“Defeating the Taliban”: Naïveté and the American Empire
While modern “Rome” is burning, why do U.S. foreign policy elites keep meddling in overseas adventures?
October 26, 2010
That George W. Bush would venture invasions where even the gutsy, ruthless and brainy Winston Churchill feared treading (witness Iraq) may have been an act of pure hubris.
That Barack Obama continued going down that trail in Afghanistan is an act of stupidity — and, come to think of it, cowardice.
For one would have thought that, somewhere along the arc of his Ivy League education, the 44th President of the United States would have been privy to one of the most famous tales of Greek mythology, that of the nine-headed serpent Hydra.
That monster was hardened in battle, for each time somebody would chop off one of its nine heads, two more would grow out of the wound. Apparently, Mr. Obama does believe he is Heracles, the mythical hero who ultimately managed to defeat the monster — as only one of his 12 labors.
These days, General Petraeus, newspaper front pages and foreign policy columnists are all engaged in a campaign to convince the American public that the battle against the Taliban will be won. The promise they hold out is for a better peace.
That certainly sounds like a laudable goal, if it were realistic.
However, reports breathlessly heralding the increasing exasperation among Taliban mid-rank commanders are not the evidence to look out for.
Of course, a technology-reliant nation is prone to believing that the drone attacks are having a serious effect on the determination of Afghan fighters to relent in their struggle against U.S. forces.
On top of that, the “droning” satisfies the equally popular yearning for biblical justice, insofar as the heavens are opening their gates to fight those evil-doers who should have simply stayed in hell.
While I am not a military expert, I am still willing to bet 2,000 years of Afghan history against the siren-like powers of Greek mythology and say that the current campaign’s success will be very limited. To see why, just ask yourself some of the following questions:
What does it really take for the hydra — pardon: the Taliban — to grow back two heads for each one that gets lobbed off? In a totally underdeveloped country contending with rapid population growth, the supply of war fighters is near endless.
Or does nobody on General Petraeus’s staff or in the White House know that Afghanistan’s fertility rate is the second-highest in the world?
And who has factored in just how much this biblical justice from the heavens, quite conversely, serves as a motivation tool, making potential Taliban fighters very, very mad — and sleeper al Qaeda cells in the West positively determined to commit crimes?
Next, what good does it do, given those facts on the ground, to expend $350 billion from October 2001 to date on military operations in Afghanistan? This certainly isn’t an amount of money this over-indebted nation can afford.
But wait, aren’t there those who shout, “You just don’t get it, this is an asymmetrical threat.” Yes, it is. There is no doubt about that.
Since when, though, has it made sense to go into such a trouble-ridden, archaic territory with massive, and rather conventional, military operations?
The battle cry of “asymmetrical threat” just seems like a magic password to get all sorts of budgetary waste approved in the war on terror, whether at home or abroad.
In particular, corporations engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan love the hazy, complex nature of the wars, as it is an unbeatable argument for those who want Congress and the Administration to “throw money at the problem,” very much Washington’s bipartisan raison d’être.
On we go with the catalogue of relevant questions: Who has provided any proof against the argument that the only viable strategy for Afghanistan, sadly, is containment — and decidedly not the illusory pursuit of curing all the ills that have befuddled this territory for eons?
The only effective strategy to deal with the danger that emanates from the country is classic, shoe-leather police and intelligence work — to keep the “bad guys” from coming to Western countries to commit heinous acts.
Yes, it is saddening and maddening that more cannot be done for Afghanistan. Not when most of its viable professional elites — those who could have formed the backbone of an orderly, prosperous society — have long migrated to the West.
They are forever lost to Afghanistan. If a nation's own best people don’t believe in its future, what good does it do to try to do it for them? Where on earth, where in human history, has that ever worked?
And why do American — and Washingtonian — hopes spring eternal regarding Afghanistan when that country’s president has a chief of staff who is, for all intents and purposes, a money bag for the Iranian government?
Mind you, that’s nothing particularly shocking, or even really illicit, by regional customs. It’s simply the way the “game” of influence-peddling has been played in those countries for thousands of years. One can’t even blame Hamid Karzai for letting this happen.
One can only blame the utter naïveté of Washington’s foreign policy elites for thinking it could somehow stop this form of business as usual.
In the end, for all the “reformist” instincts that these masters of foreign policymaking are always willing to foist upon other nations, the present state of affairs is remarkable for one thing and one thing only.
God knows, U.S. society has plenty of areas at home that are in desperate need of urgent attention. But the elite consensus seems to be that it is far preferable to take all that human drive for conflict abroad by triggering unnecessary foreign wars — instead of fighting the very necessary battles at home.
As to the misplaced fighting spirits of the Obama Administration, look no further than its utter and complete unwillingness to do serious battle over cost containment in order to tackle the inefficiencies and ineptitudes of the U.S. healthcare system.
For all the attention given to healthcare reform, fighting that worthy — and ultimately unavoidable — battle was considered unadvisable, because it would have meant that any healthcare reform package would have been “dead on arrival.”
Or so the conventional wisdom goes.
Did the most professorial U.S. president in a century really not have any ounce left over from the campaign to use the bully pulpit to show the American people the utter irresponsibility of continuing down the same wasteful path on health care?
At first blush, the experience with President Wilson before him wouldn’t seem too promising, because his preaching didn’t succeed in full. And yet, for all their shared sanctimoniousness, this Princeton man could not have been more different from his Harvard counterpart.
First, Woodrow Wilson did try very hard to cure the world from some very real evils — and proved even pleasantly conniving in getting his reluctant nation to engage in World War I to get the job done.
His actions and convictions, while much criticized at the time, were eventually validated. Europe, 100 years on, is now free from war.
In contrast, Mr. Obama lacked the understanding of where the real battlefield was. His war was neither Iraq nor Afghanistan.
It was health care — as part and parcel of getting the U.S. economy onto the right track again after some decades of not paying close enough attention to combating inefficiencies and hyperbole, from an over-reliance on home construction and credit to a fundamental under-appreciation of infrastructure needs.
Unlike Mr. Wilson — who did have enough of Jimmy Stewart's character in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” in him — Mr. Obama never did truly take on the powers that be in Washington. He just said he would (in his election campaign) — and they pretended that he did (once he was in office).
And unlike Mr. Wilson, who came to the end of his physical faculties while still in office, Mr. Obama — as a man who is under age 50 — is at the height of his own energy and vigor.
So he picked Afghanistan, not health care, as the field in which to do battle. The American people would have been much better served if it had been the other way around — if he had pretended on Afghanistan and had really gone to war at home over health care.
The most professorial U.S. president in a century since President Wilson, Mr. Obama lacked the understanding of where the real battlefield was. His war was neither Iraq nor Afghanistan.
U.S. society has plenty of areas at home that are in desperate need of urgent attention.
But the elite consensus seems to be that it is far preferable to take all that human drive for conflict abroad by triggering unnecessary foreign wars.
The American people would have been much better served if Mr. Obama had pretended on Afghanistan and had really gone to war at home over health care.
In a totally underdeveloped country like Afghanistan that is contending with rapid population growth, the supply of war fighters is near endless.