Monday, December 1

Okay, Maybe It's Just Me, But It's Hard To Understand How We're Supposed To Stay In Afghanistan Longer Than The Afghans

Noah Feldman, "Fighting the Last War?" November 30

OR, How to sound like a moderate and a Bush administration functionary at the same time.

If Experience is the name people give to their mistakes (and wasn't Oscar, like, the Simpsons of the 19th century?), I'm left to wonder what name to give to the fact that I'm still taking nourishment and breathing without assistance despite the fact that the very people who got us into twin military disasters in this very decade are now the ones called upon to explain to us a) how Iraq is no longer a failure, and b) the quickest way to duplicate that not-failure in Afghanistan (which generally involves explaining that we can't, without explaining that the major snag is less the applicability of military strategy and more the difficulties involved in Simply Declaring Victory twice in a row).

Because I've seen it all before, but it used to involve a Decent Interval, like the one between the failure of excuse mongering in Vietnam and the election of Ronald Reagan, or the end of racist opposition to civil rights and, well, the election of Ronald Reagan. Not that any of that stuff had gone away, exactly, in the interim, but it had suffered electoral defeat and fallen into disrepute, before being rebranded; Iraq and Afghanistan--partly through the simple expedient of Just Keeping Them Going Forever--have suffered, by comparison, mostly a couple years of the David Brooks Don't-Make-Eye-Contact-Maybe-They'll-Go-Away technique before he and like-minded fellows were able to pop back up and start asserting the very same premise that got us there (both theres) in the first place, with the same apodictic fervor of the tent-show evangelist as before.

Enter Feldman, once the 32-year-old assistant law professor (with a Ph.D in Islamic studies) tapped by the Coalition Provisional Authority (see "Holy" "Roman" "Empire") to write the Iraq constitution, now a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Feldman gives us his bona fides; simply calling for another surge would be unserious, would ignore existential differences in the two situations, and, besides, might wind up as yet another flaming shit bag American Adventurism would have to hire someone to clean off its brogues after boldly stepping in:
Yet despite the surface similarities between Iraq and Afghanistan, the differences run deep, as Gen. David McKiernan, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, has acknowledged. The very words policymakers use when discussing Iraq — “nation,” “tribe,” “radical,” “Islamist,” even “Al Qaeda” — mean different things in the Afghan context. In the complex world of counterinsurgency, getting these subtleties of anthropology and sociology right determines success or failure.

To begin with, now, the regular Reader knows we're nothing if not joyously trans-partisan around here, so let us hop up and down in delighted agreement here: yes, indeedy, "Al Qaeda" (is that the Times' Magazine style book at work?) means something different in Afghanistan--it means "al-Qaeda (et. al.)", whereas in Iraq it meant "Scary Extra-Bold Headlines".

We're also happy to acknowledge the importance of anthropology (though we continue to maintain that sociology ought generally to stick to helping major international corporations choose the most popular colors for toothpastes and condom packaging) to counterinsurgency, though somewhere short of "deterministic". But then for some reason there's a nagging little voice asking "Why?" If The Surge was so successful, or productive of non-failure-type results, and if it comes right out of the (Petraeus-penned) Army counterinsurgency manual, why fuss over details?
The sheiks knew their authority would be enhanced if they could deliver patronage from the U.S. and the Iraqi government — after all, that is how they secured their power from the era of British colonial rule right up through the reign of Saddam. You could almost say the Iraqi tribal structure was built for the very purpose to which the U.S. counterinsurgency eventually put it.

By contrast, Afghanistan’s tribes — a term that covers everything from large confederations to cousin-networks and extended families — are not natural vehicles for creating loyalty to a central government. To the contrary, for many years the tribal confederations have functioned as proxies for foreign powers. As a result, the tribes are past masters at playing international interests against one another. Even if we can revive the traditional tribal structures, the result might be more chaotic than the situation now; a tribal strategy is as likely to increase internal conflict as to effect reconciliation.

I'm sorry, but "everything from large confederations to cousin-networks and extended families" does not describe Iraqi social structure?

Though this is nothing compared to the fact-esque truthiness of that historicity lesson. Iraq's tribal leaders are innate deal-makers, having dealt with the British for thirty years! (not to mention, or oddly not mention, for some reason, four-hundred years under the Ottoman Turks), and then Saddam; Afghans have an entirely different mindset, since they were only subjected to British influence from 1838-1919 (admittedly fighting three wars in that time), not to mention the Mongols, Mogols, Persians, Indians, Russians, and the Seljuk Turks, not to mention political dominance by the rough-majority Pashtun. So just how is it that foreign domination in Afghanistan (and eighty years of independence) creates a sort of natural-born insurgency, while foreign domination (and fifty-years of military strongmen following an installed monarchy) in Iraq creates natural-born poker players?
There are two ways to change the incentives of the many Pashtuns who until now have supported the Taliban based on the reasonable belief that they may someday return to power. One is to wage war more effectively, protecting villages from Taliban reprisals and persuading everyone that we will never allow the Taliban or other extremists to resume control. This would give Pashtuns a collective reason to seek accommodation with the U.S.-backed government.

But military advantage may prove elusive. The other way to change the calculus is to offer Pashtun leaders, Taliban or otherwise, something meaningful in exchange for promising to give up sheltering Al Qaeda and to allow basic freedoms, especially for women and girls. There may not be many Taliban leaders who are willing to renounce their ideology. But it is not too soon to start asking what, if anything, Pashtun leaders would be prepared to accept in such a deal, and if the members of the coalition could live with it in exchange for the chance to phase out the military occupation.

Let's put it another way: nothing is impossible to the man who doesn't have to do it himself, especially if he's paid to theorize about it, and hopeless acts of sacrifice by others are preferable to admitting that one was, in fact, standing directly behind the Pooch in question at the moment of that passive-voice coitus.
In three years, President Obama will have to evaluate the situation as his re-election campaign begins. If the Taliban in Afghanistan fight the coalition to a standstill while their Pakistani counterparts improve their position, he will face considerable pressure to bring American troops home. But in that scenario, withdrawal would invite a Taliban victory on both sides of the border, and the Taliban will have even less incentive to compromise than they do currently. The time for change is now, lest Afghanistan become the quagmire that Iraq was once said to be.

Said to be? Nay, Professor, was, and continues to be, ameliorated only by an apparently reduction in violence, a certain reduction in our reporting of violence, and absolutely no suggestion that there's a functioning central government which will maintain power or operate democratically once we're gone. It may be that no one hands out grant money for extended meditations on the odds on unscrambling an egg, but let us say, flat out: a massive fucking failure engendered by American military hubris, dating to a foolish, let alone erroneous, belief that we somehow stood outside the bounds of History, with a mandate to impose Pax Britannica II. There is no, absolutely no evidence the world is hungering for another one, and plenty of evidence (in fact, all available) that we can't do it anyway. That is not to say that the advance of democracy, real democracy, isn't desirable; perhaps in some of our lifetimes the day will dawn when, for example, Iraqi and Afghan women will once again be granted the freedoms they enjoyed under Saddam Hussein and the Soviet-dominated PDPA, respectively. If you catch my drift.


isabelita said...

Have you heard about or read a book called "Three Cups of Tea", about Greg Mortenson, a mountaineer whose failed summit attempt on K2 led to his project of building shcools for kids, especially girls, along the Pakistan/Afghan border? After reading it, I find that area is really on my radar. He started in the Karakoram area, and has been at it since 1993. His basic idea is that these schools will make friends, not enemies. He's been snatched and interrogated by both tribesmen and CIA agents.
It's written by someone else, an "as told to", but it's eye-opening, and even made me hope a bit. Envisiiong the kids there is vivid.
There's an incident described of a group of girls out on a dusty piece of land,
doing their math in the dirt, with a blackboard set up. A US chopper buzzes the group, and their prop wash knocks over the blackboard, breaking it, leaving the girls cowering on the ground. It is a perfect distillation of US military brutishness and ineffectualness.
Anyway, your pithy post brought this book to mind. I recommend it.

map106 said...

Is there a way my Christmas, as opposed to Holiday, gift to my family can be a year's subscription to your blog, one that REQUIRES they read it? CafePress anyone?

I am beyond ignorant regarding history, but what little I know makes me know that we ought to just stop. Stop with our plans, and especially stop with the American Exceptionalism routine. It's embarrassing.

cavjam said...

What a great idea - go to both Iraq, where fat empires come to be bloodlet, and Afghanistan, where the carcass is consumed. Man, them neocons is geniuses.

Or as Gibbon said in the Decline and Fall, something like, "I have described the triumph of barbarism and religion."

Or as Pogo said, something like, "We have met the barbarians at the gate and they is us."

dave said...

Oh for the love of Christ... Noah Feldman, Boy Genius, types these ideas as if they're not all the same regurgitated reasons the real experts were using for not doing all this in the first place.

stringonastick said...

Three Cups of Tea is an exceptional book, and Mortensen is a man with a huge heart. Do more of what he does with NO CIA/US Government involvement; Mortensen has survived this long precisely because he has NONE of these connections, otherwise his head would have long been separated from his body.

Don't fly around destroying the poppy crop, which is the only way for a poor family to earn enough on a crop to survive; buy it up, burn it here, make it into drugs we need, whatever, but quit it with the trash it, lecture the farmer, and then walk away to let him and his family starve.

Afghanistan is the ultimate tar baby for western armies, and a few more well-placed swings at that baby is precisely the wrong thing to do, Mr. Soon to be President. Honey, not vinegar.