It’s well into the great dissolution. Imperial rot always begins in the core but manifests itself first along the fringe. America’s time is no different. Every narrative of Fall has an arc. There are different scripts. Some end with a retrospectively imposed tangible event. Regardless of what really happened. Case in point? Rome ‘fell’. Other stories end with a sigh. A now-irrelevant-but-once-shared-Idea gone. That’s how we suspect America’s imperial tale concludes. Either way, merely stuff of which Wikipedia pages are made.
Gorbachev back in 1985 detonated a geo-political thermonuclear warhead in a speech labeling Afghanistan a ‘bleeding wound.’ In the Soviet Imperial context it was a major signal to internal Soviet (read military and ‘other organs’) and international audiences. Note this was well before the Stingers went in. We probably spent around $20 some 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.
America’s politically correct when it comes to strategic surprise and missed key signals. Much earlier, Mao tried to signal Nixon too, long before he and Kissinger finally woke up. Mao even invited Americans to pose next to him at Peking parades. In Chinese that’s called a big
FUCKING missed signal. All at American apogee.
Did Afghanistan 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 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).
Afghanistan and Iraq so far play the opposite role in our imperial story. Contra the Soviets, our failures there perversely *strengthen* the American Permanent National Security State here at home.
For all involved in Afghanistan today, it’s traumatic, dangerous and painful. And while it is true that another Power once lost an entire continent across an ocean (the Americas) and went on to their Noontide and global empire, American withdrawal/retreat from the Kush will have a less satisfying ending. Everyone there already knew we were historical transients from December 2001. Just how and when.
Obama in Afghanistan 2009 illustrates how far along into imperial decay our narrative is. Our protagonist runs into to a Barnes & Noble-type wasteland to get in on the new trend of general history
books products on the Kennedy/Johnson Administrations and Vietnam. To be ‘relevant’. Few will read the pop-history products anyway. But it’s crucial to be seen with them. The more ambitious types will take 30 minutes to flip through one for a clever bon mot to be deployed in a meeting, post as hit bait ‘analysis pieces’ (we’re looking at you, McClatchy, among others) or in internal memos.
Product bulk is a no-no. Name brand is uber key. And appearance. Say yes to quick jacket summaries. Who’s burbed it important for name dropping. But for serious work, our D.C. meme buyers — journo/lobbyists, staffers or National Security State apparatchiks — will know it is far wiser to spend 12 minutes on The Google for cut and paste. Instant transient relevance awaits.
Comparing on-the-ground realities in Afghanistan and Vietnam is Dada. Knowingly or not. For the chattering class it’s the latter. The divergent linguistic, ethnic, economic, geographic, historical, political development and resource bases are laughable. MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam) and ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) Afghanistan/NATO equally so. Like being two different species. Their environments? Different planets. In common? People shooting guns and detonating bombs. The shorthand for that? Killing. But that’s it.
We should be wary of the Vietnam-as-Afghanistan stawmen percolating Fall 2009: (i) global dominos are at stake; (ii) anything with the words ‘Afghanistan’ and ‘counterinsurgency’ in the same sentence; and (iii) a Taliban Mayor of Kabul poses a security threat to America.
All untrue. Afghanistan is truly a smaller, more containable and different situation: a counter-terrorism environment.
Which is why we’re pretty sure Obama is going to blow it and cave to CENTCOM’s escalation. This is so beyond the first as tragedy, farce thing folks.
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!
As many of those few area studies experts we did have at the time predicted no dominos were at risk outside 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 yammer 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 less danger.The Persians despise the Taliban and are infinitely more powerful. The Indians fear and loath jihadists as much as Neocons. The only domino that could alter the American imperial narrative are the Pakistani nukes. Without them only maybe 7 Americans outside the embassy would care what happens in Islamabad. Loose Pakistani nukes are a real threat. Clinton tells us they’re secure. Meaningless. We must be prepared to secure or destroy them by any means necessary — with or without Pakistani assistance. Even so they’re also not threatening our civilization.
The Fox Nation already gleefully (except for Shep Smith) shrugged off losing a major American city on live TV. Cher Condi went shoe shopping. The Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces and Boomers threatened to turn North America into glass. Far different. So much for that Neocon bleat.
Counter-insurgency and Afghanistan should not be in the same sentence.
By definition, political and cultural structure must first exist to subvert. No State? No insurgency. Afghanistan is not a State. That illusion is 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 with turnover of Viet Minh leadership to them galvanized a demographic shift. 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 th 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 tourist chumps.
You know, Dear Reader, none of it applies to Afghanistan. The Soviets discovered this in 1980 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. Anyone with 1/2 a brain made these points to the Warlord in Nov.-Dec. 2001.
2009 and still no State. Controlling Kabul? As meaningless as in 1980. ‘Taking American eyes off Afghanistan for Iraq’ is a good anti-Bush meme. But a focused America still couldn’t have built a State anyway. CPA anyone?
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. A cheap UN political stunt and empty charade. Corrupt? Well, duh. The chattering classes forget their A, B, Cs. Let’s say it more slowly (and louder, for the Authentic American Experience ™): A= You first need a State; B = One election is process without meaning in a State-less void; C = No State, no insurgents, no counter-insurgency. At best you get tribal policing action.
Around the table in the White House, Obama should pull a Richard Perle trick and 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. Instead we see careerists determined not to be left standing when the musical chairs stop. *They* didn’t screw the pooch. Read our recommendations.
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 even if it’s not immediately ‘actionable’. Or ‘operational’.
In many ways (sorry Old Blighty) ours was the trickier act to pull off. While it lasted. For a while it worked and also sheltered a nation which does not notice, care or want to learn about other people.
When consciousness ends and coherent thought fades according to scientists our neural pathways still fire. Likely at random. Empirical research shows those fading random neural signals often trigger visible, ‘actionable’ events, physical twitches. Absent conscious thought. Americans never really earned our Empire the hard way. (Except for the Manifest Destiny thing, which is not raised in polite company). When we do eventually lose it all we might not even notice.
That would be one ‘happy ending’.