Belmont Club

Blind Men and Elephants

The New Republic has a special section on Afghanistan in which “Nine Eminent Intellectuals, Analysts, and War Reporters—From Steve Coll to Leon Wieseltier—Debate the Way Forward”. The good news is the nine POVs are well written; the bad news is that there are nine of them, all in disagreement to some respect. The articles are behind a firewall, but the main points can be summarized clearly.

Leon Weiselier reasons the chief difficulty is that while Kabul must save itself it neither has the capability nor interest of doing so. “As Petraeus says, what will determine the outcome is the host nation. But behold this host nation! I am losing faith in the war in Afghanistan because I am losing faith in Afghanistan.”

Peter Bergen says despite the hype, development aid to Afghanistan has amounted to about $58 per person per year. So what kind of results does Washington expect for chump change? Yet it has not all been in vain. Even this has whetted the Afghan appetite for a better economic life and that drives the increasing hostility of the population to the Taliban. “Where the Taliban once enjoyed something of a religious Robin Hood image … they are now increasingly seen as thugs.”  His prescription is long-term therapy.  Be patient.  America doesn’t have to win big in Afghanistan, just keep the Islamic radicals from taking over the country and poison them with progress.

Jose Joffe argues that the key to victory is convincing the enemy that America is going to remain in Afghanistan, in one form or the other, essentially forever.  It’s an argument from psychology: breaking the enemy will to resist. He argues that the conundrum is that if you want out, you must show no signs of leaving.  Only thus can you win. And come to that, maybe some form of perpetual presence is possible in the form of “eyes in the sky” and Death From Above.  If you want to fight Bin Laden’s deity, give him competition in the skies from an American god.

Amitai Etzioni says that America should put the “war” back in the “war in Afghanistan”. Unshackle the troops, he says. “The main responsibility for causing civilian casualties … is … the Taliban. Yet, for reasons I cannot fathom, American generals apologize time and again.”  His main point is that if America has no intention of fighting a war it should never have gone into battle against al-Qaeda in the first place. But if it wants to take Vienna, follow Napoleon’s counsel: take Vienna.

Anna Badkhen says ‘look to the north’. She believes America has been ignoring the Afghans who are really receptive to change and has focused on wooing the recalcitrant. “As a result, the people of northern Afghanistan — who … embraced the US led war … have seen little improvement in their lives. Now they are welcoming the Taliban back …” Don’t reinforce failure, it seems to suggest. Reinforce success.

Foad Ajami says forget Kabul and the Taliban for a moment. ‘Awaken the Pashtuns’.  Counterinsurgency is just freedom with a gun. Just lead them against their oppressors — and those include the Taliban — and see where the whole place goes. It will go where all free men want to go. The problem as he appears to see it, isn’t restoring the country to some fixed state but turning it upside down so it will stay right side up. But will anyone have the faith? Maybe faith comes, as it did in the Surge, only at the point of despair.  A resort to democracy is the act of contrition of politicians who’ve tried everything but the people.

Ahmed Rashid thinks salvage is the order of the day.  The West has blown it. It’s now time to defend a few enclaves, talk to the Taliban, “save whatever we can” because we can’t save it all. “The strategy might not lead to ideal outcomes; but it may, at this point, be the West’s most realistic option.”

Steve Coll advances the idea that a stable political coalition against Islamic extremism in Afghanistan does exist, except Washington has been too blind to see it, “lashing” its political fortunes to a single point of failure — Karzai. In so doing Washington has fragmented Afghanistan rather than built a viable coalition. It has created in Southwest Asia the mirror image of Washington’s dysfunctional rivalries.  In neglecting to build an Afghan political coalition it has, like some crazy model kit assembler, gathered all the parts of a viable nation state but unaccountably forgotten the glue.

Missing in all of these well-written essays is global context. Where do the Taliban get their money, ideology and support? Will it be as important were the infrastructure that supported it neutralized? What is the role of Pakistan? Of the Global Jihad? The nine essays are a little like monographs about taking Guadalcanal without describing why anyone should bother to expend blood and treasure in such a godforsaken place.  It is possible that the context has been omitted not because the contributors to the New Republic special are stupid or ignorant; they certainly are not: but possibly because a consensus has silently emerged which regards the War on Terror in the same way as the Cold War.  In some unspoken way that only professional pundits can unconsciously absorb it has by assent become regarded as a decades long campaign to outlast an enemy Who Shall Not Be Named. So strategy is assumed. Only tactics are important. If this interpretation is correct, maybe the stasis we observe is the result of being trapped within historical adolescence. In this metaphor Obama can aspire at best to be the Harry Truman and at worst the Jimmy Carter of the new Cold War. But he cannot even conceive of himself as being the new Ronald Reagan because the time for Ronald Reagans is not yet come.

Shorn of its place-names and dates the New Republic special might as well have been talking about Korea or Vietnam; about Syngman Rhee and the defensibility of the Hanoi Delta against the Viet Minh. That sense of cadence would fit in with that period. And perhaps events have to cross the uncertain time of analogous Cold War history between the fall of China and the rise of the Iron Curtain to crisis years of the early 1980s before anyone can speak of shattering of the Berlin Wall.  Iraq and Afghanistan may be fated to remain part of the first act. The later acts have yet to open.

It has been argued that the Soviet empire was defeated by freezing it in place until the world outgrew it. Globalization and rising aspiration killed the Bear. Perhaps in time the 21st century will kill the 8th. But it will also destroy the 20th. If America is going to fight its new Cold War it too will have to fight its internal battles. There’s a costume change between the overture and the final curtain. And always, always, an encore.

Tip Jar or Subscribe for $5

Join the conversation as a VIP Member