In Britain's exhausting Boer War, a parallel for Afghanistan

Sunday, June 20, 2010

With every war, it seems, there's also a fight over the proper historical analogy. Is the war in Afghanistan like the Vietnam War, the conflict it has just surpassed as the longest in U.S. history? Or is it like the Soviet misadventure in the same land? What about post-surge Iraq?

Peter W. Singer offers a different parallel, and it's a war America didn't even fight: Britain's Boer War, at the dawn of the 20th century. And the implications are grim.

Speaking on a panel this month during the annual conference of the Center for a New American Security, Singer, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, was asked to name his biggest worry for the U.S. military going forward. He invoked Britain's battle from 1899 to 1902 against a South African militia that it vastly outnumbered. Though the Brits eventually prevailed, victory came at such a cost in blood and treasure and time that scholars often point to the war as the beginning of the end of the British Empire.

"My worry is that Afghanistan becomes America's Boer War," Singer said. ". . . Great Britain got engaged in a grinding war where by the end of it, its definition of success was just to get out."

Singer is not the first to cite the Boer War as a cautionary tale for the United States. In his 2008 book "The Post-American World," Fareed Zakaria noted that conflict's apparent similarities to the war in Iraq. Like Britain, "the United States has been overextended and distracted, its army stressed, its image sullied. . . . History is happening again." (Zakaria went on to conclude that the U.S. and British situations were fundamentally different, but the comparison still feels instructive.)

One of Singer's insights could prove especially useful for America's fighting force. In recent years, the U.S. military has revolutionized its approach to the battlefield, focusing on counterinsurgency as the way to wage war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even if this approach succeeds -- and the jury is still out -- it may not be where warfare is headed. Britain "retooled its force to get very good at [a] particular kind of warfare," Singer said. "Unfortunately for it, that particular kind of warfare wasn't the whole of where war was changing to."

-- Carlos Lozada

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