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 If we had withdrawn our army, sent them some checks and well wishes (along with threats of death from the sky should al Qaeda re-establish camps), who knows what might have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
13 thoughts on “Powerful insights about our war in Afghanistan, part 1”
By way of comparison, read Europe Has No Exit Strategy in the Balkans, in which Europe’s problems in developing the Balkans under far more favorable circumstances are detailed.
Among many other points the article states:
For details about Balkan organized crime, read this overview of the Albanian mafia, which is powerful throughout the Balkans and Kosovo in particular. It states:
It also states:
In conclusion, if you like Kosovo, you are going to love Afghanistan.
Here’s another illustrative excerpt:
Empires rarely acknowledge their true purpose, and these artful essays purporting to define what’s thought of as the “United States Policy in Other Regions” are pure political fiction. In history, you come across people who belong to the Empire, yet they flounder along when they fail to see its real purpose; and go by the stated propaganda, ingoring the vested interests at play behind the scenes. Here’s an excerpt from the British Empire’s ‘The Report of 1873’ written by Sir Charles Trevelyan
Sir Charles Trevelyan, in 1873, was advocating increased representation for Natives in the government – and the stated official purpose of the British Government, even at the time, was to “teach its people to govern themselves”.
What a lark!
Fabius Maximus replies: Thanks for this great quote. Trevelyan’s actions during the great famines in Ireland and Scotland certainly taught those subjects (those that lived) a lesson in governing. He wrote that the Famine was a “mechanism for reducing surplus population”. He believed the Irish famine had a rational cause:
“The judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated. …The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people”. (source)
If we have any hope of resuming our career as a self-governing Republic we need to work for a constitutional convention that will work to restore the balance in our system, undo the terrible mischief initiated by Lyndon Johnson, stop all federal funding to education == that might lead to closing down half the “political witchcraft” departments and scores of law schools preparing federal bureaucrats for jobs waiting to be created for them. We are running out of time. We need to end the one party system that is ruining America.
Fabius Maximus replies: This makes zero sense to me. A people that cannot run our current constitutional machinery — lackkng even the wit and motivation to use the power tool of elections — has no chance of success at the far more complex tast of constitution-making. If you hope for a deus ex machina solution, why not just hope for the Blue Fairy to solve our problems and be done with it?
FM, My point in that quote was that Empires rarely disclose their true nature and purpose; the British Empire rested largely on various devices to manipulate people’s unknowing trust – highly credible false promises, diplomatic tricks, and the success of the Divide and Rule policy – at least as far as India was concerned. IMHO, this is best illustrated through excerpts from Her Majesty’s Proclamation under the (August 1958) Act for the better Government of India:
Fabius Maximus replies: You were quite clear, and I agree. My point was despite the pretty words, the actions of colonial powers reveal their true intent.
For powerful examples of this I recommend reading “The Good Empire – Should we pick up where the British left off?“, Vivek Chibber, Boston Review, February/March 2005.
Duncan: not only did the Kosovo war result in a more corrupt, less governable, poorer former Yugoslavia, the pretexts for invasion (ethnic cleansing, mass graves) were phony in the first place. What possible objectives, other than pique at the survival of an independent-minded Milosevic, could we and our European buddies have had in mind?
The LRB article is particularly eloquent in demonstrating that official statements, especially in times of war, are ideology at best, wish fulfillment at worst, and in no way real military strategy. For most countries, with a minimum of wealth, tools like the IMF and World Bank are adequate for collapsing their economies and changing regimes, but for very poor countries, like Afghanistan, only the military will do.
In August 1858, Queen Victoria, Defender of the Faith, relying firmly on the truth of Christianity, holding herselves bound, by the blessings of Almighty God, by the same obligations that bound herselves to herselves’ all other subjects, said all these wonderfully false things about how the Native Princes and Natives would be treated, what their rights were going to be, etc. Does Her Majesty Queen Victoria mention anywhere that her main objective was to plunder India of all her wealth;take even the proceeds of her soil; impoverish those Natives beyond any possibility of imagination; tax them to starvation; and use both their money and their bodies in the service of Her Royal Campaigns in Afghanistan, Abyssinia,Egypt and Burma?
Fabius Maximus replies: She intended to mention those things, but the networks would only give her 45 minutes airtime.
Did we plunder India of her wealth ? I’m just ignorant on this , and its the sort of thing you cant pluck an e-bite off Wikipedia .I had assumed the relationship was one of trade , rather than theft . Like China/UK until recently – a market for cheap goods actually sustains an economy for the supplier . Disillusion me .
Fabius Maximus replies: I suggest you read the Vivek Chibber article excepted in this post, to see the attitude of the British rulers towards their Indian subjects. Read any analysis of the economics of colonialism for more about the economic “benefits” of colonialism in India.
Anna – what a question! Let me provide you with some data from the same book backing my assertion that the British Empire “Taxed Indians to starvation”.Take the 1877 Madras famine as a case study. (There are many other more terrible case studies such as this one).
How many people died in the Madras famine?
On January 22, 1878, a Select Commitee under the chairmanship of Lord George Hamilton went into the question of proposals for expenditure on irrigation versus Railways. In his reply to Question 2204 of the Committee proceedings, Sir Arthur Cotton said “I am afraid we must reckon that out of the 40 millions affected by the famine in Madras, Mysore, Hyderabad and Bombay, 4 or 5 millions have perished, after spending 120 millions on railways besides incurring a debt of 50 millions sterling”
So one authoritative guide we have is that “some 4 or 5 million” Indians “perished” in that famine – meaning that they starved to death.
What caused the Madras famine of 1877? Was it an environmental disaster? Was it a major decline in agricultural output? What was the British Empire’s policy in India, before, during and after the famine?
Land Settlements in Madras. According to a table titled “Land Revenue in Madras, Excluding Malabar and South Canara” from the Madras Board of Revenue’s resolution No. 542, dated December 16,1900, Appendix 1: In 1861 Occupied Area in Acres was 15,800,000 and by 1875 that had changed to 19,200,000. The ‘Gross Demand’ went from GBP 3,290,000 in 1861 to GBP 3,940,000 in 1875.
And here’s Romesh Dutt’s commentary on the assessment, followed by a more authoritative quote from Sir Louis Mallet, the then Under Secretary of State for India.
And here’s a quote from Sir Louis Mallet, Under Secretary of State for India in his minute dated February 03, 1875:
Anna/FM, since I’m quoting from a book written in 1903 – India was still under colonial rule – the Indian writer, a British educated person writing in London is quite tempered in his language and carefully quotes official British sources and ‘evidence’ from writings and speeches of the Empire’s functionaries to back every assertion.
The actual facts are easier to under stand when put in a simple direct way – there was a rule that the British Collector should try to assess ONLY(!) 50% of the profits (called a nett produce) of agricultural activity. However, the assessment was entirely left to the discretion of the Collector (Assessing Officer). Also in practice there was Tribunal to appeal to, and no way to debate with the British Collector on the tax payable.
The British Empire, over a period of several decades, simply Taxed Indian cultivators more than their profits, and impoverished them to such an extent that they could barely survive. Now let’s look at the OTHER things the British Empire did to cause the Madras Famine.
Fabius Maximus replies: OK, you have established beyond any reasonable doubt the nature of the British colonial rule in India! Now back to the subject at hand, Afghanistan.
Graduate school was nice. Is there some question about benevolent intention of the British rulers of India?
I am arguing simply FM that we are at the exhaustion point of our political arrangement. The Congress is completely irresponsible, no matter which faction of the one party system is on top. We have a bloated and very dangerous military-industrial cabal that needs to be broken. We are not defending our borders, we have no industrial or trade policies that are sustainable. Our pension systems will collapse in a year or so; cities and states are heading for bankruptcy.
Do I see a political crisis developing? Is there a solution? We have a mechanism in place. While we amuse ourselves with the bread and circus of Sotomayor etc. we are ignoring real problems. Do I know how we as a people are going to give voice to the need for a real shift in political power? If I did, would I be penning this note here? I am looking for like-minded people, some of whom might have ideas and thoughts of how to initiate the process that will give us the opportunity to have an alternative to a government that thinks running car companies and paying off bankers who have defrauded us is a just, decent and productive economic policy.
Fabius Maximus: I love reading about political “mechanisms” that can save us. The super-wonderful machinery that runs by itself! If we’re looking for magic solutions, I prefer the Blue Fairy.
If you are looking for political solutions, I recommend agitating and organizing. At some point in the future a Constitutional convention might become a logical next step. These things take time. For example, American’s struggle against Britain started (arbitrarily) with the Sugar Act of 1864. The Constitution was ratified 24 years later in 1788.
In simple words, though the agricultural produce volumes in India were quite strong before, during and after the 1877 Madras famine, the British Empire forced such large volumes of food grain exports from India, and levied such huge agricultural taxes on cultivators, that something like “4 or 5 million” South Indians literally starved to death. Now, in quotes:
Fabius Maximus replies: While nominally off-topic, these quotes go to the heart of our neo-colonial strategy. When looking at themselves, the Brits said that they provided good government — defined in western history as in the best interests of the governed. The reality was quite different.
So it will probably be for the American neo-colonial project in Iraq and esp Afghanistan. Worse, at least the Brits (more precisely, a large number of Brits) made money from the Empire. The gains to America will likely be much smaller and more narrowly distributed.