War

The Afghanistan Fallacy

June 01, 2008

Multiple Pages

America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan both involve fractious societies, weak governments installed by force from without, rampant criminality, persistent insurgencies, and the spectre of unknown costs from a U.S. withdrawal. The chief reason we are told to stay on both battlefields—in particular Afghanistan—is that they may become natural havens for terrorists without U.S.-imposed order. Yet the dominant rhetoric of critics is that Iraq is the “bad war,” a distraction at best . . . a major injustice to the Iraqis at worst.  These critics—including Barack Obama—describe Afghanistan in essence as the good war.  Our counterinsurgency efforts there are widely held to be necessary to prevent the reemergence of terror camps and to avenge the 9/11 attacks.  For Democrats in particular, strenuous expressions of support for the Afghanistan War also serve to deflect their post-Vietnam reputation as naive pacifists incapable of marshaling force to defend national interests. 

Both wars, however, rest upon the same, mistaken strategic assumption:  the idea that we must create and support new democratic states in the chaotic regions where Islamic terrorists train and live and battle insurgents until native forces can take over the fight.  Any serious proposal to increase the focus on Afghanistan must explain why our strategy there will succeed where the nearly identical Iraq strategy has so far succeeded only in moving the United States position sideways.  By this I mean that Americans have alternately fought Saddam, his loyalists, the Sunnis, and now dissident Iraqi Shia factions opposing the Iranian-friendly Shia regime that the U.S. also happens to support.  Violence ebbs and flows, but no real light at the end of the tunnel appears in either case, because the structural factors for disorder remain the same.  The existence or not of democracy is a relatively minor factor in fueling the persistent violence in these societies.  Indeed, the relatively greater primitivism and poverty of Afghanistan suggest any nation-building cum counter-insurgency efforts there face greater intrinsic challenges. 

Both theaters are counterinsurgencies among bellicose and tribal people with whom we share very few values and interests.  In both theaters, U.S. commanders are embroiled in resolving parochial tribal disputes that have no obvious bearing on American security or the strength of al Qaeda proper. These two counterinsurgencies are especially ambitious because they are are not in defense of established regimes, but are being waged alongside new regimes that we have created, similarly to the ideologically-tinged US War in Vietnam or the Russian experience in Afghanistan.  We can expect, and so far have witnessed, similarly ambiguous results in both Afghanistan and Iraq.  This lack of success in both wars is a distinct issue apart from the retrospective concern for the administration’s description of the casus belli in Iraq as Saddam’s possession of weapons of mass destruction. 

Both campaigns are at the heart of America’s fight against al Qaeda, but the strategy in both cases is questionable.  Disorderly groups, ranging from pirates to criminals, have long existed on the international scene.  History in this regard has not been linear.  For a time, western societies had a decisive edge over hostile anti-modern peoples, symbolized most dramatically by Napoleon’s rapid conquest of Egypt.  Today, terrorists of all kinds are more deadly and more capable of power projection through home-made bomb technology combined with cheap international travel and porous western borders.  The fragility of interconnected modern economies, western doubt about its own self-defense, and high levels of freedom within western societies give terrorists more capability than they enjoyed in the era of the Barbary Pirates.  It does not follow, however, that the only way to address the problem is to sort out “the root causes,” whether defined as Islam, poverty, the lack of Middle Eastern democracy, or dysfunctional states in general.

George Bush’s response to 9/11, while bold and superficially effective, comes from the same thinking as the Johnson-era War on Poverty. It aims ambitiously to attack the root causes of terrorism. The seeds of American failure are found in the strategy itself.  International terrorism has features in common with other permanent afflictions, such as poverty and crime, insofar as in all of these cases the symptoms can be more effectively treated than the root causes. In the case of terrorism, the way to do this is to develop an overall strategy of defense

Instead of viewing terrorism as a persistent but manageable problem, Bush proposed to wipe it out forever with an “American exceptionalist” idealism and ambition.  The proposal centered on rearranging the internal politics of hostile Islamic societies.  Today we would resolve Afghanistan and Iraq . . . tomorrow, Syria, Iran, and Palestine.  Since Bush and his neoconservative advisers were so steeped in the foundational principles of liberalism, they could not admit that some combination of militant Islamic religion coupled with American foreign policy choices in the Middle East were the chief source of grievance in the Islamic world, rather than a lack of money, bad p.r. or a lack of democracy. 

We were told, “Install democracies, and everything would be fine.  We did it in Germany and Japan, which are just like Afghanistan, you know.”  Setting aside the now laughable optimism, is it necessary to install even nondemocratic friendly regimes in these countries?  Conservatives have discussed at length the impossibility of creating democratic regimes in much of the Middle East, and, where democratic procedures have been adopted, conservatives have correctly noted the unhappy results from the standpoint of U.S. interests. The democracy component of U.S. operations hinges on a series of related and highly questionable premises, namely, that the U.S. should wallow into the mire of fanaticism, disorder, and chaos that has always existed in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. The option of a withdrawal coupled with a cordon sanitare, surgical attacks, and sophisticated defenses is too often dismissed without analysis.

Conservatives of a manly bent gravitate towards resolving these matters “once and for all,” and that almost always involves going on the offensive.  Defensive operations are treated as passing the buck. This is a false dilemma.  Defense is doing something as well.  Much of warfare and foreign policy, historically speaking, has consisted of various defensive measures, particularly in efforts to deter threats by preparedness and social cohesion at home.  In addressing Islamic terrorism, both neoconservatives and the pacifist left are trapped by the same liberal world view.  Neoconservatives believe it would be a great moral failing to leave the Afghans and Iraqis to stew in their own juices and, when necessary, to impose collective punishment on nations that do not prevent their nationals from undertaking terrorist attacks on the United States.  The sentimental universalism of the neoconservative right makes it difficult to conceive of another nation or tribe as an “enemy” with a collective responsibility. Where a nonideological person sees an enemy, the neoconservatives see an opportunity for do-gooder intervention.  The pacifist left is trapped by the corollary:  indifference to America’s survival as a distinct people with a right to continue as such.  In both cases, rationalist universalism confuses the national interest with fidelity to abstract principles, which are the supposed right of all mankind.  The left’s sentimental universalism makes it difficult to define the United States in particular as worthy of protection as a coherent entity.  The old refrain says it all:  Who are we to judge?

So, while many on the left have criticized Iraq in clear and powerful terms, none of the major Democratic candidates seriously proposes a defensive strategy that would offend liberalism, such as restricting immigration from the Middle East or expelling disloyal Muslims.  Likewise, border security in general is pooh-poohed because of the overlapping liberal interest in expanding our diversity, which adds to the natural clients of the welfare state and undermines the influence of traditional American elites.  Finally, the pacifism of the Democratic Party stems from their sour view of America as a western oppressor nation, guilty of usurping the Indians and slavery.  In this view, we and our people in particular are unworthy of the moral right to self-preservation, even if our enemies have a moral right to resist us.  Only by the triumph of liberal ideals will America “be America again.”  In other words, our annihilation as an historical entity is the barely concealed goal of the mainstream left. 

I should be clear:  most leftists do not consciously support the mass murder of Americans by terrorists; instead, they see our peaceful destruction through demographic trends, international pressure, mass immigration, and redistributing our resources in the name of “global justice” as welcome measures. For example, Barack Obama sponsored a Global Poverty bill that would have sent upwards of $845 billions of U.S. dollars overseas.  This is an unusually ideological account of American interests in a time of great economic trouble.  This lack of identification with an American community with a distinct interest among the world’s peoples is why normal patriotic feelings remain difficult for the left—-for them, it’s obvious that the suffering of terrorists in Guantanamo Bay and racial profiling of unassimilated American Muslims are viable campaign issues.

The Afghanistan Campaign is certainly morally justified.  But is it strategically justified?  Conservatives should ask whether it furthers American safety and independence to fight terrorism by building and supporting ersatz states in naturally disorderly parts of the world.  It does not appear so for the reasons outlined above, chief among them that such wars are unnecessary and less effective than defensive alternatives. The goal of national defense is furthered just as much by Osama bin Laden being six feet under in a grave, as it is by him hiding six feet underground in a cave, impotently producing videos and audio tapes.  If he emerges from the caves, there is little reason a rump U.S. presence consisting of carrier-based air power and small special forces teams could not do destroy him.  Such punitive and surgical applications of force are certainly far less costly and leave the U.S. with more flexibility than the current approach, where one third of our forces tied up in semi-permanent nation-building projects. In this model, the Afghan nation-state would have to stand up on its own, with the incentive of major U.S. punitive retaliation if it should not do its level best to stop our enemies that would use its land for terrorist-training.

A defensive counter-terrorism strategy would focus on matching America’s comparative advantages to al Qaeda’s weaknesses.  The happy example of Switzerland—not blessed, like we are, by two enormous oceans on either side—shows that defensive neutrality, or something like it, is possible in the modern era and brings with it a great number of economic and other advantages.  In the counter-terrorism context, such a strategy would focus on securing U.S. borders, restricting immigration from unfriendly regions, enhancing the resources of domestic law enforcement, and undertaking the occasional punitive raid; however, such a strategy would not counsel the U.S. to get bogged down in nation-building, whether for strategic or humanitarian reasons.  

For the neoconservatives, the tail is wagging the dog.  In their eyes, commitment to Israel and the promotion of liberal democracy are at best coequal with any concern for preserving historical American independence.  Any foreign policy advice they give should be viewed skeptically on account of these commitments.  Their ideology ultimately renders them and their followers incapable of questioning Bush’s approach.  Defensive strategies continue to be dismissed out of hand by other conservatives through a perfect storm of leftover Wilsonian idealism, the identification of terrorism’s root causes in the lack of Middle Eastern democracy, and the interaction of both of these tendencies with a habitual American desire to solve problems permanently as an expression of resolve and hard-headedness.

While manly resolve and hard-headedness are admirable traits without which civilization could not exist, their close cousin is self-destructive hubris.  Willpower alone will not transform the world.  Doing “something, anything” often has as much to do with the psychological needs of the actor, as it does with accomplishing a particular end.  Our troops on the ground have learned through trial and error about the benefits of tactical patience, realism, local understanding, and the need for clear mission guidance from higher command.  Tactical excellence, however, cannot overcome the lack of strategic realism among our top leaders, which requires above all a renewed commitment to the defensive art and the jettisoning of liberal categories that make clear thinking about national self defense impossible.

Clausewitz, or rather a certain reading of Clausewitz, has been a great enabler of America’s warfighting ethos, leading to an excessive focus on technology and the operational art.  Like many writers, his complex body of thought is reduced to misleading slogans.  Our leaders should not forget Clausewitz’s advice on the superiority of the defense as a strategic matter:

What is the object of defense? To preserve. To preserve is easier than to acquire; from which follows at once that the means on both sides being supposed equal, the defensive is easier than the offensive. But in what consists the greater facility of preserving or keeping possession? In this, that all time which is not turned to any account falls into the scale in favor of the defense. He reaps where he has not sowed. Every suspension of offensive action, either from erroneous views, from fear or from indolence, is in favor of the side acting defensively. This advantage saved the State of Prussia from ruin more than once in the Seven Years’ War. It is one which derives itself from the conception and object of the defensive, lies in the nature of all defense, and in ordinary life, particularly in legal business which bears so much resemblance to war, it is expressed by the Latin proverb, Beati sunt possidentes. Another advantage arising from the nature of war and belonging to it exclusively, is the aid afforded by locality or ground; this is one of which the defensive form has a preferential use.

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