It’s well into the great dissolution. Notions of empire always start their rot in the metropole core but manifest first along the periphery. America’s no different. Every narrative has an arc. There are different scripts. Some end with a retrospectively imposed tangible event. Regardless of what really happened.
Gorbachev back in 1985 detonated a geo-political thermonuclear warhead in a speech labeling Afghanistan a ‘bleeding wound.’ Note this was well before the Stingers went in. Gorbachev’s signal to the Soviet elite? Afghanistan was a mistake.
The US probably spent around $17-20 billion on intelligence in 1985, mostly targeted on the Sovs. We missed it. Sorry Mel. SOVA blew it, too, and you can’t just blame Gates and Casey for ‘stifling the truth’ below.
Did Afghanistan eventually cause the Soviet collapse? A complex socio-political and cultural question. For many Soviets, Neocons, Russians, Milt Beardon and — of course — in the much vaunted but elusive ‘Islamic imagination’ the answer is an uncomplicated yes. (N.B. ‘Islamic imagination’ as meme is as plastic as ‘the Palestinian/Hezbollah/Street’. Both mean anything a Neocon needs at the moment). Here’s a hint: mono-causal explanations for something as complex as Soviet decline and fall are always wrong.
Afghanistan and Iraq so far play the opposite role for the US. Contra the Soviets, US failures there perversely *strengthen* the American so-called National Security State at home.
For all involved in Afghanistan today, it’s traumatic, dangerous and painful. Yet this experience is likely to be catalytic rather than declinist, transmuting US self-image. True, Great Britain lost the Americas and still built their Noontide global empire.
British comparative maritime and industrial advantages then gave London first mover advantages for decades. American withdrawal/retreat from the Kush accompanied by domestic dislocation will occur with rising competitors.
Obama’s deliberations on Afghanistan policy 2009 illustrates the point. Today, the foreign policy and pundit class is rushing to buy and cite a flood of new books on Vietnam and draw simplistic comparisons to Afghanistan. It’s Dada.
Knowingly or not. For the US policy and chattering classes, often it’s the latter. On it’s face a comparison, both geostrategically and specifically are laughable. The divergent linguistic, ethnic, economic, geographic, historical, political development and resource bases are obvious. Structurally, MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam) and ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) Afghanistan/NATO are apples and oranges.
Vietnam and Afghanistan have one thing in common: people shooting guns and detonating bombs. The shorthand for that? Killing. But that’s it.
Yet we hear the same arguments Fall 2009: (i) global dominos are at stake; (ii) repeating ‘Afghanistan’ and ‘counterinsurgency’ in the same sentence relentlessly; and (iii) somehow, a Taliban Mayor of Kabul poses an existential security threat to America.
All untrue. Afghanistan is truly a smaller, more containable counter-terrorism environment. Which is why we’re pretty sure Obama is going to blow it and cave to CENTCOM’s escalation.
No global dominos here.
Vietnam played out in a rigid, tectonic, bi-polar world. That rigidity controlled global incineration. Halberstam making it so-obviously-wrong hindsight aside, a SE Asia domino theory in 1961-65 actually was a non-trivial idea, although wrong. America was blind. We had no meaningful strategic political intelligence on any of the actors involved. And area studies as a discipline in the U.S. didn’t really exist yet except in isolated, furtive corners.
Americans could only project what we knew. Three years fighting Chinese, Koreans and Soviets in Korea (yes, those were Soviet pilots). All three closed counter-intelligence States (to use a John Dziak phrase). For Bundy, Ball, McNamara, Johnson, Kennedy, etc. – that entire world generation — WW II? The Berlin Airlift? Munich was alive as living memory (if mis-marketed even then). We had faith. In technology. In empiricism. Operations research.
The Sino-Soviet split over the West and war since Khruschev in the 1950s? Long before we went ashore at Danang in ’65. We were clueless again. We kind of caught on when the Soviets asked us to help them with a nuclear first strike on the Chinese in 1969. DOH!
Those few SE Asia area studies experts we did have at the time? The majority predicted no dominos were at risk outside the American military areas of activity (later under Nixon to include Laos and Cambodia).
Was Rostow right in hindsight that Vietnam was still worthwhile? As a noble ‘holding action’ to allow ASEAN nations to mature successfully? Leonidas with Agent Orange? The Neocons always declaim yes. Gene Rostow, his brother, once graciously submitted a paper to the Stiftung so we’re inclined be gentle. You know where we stand.
Afghanistan is less danger. Next door, the Persians despise the Taliban and are infinitely more powerful. The Indians fear and loath jihadists as much as Neocons. Then there’s Pakistani nukes. Loose Pakistani nukes are a real threat. Clinton tells us they’re secure. Maybe. We must be prepared to secure (or destroy them) — with or without Pakistani assistance. Their real danger is from proliferation.
Counter-insurgency and Afghanistan should not be in the same sentence.
By definition, a political and cultural structure must first exist to subvert. No State? No insurgency. Afghanistan is not a State. That illusion is a purely notional, convenient diplomatic pretense. Always has been.
The Viet Cong were insurgents. Vietnamese are homogenous people with a shared history, language, etc. Vietnamese elites were world class cosmopolitans.
The Vietnamese considered themselves a people and possessed State institutions. The insurgency in the South came with a legitimate aura of authentic nationalism because of the Viet Minh resistance under the pre-war French colonial period, against the Japanese and the French again after ’45. French (Catholic) systematic suppression of post-war nationalist sentiment in the South galvanized a demographic shift to the North.
Authentic political, cultural and intellectual cadres moved North. Ho Chi Minh was an authentic leader from the Viet Minh period. (We’ll skip MacCarthur’s embarrassing orders to cut off OSS relations with then-friendly and prepared-to-be-possibly-pro-American Ho Chi Minh). It wasn’t until Deng visited D.C. in 1978 and China’s calamitous war on Vietnam did the depth of Vietnamese disdain for Chinese vassaldom hit home on the Potomac.
When we stupidly stepped into the French mess, French repression tactics ensured the cadres we inherited in the South were already tainted, weak and thin. We then helped ensure further de-legitimacy with the coup, etc. But even South Vietnamese understood what a political governing structure was. Saigon and the surrounding country had infrastructure corruption aside. Our doomed mission didn’t begin with nothing. We just took over a bad hand and played it like drunk tourists.
You know, Dear Reader, Afghanistan has none of these features. The Soviets discovered this after the Dec. 1979 coup and follow-on invasion. They quickly learned controlling Kabul, appointing ministers, building a national army — all meaningless to the rest of ‘Afghanistan’. No there, there. Never was.
It’s 2009 and still no semblance of an authentic State structure across the country. Controlling Kabul? As meaningless as in 1980. ‘Taking American eyes off Afghanistan for Iraq’ is a good anti-Bush meme. But a focused America after 2001 still couldn’t have built a functioning Afghan State anyway.
We did lose track off UBL and the Taliban. But that’s a counter-terrorism failure. The recent 2009 Afghan election fraud issue? A meaningless canard in the scheme of things. For the medium term, at best our real mission is a tribal policing action.
A shame Obama lacks it in him to pull a Richard Perle trick during Afghan policy deliberations. He should ask each individually — ‘Who has ever built from outside a nation anywhere on Earth with conditions like Afghanistan? In world history, anywhere?’ And make each person answer.
CENTCOM, McChystal and Petreaus are providing even worse professional military advice and alarmingly demonstrate worse battlespace awareness than MACV. We see careerists determined not to be left standing when the musical chairs stop.
We do need a persistent intelligence footprint for counter-terrorism operations. To hunt and destroy Al-Qaeda. Obama as we said likely will flinch and escalate for short term political cover. Doomed. American power there wanes by the day given inevitable domestic impatience (per dictum Power = Means x Will).
The Mayor of Kabul does not threaten the Globe.
Pick a tribe. Or ad hoc alliance with any Taliban facton. Put them in Kabul. Call someone the President. Their chum is Foreign Minister and flies places. Doesn’t matter. We just need capacity to deny or destroy Al-Qaeda national sanctuaries. That’s ‘Victory’. To assert we must stay to deny ‘Ismalo-Fascist-Jihadi-Taliban victory in their imaginations is more absurd than dominos falling. The U.S. there forever as their sock puppet trying to out guess and grabble with someone else’s ‘imagination’. Note to CENTCOM: Your own incompetence 2001-2009 already assures lack of awe, respect and deterrence from Arabs, Baluchis, Durranis, the Ghilzai tribe, Tajiks, Uzbeks and possibly now restless Aleuts. That’s not imaginary.
The Taliban have shown no interest in extra-territorial aggression against the U.S. That remains an Al-Qaeda agenda. Gen. Jones proffers the Community’s estimate that only 100 Al-Qaeda fighters are in Afghanistan. Given its abysmal local weatherman-like track record, let’s round up and say 8,000. Still, the point holds. No insurgency by definition. Take them down/barter them in with precision counter-terrorism focus.
Could Petreaus’ FM have worked for MACV? Who knows? It’s not worth spit in Afghanistan.
We used to measure privately D.C.’s intellectual health by the number of good specialized book stores around. Different from nice neighborhood stores crushed by Borders. ‘Politics & Prose’ is not what we mean. Stores for specialist policy, academic press and foreign journals. Where a book’s one footnote could open intellectual arguments spawning PhD theses and whole careers.
Admittedly some – OK alot – of the books were perfunctory graduate serf product. Ground out merely to gain release from doctorate Gitmo. The proof readers probably committed seppuku.
Sidney Kramer was about the last of that breed. It died a long time ago. We used to go there on an afternoon. We’d pick up a title on refining precision nuclear targeting, another on Soviet operational maneuver group (OMG) theory, and maybe a couple on Japanese Sekigahara-era miltary and social structure. Each visit would cost a fortune but worth it. Each book promised years of engagement. None like today’s mass market middle/low brow military pornography.
What does it say when the capital of the at the time undeniable sole Superpower lacked one good specialty policy book store with international and foreign language policy journals? About us? We said at the beginning imperial rot begins at the core. That was a sign for us.
We grew up surrounded by people who cared about ideas, policy and scholarship. That generation built the American Empire in its most recognizable guise. Most of them are gone now. No one is following.
Imperial mere policy process has its place. Look what Cher Condi’s managerial and intellectual incompetence as national security advisor cost us. Orderly process is not an end unto itself contra Wilkerson. Without knowledge first, GIGO, right? We naively used to think so. And still America lurches onwards.
We do have privileges with a specialized international policy library when nostalgia tugs. A visit is suffused with love. We could spend hours just wondering. American intellectual vitality and our imperial trajectory can be traced by what’s on the stacks. Just like geologists measure and study sediment. Layers and then near extinction. And then a new layer. We see books this way. Even this specialized library now has cable/CNBC hyped product displayed upfront.
We’ve always loved libraries. Our undergraduate library had many millions of accessible free stacked books (not Firestone but you get the drift). Another library at a place we spent time had stacks of dead trees as opinions. Some are great and shape our domestic lives. But that library’s tale is wholly different from America’s global narrative.
Why should a journo-lobbyist-staffer-apparatchik at the Barnes & Noble check out counter care? The Stiftung’s pompous, condescending, precious and self-absorbed point of view on book stores and boring times long since gone doesn’t get invites to green rooms. Or parties.
Besides, someone doubtlessly is even now saying — Stiftung you forget about private and classified Intranets. Knowledge is free from print and books. Private lacunae still pool facts. Some are turned into data. Some data becomes information. And then it’s actionable. Not waiting years to sit in some privileged reserve on a shelf. Americans at war require security via action. Look what Michael Scheuer accomplished without your pin head geek knowledge whine.
We still think we’re right. America at her height eschewed direct imperial rule, quixotic, temporary adventures aside. Ironically for Germany’s Leo Strauss (and to his dismay) that may be our most faithful adherence to the Athenian Way (pre-Delian League). America exercised power at her zenith best indirectly via international organizations, structures (like the dollar) and alliances.
Indirect rule is inefficient in the short term. In the medium and long term it allows a people to evolve without imperial self-awareness. Something that once gained merely starts the clock ticking. Same with republics across history but that’s another story. Indirect rule, however, is especially dependent on accumulated knowledge and area studies among the self-conscious power wielding class, even if it’s not immediately ‘actionable’. Or ‘operational’.
In many ways (sorry Old Blighty) the US empire was trickier act to pull off than the British.