WASHINGTON — Fighting wars against religious zealots is a dissimilar experience from other wars. Yet we still hear the Vietnam era slogan about winning the hearts and minds of the people. That is a nearly impossible bar to reach when the enemy regards us as infidels worthy only of destruction.
It is chilling news that an Afghan man in military uniform gunned down an American general on a training base where he was assigned to help Afghans take over the fighting once U.S. forces fully withdraw. Two-star General Harold Greene held a PhD, and his expertise was in engineering and science. The 52-year-old Greene is the highest-ranking U.S. military officer to die in war since the Vietnam era, and he fell at the hands of a zealot in an Afghan Army uniform who knowingly gave up his own life in the process.
His death undermines the already fragile trust between NATO trainers and Afghan forces, and raises the question of whether it is possible to combat the religious zealotry that drives so much of today’s fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan, Hamas in Gaza, and Jihadists in Iraq.
The brutal tactics employed by the Islamic State (formerly ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) hearken back to the days of Genghis Khan, and make al-Qaida look almost quaint by comparison. This new terrorist offshoot inflicts absolute terror on local populations and has taken over a large swath of Iraq and Syria.
Like Genghis Khan in the 1200s, people who resist are put to the sword. Knowing death is imminent, and that being taken captive is not an option, village after village capitulates, and the Islamic State forces and its black flag are now some 50 miles from Baghdad, poised to overrun the government that cost so many Iraqi and U.S. lives to put in place.
If there’s a lesson here for U.S. policymakers, it’s that the Vietnam War, the hearts-and-minds war, is not a guide. Communism for all its flaws is not a religion, and the Vietcong guerrillas and North Vietnamese regulars were not willing to blow themselves up the way suicide bombers are being trained to do by Islamic extremists today.
The U.S. needs a united front to combat this cancer on civil society. A NATO of the Middle East is needed, but where are the moderates to fill its ranks?
At least Islamic regimes in the Middle East are avoiding direct engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as they quietly root for Israel to demolish Hamas. Arab rulers fear radical Islam more than Zionism.
The only time in the relatively recent past when the U.S. dealt successfully with a phenomenon resembling religious zealotry was in World War II. Japanese kamikaze pilots flew to their deaths in the name of the emperor who was treated as a living God. In fact, the first time the Japanese public heard Emperor Hirohito’s voice was when he called for Japan’s surrender on Aug. 15, 1945. Only overwhelming military muscle had brought this about, and after the war, when Gen. Douglas MacArthur acted as the U.S. regent in Japan, the emperor renounced his divinity.
So, what we are witnessing today is not a replay of Vietnam, but of the war against Japan, and as with that earlier war, the longer we wait to act with a concerted allied response, the more difficult and costly it will be.