Stumbling About In the Graveyard of Empires
By David Michael Green
If there was ever a decent justification visible for the American war in Afghanistan, there isn’t now.
That doesn’t mean that one is impossible to imagine. I’m no fan of the Taliban or al Qaeda, though that alone doesn’t justify invading the country. Nor does a military occupation necessarily make things better, even if you assume that a particular regime is noxious enough that a regime decapitation is warranted. Time after time, great powers have learned to their chagrin that the natives don’t always necessarily appreciate being invaded, occupied and told who the new boss replacing the old boss will be. People can be odd that way.
But leave all that aside for the moment. Maybe al Qaeda did 9/11, as we were told. Maybe the Taliban were harboring them. Maybe both had a violent, regressive and otherwise just generally ugly agenda. Maybe there was even justification enough for invading in 2001.
I nevertheless meant my initial critique quite literally, however. Whatever may or may not have been the case in 2001, it’s now 2010, and any such clarity or justification is now invisible. Indeed, what I find most astonishing about America’s latest military adventure is just how much this gravest of national decisions is not being seriously discussed in our national discourse.
Perhaps even more amazing is the degree to which that is true from the bottom of the national security policy process all the way up to the top. The proper way to conceive and consider these issues, I would argue, is in the form of a nested contextual hierarchy, in which each level of policy analysis has to justify decisions to the one, and ones, above it. We, as a body politic, are talking about and thinking about Afghanistan at none of these levels. In fact, of course, we’re basically not talking about and thinking about Afghanistan at all.
The lowest level of policy decision-making is the tactical. America has to decide exactly how it is going to prosecute the war. We don’t hear very much about that, which is itself more than troubling. Reports are now beginning to show up in the alternative press - but, significantly, not in the mainstream - of tactical operations all too reminiscent of those brutal affairs which have appeared previously in Iraq and Pakistan. Allegations are now surfacing about innocent civilians either being subjected to intentional human rights and war crimes violations, right up to and including murder, or at least wonton disregard for the “collateral damage” caused by battlefield tactics. There is certainly a moral question at stake here, and one that we are just not discussing.
But there is also simply the pragmatic question of whether such tactics properly service our strategy in Afghanistan, the next level up in the hierarchy. But was is American strategy? The latest version seems to be an ‘improvement’ over the notion of simply defeating the Taliban and al Qaeda in battlefield engagements. Now the Pentagon brass and theater commanders are talking about following military clearing operations with ‘government-in-a-box’ nation-building initiatives, ostensibly for purposes of winning the ubiquitous hearts and minds typically sought by contemporary counterinsurgency occupation forces. Theoretically, providing Afghans with security and with efficient, corruption-free governance will help to win their allegiance to a ‘better’ (read American sponsored) way. While the ideas have some merit on paper, they also ignore the historical realities of similar attempts in Vietnam and Iraq, and they require for credibility that we suspend everything we know about America’s long-time ongoing national version of the same strategy in Afghanistan, which has witnessed the Karzai puppet regime spending the better part of the last decade demonstrating just how corrupt a government can possibly be, and just how ineffective as well - at least when it comes to everything other than stealing elections or just plain stealing.
But strategy, of course, is not its own end. Strategy is used to achieve certain objectives which form the very purpose for fighting a war. Barack Obama is not quite as lame as George W. Bush in this respect (not exactly a stunning achievement, that), who argued that America should be at war with the weapon terrorism - as opposed to an actual adversary using that weapon. While we can say that Obama is not as deceitful (at least on this score) or idiotic as Bush, that’s pretty much true of the entire world, isn’t it? More importantly, what are America’s aims in massively escalating our presence in Afghanistan? Are we trying to defeat the Taliban? Remove al Qaeda from the country (even though the Pentagon says there’s only about a hundred of them left there)? Create a Jeffersonian democracy? Install an ally? Lift the country out of poverty? Again, it astonishes me that one could take a country to war without this most obvious question being part of the national discourse. But it isn’t.
And neither is the question of how ‘winning’ in Afghanistan, whatever that would actually mean, would effect American national security, just in the short term. If only for the sake of argument, suppose the United States could achieve whatever objectives are entailed by the notion of winning the war there. How long would it take? What would it cost in dollars? How many lives would be lost? What actual, live, current threat would be extinguished, such that America would be safer? What would be traded off, in terms of other uses of the money - from education to infrastructure to paying down the national debt - in order to win this war? What other possible security concerns would go unaddressed because the US took all its armies on the Risk board and moved them from Irkutsk and Yakutsk and Mongolia to Kamchatka? None of these questions have been addressed in the United States, let alone answered. And those just represent short-term security concerns.
As for each level of security policy analysis discussed above, short-term definitions of success should be constructed to give service to the next level up, medium-term ones. If it’s true that there is a broader struggle going on against some sort of wider American enemy, of which Afghanistan is simply a single theater of operations, then the medium-term security question one has to ask is whether putting so many resources into that single theater makes sense in the context of the bigger objective. If al Qaeda is located in 60 countries, for example, is it smart to stick 100,000 American troops in just one of them, and spend a trillion bucks hunting down a hundred people, especially when they can just slide over the border into Pakistan almost at will?
Finally, is the medium-term aspiration for the country serving well the long-term foreign policy goals of the United States in which it should be nested? Are these policies likely to leave us better off, somehow, twenty and fifty years from now? Does an American presence in Afghanistan better America’s position in the world, both with respect to friendly countries, and with respect to rivals, real and potential? It certainly doesn’t seem to be having a positive effect with the former group, as NATO allies appear less and less interested in supporting American efforts in the country, either by being there at all, or by being anywhere near harm’s way. As to potential rivals, could anything possibly be more amusing than this war to the grand strategists in Moscow and Beijing, hoping to supercede American as the hegemon of the new century? If there is any such possibility, it could only be the US blunder in Iraq. Either way, America could hardly have given its rivals a greater gift if we had simply wrapped a ribbon around the capitol and stuck a bow on the dome. Yes, as a matter of fact, history’s lesson is correct - empires do die from within, not from external assault. Idiocy is more lethal than are Huns.
Like everything in America, both the Afghan war and US foreign policy in general have been relentlessly politicized in the last decades, ever since doing so was discovered as a survival technique for the otherwise completely bankrupt politics of the right. Regressives get more mileage out of knee-jerk reactionary national security fears than anything else they can invent as a reason for their existence. At the same time, pacifists on the left make the mistake of believing that there is no situation for which war is the appropriate response. I wish that that were true, but, unfortunately, it isn’t. If I have to choose between World War II and a Thousand-Year Reich of darkness descending over the planet (which would, of course, entail at least as much mass violence, anyhow, to go along with all the repression and civilizational regression), I reluctantly choose war.
The problem for the United States, however, is that it long ago forgot about the reluctant part. We just keep going to war, decade after decade, from Korea to Vietnam to Grenada to Iraq to Panama to Bosnia and back to Iraq and so on. You could make an argument, as regressives often do, that the reason that we are completely unmatched by any other country in the world for the frequency with which we have gone to war over the last century is because we are doing the heavy lifting of international security that others either cannot or will not do. I’d say there’s even some truth to that in some cases. By my estimation, about half of America’s wars had at least a moderately legitimate casus belli. But that, of course, leaves the other half. When you’re talking about the single gravest decision a society can make, it wouldn’t hurt to get it right more often than you would by random chance, say by flipping a coin.
Afghanistan is one of the muddier cases, from the perspective of its moral justification. That’s true, first, because it is really two cases - then and now. If it was actually true that al Qaeda did 9/11 and that the Taliban refused to give up the perpetrators, then I think invading Afghanistan in order to go after those individuals was an appropriate response, however reluctant I am ever to support violence, especially at the scale of war, and however clear it is that America’s policies in the world all too often harm others. (Similarly, I think it equally appropriate that George W. Bush and gang ought to be sitting in an ICC courtroom right now, on trial for their crimes.) But now that first version of the war is long over, yet another botched product of the Bush administration, and al Qaeda has largely been neither captured nor killed, but instead driven into Pakistan. Whatever legitimate justification there was for the first phase of a US war in Afghanistan seems to me completely absent now that we are in the second.
And yet the president (another botch king, of a somewhat different and some similar sort) is dramatically escalating the American military presence there. I do not see any moral justification for that.
But part of why I don’t see that is because we basically have not been presented with any justification whatsoever. And the reason that hasn’t happened is because we, as a society, are not addressing seriously any of the nested policy questions necessary to an intelligent and just formulation of American foreign policy.
Are we using tactics in Afghanistan that are as humane as possible and that can work?
Do those tactics serve our strategy there, assuming we know what that is?
Does our strategy serve our goals for fighting a war in Afghanistan?
Do those political goals for the war serve a broader short-term American foreign policy outside of Afghanistan?
Do those short-term goals advance medium-term US foreign policy goals?
And do those medium-term goals serve the country’s long-term goals?
Most of these questions are almost impossible to answer decisively, for the reason that we don’t actually know what the country’s tactics or strategy or goals are.
But if one had to try to answer these questions, based on the best information available, you’d probably have to say: No, no, no, no, no, no and no.
Not very impressive. It’s one thing for a government to act recklessly with the lives of its citizens and those of other people, elsewhere. In less politically mature countries, like America, that is all too sadly still to be expected.
But where is the public which, in a democracy, can control their government? Where are the fine American citizens, with their “Support the Troops” bumper-stickers cracked and fading on the back of their SUVs? Where are the great advocates of Christian morality, reading about cheek-turning in their bibles at night, and pouring out of churches on Sunday mornings?
Where are they, indeed?
Probably too busy watching American Idol reruns to ask these crucial questions, and to demand legitimate answers to them before they will allow their government to fight an increasingly violent war in Afghanistan.
It’s important to keep your priorities straight, you know.
David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. He is delighted to receive readers’ reactions to his articles (mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. More of his work can be found at his website, http://www.regressiveantidote.net