Seeing today through the eyes of a future historian
Here are excepts from a history of the Af-Pak War written in the year 2020, downloaded from my Kindle DX. Tomorrow’s news brought to you today on the FM website!
They thought they were very good, and they were always talking about keeping their options open, even as, day by day and week by week, events closed off those options. The truth was that history — and in South Asia we were on the wrong side of it — was a hard taskmaster and … we had almost no choices left. Our options had been steadily closing down since 2001, when the War began. That was when we had the most options, and the greatest element of choice. … by 2009, caught up increasingly in our own global vision of anti-terrorism, we chose not to see this war as primarily a colonial/anticolonial war …
We adjusted our public statements, and much of our journalism, to make it seem as if this was a war of terrorists against civilization, instead, as the people of Afghanistan might have seen it, a war of a colonial power against an indigenous religious and nationalist force.
By the time Team Obama arrived and started talking about all their options, like it or not (and they did not even want to think about it) they had in fact almost no options at all. In fact, for a team of Democratic politicians they were sooner or later going to be faced with the most unpalatable of choices: getting out, and then being accused of losing a freedom-loving country to the Islamic terrorists, or sending in combat troops to fight an unwinnable war. “Events,” wrote Mr. B__, paraphrasing Emerson “are in the saddle, and ride mankind.”
In addition Team Obama never defined the war, what our roles and missions were, how many troops we were going to send and, most important of all, what we were going to do if the Taliban matched our escalation with their escalation, as they were likely to. It was an ill-defined commitment, one made in stealth and in considerable secrecy, because those making it were uneasy about their path and feared an open debate, feared exposing the policy to any serious scrutiny.
So 2009 was a lost year; opportunities were lost for possible political negotiation, of re-evaluation of American attitudes, of perhaps convincing the American public that it wasn’t worth it … Instead of that, they held the line. They did not think time was working against them and decided not to deal with Afghanistan in 2009, but to keep their options open. They would not be entrapped, they would make their decisions carefully and in their own time (they were above all functional, operational, tactical men, not really intellectuals, and tactical men think in terms of options, while intellectuals less so; intellectuals might think in terms of the sweep of history and might believe that twelve months would make little difference in Afghanistan, that if the sweep of history was bad in 2009, it would probably, if anything, be a good deal worse in 2010).
They could, they thought, control events, but it was all an illusion. Time had been closing off options relentlessly since 2001, when it would have been easy to have a political settlement, a favorable one, with the United States dealing from strength, but ever since those days, the possibility had steadily diminished as the other side, the Taliban forces, had become progressively stronger and the United States had become increasingly committed to the idea (then hardly part of its global outlook) that Afghanistan was vital.
Thus past years had shown that time diminished options, and this would be true in 2009 as well. A year later the Taliban would be that much stronger, the government in Kabul that much weaker, and the United States that much more committed.
… When they came to make the final fateful decisions, there would be options, but the real ones would be long since lost; the options they would deal with in 2010 were artificial ones. Given their outlook and their conception of the country and of their own political futures, they would be driven to certain inevitable, highly predictable decisions, but they still had the illusion that they could control events.
They were rational men, that above all; they were not ideologues. Ideologues are predictable and they were not, so the idea that those intelligent, rational, cultured, civilized men had been caught in a terrible trap by early 2009 and that they spent an entire year letting the trap grow tighter was unacceptable; they would have been the first to deny it. If someone in those days had called them aside and suggested that they, all good rational men, were tied to a policy of deep irrationality, layer and layer of clear rationality based upon several great false assumptions and buttressed by a deeply dishonest reporting system which created a totally false data bank, they would have lashed out sharply that they did indeed know where they were going. Yet the dilemma of Afghanistan was now finally coming to its illogical conclusions.
At the very time that they were talking about keeping their options open, they were closing them off. They were not questioning the given or the assumption of Afghanistan; they were determining that the country would stand, like it or not, able to stand or not. They were not distinguishing between Islam in Afghanistan and why it was successful and the exterior Islamic threat to other countries in the region. And they were not analyzing to what degree the people of Afghanistan did or did not sustain the Taliban. The SecDef made his assessments in a vacuum, and the kind of challenge to them that might have taken place was absent. State made no rejoinder, there was no debate over the assumptions of the facts, no discussion of possibilities of negotiation.
But th SecDef was not yet as pessimistic as Mr. M___; he did not think the dark picture he painted of the world of Kabul would necessarily entrap the United States. He was sure that it could be avoided somehow, that there were options, that good intelligent men in Washington could control decisions and avoid the great entanglement. Mr. M___ was not so sure.
“The trouble with you, Mr. SecDef,” he once said, “is that you always think we can turn this thing off, and that we can get off of it whenever we want. But I wonder. I think if it was easy to get off of it, we would already have gotten off. I think it gets harder every day, each day we lose a little control, each decision that we make wrong, or don’t make at all, makes the next decision a little harder because if we haven’t stopped it today, then the reasons for not stopping it will still exist tomorrow, and we’ll be in even deeper.”
Even as he spoke, the SecDef felt chilled, for Mr. M___ was not just challenging what was going on in Afghanistan, there were lots of people in Washington who were doing that, what he was challenging was even more basic: the illusion of control, the illusion of options, the belief that whenever Washington really wanted to, it could pull itself together and handle Afghanistan. He was challenging, then, not just the shabbiness and messiness of Afghanistan, but the most sacred illusion of all, the capacity of Washington to control and manage foreign events.
Who really wrote these? When?
These excerpts discuss the Vietnam War, taken from The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam. The names and dates were changed — and nothing else. Yet they fit like a glove.
Food for thoughts. The more things change…
Other writings by Halberstam that illuminate the present as well as the past
- Thoughts on fixing America’s national security apparatus, 11 August 2008
- These days all US Presidents are War Presidents (part 3), 23 November 2008
- Obama’s cabinet are the best and brightest (here we go, again), 20 February 2009
- A living eulogy to Robert Strange McNamara, 26 July 2009
Please share your comments by posting below. Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 word max), civil and relevant to this post. Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).
For more information from the FM site
To read other articles about these things, see the following:
Reference pages about other topics appear on the right side menu bar, including About the FM website page.
Other notes from the past on the FM site:
- Our futures seen in snippets of the past, 16 June 2008
- President Grant warns us about the dangers of national hubris, 7 July 2008
- de Tocqueville warns us not to become weak and servile, 21 July 2008
- Let’s look at America in the mirror, the first step to reform, 14 August 2008
- Can Americans pull together? If not, why not?, 29 August 2008
- A wonderful and important speech about liberty, 23 July 2009
- A warning from Alexis De Tocqueville about our military, 7 August 2009
- Another note from our past, helping us see our future, 16 September 2009