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What If Washington"?
Five Absurd Things That Simply Can't Happen in Wartime Washington
By Tom Engelhardt
The other day I visited a website I check regularly for all things military, Noah Shachtman's Danger Room blog at Wiredmagazine. One of its correspondents, Spencer Ackerman, was just then at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, the sort of place that -- with its multiple bus routes, more than 30,000 inhabitants, PXes, Internet cafe's, fast-food restaurants, barracks, and all the sinews of war -- we like to call military bases, but that are unique in the history of this planet.
Here's how Ackerman began his report: "Anyone who thinks the United States is really going to withdraw from Afghanistan in July 2011 needs to come to this giant air base an hour away from Kabul. There's construction everywhere. It's exactly what you wouldn'texpect from a transient presence." The old Russian base, long a hub for U.S. military (and imprisonment) activities in that country is now, as he describes it, a giant construction site and its main drag, Disney Drive, a massive traffic pile-up. ("If the Navy could figure out a way to bring a littoral-combat ship to a landlocked country, it would idle on Disney.") Its flight line is packed with planes -- "C-17s, Predators, F-16s, F-15s, MC-12 passenger planes" -- and Bagram, he concludes, "is starting to feel like a dynamic exurb before the housing bubble burst."
I won't lie. As I read that post, my heart sank and I found myself imagining Spencer Ackerman writing this passage: "Anyone who thinks the United States is really going to stay in Afghanistan after July 2011 needs to come to this giant air base an hour away from Kabul where buildings are being dismantled, military equipment packed up, and everywhere you look you see evidence of a transient presence." To pen that, unfortunately, he would have to be a novelist or a fabulist.
For almost nine years, the U.S. military has been building up Bagram. Now, the Obama administration's response to the Afghan disaster on its hands is -- and who, at this late date, could be surprised? -- a further build-up. In my childhood, I remember ads for... well, I'm not quite sure what... but they showed scenes of multiple error, including, if I remember rightly, five-legged cows floating through clouds. They were always tagged with a question that went something like: What's wrong with this picture?
As with so much that involves the American way of war, the U.S. national security state, and the vast military and intelligence bureaucracies that go with them, an outsider might well be tempted to ask just that question. As much as Washington insiders may periodically decry or bemoan the results of our war policies and security-state procedures, however, they never ask what's wrong. Not really.
In fact, basic alternatives to our present way of going about things are regularly dismissed out of hand, while ways to use force and massive preparations for the future use of more force are endlessly refined.
As a boy, I loved reading books of what-if history and science fiction, rare moments when what might have happened or what might someday happen outweighed what everyone was convinced must happen. Only there did it seem possible to imagine the unimaginable and the alternatives that might go with it. When it comes to novels, counterfactuality is still a winner. What if the Nazis had won in Europe, as Robert Harris suggested in Fatherland, or a strip of the Alaskan panhandle had become a temporary homeland for Jewish refugees from the Holocaust, as Michael Chabon suggested in The Yiddish Policemen's Union, or our machines could indeed think like us, as Philip Dick wondered in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Such novels allow our brain to venture down strange new pathways normally forbidden to us.
Here, then, are five possibilities, five pathways, that -- given our world -- verge on the fictional. Consider them not "what-if history," but "what if Washington...?"
1. What if Washington declared a ceasefire in Afghanistan, expressed a desire to withdraw all its troops from the country in good order and at a reasonable pace, and then just left? What would happen? The answer is: as with the four questions below, we simply don't -- and won't -- know; in part because few of the 854,000 people with "top-secret" security clearances, and so perhaps capable of accessing Washington's war planning, are likely to think seriously about what this might mean. (It would be hell on a career, and there's no money in it anyway.)
On the other hand, after nine years of grim experimentation, we do know what has happened and is happening in the world's second most corrupt, fifth poorest country. If you've been following the Afghan War story, even in the most cursory manner, you could already write the next news report on Afghanistan's hapless American-trained police and its no less hapless American-trained army, the next set of civilian casualties, the next poppy harvest, the fate of the next round of counterinsurgency plans, and so on. These are, as our previous Secretary of Defense used to say, the "known knowns" of the situation and, unfortunately, the only subjects Washington is comfortable exploring further. No matter that the known road, the well-worn one, is the assured road to nowhere.
No serious thought, money, or effort goes into imagining how to unbuild the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan or how to voluntarily leave that country. In a terrible moment in the Vietnam War, Vermont Senator George Aiken suggested that the U.S. just declare victory and get out. But that sort of thing was, and remains, beyond Washington's normal imagination; and what Washington can't imagine, it assumes no one else should.
The American peace movement, such as it is, shouldn't wait for President Obama. It should convene its own blue-ribbon commission and put some effort into planning how to get out of Afghanistan voluntarily -- and, having already done much harm, how to leave in the least harmful and quickest way possible. It's true that we don't know what would happen afterwards: Would the Taliban (or its various groupings) take over part or all of the country, or would they leap for each others' throats once a unifying opposition to foreign invaders disappeared (as happened in Afghanistan in the early 1990s)? Or, for that matter, might something quite unexpected and unpredictable happen ?
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