By Hyun Lee and Sukjong Hong

When President Obama announced his decision in December 2009 to send additional troops to Afghanistan, arguing that more troops would end the war faster, he must have forgotten about the lessons of the Korean War. In 1950, when President Harry Truman deployed U.S. troops to Korea, he too vowed to “bring the war to a speedy and successful conclusion.” Yet sixty years later, the United States still maintains 28,000 troops and close to one hundred military bases and installations in Korea.

As long as the Pentagon and the military establishment remains at the helm directing U.S. foreign policy, it is clear that war isn’t a tactic of last resort; it is practically a way of life. Afghanistan now and 1950s Korea are obviously not the same. But looking at U.S. conduct in the two countries, it’s not too difficult to see some clear parallels, and to see that not much has changed when it comes to rationalizing US wars at home.

Why do they fight?

“Americans died in Korea,” says historian Bruce Cumings, “because their commanders had no idea who they were fighting.”1 Architects of the U.S. military were puzzled by the zeal of the army from the North and the resistance to the United States in the South. Then Secretary of State Dulles wondered why the North Koreans were “fighting and dying, and indeed ruining the whole country, to the end that Russia may achieve its Czarist ambitions.”2 Unable to find any other explanation, the US attributed this dedication to Soviet and Chinese Communist influence.  But this was a vast underestimation of the fact that after 35 years of brutal colonial rule by the Japanese, the majority of the Korean people were united in a desire for national independence.

The U.S. government and the mainstream media at the time portrayed the Korean War as a battle to protect the world from the spread of evil communism. This oversimplification of an agenda that included wiping out leftist elements in Korea therefore condoned the killings of an estimated 200,000 alleged communist sympathizers in South Korea by the U.S.-backed Syngman Rhee regime before the war even began in 1950. The world also looked the other way during the war itself, when the United States violated the Geneva Conventions and conducted wholesale carpet bombings in the north, wiped out vital civilian facilities like dams and hospitals, and used chemical and biological agents on civilians.

Today in Afghanistan, the resistance of the Taliban and the Pashtun people is likewise misportrayed as a fundamentalist war against the United States and Western values. This convenient slanting of the truth makes the ‘enemy’ an eternal and irrational one. In fact, as Brave New Foundation’s recent film “Rethink Afghanistan” presents, the Taliban is a growing force in Afghanistan because it is seen by the people as an anti-imperialist, independence force against U.S. invasion. For a people like the Pashtun, who value territory and autonomy above all else, when the U.S. military is clearly responsible for the death of loved ones, when soldiers freely barge into homes and terrorize women and children, and land is occupied by foreign U.S. forces, these trespasses are just cause for resistance.  What builds their numbers is nationalism – the desire for independence against the United States.

It is the occupation of Afghanistan by the U.S. military that feeds the Taliban, not the other way around. In Afghanistan, as it was sixty years ago in Korea, a deep ignorance about the history, customs, culture and beliefs of the people doom U.S. actions.

In the Name of Democracy

The United States couldn’t declare victory in the Korean War, a war which has technically never ended. However, after hand-picking and backing an anti-communist leader and supporting his dubious election in 1948, the United States claimed the southern part of the peninsula a stronghold against the communist north, and the defense of South Korea after the Korean War a partial victory. This was, in fact, not the whole truth. South Korea’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established in 2005, has uncovered the extent to which resistance to U.S.-backed regimes in South Korea was brutally suppressed for decades through civilian massacres, tortures, and killings of dissenters, including students and labor leaders.

In the case of Afghanistan, there was a similar roar of victory from the U.S. military and the mainstream media as they declared in 2004 that the Taliban had been dethroned from power. The myth then, as is still pervasive now, is that the United States delivered freedom and democracy to the Afghani people, and that the new administration of Harmid Karzai is a departure from the rule of the Taliban.

As was the case for Rhee Syngman and the military dictators who followed him in South Korea, Karzai’s legitimacy is maintained through violence and a revitalization of the ways of old. Just as South Korean dictators Rhee Syngman, Park Chung-hee, and Chun Doo-hwan relied on a small ruling class elite and a colonial-era infrastructure of police surveillance, torture, and military force to suppress dissent and control the public sphere, Karzai’s rule relies on the support of warlords, the mujahideen, and their spheres of power. The United States is arming and training a small group of elites to silence, and pillage the majority. This is not a modern democracy, but the sham of a democracy.

Who benefits?

The occupation of Korea yielded many benefits for the United States – from cheap labor to a large and ready market for its agricultural surplus – just as the continued occupation of Afghanistan ensures that the Pentagon is well-stocked and the pockets of private military contractors full to bursting.

Can Afghanistan be rebuilt by Halliburton? The severe unemployment and underemployment in Afghanistan despite the billions of dollars of U.S. taxpayer money that have gone to private contractors like Halliburton and Blackwater are evidence that rebuilding is not their priority.  “Rethink Afghanistan” shows that this war is a veritable money-making cash cow for private U.S. contractors. As a U.S. veteran from Afghanistan pointed out after a recent screening of the film, a bottle of water that costs $1 in the United States costs the American taxpayer $3 in Afghanistan, thanks to the bloated budgets of military contractors. The war in Afghanistan is now run by what was born in the Korean War – the vast and unchallenged machinery of the U.S. military industrial complex.

While private contractors enjoy swimming pools in barbed-wired mansions and drive around in land cruisers, Afghani men, women and children are literally dying in refugee camps. They are not able to feed themselves, even as the country is annually injected with billions in aid. That ‘aid,’ fed to multinational US-based contractors, does not reach the majority of the Afghan people, neither filling their bellies nor fulfilling any of their other essential needs, like health care and education.

Legacies of the “Forgotten War” and what it may mean for Afghanistan

Korea still remains in a state of war. The cost at the human level is incalculable. Roughly three to four million Koreans were killed, and over ten million Koreans from North and South Korea have been separated for the past sixty years. Those who live along the DMZ still suffer from landmine explosions.  Adult men all undergo the military training that teaches them how to kill – and this militarism seeps into civilian life. In counting Afghani casualties of war, the film reminded viewers that it isn’t simply the victims of airstrikes who suffer. The war in Afghanistan has also caused death by starvation, by disease, by exposure, and by injury from fleeing war zones. These numbers are also uncounted, but may number in the tens of thousands.

The hidden costs of long-term occupation by a powerful foreign military are also staggering.  The 1953 armistice that halted the fighting stated that all sides should “settle through negotiation the questions of the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Korea [and] the peaceful settlement of the Korean question.” The United States, however, has yet to withdraw its troops.  Instead, the Mutual Defense Treaty signed after the armistice granted the United States “the right to dispose land, air and sea forces in and about the territory of the Republic of Korea” indefinitely.  Since then, South Korea has borne the financial burden of hosting as many as 35,000 U.S. troops every year, but that’s not the only cost.  Civic groups in Korea have documented thousands of crimes against civilians, including rape and murder, committed by U.S. GI’s each year – most of which are never brought to South Korean courts due to the limitations imposed by the Status of Forces Agreement between South Korea and the United States. There are the uncompensated and uncounted who live in the target practice areas, in the bombing range areas. 

Even as people’s movements in South Korea have surged into the street to call for change to these and other agreements, such as in the 2002 killings of two high school girls run over by a U.S. tank, or in 2006, when farmers in Daechuri and international supporters around the world faced down riot police and bulldozers to resist the expansion of a U.S. military base, the US has not ceased its military ambitions in the region.

Even so, war does not simply fade away. Memories of the Korean War, forgotten by most in the United States, still haunt Korean Americans who fled their war-torn homes during or right after the war and have lived in silence for decades, unable to reconcile their past. The accounts in the history books tell only half the tale, and future generations have learned to hate or reject everyone in the North.

How long will it take for the people of Afghanistan to reclaim their land and heal from the decades of war they have suffered? How long before Americans realize the depth of our blunder in a place we had no reason to invade in the first place?  For the U.S. military, backed by a corporate media machine embedded within its ranks, sounding the drumbeat of war has never been so easy. It is war in a distant place, after all, rationalized by racism and xenophobia and misinformation – these were the hallmarks of the war in Korea as well.  As Korean Americans – children of war survivors, of immigrants who fled US-backed military dictatorships – we have a duty to speak out against the injustice of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Afghanistan.  Sixty years from now in Afghanistan, there will hopefully be no barbed wires or checkpoints that divide its people, no threats of preemptive strike, no bases that poison its land. Instead, let there be a vibrant society with industries that sustain its people, independent and finally at peace.  For that to happen, we must call on the U.S. government today to end its unjust war, and accept nothing less than a complete and immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and a search for peaceful, non-military resolutions.  Choose peace and honor life – let us re-double our efforts.

*This article originally appeared in the February 2010 issue of Nodutdol eNews.