What You Should Think About the War in Afghanistan

December 19, 2007

“A tilted load will not reach its destination.”

–Afghani proverb

When an opportunistic local leader seized the goods from a trade mission dispatched by Genghis Khan, world history would undergo some major changes. Reaching toward the West in the hopes of fair trade, Mongolian envoys were not merely thwarted but also insulted by aristocrats from the Kara-Khitan Khanate, a political entity that overlapped modern day Afghanistan. Treasures were confiscated and beards were forcibly shaved. The Mongolians’ violent response would raze cities and shatter empires, yet it would also facilitate commerce and cultural exchange between Western Europe and the Far East.

When a terrorist organization with ties to the government of Afghanistan launched an effective attack against a powerful nation far off to the west, some parallels would follow. An unstoppable military force moved into the region, generating an enormous body count that few would have predicted. Yet leaders of that terrorist organization were among those few.

The Global War on Terror was no cunning application of force unanticipated by Al Qaeda. Public statements made by various terrorist leaders foretold of American belligerence that would spread violence across the globe, generating legions of widowers and orphans consumed by the desire to strike back. There is little prospect of war in Saudi Arabia, and cooler heads may yet prevail in the determination of America’s Iran policy. Yet broadly speaking, it seems the only people not surprised by the scope of violent response from the United States were leaders of the U.S. government and leaders of Al Qaeda.

Declaring a global war on an abstract concept was a horrible idea that inevitably gave rise to horrible policy. Yet not every aspect of the American response played into Osama bin Laden’s hand. The prewar regime in Afghanistan could not be permitted to stand. This was not because they were destroying ancient wonders or enforcing barbaric laws. The legitimate imperative was a function of the Taliban’s refusal to cooperate in essential counterterrorist operations.

It could be argued that the American approach to seeking that cooperation was so dictatorial and insulting that immediate cooperation would constitute being bullied. Yet the Al Qaeda threat was real, and effectively neutralizing it would have served American national security as well as America’s national lust for blood. It is hard to deny the disastrous nature of doing so much more to focus on the satisfaction of that bloodlust and so much less to advance an effective security agenda. Yet it is also hard to deny that the pursuit of regime change in Afghanistan was an essential component of any credible American security agenda.

Beyond having some justification, it seems that the initial campaign in Afghanistan benefited from some forethought. Rather than sweep in with overwhelming force and impose martial law throughout the territory, Western invaders formed alliances with indigenous factions already uneasy with Taliban rule. Joined by soldiers from many other nations, American military personnel provided decisive support to these indigenous factions. Yet it would be Afghani fighters on the front lines of the greatest battles against the Taliban. Thus the military victories were much more than triumphs of foreign powers — they were also triumphs in a genuine liberation of Afghanistan.

Obviously this is a sharp contrast from Iraq. It is not the only one. While few other nations were eager to support the American invasion of Iraq, successful regime change in Afghanistan was viewed as a worthwhile goal from almost every part of the globe. Even so, America’s leadership role has always remained clear. NATO’s function coordinating military operations in Afghanistan influences that, but even more influential is the historic place of the United States in all of this.

Alas, American leadership in Afghanistan means that America’s present political leadership has the final say in terms of occupation activities. This is problematic on multiple levels. At the foundation is the sheer simple-mindedness and unrealistic idealism evident in White House work product up to this point in the 21st century. To hear Richard Perle reflecting on the commerce at a Kabul street market, one would think haggling over the price of toothpaste was prohibited under Taliban rule. Much of American foreign policy seems to be driven by the foolish belief that all problems around the world are caused by a lack of capitalism and can be solved by the spread of it.

Making matters worse is the fact that whatever brainpower is available for shaping American foreign policy is largely consumed by the situation in Iraq. Rushing to do battle with a fabricated threat is never good for the outcome of ongoing conflict with a real threat. If national attention had not been so profoundly misdirected, how would things be different? Would there be such severe compromises when it comes to personnel and equipment deployed in the hunt for bin Laden? Would a policy of killing up to thirty innocent Afghanis per Taliban or Al Qaeda suspect targeted by an air strike have gone unquestioned for so long for so long?

The challenge the world faced after discovering just how potent a terrorist attack can be was not an easy one. Had it been the sort of challenge that could be overcome with raw firepower or astronomical spending, then it would have been easy from an American perspective. Instead it was, and remains, a challenge that requires sophisticated, sometimes even delicate, action. Technocratic pragmatism, not fuzzy jingoism, sheds light on the best possible policies to guide this action.

Fortunately, the way Afghanistan will be left after foreign military occupation ceases remains an open question. Reliance on indigenous forces in the beginning struck a tone that continues to resound pleasingly in the ears of many Afghani people. Insofar as the Taliban were ever popular, it was because they were linked to the insurgency that drove out Soviet invaders. The greater freedom of democratic self-governance remains appealing to many. Yet every instance of overkill in counterterrorist operations, every instance of Western rhetoric clashing with evident facts, every instance of U.S. officials applying pressure to Hamid Karzai’s regime — these undermine the prospect of a future in which most of Afghanistan is committed to secular self-rule.

When speaking out against The Global War on Terror, it is important to remember that it is a rhetorical device to legitimize some horrible security policy by lumping those measures in with sound security policy. It is not entirely stupid. Democratizing Afghanistan was, and remains, sound security policy. The approach taken was not perfect, but it was also not the demented imperialist approach pursued in Iraq.

Should the call for political change effectively dismantle the useless and counterproductive elements of existing counterterrorism policy, it is vital that it should not go further and also dismantle useful counterterrorism measures. International cooperation has already become essential to national as well as global security. Given some positive turns, Afghanistan could continue to be a nation that will cooperate readily with the United States long after our armies withdraw from their lands.

What You Should Think About Pervez Musharraf

November 5, 2007

“The power of the lawyer is in the uncertainty of the law.”

–Jeremy Bentham

As long as I have walked the Earth, Pakistan has been a complicated place. It was conceived out of religious strife boiling to the surface as the British Empire released its grip over the subcontinent. India has had its share of internal troubles. Even so, governing that vast and diverse land seems easy when compared to Pakistan’s internal problems. Even in the most sophisticated cities, progressive Pakistani people supporting secular governance are at odds with influential religious leaders eager to promote a crude and intolerant distortion of Islam. Then there are some regions that are under Islamabad’s control in name only.

Filled with rugged terrain and a suitably rugged indigenous population, Waziristan is a part of Pakistan. On the border with Afghanistan, Waziristan served as a refuge for Taliban militants fleeing efforts by American and newly empowered Afghani officials to hunt them down. With more than a few Al Qaeda personnel in the mix, this hunt has a legitimate role to play in the fight against terrorism. Yet the matter of Pakistani sovereignty raises serious problems when it comes to pursuing the hunt across that border.

Al Qaeda has long had ties to various tribes indigenous to Waziristan. In addition to being a CIA-backed anti-Soviet guerilla leader and a CIA-hunted anti-American terrorist, Osama bin Laden is also responsible for building roads, schools, and medical facilities in places where related services were previously inadequate, if available at all. This component of his activities improved the quality of life for desperately impoverished people in several parts of the world. It is with that in mind that many Waziri men were happy to take substantial sums of Al Qaeda money in exchange for a pledge to fight alongside the Taliban in defense of Afghanistan against foreign invaders.

Insofar as he may have followed the region with enough interest to pick up on such details, the indebtedness of Waziri men to Al Qaeda financiers did not make George W. Bush happy. It also did not make Pervez Musharraf happy. In one of the many unlikely (and largely unpublicized) twists of the Global War on Terror, Musharraf’s government arranged for Al Qaeda to be repaid. This freed Waziri men from their duty to fight in Afghanistan as a function of honoring debts. Even so, it did not prevent substantial numbers of them from fighting alongside the Taliban and Al Qaeda as a matter of principle.

I believe most experts on global security issues would put Pakistan, or perhaps even Waziristan specifically, at the top of a list of likely locations where Osama bin Laden might presently reside. Locals tend to be hostile toward outsiders even if they come from other parts of Pakistan. The U.S. has agreed to allow Pakistan to conduct all counterterrorism operations in that region (and most likely supplied advanced unmanned aerial vehicle technology in support of that mission.) However, it is thought that a major and sustained Pakistani military presence could generate a Waziri insurgency.  Any overt Western military presence surely would.

With all this in mind, it makes sense that the government of Pakistan might be a lot more uptight about maintaining control than in a place like the United States, where the idea of violent rebellion against federal authorities is only appealing to a fringe of extremists and the occasional little doomsday cult. The practical challenges of dealing with an insurgency among indigenous people, allied with terrorists and residing in mountain country, makes a brute force crackdown by the Pakistani army undesirable. On the other hand, exercising such limited control over a probable Al Qaeda haven poses problems of its own.

It is against this backdrop we see some truly bizarre antics taking place in Islamabad lately. Those who would challenge President-General Musharraf through the democratic process are not at all like the “extremists” that justify global concerns. For the most part, these challengers want to shore up Paksitani civil liberties, place an elected official above military officers in the chain of command (as is the case in the U.S. and so many other democratic regimes,) and rally support for progressive secular values. Surely a female head of state in Pakistan is a move away from, rather than toward, Al Qaeda’s call for hardline theocratic governance of Muslim societies.

Then there is the focus on lawyers. In addition to efforts at preventing judicial oversight of the previous Pakistani national election, Musharraf has ordered a roundup of legal advocates associated with Benazir Bhutto’s political party. If an emergency decree to ban public protest is intended to prevent large progressive gatherings that would serve as ideal targets for terrorists, then why also try to prevent lawyers from going about their role in a particularly murky incarnation of the democratic process?

That sort of action makes it difficult to take seriously Musharraf’s assertion that his recent behavior is focused on containing terrorist threats rather than silencing legitimate democratic opposition to his Presidency. It is as if he has taken a page from the Rove-Bush-Cheney playbook — pursuing policies that will only strengthen actual terrorist movements even as he abuses his authority to crush civilized peaceful movements constituting a loyal opposition. I can only wonder if our President regrets not having the power to jail Nancy Pelosi et al. as an alternative to allowing the 2006 elections to go forward as they did.

So far the advice from “the leader of the free world” to the leader of a part of the world that just became a great deal less free has been simple. Though he has made a half-hearted appeal to restore Pakistani civil liberties, Bush’s more pointed counsel has been that President-General Musharraf should dispense with the “General” in his title. Yet I understand, and perhaps even feel some relief, that there has been no rush into more decisive action yet.  This complex situation does place the American President in a tricky situation.

Were the U.S. to scale back aid to Pakistan or undertake other sanctions, the Musharraf regime could become less hostile to Al Qaeda. Some reports hold that Pervez Musharraf and Osama bin Laden generate fairly close results in opinion polls of the Pakistani public. On the other hand, never going beyond softspoken condemnation of this enormous setback for Pakistani democracy calls into question the validity of America’s commitment to spreading democracy as a means to marginalize extremist movements in the Muslim world.

Foreign affairs would be a very simple matter if everything could really be boiled down to, “you’re either with us or you’re against us.” Shortly after the September 11th attacks, publicly as well as privately, that stark choice was conveyed to the government of Pakistan. In hindsight it should become clear to more people what was immediately evident to me on witnessing our President’s crude approach — foreign affairs are almost never handled best with a simple approach. We can dumb down our policies as much as our leaders desire, but the world will continue to turn with all the same complexities and nuances . . . and perhaps a few more for failure to engage realistically with those complications in the past.

What You Should Think About the War

September 30, 2007

“We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

–Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Bonus points go out to readers reacting to this title with the thought, “which war?” Efforts ongoing in Afghanistan could be said to constitute a war. The stage has been set for perpetual warfare in Iraq. The latter is clearly the 800 lbs. gorilla in any room where American politics are up for discussion. Operation Iraqi Freedom is a worthy topic unto itself, as are many facets of it. It would be wrong to avoid it entirely in my first essay here to go beyond self-reference.

Yet I do want to take it in context. That means examining the Global War on Terror. Like the War on Drugs or the War on Poverty, it is an idea that wears its faults in its name. “War” is the clash of great powers employing force of arms to defeat dangerous enemies. Terror (as defined by the creators of GWoT) does not come at us with legions of uniformed soldiers. This is as true as the fact that there are no marines set to storm beaches in the name of Poverty nor an air force poised to rain down fire on enemies of Drugs.

The decision to couch counterterrorism policy in the language of war is deliberately misleading. The false narrative it promotes empowers Al Qaeda and so many copycat groups by raising them up to the level of dire threats capable of destroying the American way of life. Without that lie, their power is actually fairly feeble. What’s that? Terrorists are weak, and they do not deserve our fear? Then why has the world turned so in these past six years?

The world seemed to shake on September 11th, 2001. Actually, the globe’s vibrations were fairly normal. It was the hazy atmosphere around our world that was abuzz with the news of the day. Nearly 3,000 people, including citizens from dozens of other nations, died in attacks against powerful American institutions. Many great human beings were murdered by those malicious hijackers. Yet the most notable casualty of the day might be the myth of American invulnerability.

The desire to restore perfect national security was real, even if the security itself never was. Much time would pass before any voices of prominence asked, “how much safety is enough?” It would be a happy occurrence if we could keep traffic fatalities below 3,000 in any given month. Taking a rational approach, we should be a great deal more afraid of our cars than we should be of Al Qaeda. Unfortunately for the world, a pair of religious extremists (both formerly oil money playboys) made it their business to crush rational approaches to terrorism.

Admittedly, Osama bin Laden would be out of a job if his followers had the good sense to abandon violence and pursue other methods of advancing their agendas. On the other hand, it seems bizarre that an American President would want actual terrorist attacks (never mind intercepted chatter about terrorist attacks or idle speculation about possible terrorism) to successfully terrorize people. Yet again and again and again, this real threat is made to seem cause for much greater concern than many other equally real, and much more threatening, phenomena.

A false narrative exaggerating the power of terrorists is a really lousy thing for American morale, prosperity, etc. However, it is a very useful thing for purposes of consolidating political power and expanding the scope of the police state. Perhaps the executive branch really is run by some sinister Machiavellian throwback, or perhaps it is only that public policy has been painted with too broad a brush. Whatever the mechanism, its output is unmistakable.

“We have to do everything we can to support the troops,” becomes a mandate to ignore the humanitarian crisis in Iraq, ignore the shamelessly incompetent planning behind that war, and even turn a blind eye to the misdeeds of mercenaries far more eager to cash in on our flag than to honor it. “We have to do everything we can to keep secrets from our enemies,” becomes a mandate to stonewall all manner of legitimate investigations, conduct unwarranted surveillance on American citizens, and even operate secret prisons in far off lands where civilized oversight becomes a non-issue.

The Department of Homeland Security’s spending is so disordered that adequate records to certify an audit simply do not exist. Meanwhile the Pentagon continues a long string of failed audits. Hey, there’s a war on – bean counting will have to wait, right? The missile defense shield as it is already being built cannot defend against missiles? Don’t anybody dare let the public understand this or we’ll all look weak in front of those deadly terrorists! Even something like the political tactics that spawned the term “swiftboating” becomes excusable to an American coward living in constant terror of Al Qaeda’s next move (provided that same fearful patriot also buys into a false narrative implying a partisan monopoly on security and strength.)

If you live in, work at, or commute across a landmark famed the world over, perhaps it is excusable to indulge in a moment’s fear from time to time. Fear of terrorism is much like fear of flying. As feelings, neither can really be “wrong,” though preoccupation with such fears can be unhealthy. After all, we would be fools to let people living in constant fear of flying set aviation policy for the entire nation. By the same logic, our counterterrorism policy should not rest on a foundation of constant fear.

Did we need to expand our intelligence services and special forces programs so as to better locate and neutralize confirmed terrorist operatives? That sounds like a reasonable response to world events. Did we need to accelerate spending on a brand new fleet of stealthy air superiority warplanes? That has nothing to do with terrorism, but under the umbrella of “the best equipment for our armed forces” it adds many billions more to this unprecedented borrowing binge.

In the contorted self-serving logic of the political insider, this unilateral arms race must continue because the defense industry performs the indispensable role of funding political campaigns for individuals willing to facilitate runaway spending on big ticket military technology. From Russkies to ragheads, the true nature of a demonized adversary matters little. It is the climate of fear, promoted more effectively by our own public officials than any foreign attackers, that stifles vital legitimate questions about the usefulness of vast swaths of appropriations to the Pentagon.

While big (taxpayer) bucks for big aerospace remain untouched by present policy, several of America’s proudest traditions were not to be preserved intact. The terrorist menace demands that expanded security services possess expanded powers, and those damned terrorists are so clever and dangerous that not even investigative journalists with well-earned security clearances should get the facts about how these services actually operate. Imagine how quickly Katie Couric would lose her job if she ever modified the phrase “secret police force” with “American.” Yet what else are these security agents, legally exempted from judicial oversight while hauling suspects off to obscure foreign prisons, but America’s new secret police?

Soon I intend to address operations in Iraq and operations in Afghanistan. Actual “army in the field” wars certainly merit ample attention. Yet I believe this political context is the only way to make sense of executive work product shaping the courses of events in those nations. There was, and continues to be, far too much emphasis on preserving false narratives used to popularize White House policies. Reasonable informed discourse is typically crowded out by bickering about misinformation. Understanding the extent, and perceived value, of those lies may help pave the way for their decisive dismissal.

So, what should you think about the war? When it comes to the Global War on Terror, you should first and foremost think that terrorists are, in terms of actually killing Americans, somewhere in the same league as movie theater popcorn butter or black ice on the highway. A governmental response to terrorism is sensible . . . but this response?!? It seems to only validate the theory that America has been well and truly terrorized.

Whether or not that is true, just imagine the progress that could have been made concentrating hundreds of billions of dollars of American ingenuity and industriousness into an anti-cancer effort or an Apollo Program for alternative energy research. I’m enough of a patriot to think that we could have kicked cancer’s ass by now. What did our nation really gain . . . and what did we lose . . . by pursuing priorities emergent from the Global War on Terror?