Stumbling About In the Graveyard of Empires

If there was ever a
justification visible for the American war in Afghanistan, there isn't

If there was ever a
justification visible for the American war in Afghanistan, there isn't

That doesn't mean that
one is impossible to imagine. I'm no fan of the Taliban or al
Qaeda, though that alone doesn't justify invading the country.
Nor does a military occupation necessarily make things better, even
if you assume that a particular regime is noxious enough that a regime
decapitation is warranted. Time after time, great powers have
learned to their chagrin that the natives don't always necessarily
appreciate being invaded, occupied and told who the new boss replacing
the old boss will be. People can be odd that way.

But leave all that aside
for the moment. Maybe al Qaeda did 9/11, as we were told.
Maybe the Taliban were harboring them. Maybe both had a violent,
regressive and otherwise just generally ugly agenda. Maybe there
was even justification enough for invading in 2001.

I nevertheless meant
my initial critique quite literally, however. Whatever may or
may not have been the case in 2001, it's now 2010, and any such clarity
or justification is now invisible. Indeed, what I find most astonishing

about America's latest military adventure is just how much this gravest
of national decisions is not being seriously discussed in our national

Perhaps even more amazing

is the degree to which that is true from the bottom of the national
security policy process all the way up to the top. The proper
way to conceive and consider these issues, I would argue, is in the
form of a nested contextual hierarchy, in which each level of policy
analysis has to justify decisions to the one, and ones, above it.
We, as a body politic, are talking about and thinking about Afghanistan
at none of these levels. In fact, of course, we're basically
not talking about and thinking about Afghanistan at all.

The lowest level of
decision-making is the tactical. America has to decide exactly
how it is going to prosecute the war. We don't hear very much
about that, which is itself more than troubling. Reports are now
beginning to show up in the alternative press - but, significantly,
not in the mainstream - of tactical operations all too reminiscent
of those brutal affairs which have appeared previously in Iraq and
Allegations are now surfacing about innocent civilians either being
subjected to intentional human rights and war crimes violations, right
up to and including murder, or at least wonton disregard for the
damage" caused by battlefield tactics. There is certainly a
moral question at stake here, and one that we are just not discussing.

But there is also simply
the pragmatic question of whether such tactics properly service our
strategy in Afghanistan, the next level up in the hierarchy. But
was is American strategy? The latest version seems to be an
over the notion of simply defeating the Taliban and al Qaeda in
engagements. Now the Pentagon brass and theater commanders are
talking about following military clearing operations with
nation-building initiatives, ostensibly for purposes of winning the
ubiquitous hearts and minds typically sought by contemporary
occupation forces. Theoretically, providing Afghans with security
and with efficient, corruption-free governance will help to win their
allegiance to a 'better' (read American sponsored) way. While
the ideas have some merit on paper, they also ignore the historical
realities of similar attempts in Vietnam and Iraq, and they require
for credibility that we suspend everything we know about America's
long-time ongoing national version of the same strategy in Afghanistan,
which has witnessed the Karzai puppet regime spending the better part
of the last decade demonstrating just how corrupt a government can
be, and just how ineffective as well - at least when it comes to
other than stealing elections or just plain stealing.

But strategy, of course,
is not its own end. Strategy is used to achieve certain objectives
which form the very purpose for fighting a war. Barack Obama is
not quite as lame as George W. Bush in this respect (not exactly a
achievement, that), who argued that America should be at war with the
weapon terrorism - as opposed to an actual adversary using that weapon.

While we can say that Obama is not as deceitful (at least on this score)

or idiotic as Bush, that's pretty much true of the entire world, isn't
it? More importantly, what are America's aims in massively escalating
our presence in Afghanistan? Are we trying to defeat the Taliban?
Remove al Qaeda from the country (even though the Pentagon says there's
only about a hundred of them left there)? Create a Jeffersonian
democracy? Install an ally? Lift the country out of poverty?
Again, it astonishes me that one could take a country to war without
this most obvious question being part of the national discourse.
But it isn't.

And neither is the
of how 'winning' in Afghanistan, whatever that would actually mean,
would effect American national security, just in the short term.
If only for the sake of argument, suppose the United States could
whatever objectives are entailed by the notion of winning the war
How long would it take? What would it cost in dollars? How
many lives would be lost? What actual, live, current threat would
be extinguished, such that America would be safer? What would
be traded off, in terms of other uses of the money - from education
to infrastructure to paying down the national debt - in order to win
this war? What other possible security concerns would go unaddressed
because the US took all its armies on the Risk board and moved them
from Irkutsk and Yakutsk and Mongolia to Kamchatka? None of these
questions have been addressed in the United States, let alone answered.

And those just represent short-term security concerns.

As for each level of
security policy analysis discussed above, short-term definitions of
success should be constructed to give service to the next level up,
medium-term ones. If it's true that there is a broader struggle
going on against some sort of wider American enemy, of which Afghanistan

is simply a single theater of operations, then the medium-term security
question one has to ask is whether putting so many resources into that
single theater makes sense in the context of the bigger objective.
If al Qaeda is located in 60 countries, for example, is it smart to
stick 100,000 American troops in just one of them, and spend a trillion
bucks hunting down a hundred people, especially when they can just
over the border into Pakistan almost at will?

Finally, is the
aspiration for the country serving well the long-term foreign policy
goals of the United States in which it should be nested? Are these
policies likely to leave us better off, somehow, twenty and fifty years
from now? Does an American presence in Afghanistan better America's
position in the world, both with respect to friendly countries, and
with respect to rivals, real and potential? It certainly doesn't
seem to be having a positive effect with the former group, as NATO
appear less and less interested in supporting American efforts in the
country, either by being there at all, or by being anywhere near harm's
way. As to potential rivals, could anything possibly be more amusing
than this war to the grand strategists in Moscow and Beijing, hoping
to supercede American as the hegemon of the new century? If there
is any such possibility, it could only be the US blunder in Iraq.
Either way, America could hardly have given its rivals a greater gift
if we had simply wrapped a ribbon around the capitol and stuck a bow
on the dome. Yes, as a matter of fact, history's lesson is correct
- empires do die from within, not from external assault. Idiocy
is more lethal than are Huns.

Like everything in
both the Afghan war and US foreign policy in general have been
politicized in the last decades, ever since doing so was discovered
as a survival technique for the otherwise completely bankrupt politics
of the right. Regressives get more mileage out of knee-jerk reactionary

national security fears than anything else they can invent as a reason
for their existence. At the same time, pacifists on the left make
the mistake of believing that there is no situation for which war is
the appropriate response. I wish that that were true, but,
it isn't. If I have to choose between World War II and a Thousand-Year
Reich of darkness descending over the planet (which would, of course,
entail at least as much mass violence, anyhow, to go along with all
the repression and civilizational regression), I reluctantly choose

The problem for the
States, however, is that it long ago forgot about the reluctant part.
We just keep going to war, decade after decade, from Korea to Vietnam
to Grenada to Iraq to Panama to Bosnia and back to Iraq and so on.
You could make an argument, as regressives often do, that the reason
that we are completely unmatched by any other country in the world for
the frequency with which we have gone to war over the last century is
because we are doing the heavy lifting of international security that
others either cannot or will not do. I'd say there's even
some truth to that in some cases. By my estimation, about half
of America's wars had at least a moderately legitimate casus belli.
But that, of course, leaves the other half. When you're talking
about the single gravest decision a society can make, it wouldn't
hurt to get it right more often than you would by random chance, say
by flipping a coin.

Afghanistan is one of
the muddier cases, from the perspective of its moral justification.
That's true, first, because it is really two cases - then and now.
If it was actually true that al Qaeda did 9/11 and that the Taliban
refused to give up the perpetrators, then I think invading Afghanistan
in order to go after those individuals was an appropriate response,
however reluctant I am ever to support violence, especially at the scale

of war, and however clear it is that America's policies in the world
all too often harm others. (Similarly, I think it equally appropriate
that George W. Bush and gang ought to be sitting in an ICC courtroom
right now, on trial for their crimes.) But now that first version
of the war is long over, yet another botched product of the Bush
and al Qaeda has largely been neither captured nor killed, but instead
driven into Pakistan. Whatever legitimate justification there
was for the first phase of a US war in Afghanistan seems to me
absent now that we are in the second.

And yet the president
(another botch king, of a somewhat different and some similar sort)
is dramatically escalating the American military presence there.
I do not see any moral justification for that.

But part of why I don't
see that is because we basically have not been presented with any
whatsoever. And the reason that hasn't happened is because we,
as a society, are not addressing seriously any of the nested policy
questions necessary to an intelligent and just formulation of American
foreign policy.

Are we using tactics
in Afghanistan that are as humane as possible and that can work?

Do those tactics serve
our strategy there, assuming we know what that is?

Does our strategy serve
our goals for fighting a war in Afghanistan?

Do those political goals
for the war serve a broader short-term American foreign policy outside
of Afghanistan?

Do those short-term goals

advance medium-term US foreign policy goals?

And do those medium-term
goals serve the country's long-term goals?

Most of these questions
are almost impossible to answer decisively, for the reason that we don't

actually know what the country's tactics or strategy or goals are.

But if one had to try
to answer these questions, based on the best information available,
you'd probably have to say: No, no, no, no, no, no and no.

Not very impressive.
It's one thing for a government to act recklessly with the lives of
its citizens and those of other people, elsewhere. In less politically
mature countries, like America, that is all too sadly still to be

But where is the public
which, in a democracy, can control their government? Where are
the fine American citizens, with their "Support the Troops"
cracked and fading on the back of their SUVs? Where are the great
advocates of Christian morality, reading about cheek-turning in their
bibles at night, and pouring out of churches on Sunday mornings?

Where are they, indeed?

Probably too busy
American Idol reruns to ask these crucial questions, and to demand
answers to them before they will allow their government to fight an
increasingly violent war in Afghanistan.

It's important to keep
your priorities straight, you know.

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