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There is considerable confusion regarding what is and is not a “war.” There are battles between and among various parties, but an actual war is whatever the world press says it is. The characterization, however, is clearly influenced by the political elements involved. A good example is Afghanistan. Rival interests have been fighting in what is now known as Afghanistan for centuries, yet now we call it a war. At least sometimes it’s called a war. It all depends on a participant’s desired perspective.
In case of Afghanistan there is the unusual point of view in the United States that the fighting in that country indeed constitutes a war. Currently, there is a U.S. force of eleven to fourteen thousand military personnel in-country. In comparison, Germany has five thousand troops in Afghanistan and their government and press rarely refer to this as a war in which they are involved. Presumably, they justify their presence politically by interpreting a “war” as something far larger – involving a contest between major powers. The Afghan “conflict” is a more suitable term, especially as the German public is committed to “No More Wars” as a post WW II ethos – except if the Russians attack in Europe, of course. That circumstance would be covered by NATO accords and primarily with America’s military commitment.
The tradition of battling in Afghanistan is part of that country’s experience in one form or another and is so treated by its population. During the period of the British Raj, the tribes of that mountainous area seemed always to be causing some sort of trouble. At least that’s the way London would have characterized the regular punitive expeditions into the area. Russians, even in those days, were cast as being behind this or that uprising working through their Islamic contacts. It has a familiar ring, doesn’t it? Today, radical Muslim organizations tend to operate on their own initiative whenever they have the equipment and training.
War seems to be the state of affairs in Syria and Iraq against the organization known as ISIS. In fact, contrary to external perceptions, there is cooperation between the two countries in regard to annihilating this terrorist organization. Recently the government of Bashar al Assad gave permission to the Iraqi Air Force to cross into Syrian territory to bomb and strafe ISIS targets. Does that mean that Russia and Iran-backed Syria is allied with the U.S.-backed Iraqi forces in a war against ISIS? The answer might be that this is not illogical to assume, however, this seeming alliance would be simply a marriage of convenience rather than a straightforward political accord. Effectively, whatever arrangement exists is a “joint anti-terrorist action.”
The Israelis and most Middle East Islamic countries have been “at war” since Israel became an independent nation after World War II. To be politically correct – much of the world press refer to this situation as the “Arab-Israeli Conflict.” It seems though the participants believe they are at war, the rest of the world prefers to keep all options open by calling it a “conflict.” This is a good example of the semantic games played in diplomacy. Such language devices also enable countries such as the United States to maintain relatively good relations with both sides.
In Africa there seems to be some sort of war going on all the time that no one wants to call by that name. Boko Haram considers itself to be “at war” with all Christian and other non-believers, but the Western press never uses that term. The preferred characterization has been to call the actions by Boko Haram and its aligned groups raids, terrorism and sometimes simply brutal attacks. Perhaps they are right, for a movement operating across established boundaries has been an element of tribal life well before the creation of African independent states. Such circumstances actually exist in many other parts of the world. Southeast Asia is a good example. Washington has been caught up in the past getting involved in these internecine affairs and often regretted it in spite of strategic reasons to do so.
For the United States, wars are often fought on fronts other than overseas. It is just not a term of art to refer to the national “war on drugs.” Certainly people die from drug use, gang members die in turf battles, cartels organize transnational financial and trade agreements to pursue their operations and finally law enforcement takes substantial casualties in trying to curb and destroy drug activities. All this adds up to warfare on a very large scale, even if not necessarily in an overt manner.
The question therefore exists whether distinctions in the character, scope and longevity really matter in the reality of any activity that includes killing people for the purpose of gaining advantage. This refers to small wars, big wars, tribal wars, etc. The United States really hasn’t come to terms with the fact that the rest of the world – those who hate us, those who love us and those who just don’t care – awaits every move we make. America is the “big dog” and as such it seems to enjoy that fact, but just doesn’t understand or appreciate the role it is playing amidst all the violence that surrounds it. The United States of America is an imperial power without the breadth of understanding of its people and leaders implied by that status.
Oddly enough, the other large powers of today – China and Russia principally – do recognize and understand America’s status and that they are just not of the same rank – though they want to be. The American people are just beginning to realize how much their country’s actions and inactions drive world affairs; how each conflict, disagreement, battle and even real war is affected by everything the United States does. The truth is that Americans really want none of what their imperial status brings. It may be a surprise to the rest of the world, but the American people just want to be left alone to live their lives and don’t need to be the center of attention the world makes of them. When it comes to a final assessment, the country is basically isolationist. Like Garbo, it just wants to be left alone. After WW II the United States of America was the only major country still whole. We inherited the world with all its battles, conflicts, disagreements and wars.