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Why people need to study history — The lessons from Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

February 10, 2016


History does not always repeat itself, but when it does it is inexcusable for those in power to make the same disastrous decisions that were made in the past.

American interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria were just such a descent into folly.


In 1839, the British marched into Afghanistan in order to remove a government they did not like, replacing it with their man, Shah Shuja. Two years later the Afghan tribes rose up and drove the British out with horrendous losses.

The British leadership rejected the advice of their own officials on site, preferring to base their actions upon the hawkish sentiment in England and among British officials in India who perceived a threat to their economic interests from Russia. A threat that was non-existent.

Shortly after their defeat, the British returned to punish the Afghanis for “War Crimes,” committed their own and eventually retreated again leaving the local tribes to re-install the government headed by Dost Mohammed Kahn who the British originally ousted.

The British thereafter left Afghanistan more or less alone for the next 100 years or so because among other things it was evident that Afghanistan was too poor to be taxed to support a standing army of occupation and exploitation.
170 years later, the American government, not so long after the Russians fell into the same trap as the British, invaded the country to install what was perceived by many as a puppet government in order to punish the existing government for harboring a terrorist who had killed Americans in what could only be described as a crime against humanity. For about a decade, the Americans, in turn, committed their own heinous crimes against the local population before finding and killing the terrorist leader who was then and had been for most of this time living in another country. Finding their occupation financially untenable, the Americans withdrew only eventually to discover the original governing group that they had driven from office slowly fighting their way back into power.

Interesting to the point of bizarre, Hamid Karzai who the US put into power belongs to the same tribe as Shah Shuja the British puppet leader. The Taliban is made up of the same Ghilzai tribes that drove Britain out.

Some Facts:

In the first 10 years of the war in Afghanistan, the United States spent a total of almost 500 billion dollars or 50 billion dollars per year. The Gross Domestic Product of Afghanistan at its highest point during the United State Military involvement was slightly over 20 billion US Dollars. In other words, the United States spent occupying the country over twice what the economy of that country was worth — All in the effort to kill one man and install another presumably more friendly to us.


During the Third Century AD, a long dry spell began. On the central Asian Steppes, the pastoral economy began to fray, conflicts arose and migrations began pushing into and ultimately destroying the Western Roman Empire.

Further south the Syrian steppes, an extensive grassland, extending from modern-day Syria into the Arabian Peninsula, also began drying up. As they did, the Bedouin pastoralist began a slow but steady migration into the rural towns and more prosperous cities of the littoral where the made up a growing class of the underemployed and disenfranchised. Conflicts arose. New religions were created. Existing ones grew, split and fought over competing ideologies.

The existing great powers in response to this turmoil imposed ever more repressive control on the people of the areas they governed and supported or opposed ideologies or leadership as they deemed them beneficial or inimical to their interests. They also fought over and expended massive amounts of national treasure on the impoverished lands they did not control because they believed if they did not their competitors would. This expenditure was not repaid by the spoils of war and exerted an ever increasing burden on the treasuries of the great powers of the time fatally weakening them.

In the Seventh Century, at the Southern end of the steppes on the Arabian Peninsula, the spurned son of a wealthy family in the littoral city of Mecca, a mystic named Mohammed, fled to an inland city on the edge of the steppe. There, cut off from family funds, he gathered other unemployed dispossessed mostly young men and added to the basic doctrines and rituals of his syncretistic religion a promise that if they fought for him for free they could divide the spoils among themselves (leaving one-fifth for Mohammed). If they died in the process, they would be reborn into a paradise of every young man’s dreams. For the next 300 years or so these motivated young men conquered the cities of the littoral and beyond and established a stern but relatively un-intrusive reign over the conquered people.

Fast forward to the beginning of the Twentieth Century. In the Syrian Steppe the Ottoman Empire, a foreign power, exerted ever-increasing repression in the area in an attempt to prop up their diminishing power by draining as much income as they could from the subjugated people. This included the elimination of strong minorities like the Greeks, Armenians and Christian Lebanese whose economic strength and political agitation for a greater share in governing the weakening Empire was seen as a threat to the ruling classes of the domain.

The pastoral agriculture of the steppes and commerce in the cities provided an adequate if subsistence economy for most the people and wealth for a few. As the century progressed the petroleum resources discovered in the region, while of little benefit to the local population, was of great value to the industrial powers of Western Europe and North America. Having the power to do so they simply expropriated them leaving the mass of the people in the region their adequate if subsistence level economy and granting the local elite a small share in the wealth. Eventually, the elite, as they almost always do, demanded greater control of the wealth. The Industrial Powers resisted at first, then agreed, keeping most of the power in their own hands but substantially increasing the wealth of the indigenous elite.

At the end of the century and the beginning of the Twenty-First Century, the steppes began to dry up as they had done many times before in the last thousand years. Exacerbating the drying was the urban elites success in opening up to their investment the unrestricted grazing the lands that the Bedouin nomads had, for over a thousand years, by agreement periodically left ungrazed so it could recover its productivity and be available especially during the periods of drought that regularly afflicted the region. With the resulting impoverishment of the grazing lands, people began migrating first into the rural towns and then into the cities of the littoral where, as the underemployed and dispossessed have always done, they looked for someone or something to blame for their predicament and an ideology to support it.

Into this morass stepped the American Eagle.

Upsetting the increasing tenuous balance of power in the area, one of the warlords (Saddam Hussein) installed by the West to maintain political control and protect their assets attacked another elite (Kuwait) in order to take over their share of the oil reserves and use it to bargain between the great powers and hopefully dominate the region. The American leader at the time, in all likelihood, listening to the advice of those with at least a passing knowledge of the history of the area, limited the nations use of force to restoring the dispossessed elite to power over the area and resources that they had controlled for as least 50 years.

Slightly over a decade later, another American administration (the son of the prior and wiser leader) upset with inflammatory rhetoric by the warlord the US previously had defeated acceded to the urgings of his in-house hawks to remove a non-existent threat to the US by invading that country, toppling the now unhappy warlord and installing one more amenable to the war hawks. They insisted they could pay for it all from the revenue from that nation’s significant petroleum reserves.
They were wrong.

After a decade of war, the US achieved few of its objectives. The warlord was replaced but the imposed regime was neither malleable nor effective. Unable to control territory that it was given, the nation promptly broke into three more or less independent political entities each obsessed with securing revenues from oil production for their elites even though they remained unable to protect themselves from rebellion peopled by the unemployed disaffected of the desiccated steppes some of whom flocked to a harsh new ideology under the guise of a return to time that never existed. An ideology manufactured and directed by those seeking power by, in part, wresting control of the petroleum resources from the now feeble hands of the areas traditional elite.

Some Facts:

In the 15 years prosecuting the war in Iraq the United States has spent almost 820 billion dollars, or well over 50 Billion dollars per year. The GDP of Iraq in 2013 was a little under 230 billion dollars as much as 95% of which was provided by the petroleum sector.

It could be said that if it had worked and they were able to repay the US costs form the petroleum profits it might have been worth it. But, it would have most likely required maintaining an army of occupation indefinitely.

Contrary to those who claim that no one could have seen it coming, any reading of history would have revealed that it could and most likely would.


The Syrian saddle and steppe used to be a net exporter of food. It has few petroleum assets. It does have a ruling elite led by a single family. After WWII, the European powers had placed into power that family because they were members of a minority tribe and ideology in a nation of many tribes and nations. They believed that the minority, with their support, would constantly exert strict control over the fractious majority and avoid chaos in that illogical construct they named Syria.

With the drying of the grasslands, Syria could no longer feed itself and, as a result of the war, has no economy to speak of. The rural masses, now unemployed, who have flocked to the rural towns and cities to find work were ripe for an ideology to explain their plight.

Over the years, the ruling elite encouraged and supported by interests not aligned with the major powers of the industrialized West engaged in futile attempts to destabilize the entity established on the Mediterranean littoral peopled with Europeans whose ancestors migrated or fled from the area many years before (Israel).

In response, the US, in defense of its commitment to its often obstreperous ally, countered with the funding of groups opposed to the ruling family — seeming oblivious to the fact that should they fall, a war for power among the different tribes and ideologies would likely result. Consequently, chaos ensued. As is often the case where order breaks down, the entity with the strongest ideology often wins and that currently seems to be the group we call ISIL.

With the rise and success of ISIL, finally someone with some sense and knowledge in the US recognized the futility and cost of engaging in a ground war in the quagmire that impoverished country has become. The US has restricted its involvement to harassing ISSIL from the air, killing its leaders and funding its opponents in hopes that a more amenable and less ferocious ideology will emerge. So far only the Kurds seem to be developing in that direction.

Some Facts:

Syria is an economic basket case. Its GDP totaled about 40 billion dollars in 2007 and has dropped precipitously since then. The US is spending only (a relative term) 3 billion dollars a year, primarily on air strikes.

No one party, except perhaps ISIL, currently seems strong enough to exert its control over the entire area. Even if the combined forces against ISIL prevail, Syria as it was designed by the European powers, will in all probability dissolve into a loosely amalgamated group of statelets run by those factions able to capture and control some bit of increasingly impoverished territory during the mayhem.

Peace appears a long way off.


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