM
Winning Isn't Everything
By Matthew Riemer Column
( – When the United States "wins" the war in Iraq, the Bush administration and war advocates, ranging from the naively idealistic neocons to former pseudo-lefties like Nat Hentoff, better hope it's not the kind of victory enjoyed in Afghanistan. Because if it is, in 18 months time American youngsters will still be dying there, and the country will be in a state of virtual anarchy.
Overzealous war critics, including even such mainstream voices as Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, have repeatedly alluded to quagmires and Vietnam-like scenarios in Iraq. This is unlikely, to say the least, as any comparison to Vietnam is historically inaccurate and references to quagmires avoid the obvious reality that if the U.S. were truly "bogged down" and taking heavy casualties, they would simply wipe the country of Iraq off the face of the earth. The U.S. military will never wallow in a protracted, significant conflict again.
Countering this view, giddily optimistic war advocates often mention the success of the invasion of Afghanistan, pointing to the fact that that war, too, began with setbacks and doubts, which naysayers pounced on in the early days of the conflict. At this point, the authors often trail off into a factless world liberally doused with rhetoric of "liberation" and such. The reader is left to assume that Afghanistan is still the topic of discussion, and one can only deduce that the authors feel they've just made a succinct and telling point. Of course, any review of what's been happening in Afghanistan since its "liberation" is nowhere to be found. Though, perhaps, this is as indicative of Americans' attention span, as it is a fact that Afghanistan is far from "liberated."
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has just been extended for another year amid rising and renewed security concerns as Islamist activity continues to increase once again. Many warlords and those with any kind of military or political power openly deride interim president Hamid Karzai by calling him the "mayor of Kabul."
As noted previously on, Afghanistan's poppy production has now returned to astronomical levels following the ouster of the Taliban. The reason for this is twofold: the Karzai administration is too weak and decentralized to actually physically enforce any kind of written law concerning the matter, while the commitments from outsiders are too impotent; poppy remains the only truly viable cash crop in a country greatly affected by decades of warfare and a concomitant lack of sincere rebuilding efforts.
The latter model continues to this day. Karzai recently traveled to Washington before the invasion of Iraq pleading not to be forgotten once the "new" war was underway. While admitting that much has improved -- like an increase in the number of media outlets and the return of many refugees -- his desperateness is almost palpable as he talks about the increasingly militant and recalcitrant warlords as the biggest problem facing his country. And Karzai is no fool. He's a Western-educated, privileged Afghan who is not unfamiliar with the fate of other "interim governments" in "war-torn countries." He knows very well Afghanistan could easily slip into another significant civil war and that his own days may be numbered. Indeed, this is already taking shape as fighting has increased in many areas of the country. The United Nations has even curtailed some of its aid work in the past several weeks due to such unpredictable and insecure conditions.
All this despite a few thousand international "peacekeepers," 10,000-plus U.S. troops, and a couple billion dollars in aid with which to work. Of course, the question has always been not whether it is truly an enigma to stabilize this keystone Central Asian country but whether this is what those most responsible for its rebuilding actually desire -- a stable, secure, economically competitive (at least regionally) Afghanistan.
So it is with great accuracy that many critics have pointed out that the Bush administration's most daunting task is not the aerial bombardment of fleeing or entrenched Republican Guard units but the incredibly intricate and delicate rebuilding and restructuring of not only Iraq's infrastructure but its society and culture. And it shouldn't even be considered sarcasm to say that these nuances far exceed the cultural and socio-economic understanding and appreciation of anyone in the current U.S. administration -- individuals more suited to the running of a fraternity house than reconciling differences in Iraq that are hundreds of years old.
Afghanistan was the first country on the U.S.' list in the Bush administration's new "war on terror." They've now moved on to their second target, Iraq, before really finishing or even securing the first. If this continues, and in 18 months both Iraq and Afghanistan are unstable, insecure, and unpredictable as ever, what will the administration's solution be then? Will they just leave a string of destabilized countries in their vengeful wake? Isn't this what they are trying to solve in the first place? We may never know the answers to these questions and many more like them as the headlines in the Western media may very well be obsessed with the next target on the list. Whether it be Syria, Iran, North Korea, or Saudi Arabia is of little importance.
Whether it takes 200 coalition troops or 2000, two weeks or two months, there is no doubt that the U.S. and its unflinching junior partner, the U.K., will "win" this current war, but as any historian worth their salt can tell you, this is the least of their concerns.
[Matthew Riemer has written for years about a myriad of topics, such as: philosophy, religion, psychology, culture, and politics. He studied Russian language and culture for five years and traveled in the former Soviet Union in 1990. In the midst of a larger autobiographical/cultural work, Matthew is the Director of Operations at He lives in the United States.]
- Matthew Riemer encourages your comments: is an international news and opinion publication. encourages its material to be reproduced, reprinted, or broadcast provided that any such reproduction identifies the original source, Internet web links to are appreciated.

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