Nothing is Written

Robert Kaplan describes how in the process of muddling along through intractable situations, the US military has become the master of the possible, simply because they have had to be. Kaplan predicts they may succeed in Afghanistan yet again and that very success will become a poisoned pawn.


The secret to their success, Kaplan says in his article “Man Versus Afghanistan”, is that the men in the field have discovered what their political masters have long forgotten: legal concepts are not enough. Governance doesn’t just mean installing someone — anyone — let alone someone as corrupt as Karzai and recognizing them as sovereign. Governance means the ability to harness a population’s aspirations to make things work. To paraphrase Lenin’s famous observation on Communism, counterinsurgency is the freedom agenda plus competence. And the worst thing about the US military, Kaplan says, is that they’ve learned to do it. Kaplan describes how McChrystal has approached the problem and is at some level alarmed at how good at it they’ve become.

I learned at JSOC,” McChrystal explained, “that any complex task is best approached by flattening hierarchies. It gets everybody feeling like they’re in the inner circle, so that they develop a sense of ownership. The more people who believe that they are part of the team and are in the know, the more you don’t have to do it yourself.” As Brigadier General Scott Miller, who runs the Afghanistan-Pakistan Coordination Cell at the Pentagon, told me about McChrystal and Rodriguez’s philosophy: “Decentralize until you’re uncomfortable, then scrutinize, fix, and push down and out even further, to the level of the sergeants.” Precisely because of the commander’s ability to reach down to the junior noncommissioned officers, a flat military organization puts—in the words of one admiral I interviewed—“performance pressure on everybody.”

This show of organizational dynamism points to a ground truth: despite the awful toll of casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the near-breaking of the Army through the strain on soldiers and their families because of long and dangerous deployments, American ground troops are emerging nearly a decade after 9/11 as a force that is even more organizationally and intellectually formidable than it was after the Berlin Wall collapsed, when the United States was the lone superpower. Army and Marine Corps company commanders, for example, can lead in a conventional fight and, as Kolenda’s experience showed, also bring order to chaotic tribal and ethnic messes, all while they communicate effectively up the bureaucratic chain (a skill they began to hone before 9/11, in the Balkans). And these officers have mastered what is, in fact, the colonial technique of partnering with indigenous forces molded in their own image. Rodriguez’s command is a culmination of this whole experience.


The inability of the West to come up with an comprehensive military, political and economic solution to the challenge of failed states has been partly masked by the acquisition of those skills within the military through experience. Rather than consciously building a combined capabilities team from different parts of society, the nation instead acquired a military staffed with soldier-diplomats and amateur nation builders while they weren’t looking. The problem is that like all volunteers who have proven good at their jobs, they have trapped themselves in their own success.

But the very dominance of the U.S. military can lead to a dangerous delusion. For the time being, the American media and policy elite are focused on whether U.S. forces can achieve substantial results in 15 months, even though it is a truism of counterinsurgency that there are few shortcuts to victory and you shouldn’t rush to failure. Nevertheless, U.S. forces quite possibly will have quelled some significant part of the anarchy in southern Afghanistan by then: this is the sort of challenge our troops have become expert in. Yet that might only lead to mistaking artificial progress for lasting governance. The very prospect of some success by July 2011 increases the likelihood that U.S. forces will be in Afghanistan in substantial numbers for years. In effect, the proficiency of the American military causes it to be overextended. British Major General Richard Barrons, a veteran of the Balkans and Iraq now serving in Afghanistan, told me he learned during the most depressing days in Baghdad that “the long view is the primary weapon against fate.” If you are willing to stay, you can turn any situation around for the good. But that is an imperial mind-set, with its assumption of a near-permanent presence, which today’s Washington cannot abide, even as its own strategy drives toward that outcome.


What America has gotten, Kaplan says, is a quasi-imperial corps. Ironically, what brought about the revival of the imperial capability was the disinterest of the intellectual elite, who were too good to devote much time to the problems of failed beyond uttering banal generalities. So they left it to the men on the spot and forgot about them. That cut-off may have been just as well because George Orwell claimed that the British Empire had been ‘killed by the telegraph’.

By 1920 nearly every inch of the colonial empire was in the grip of Whitehall. Well-meaning, over-civilized men, in dark suits and black felt hats, with neatly rolled umbrellas crooked over the left forearm, were imposing their constipated view of life on Malaya and Nigeria, Mombasa and Mandalay. The one-time empire builders were reduced to the status of clerks, buried deeper and deeper under mounds of paper and red tape. In the early twenties one could see, all over the Empire, the older officials, who had known more spacious days, writhing impotently under the changes that were happening.

In contrast, Barack Obama couldn’t be bothered. It took months for him to talk to his commanders. He approached the problem of Afghanistan with the same enthusiasm as a boy approaching a bottle of castor oil. Content to manipulate political symbols at home he left the conduct of affairs to others as one might leave a load of garbage to the trashman. It was taken out and he attached no significance to that fact. In reality the most significant fact would be if the trash got taken out. But that passed without comment because Orwell also argued that the Left don’t do problems. They only do indignation. So when the Best and the Brightest are actually forced to find a solution to a crisis the result is inevitably the Last Helicopter out of Saigon.


The mentality of the English left-wing intelligentsia can be studied in half a dozen weekly and monthly papers. The immediately striking thing about all these papers is their generally negative, querulous attitude, their complete lack at all times of any constructive suggestion. There is little in them except the irresponsible carping of people who have never been and never expect to be in a position of power. Another marked characteristic is the emotional shallowness of people who live in a world of ideas and have little contact with physical reality. … It is clear that the special position of the English intellectuals during the past ten years, as purely negative creatures, mere anti-Blimps, was a by-product of ruling-class stupidity. … Both Blimps and highbrows took for granted, as though it were a law of nature, the divorce between patriotism and intelligence.

Kaplan is almost afraid America might win. In the contest between Man and Afghanistan, the US military and fate, the former may beat the latter. But that will only make things worse. “Once again, we might be poised to overcome the vast, impersonal forces of fate, even as we contribute to our own troubled destiny as a great power.”

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