We slid into the Iraq rapidly and unknowingly, our way greased by lies. Not so in Afghanistan. Our first invasion was in response to 9-11, a fast and bloodless (as such things go) overthrow of al Qaeda’s allies. An object lesson to our enemies, it might even have resulted in a better regime. If we had withdrawn our army, sent them some checks and well wishes (along with threats of death from the sky should al Qaeda re-establish camps), who knows what might have happened?
Instead we attempted nation-building. A usually unsuccessful endeavor, it was grossly under-funded and under-planned. Years later we pour even more resources into it, further exhausting our treasury and our military. Unlike Iraq, we have had wise and eloquent warnings about our folly. Such as this article, which I strongly recommend reading in full. This excerpt does not capture a fraction of its brilliant insights.
- “The Irresistible Illusion“, Rory Stewart, London Review of Books, 9 July 2009
When we are not presented with a dystopian vision, we are encouraged to be implausibly optimistic. ‘There can be only one winner: democracy and a strong Afghan state,’ Gordon Brown predicted in his most recent speech on the subject. Obama and Brown rely on a hypnotising policy language which can – and perhaps will – be applied as easily to Somalia or Yemen as Afghanistan. It misleads us in several respects simultaneously: minimising differences between cultures, exaggerating our fears, aggrandising our ambitions, inflating a sense of moral obligations and power, and confusing our goals. All these attitudes are aspects of a single worldview and create an almost irresistible illusion.
It conjures nightmares of ‘failed states’ and ‘global extremism’, offers the remedies of ‘state-building’ and ‘counter-insurgency’, and promises a final dream of ‘legitimate, accountable governance’. The path is …
- broad enough to include Scandinavian humanitarians and American special forces;
- general enough to be applied to Botswana as easily as to Afghanistan;
- sinuous and sophisticated enough to draw in policymakers; suggestive enough of crude moral imperatives to attract the Daily Mail;
- and almost too abstract to be defined or refuted.
It papers over the weakness of the international community: our lack of knowledge, power and legitimacy.
It conceals the conflicts between our interests: between giving aid to Afghans and killing terrorists.
It assumes that Afghanistan is predictable.
It is a language that exploits tautologies and negations to suggest inexorable solutions.
It makes our policy seem a moral obligation, makes failure unacceptable, and alternatives inconceivable.
It does this so well that a more moderate, minimalist approach becomes almost impossible to articulate. Afghanistan, however, is the graveyard of predictions.
- None of the experts in 1988 predicted that the Russian-backed President Najibullah would survive for two and a half years after the Soviet withdrawal.
- And no one predicted at the beginning of 1994 that the famous commanders of the jihad, Hekmatyar and Masud, then fighting a civil war in the centre of Kabul, could be swept aside by an unknown group of madrassah students called the Taliban.
- Or that the Taliban would, in a few months, conquer 90 per cent of the country, eliminate much corruption, restore security on the roads and host al-Qaida.
About the author
Rory Stewart is the Ryan Family Professor of Human Rights and Director of the Carr Center on Human Rights Policy at Harvard.
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Post about our military theory :
- The 2 most devastating 4GW attacks on America, and the roots of FM 3-24, 19 March 2008
- A key to the power of FM 3-24, the new COIN manual, 20 March 2008
- Dark origins of the new COIN manual, FM 3-24, 23 March 2008
- Insights about modern war from the NIC’s 2020 Project, 11 April 2008
- How often do insurgents win? How much time does successful COIN require?, 28 May 2008
- COIN – a perspective from 23rd century textbooks, 10 June 2008
- A lesson in war-mongering: “Maritime Strategy in an Age of Blood and Belief”, 8 July 2008
- Is COIN the graduate level of military hubris?, 30 July 2008
- The War Nerd shows how simple 4GW theory can be, 22 January 2009
- The US Army brings us back to the future, returning to WWI’s “cult of the offense”, 13 February 2009
- Important reading for every American who wishes to understand our foreign wars, 7 April 2009
- A joust between two schools of American military theory, 19 May 2009
- James Bond is not just our hero, but the model for our geopolitical strategy, 18 May 2009
- The trinity of modern warfare at work in Afghanistan, 13 July 2009