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Proxy Wars: The Korean War and the Afghanistan War

They had to make a name for it. There were soldiers, there were armaments, there were armadas and the most terrifying feature of all: there were thousands of nuclear warheads. But the United States of America and the former Union Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) did not meet up in any battlefield to settle their differences. Instead, they allowed their allies to do the dirty work for them. Thus in this post-World War II period there was a different kind conflict the likes of which the world has never seen before.

There was tension and many times the possibility of a third global conflict was close to happening. But they had to make a new name for it because American and Russian forces did not go into battle with each other. Thus, on a global scale there was a “Cold War” between the two behemoths and in a regional level there were “Proxy Wars” between the supporters of communism and democracy. These wars were byproducts of ideology as well as the shifting international policies from both camps.

Before going any further it must be made clear that the scope of this study includes the discussion of two major theories of international relations, namely: realism and liberalism. To simplify the discussion these two political terminologies will be used to study a portion of the Cold War, specifically the Korean War and the Afghanistan War. Moreover, the study is also limited to the study of U. S. policies that dictated the behavior of the U. S. Armed Forces in Korea and Afghanistan. Furthermore, the discussion will also be limited to three U.

S. presidents that had a direct impact on the aforementioned wars in the Cold War period. The first one is Harry Truman, for the Korean conflict; the second one is Jimmy Carter to show the transition between the Korean War to the Afghanistan War; and then finally Ronald Reagan the person responsible for ending the Cold War. Cold War In the Second World War there was a common enemy for both the United States and the Union Soviet Socialist Republic. During the campaign against Hitler and the Nazis the ideological differences between the U.

S. and the Russia’s USSR was palpable but what is more important was the looming threat of Nazism’s blitzkrieg and their terrifying success in Europe. These two superpowers had to unite for a common cause, together with another major ally, Great Britain. When World War II was over, it was up to the victors to carve up Europe and to the winners, the spoils of war. Thus, in the aftermath of the second bloodiest war in modern history, Russia and the United States were able to strengthen their position.

It is not the goal of this paper to explain why Britain and France dropped out of contention when it came to superpower status. But suffice it to say that these two countries had their heyday in the 19th century, but in the 20th century it was the time for the Soviet Union and the U. S. to take center stage. The Second World War strengthened the economy of both countries. Yet the most important development is the improvement in their capability to raise up an army and to develop industries that will support wars in a massive scale.

Although the United States played a major part in the two preceding World Wars, it was in the middle of the 20th century when they were able to establish efficient factories that can supply their troops with cutting-edge war equipment. The same can be said of the Russians. Therefore, the first facet of this emerging conflict between the Russians and the Americans can first be understood by studying the arms race. It must be pointed out that the Second World War did not only end because Hitler’s army raised the white flag.

The surrender of the Axis Powers was made complete when the Japanese Imperial Army surrendered to the Americans. This in turn was made possible by the detonation of two atomic bombs in two key cities in Japan – Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was the dawning of a new world terror. It is the capability of man to annihilate cities with a relatively small-sized weapon. The bombs dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki can be fitted into a standard bombardier. Scientists and war generals need not think twice to understand the future of this new kind of weapon.

In the post-World War II global political arena the USSR clearly understood that the key to supremacy and the assurance of a good defense against American hegemony is to develop superior weapons or at least match them in their ability to develop nuclear warheads. The new arms race resulted in the creation of weapons that can easily annihilate a great portion of the Western hemisphere. Scientists as well as political leaders were very much aware of this fact. It is perhaps the reason why the United States and U. S. S. R. did not go head-to-head in battle.

Both countries could not afford to release intercontinental ballistic missiles knowing that the other can retaliate and the damage inflicted can be just as worse. The Cold War was ever present for much of the 20th century. The USSR and America jostled for position. Both governments wanted the strategic locations where they can place their military bases as well as developed effective countermeasures. Removing Germany and Japan from the equation it was up to the Americans and the Russians to bargain, bluff, or intimidate each other effectively in order to get the best locations on planet earth.

Thus, in the aftermath of Hitler’s demise Germany was divided into two. Korea was also partitioned; the North went to the Communists while the South went to the American side. The Cold War started right after World War II and ended while Ronald Reagan was the President of the United States and Mikhail Gorbachev was his counterpart in the USSR. Going back to the developments in the Cold War, the Russians strengthened their position in Asia by partnering with another communist government, the People’s Republic of China while the United States beefed up security in the said region by constructing huge military bases in Japan and the Philippines.

Everything went well until the U. S. and the USSR were compelled to show the world who has the better ideology and who has the better organization and know how to demonstrate the superiority of that ideology. As mentioned earlier the Americans and the Russians could not afford another World War III and therefore they used their allies to stage what will be called Proxy Wars. Their allies will fight for them while the superpowers stay in the background, supplying intelligence, weapons and providing help whenever it is needed. The first major Proxy War was held in Korea.

Korean War Yet even before the guns in Europe were silenced to end the hostility and even before the last Kamikaze fighter bowed unashamed to the vanquisher there was an old general who predicted what will happen in the 20th century. Speaking at a time when the world was changing rapidly and America emerging as one of the new superpowers to replace faded European monarchies, Commodore Matthew Perry said the following prophetic utterances: The people of America will, in some form or the other, extend their dominion and their power … upon the eastern shores of Asia.

And I think too, that eastward and southward will her great Russian rival … The antagonistic exponents of freedom and absolutism must thus meet at last and then will be fought that mighty battle on which the world will look with breathless interest; for its issue will depend the freedom or the slavery of the world (Huston, p. 200). Perry’s words came to pass and uncannily he was even able to predict the direction of Russia’s growing dominance – that she will move eastward and southward. Later on it will be discussed that not only did the USSR exerted its influence on China but also in Afghanistan.

But at this point it is Russia’s ties with China that made possible the Korean War of the 1950s. In the words of one historian, “It was the only occasion in the Cold War when the military forces of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Soviet Union, and the USA (plus its Western allies) met in combat […] Thus, the Korean War was not merely a war fought between proxies of the major powers, like the latter conflicts in Vietnam or Afghanistan, but a much more significant conflagration” (Malkasian p. 7).

It was almost like a global war because the participants came from all over the world but superpowers were smart enough to make it appear that it was a conflict between North and South Korea and that the foreigners were simply there to observe. Commodore Perry was able to see into the future and with his amazing talent able to anticipate what other countries are about to do. With regards to the leadership of the U. S. , South Korea, North Korea, China and USSR, it seems that it was not foresight that guided their decision, rather, it is more like paranoia.

Depending on which side of the story is to be believed there are two versions of the war. The Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (DPRK) asserted that it was the Republic of South Korea (ROK) that started it all, while the South Koreans point the accusing finger back at them. According to historians both sides were to be blame for igniting the war. On the American-backed ROK there was mounting paranoia that the communists are moving westward and that South Korea will be one of the first pieces to fall in the global game of chess.

This is the only reason why America is interested to help defend a country that most of its soldiers could not even find in the map (Sandler, p. 2). It can even be argued that both sides already unleashed the dogs of war a long time ago when both armies conducted raids all year long prior to the incident (Sandler, p. 2). It was therefore only a matter of time before the raids develop into something more serious. Irregardless of who started the war, the South Koreans were caught by surprise when the DPRK decided to launch a full scale attack on June 25, 1950.

It was made clear later on that Kim Il Sung the strongman leading North Korea already made plans to invade South Korea long before that fateful day in June of 1950. The plans were made in secret but it was made with the blessing of Russia’s dictator, Stalin and his counterpart in China, Mao Tse-tung. According to one commentator the involvement of the USSR was more than military adviser, in fact the desire to conquer South Korea originated from Russia, North Korea’s benefactor.

Stalin was no longer happy with simply sharing the Korean peninsula with American evil empire (Millett, p. 102). Russia and China had all the justification they needed to attack South Korea. The strategies used by the Communists were reminiscent of Pearl Harbor and the way the Japanese used psychological warfare and brilliant diversionary tactics to confuse the enemy. One and a half years prior to the Korean War, USSR withdrew Russian troops unilaterally out of North Korea.

Then Russia turned around to invite the generals from North Korea and China’s military for a buildup (Millet, p. 103). Thus, the Communists had at least 18 months head start while the South Koreans and the American forces stationed there were capable of conducting and resisting border raids. In the year and a half preparation, the North Korea People’s Army was able to grow into a respectable force of 6 shock divisions, 8 combat and 8 reserve divisions, and 2 armored divisions (Millet, p. 103).

Aside from the human and natural resources available in North Korea, the USSR contributed significantly as well to the military buildup; the major source of military materiel came via the Soviet Union which supplied the North Korea People’s Army with aircraft, tanks, vehicles, communications equipment, heavy artillery, and ammunition. In addition to that, a portion of their needs were supplied by third country suppliers (Shrader, p. 60). Kim Il Sung and his troops were ready for war. But the South Koreans were not ready for a full confrontation. Aside from that they were unable to have access to reliable intelligence reports.

This is one of the main reason why they were unprepared when the North Koreans came pouring in. Furthermore, the troika composed of North Korea, USSR and China made careful plans and decided on a date of attack when the South was at its most vulnerable state. Therefore, they chose a Sunday to stage an attack. There is no need to elaborate what happens on a Sunday, it is the last day of the weekend and if there is no indication of an emergency, political leaders and military officers are expected to be in a relaxed mood. Half of the South Korean army was also on leave (Sandler, p.

48). This last statement explains why they were caught off-guard by the rampaging North Korean forces. Five years before the conflict the United States Armed Forces was in tiptop shape as it prepared to end World War II but in 1950 the Truman administration intentionally reduced the number of American servicemen not only in Korea but also in the Far East. In Japan for instance the reduced strength of the U. S. army was very much evident: Tank companies stationed in Japan had only M24 light tanks as Japanese roads and bridges could not support heavier M4A3 and M26 tanks.

M24s were no match for North Korean T-34s, one of the best tanks to appear in World War II. The divisions in Japan also lacked their reconnaissance, military police, and replacement companies […] These divisions consisted of 12,500 to 13,600 troops rather than the full-strength 18,804 (Rottman, p. 3). Sensing blood the Russians and their Chinese allies provided more than logistical support to their comrades in North Korea. A few months after the initial attack, there were some 300,000 Chinese troops and the Taebaek Range was manned by about 10,000 Soviet and Soviet-bloc advisors and technicians (Shrader, p.

90). This outpouring of support backfired and instead of overwhelming the South Koreans it allowed their enemy to rally support from all over the globe. Those who feared the prospect of Communism ruling the world, these nations gathered together to force the United Nations to intervene. When the North Koreans failed to win decisively in the first year of the war, the United States and the UN lead coalition found time to regroup and rebuild. The Korean War was the first international conflict that the United Nations was involved in.

The UN called on all members to support the military effort in Korea and all 53 countries approved armed action against the North (Rottman, p. 117). There were 15 member-nations that pledged ground combat troops, 9 countries provided naval forces, six countries pledged air force elements and five nations promised medical support (Rottman, p. 117). When it was made clear that Communism was behind the conflict these countries decided it is time to stop Russia and China from taking over the world. With regards to the concept Proxy War it is now a challenge to attach this label to the Korean War.

Although it is clear that the United States and the USSR were the major players behind the scenes, the Korean War is more complicated than the suggestion that it is a conflict played out by allies of both the U. S. and Russia. A closer examination will reveal that it is a war where the United Nations was the most influential figure and not just the U. S. The UN believed that the North Koreans were unprovoked when they attack South Korea and therefore the resolution to defend with a US-led coalition was approved by the majority.

Yet, it is hard not to think of it as an offshoot of the Cold War between American and the Soviet Union. Afghanistan War The nation Afghanistan is a relatively new state. But it is part of an ancient region that was used by neighboring kingdoms as some sort of a buffer zone. Its most recent colonizer prior to the coming of the Russians was Great Britain. The British Empire considered it a strategic area and by controlling it, the English believe that they can secure the whole Middle East and protect their interest from competing forces.

But at the dawning of the 20t century the world saw the waning power of the British Crown and it did not take long before they were forced out of Afghanistan and the vacuum that they left behind was filled up by the emerging superpower – USSR. Why would Britain give up this strategic piece of real estate? The answer lies in the geopolitical make-up of Afghanistan. It is a land that is not rich in natural resources. One author was able to put it nicely when he wrote about the undesirable features of the land, “The Afghan’s homeland is green and pleasant only in the memory of the exiles.

Summers are hot and dry and winters bitter, especially in the high country, and from November to mid-March snow makes travel difficult” (Isby, p. 3). At first glance it is not easy to understand why Russia was forced to sacrifice so much just so they can extend their stay in Afghanistan. Aside from the difficult terrain and the poor condition of the soil – making it hard for farmers to make a living – Afghanistan is also politically decentralized (Isby, p. 3). It is due in part to the mountainous terrain as well as the absence of communication facilities – in 1979 there were no railroads and a limited paved road network (Isby, p.

3). Moreover, traditional authority rests in the khan, malik, or mullah (headman, chief, or religious teacher) remains strong outside the cities (Isby, p. 3). This made some authors to remark that even in the middle of the Afghan War a reporter can travel to Afghanistan and he would not know that there was heavy fighting in the countryside. This is a glimpse of how the war was conducted by the Russians; it was a war in the countryside, destroying the rebel’s network of support. But most of the violence was nowhere near the key cities.

If there is no reason for holding on to Afghanistan then why is it that the Soviet Union spent a considerable sum of money and sacrificed many of her sons to the deserts and craggy mountains of Afghanistan? It can be understood from a political standpoint or from an ideological standpoint; the Soviet Union could not afford to lose face in this part of the world. According to Alexander Haig, the former U. S. secretary of state, “The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to undermine the strengthening of the Islamic fundamentalist belt at its southern borders” (Borovik, p.

9). Afghanistan is a Muslim country and if Russian reputation will suffer in this insignificant Muslim nation then no one will know what will happen to the other Islamic nations under the influence of the Soviet Union. There are other forces at work that made it impossible for the USSR not to respond. It all began with a military coup that took power in 1978. The newly installed leader, President and Prime Minister Nur Mohammed Taraki turned out to be very zealous for cause of Communism. This behavior did not sit well with Muslim fundamentalists.

According to one insightful observation, “To the Afghans, each with his God and his gun, such initiatives launched by a regime that now appeared to be a tool for foreign infidels could have but one result” (Isby, p. 6). It is none other than armed resistance. Aside from the need to defend their allies from the onslaught of radical extremists bent on staging a holy war against godless communism, the Soviet Union had other reasons for providing military support to the embattled Afghan regime of 1979 (Crocker, Oslen, & Aall, p.

109). According to one Russian journalist who covered the war, “…by the mid-seventies our military had reached a state of parity with America … they (USSR) were anxious to try their strength somewhere” and Afghanistan proved to be a convenient testing ground for their newly acquired military advantage (Borovik, p. 8). The stage was set and the Proxy War between the USSR and the United States will result in hundreds of casualties without providing a clear ending to the conflict.

So far the discussion was centered on the reasons as to why the Russians were forced into a protracted war with the Afghan people. It is time to find out why an ill-equipped and ragtag army of guerillas were more than willing to sacrifice their lives to defeat Communism. Part of the answer lies in religion and the fanaticism of the guerilla forces. Their mindset can be partially understood upon reading a distinguished British military leader’s recommendation before England pulled out of Afghanistan:

We must not be afraid of Afghanistan and would profit by letting it be the master of its own fate. Maybe it is not the most attractive solution for us, but I feel that I am right in asserting that the less they are able to see us, the less they are likely to hate us. Even if we suppose that Russia will attempt to invade Afghanistan, and through it obtain to control India, we will have a much greater chance of getting the Afghans on our side if we abstain from interference in their internal affairs whatsoever” (Borovik, p.

12). It is now obvious that the Russians did not heed the advice of Sir Roberts and confident that they had all the necessary tools to defeat the Afghans they went full steam ahead. A closer examination of their strategies will make it clear why the Soviet Union expected victory. They studied guerilla tactics and realized that the best way to beat a ragtag army is to destroy its network of support emanating from the people – most of them living in the countryside.

In other words if the Soviet forces can cutoff the source of food and military supplies to the rebels, they could effectively tighten the noose and break the enemy’s will. The Russians did not anticipate the resolve of the Afghans and the intervention of the Americans. It has to be made clear though that the intervention came a little too late for many of the Afghans who were killed by extreme use of violence by the Soviet Union. The Americans finally came out of the open in 1986 when “…the Soviets have depopulated large portions of the country, creating an estimated 4.

5 million refugees” and when “…in desperation, the Mujahedin and their supporters in the United States and Pakistan beg the United States to supply the rebels with an effective anti-aircraft weapons to help level the playing field” (Kuperman, 220). The solution was a sophisticated weapon called the Stinger and this portable missile launcher really was a stinger in the fullest sense of the word because Soviet aircraft began falling from the skies. At the end of the same year the Soviet Politburo has set a deadline for the withdrawal of troops. U. S. Policies

There is another way to fully understand the Cold War and Proxy Wars. It is to go inside the mind of policymakers and to determine the reason behind their actions. It is not an accident or a mere byproduct of chance that policies are made, it is rooted in theories regarding international relations and shared further by the values of the incumbent administration. One of the best starting points is to discuss a popular theory of international relations which is known as realism. The realist is a practical political leader who believes that every person is a selfish human being and the same can be said of national governments.

As one commentator would put it, realism is “Centered on an understanding of politics as a permanent struggle for power and security … has consistently sought to explain how entities seek to preserve themselves in an environment characterized by the pervasive egoism and the ever-present possibility of harm” (Tellis, p. 3). In realism there can only be two options: 1) to reach a level of military sophistication that it will discourage the enemy from attacking; and 2) to strike first so that the enemy will never be given any opportunity to attack while one is in a vulnerable state.

The Cold War is the byproduct of this kind of thinking. The United States and the Soviet Union could not trust each other and each of them is suspicious of the other. Both countries believe that they had a good idea about their enemy’s ideology and they are certain that their opponent has a flawed idea of how to rule their people. An interesting facet of this conflict is the belief that for Russia, capitalism is evil while on the other side of the fence the Americans are so terrified of the prospect of being under the control of communism, a system of government that they thought to have come from hell itself.

There are two sides to every coin and in the discussion of political realism there is an opposite force, another theory of international relations known as liberalism. In liberalism nations are encouraged to communicate and resolve their issues. It is also a belief that world peace is possible if only people will learn to respect the rights of others. Liberalism is an ideal that supporters of realism find dangerous in a time when vigilance is needed. Policymakers during the time of the Cold War had to choose between the two.

In the Korean War and the Afghanistan War policymakers worked behind the scenes in order to determine the best course of action and it can be argued that the principles of liberalism and realism was never far from their minds. Aside from these two theories of international relations it must also be pointed out that there is a third factor that influenced the White House’s decision making process and it is none other than reelection. The incumbent president must work hard to be reelected after four years and therefore policies that come out of the Oval Office must be popular or at least supported by majority of Americans.

The first term president is always conscious of doing everything in a politically correct manner. For instance if there is budget deficit it makes no sense to spend more money; the most politically correct thing to do is to cut expenses and balance the budget. A quick review of the preceding discussion will reveal how liberalism and realism influenced the decision making process. Starting first with the Korean War it was pointed out that the North Koreans enjoyed the element of surprise because they caught the North Koreans off-guard.

One of the main reasons why the South Koreans were unprepared to face a full-scale war can be traced to the way U. S. President Harry Truman viewed the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. Before the North Koreans went past the buffer zone that separated North and South Korea, the former president Truman had to deal with domestic problems and one way to deal with it the Truman way is minimize the spending on defense. This may have been the reason why there were only a handful of American servicemen in South Korea prior to the Korean War.

Truman tried to save money. He was described as an “economizer” (Casey, p. 667). It is clearly a derogatory statement aimed at portraying him as a leader who does not see the real world as it is supposed to be seen by a world leader like Truman. When the first volley was fired at Korea’s 38th parallel, Truman’s policies began to be transformed and as the battle rages on Truman’s began to increase the government’s support and to increase spending in the area of defense a reaction that he would have abhorred if the Korean War did not happen.

Truman’s behavior is a clear example of the tension brought about by the two international relations theory that was discussed earlier. It will not benefit any government to be paranoid when it comes to the darker side of realism. It is not practical to amass weapons of mass destruction due to the paranoia that the other country will strike first. On the other hand it is also harmful to be complacent and slow to react in the time of war. The U. S. led forces in South Korea was almost overwhelmed by the well-prepared group of North Koreans who descended upon them without prior warning.

There are cases when liberalism can be a good thing. It can be said that the United Nations was build on the principles of liberalism. If it were not then there is no point in gathering the representatives of different countries to help discuss solutions to persistent problems and to provide a venue where international leaders can settle their differences in a diplomatic manner. It can also be said that the former president Jimmy Carter believes in the principles inherent in liberalism.

Carter was so much into liberalism that he was considered to be like a dove as compared to other leaders who are hawkish or itching for a fight. In one commentary Carter was described as like a lamb, a peace loving leader, “He began his presidency in 1977 full of optimism that he could reduce international tensions by entering into a major arms reduction agreement with the Soviet Union … sought to reform the Soviet Union by trying to influence it to end human rights abuse, reduce its armed presence outside its borders, reduce expenditures on the military, and eventually end communism” (Aronoff, p.

425). Carter was overly optimistic and so, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on December 27, 1979 he experienced a complete turnaround in his belief system. The dove became a hawk. His policies contrast sharply with the Reagan. The former president Ronal Reagan was a realist from the beginning up until the end of his term. He was not like Truman who wanted to appear as a good steward of resources and never wanting to spend beyond what is necessary. In contrast Reagan spent billions of dollars in trying to outlast the Soviet Union in a global arms race.

Reagan was ready to fight the Soviet Union and he was prepared in both defense and offense. For Reagan nothing good can come out of the Communist Politburo in Kremlin and he wanted the United States to be armed to the teeth in order to defeat the so-called evil empire of Communism. Reagan was not simply contented with spending huge amounts of money to upgrade the U. S. Armed Forces and to spend additional amounts to win over other nations to the side of democracy; he was also prepared to commit a portion of American resources to aid the rebels and guerilla forces fighting to overthrow Soviet hegemony.

In 1985 he inadvertently developed the Reagan doctrine in response to the growing threat of communism in the planet. In this Regan doctrine, the former president made it very clear that the United States will provide resources to those who longed to be free from the shackles of the Soviet Union. Conclusion The discussion began with the introduction of the Cold War and in the middle portion it began to discuss two so-called proxy wars between the allies of the United States and the Soviet Union.

Both terminologies – the Cold War and Proxy Wars – are confusing because it uses words that did not automatically convey a simple meaning and one is forced to look behind the words to find its true meaning. For instance in the Cold War there was no single instance in the period after the Second World War up until the end of it in 1990 wherein one can find Russians and American troops fighting and maiming each other. In a loose definition of a proxy war, the United States and Russia allowed others to do the fighting for them.

Upon closer inspection this is partially true. For one, American troops were stationed in South Korea in the Korean War of 1950. On the other hand Russian troops conducted bloody purging in the Afghanistan War that started in 1979 and stretched into latter part of the 1980s. Yet, still it has to be acknowledged the concept of the proxy war remained true for the simple fact that Russian and American troops did not meet in any battlefield during the second half of the 20th century.

It is also worth mentioning that the supposed to be proxy war that occurred in the Korean Peninsula in 1950 is not really a proxy war between the United States and the USSR. This is because in most of the duration of the war it was not only the proxies of the Russians and the Americans that went into battle. In fact the United Nations secured the approval of other member nations to send combat ready troops into the Korean Peninsula and to push back North Koreans who attacked ROK without provocation.

On the other hand it can still be considered as a proxy war because the soldiers that came from different parts of the globe were led by the United States while the North Korean Army was equipped by the Soviet Union. The Cold War is all about stockpiling weapons, especially nuclear warheads and the race to establish military bases in some of the strategic locations in the planet. It is this intense competition that forced the Soviet Union to continuously instigate attacks and to draw up plans to invade territories not yet under the co

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