Lessons to be learned
World War I was called “the war to end war.” Optimists genuinely believed that once peace was achieved there would never again be sufficient support for war because the price paid by the participating powers between 1914 and 1918 was simply unbearable. The United States didn’t join the war until 1917, yet 600,000 Americans lost their lives fighting in Europe. Nations involved from the beginning lost millions of troops.
But within a few years, the drums of war were heard again, and one major contributor to the inevitability of the next world war was the manner in which the first war’s victors dictated the peace terms in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. All of this comes to mind as Washington seeks to arrange a graceful exit from Afghanistan, one that doesn’t leave the Afghan people at the mercy of either a corrupt government or the primitive priorities of the Taliban religious extremists.
Complicating the situation is the enduring and even worsening enmity between Afghanistan and its next-door neighbor, Pakistan, and the United States needs to have both of them, along with India, as allies in the war on global terror. And Washington dare not overlook the fact that India and Pakistan remain bitter enemies.
Any hopes for a peaceful future in that part of the world are hardly bolstered by the examples left over from World War 1, and the damage then wasn’t limited to the most famous of the several peace treaties, Versailles.
Although today only historians may remember them, other (related) treaties had a major impact on the losing countries. Austria-Hungary, for example, was given no choice but to sign separate treaties while becoming two separate nations. Both of them were obliged to give up precious land to neighboring countries. In fact, Czechoslovakia (which has since split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia) came into existence as a result of the peace settlement. Large parts of Hungary were given to Poland, Romania and the newly created Yugoslavia (which no longer exists). In addition, some Austrian territory became part of Italy. Separately, Bulgaria lost some land to Yugoslavia.
But other than Germany, no nation fared worse than Turkey, the center of the suddenly obsolete Ottoman Empire. The Turks were left with only a small part of Europe (the remainder of Turkey is in Asia) and the Turkish Straits were placed under control of the League of Nations, the short-lived international agency (a precursor to the United Nations) that was the cherished dream of President Woodrow Wilson, who was famous — or notorious — for his idealism. In addition, France ended up with Syria and Lebanon while Britain gained control of Iraq, Jordan and Palestine.
And after the Allies prevailed (at a tremendous cost to all sides) in World War II, almost immediately they found themselves in a tense and perilous relationship — it would become universally known as The Cold War — with its wartime partner, the Soviet Union. The world breathed a collective sigh of relief in 1989 when, for reasons that are still disputed by historians and political scientists, the Soviet Union collapsed and there suddenly was new hope that peace would indeed prevail, though soon enough trouble erupted in several places.
Was the American invasion of Afghanistan worth it? The answer to that question is probably best left to future historians, who can better understand the context in which the war was fought. But nobody should be lulled into thinking that ending this war means a guarantee of peace. The opposite result has happened far too often.