At a press conference, a reporter asked Jose Napoleon Duarte, the former president of El Salvador, when the guerrilla war in his country would be over. "As long as there is one guerrilla left," he replied stoically, "the war will continue."
No military genius, Duarte was smart enough to realize that a guerrilla war (or an insurgency, or whatever propagandists choose to call it) was different than a conventional war, and unless his government was prepared to find and kill every guerrilla and the son of every guerrilla, the war was going to last a very long time, not only in El Salvador, but in Guatemala and Nicaragua, two neighboring countries also engaged in long-term guerrilla wars.
Finally, after years of bloody conflict that killed hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians in all three countries, relative peace came to Central America-- not through military victories, as our CIA had promised, but through negotiated settlements in each country.
Today, a similar set of conditions exists in Iraq and Afghanistan, two countries that have been occupied by America and its allies for the better part of a decade. Think about it-- for almost a decade the mighty military machine of the West, with all its advanced technology and hundreds of billions of dollars, has yet to achieve its objectives and declare victory.
Why is that? Are the Taliban and Al Qaeda that much smarter and more resourceful than the U.S. and its allies? Are their fighters like indomitable "Terminators" that bounce back after they are shot or blown apart? Do they have hundreds of thousands of fanatical soldiers at their disposal?
Let's look at the actual statistics. Although it's impossible to produce an exact number of how many Taliban and Al Qaeda there are, the best estimate for the Taliban, according to a recent article in Time magazine, is that they have between 10,000 and 15,000 fighters.
And as far as Al Qaeda, the numbers are far less. In a story in Harper's magazine, reporter Ken Silverstein uses this exchange to illustrate his point: "I interviewed Jack Cloonan, a 25-year veteran of the FBI who, between 1996 and 2002, served on a joint CIA--FBI task force that tracked bin Laden. "How many members of Al Qaeda do you think there are?" he asked me. Cloonan laughed when I pegged its membership at several thousand. The real numbers, he said, "are miniscule."
So the reality is, we are fighting an illusive enemy of less than 20,000 combatants, consisting primarily of rag-tag guerrilla units and terrorists that fight and retreat and blend in with the population, or switch sides when it is expedient or profitable. And like weeds in a garden, you can cut them down, or pull them out, or spray them with the most powerful chemical on the market, but you can never get rid of them completely. Eventually they always come back.
In spite of this reality, the Obama administration has decided to continue the illusion that we can "defeat the Taliban" by expanding the number of troops we have Afghanistan. A big mistake, especially when you consider that so far we have spent almost $1 trillion fighting these unwinnable guerrilla wars in the Middle East, and if we don't change course, we will probably spend a couple of trillion more in the next decade.
Ironically, as the story in Time points out, it's actually more cost effective for the U.S. to pay the guerrillas to stop fighting than it is to keep fighting them. And perhaps that may be the next step. But what would be even more cost effective would be for the U.S. to leave both Iraq and Afghanistan immediately and set up peace negotiations with the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
If we followed this policy, we could save the hundreds of billions of dollars we are squandering on unending, unwinnable guerrilla wars and use that money instead on health care for our own citizens, many of whom are dying or broke because they can't afford proper medical care. Or maybe--perish the thought--we could use it to pay down our huge budget deficit.
Unfortunately, the Obama administration refuses even to consider this option. Granted, George W. Bush got us into the quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, but instead of getting us out as quickly as possible, Obama is following the same prescription for Afghanistan as Bush did in Iraq, i.e., more troops, more commitment, and more dissembling language about "winning."