Presidential Fictions that Bind Us to Afghanistan
President Obama's approach to the war in Afghanistan embraces two fictions: that we are 1) engaged in "nation-building" and 2) fighting international terrorism. Fictions they may be, but they are potent ones for as long as they prevail, our policies will only lead to greater destruction and eventual disaster for the U.S. itself.
Certainly the PresidentÅ statement on July 14th about an exit strategy for Afghanistan sound reasonable. We need to train the Afghan military and police and shore up the courts and government, work with its neighbors (Pakistan and Iran?), and other foreign powers to guarantee Afghanistan's security and viability. There is, on the face of it, little to argue with in this rational programmatic assessment. But if Afghanistan "" or U.S. foreign policy "" were rational to begin with, we wouldn't be there in the first place.
The question that bedevils me is whether President Obama truly believes that we can "succeed" in Afghanistan even though we have no idea what success will, should, or could look like, at least not in terms reasonably applicable to Afghanistan. Perhaps the President feels a prisoner himself. Cutting defense spending would only throw more people out of work. Reversing the course of the previous eight years in every area of endeavor will frighten the ever-timid Democrats in Congress and lose him vital political support for the rest of his agenda. Perhaps getting out of Iraq (or appearing to) is the most important challenge and there's no way we can "abandon" both nations at once.
This approach to politics, however, doesn't really work. It's the sort of thinking that led John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, Hillary Clinton, and a host of other Democrats to support the Iraqi War at its inception. And it can sink President Obama's administration too. Reasonable and balanced solutions work on paper but are often bitterly divorced from reality. Let's look at both the alleged fictions that the President has embraced.
Nation-building: The problem with nation-building in Afghanistan is that Afghanistan is only "sort-of" a nation, in the same way an atom is constructed "sort of" like the solar system. In our solar system, the planets "" clearly defined objects "" orbit the sun at speeds and locations precisely defined and predicted by Newtonian physics. In an atom, electrons orbit the nucleus. The catch is, electrons aren't like planets. We cannot calculate both their exact positions and speeds at the same time. They are unpredictable, with no clear boundaries, and are often described as charged clouds of probabilities. No one can ever state with certainty the precise relationship of the electrons to the nucleus that binds them, a condition explained by physicist Werner Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle.
Our idea of a "nation" is very different from what exists in Afghanistan. Our idea of nations is from Newton, Afghanistan is from Heisenberg. Afghanistan is a nucleus "" Kabul and the idea of an Afghan nation "" surrounded by cloudy, murky uncertainties in the form of tribes, clans, regional alliances, long folk memories, etc. This isn't a knock on Afghanistan. Nation-states do not define the ultimate form of social organization. We do forget that, though. Nations developed out of a particular set of circumstances native to Europe from the late Middle Ages to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. Being a nation is not the pre-ordained state of every territory defined by lines on a map. Still, it may be possible for Afghanistan to become a well-defined nation "" but it won't happen through the process of destabilization and corruption that currently governs its fate.
It is proverbial that Afghanistan is a graveyard of imperial aspirations. Empires enter Afghanistan and find that, like some legendary tai chi master, there is nothing there to dominate. More subtle players of the Great Game, as the jockeying for position in the Asian heartland was called in the 19th century, might reply that while Afghanistan has little of value in and of itself, it is like one of the four central squares on the chess board. It occupies a crucial strategic space in Asia, a gateway to Pakistan and India, a conduit to China's unstable west, a beckoning prize for Iran, and, in Soviet and czarist days, a rock in the way of Russian aspirations to the south.
What are we trying to do there? There is nothing to do. Afghanistan now is what it has always been and all of America's protestations of good intentions and President Obama's cool rhetoric won't hide the fact that we originally went in like a SWAT team on steroids on a mission of punishment and revenge. Somehow, that has turned into a vague mission of salvation, salvation for them and for us.
Fighting Terrorism: Take this AP report from March 27th:
President Barack Obama on Friday ordered 4,000 more military troops into Afghanistan, vowing to "disrupt, dismantle and defeat" the terrorist al-Qaida network in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan.
In a war that still has no end in sight, Obama said the fresh infusion of U.S. forces is designed to bolster the Afghan army and turn up the heat on terrorists that he said are plotting new attacks against Americans. The plan takes aim at terrorist havens in Pakistan and challenges the government there and in Afghanistan to show more results.
The delusion is so salient that it is painful to read, even down to the determined alliteration of the three "Ds" - "disrupt, dismantle, and defeat". We shall do or die indeed. It is disappointing to hear President Obama follow the tired public-manipulation tactic of raising a rag-tag army or third-rate dictator to bogy-man status. Summoning all his gravitas, he conjures the vision of a potent terrorist network that is more dangerous than ever and that is "plotting new attacks on Americans".
The 1984-ish absurdity of the perpetual war that is no closer to ending now than when it began, is delivered without irony, without question. Into a war that has no end in sight, Obama is sending 4,000 more troops. Four thousand! Will these 4,000 bring the end any closer, perhaps even within sight? Well, we're more than seven years into it and, according to the President, things are worse than ever. On July 11th, after 15 British troops had died in July, the President said "we still have a long way to go" and indeed, July is the bloodiest month for the "coalition" since the war began. Of course, we have (unmanned) drones hard at work, shooting up "militants". Sometimes. Sometimes they hit a wedding or a funeral. Perhaps they can make a movie out it: "Four Weddings and A Funeral: A Drone's Day in Afghanistan". Sometimes, undoubtedly, most of the dead are young and middle-aged men. Definitely al Qaeda. Or Taliban. Whatever.
Of course, neither Taliban nor those who identify themselves as al Qaeda have any claim on our sympathies. But that is not the point. We're not doing much good either fomenting an endless war against enemies who may or may not be distinguishable from the general population. We are there killing civilians, destroying the countryside, and setting our own soldiers up to die or suffer grievous wounds for a policy that has no focus and no real purpose.