The General in Senate
MANY philosophers and historians have written time and again that just like seasons, planets, ecosystem and the orbit of galaxies, time itself is circular in nature. History repeats itself in different forms, time and again.
In the views of the great Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, if a person has lived till the age of 50, it is as if he has witnessed almost all of human history as events are simply repeating themselves in cycles with the same virtues, sins and inevitable clash between good and evil.
And this applies to the year 2021 and the events that have unfolded in Afghanistan. There are multiple historical similarities.
First, the US forces pullout from Afghanistan is reminiscent of the shameful American exit from Vietnam, Saigon in 1975, secondly, the Kabul disaster reminded people of the utter defeat and retreat of the Russian forces from Afghanistan in 1988.
And now the proceedings happening in the United States where the top American General is being grilled by the Senate and politicians is also a grim reminder of a similar event around 60 BC where a Roman General was being accused of inefficiency and treason, it was the great Julius Caesar. There are deep lessons within the parameters of this momentous and historical comparison.
Mark Alexander Milley is the Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff of the American armed forces. He is the 39th Head of the US forces with around 38 years of service.
He is a decorated soldier who belongs to a family of soldiers including his father who served in the World War-II.
General Milley was in charge of the operation in Afghanistan since 2018. Even before that, he has served his country in Iraq and Afghanistan multiple times in different capacities. The General is now facing the most serious crisis of his life. His actions and failure in Afghanistan are under scrutiny.
Politicians both republican and Democrat are trying to fix the responsibility of national failure on this Five Star General and there is an active clash between the servicemen of the country and the politicians.
On one side, there is representation and power of the people’s vote in the form of Senators who have a right to question every action of the armed forces and the Generals and on the other side, there is merit, professionalism and a sense of undying patriotism. President Biden is also caught in the mix.
The Senate has been told that the Generals duly informed the President that the Americans should keep around 2500 soldiers in Kabul to keep it from falling into Taliban hands, an advice that was ignored by President Biden, which eventually led to the sudden collapse of the Afghan Army and the sweep by Taliban forces without a fight. It is a mess that has no end in sight.
Now if we go back into the pages of history. A comparable situation between politicians and a serving general occurred in ancient Rome around 60 BC.
It was a time when the first largest republic of human history was in process of making history. The Roman Empire had already expanded to much of Europe.
It was being ruled by shared powers of three Generals as a Triumvirate, namely, Julius Caesar, Pompey and Marcus Crassus, who carried out their duties as guided by the Senate of Rome, which was composed of notable scholars, politicians and members of Elite Roman Citizens.
The Senate was aligned closer to Pompey and sent the famous Julius Caesar on dangerous campaigns that could have killed him.
Julius Caesar was the senior most member of the one of the most known families of Rome called the House of Julli. Caesar was by far the best General Rome had.
Similar to Alexander the Great, he dined and fought alongside his troops. He would lead the charge and this strategy in war unparalleled.
In the final ploy to get Caesar killed, the Senate commanded him to take his solider divisions to Gallic territories. The Gallic territories are present day France and Belgium.
Its inhabitants who were resisting Roman rule were fierce hoard fighters and many Roman Generals and soldiers had been killed trying to conquer these lands. Caesar acted as told and took the command. With genius of strategy and courage, Caesar prevailed.
His famous words “Veni, Vedi, Viccii” meaning I came, I saw, I conquered have echoed through history and into British and European literature. Caesar destroyed the forces in the Gallic wars and news alarmed the Senate.
They wanted him deposed or dead.
In their final bid, they sent a message to Caesar to leave his armies and return to Rome all by himself. Caesar was not a traitor but he was wise. He was able to smell the conspiracy against him and returned with full force
And when he crossed the Rubicon river near Rome, the Senate called for his resignation which brings us to the present day proceedings of Senate against General Mark Milley, who is just like Caesar, being asked why he didn’t resign.
In the spirit of Shakespeare’s play where Caesar is dramatized as the greatest General and Emperor of Rome who was assassinated by Roman conspirators and friends of Caesar like Brutus, there are deep lessons for us even today.
Assessing the situation of Afghanistan, it must be kept in mind that the failure of U.S forces in Afghanistan was set from day one. They were trying to build a nation, more so, reform it. The advice of the Generals was ignored.
Donald Trump entered into negotiations with the Taliban and decided unilaterally to pull out without a single soldier remaining in Kabul.
It was a political manoeuvre required to win votes in the election and the advice of the Generals was ignored. The politicians always have their own considerations which are not affected by patriotism.
As a result, the US forces fell into a humiliating situation. Ashraf Ghani fled the country before fall of Kabul and the whole of Afghanistan simply crumbled.
Scenes of American soldiers running away at Kabul airport leaving behind their allies and families of Afghans they promised to protect.
In the chaos, a bomb blast killed 13 US soldiers. It was death and darkness for the Army of the most powerful nation in the world losing to the Taliban as the whole world watched.
Now the blame game is on. Chairman Senate Committee on Armed Forces, Mr. Mark Reed grilled the Secretary of Defence, Chairman Central Armed Command and Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff for hours along with his team. In the final hours, the stark difference was clear.
The politicians like Trump had caused the disaster by signing peace deals with the Taliban and haphazardly asked the Generals to comply. The politicians want to blame the Army.
When General Milley was asked why he didn’t resign when President Biden ignored his advice, he responded with the most eloquent remarks by saying that a General is required to give legal and professional advice to the President which he may or may not accept while resigning as a result would be political defiance and the American forces are not political and working under the Constitution of United States of America.
The blame of the Afghanistan disaster is now being shifted to other factors including Pakistan.
The Senate, when found the politicians at fault instead of the army men are now turning towards external agents, blaming corruption in the Afghan government and safe havens in Pakistan and once again, the American politicians, both Republican and Democrat are failing to accept their own role in the failure of their policy.
In a different time, when the Roman Senate humiliated the great Caesar, he responded with might and became the unquestioned Emperor of Rome, putting an end to the Republic. It can only be hoped that sanity will prevail.
The professionalism of the American Generals is commendable while the integrity and authority of the Senate is also worth observing. In Milley’s words to the Senate, it is a logistical success but a strategic failure.
—The writer is Chairman, Jinnah Rafi Foundation, based in Lahore.