A new reason to kill thousands of people? Stay tuned for the answer!

Every day the attempts to justify the Af-Pak war reach new heights of creativity.  Today we have an essay in The New Yorker by Steve Coll, the first in a series explaining that we must  do something or other (he never explains what) for the sake of civilization.

Also, Coll never describes the consequences of our withdrawal from the Af-Pak fighting, but hints at it in apocalyptic tones.

Let’s have a contest!  In the comments please give your guess as to what Coll will recommend. 

  1. An intense program of civilian aid — a super-Peace Corps program for Afghanistan?
  2. Doubling down on the war?
  3. Like Joshua Foust’s, essays that never come to a conclusion?

I guess #2.  Furthermore, I suspect he will provide much uplifting rhetoric, but no mention of the messy details of war.  How many people we must kill — and how many Americans must die — for the march of civilization?  Who will lend us the money for this crusade?  How we will repay the war debts?  Will the people of the world will pay us to wage this crusade? 

More on this following Cull’s next chapter.

Thinking About Afghanistan“, Steve Coll, The New Yorker, 23 September 2009 — Hat tip on this to Jari Lindholm.  Red emphasis added.   Much of the text omitted is about the march of civilization.  Excerpt:

At the risk of trying the patience of those who seek from Afghan wonks a short yes-or-no opinion about General McChrystal’s assessment of the war and his argument for more U.S. troops pronto, I thought I would try a series of posts this week that seek some distance from the political heat surrounding President Obama’s first (but presumably not his only) excruciating decision as commander-in-chief. I’ll circle around to the yes-or-no, but gradually.

… The United States has a deep interest in the emergence of a stable, modernizing, economically integrated, peaceful South Asia — by which I mean the region that is centered on India, but which also encompasses Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Afghanistan.

… Now, look around the world and ask: After Europe, East Asia, and Latin America, where will this modernizing transformation occur next?  The answer seems unarguable: South Asia. (The Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa await their turns.) Why? India.

… American officials and outsiders like myself often wring their hands about Pakistan. The Army and intelligence services in that country are a powerful and regressive force, as evidenced by their self-defeating support for the Taliban and other Islamist networks. Civil-military relations in Pakistan are very poor and constitute, since independence, a dismal history of chronic interventions and failures. Constitutional democracy in Pakistan, while technically present, is badly undernourished; it often seems on the verge of imminent collapse.

In recent memory, however, something like that was true, to varying ways, in Turkey, Indonesia, Brazil, Argentina, the Philippines. It is much, much less true today in those countries because they have modernized and economically integrated in successful regional compacts.

Because of India’s economic dynamism, and because of the common, enterprising culture of Punjab that straddles the Indo-Pak border, if that border were opened, and if the two governments normalized relations (they do not require a romanticized or complete peace, only a pragmatic and functional one) a broad, positive, and durable political-economic change would likely occur in South Asia within a generation.

It is along this modernizing pathway that American policy should concentrate its most ambitious investments. American Presidents had confidence in a vision of this kind after the Second World War; that is why Truman intervened in Greece and Turkey and why the Marshall Plan arose.

Why does the Afghan war figure in this assessment today?

The Taliban are a backward-looking threat to the near-term stability of South Asia — in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, and, as the Mumbai attacks demonstrated, occasionally in India. The United States has an interest in preventing the Taliban from destabilizing South Asia by acquiring influence in nuclear-armed Pakistan or by provoking a war between India and Pakistan, two still-insecure nuclear powers.

What?  How did the Mumbai attacks demonstrate that “the Taliban are a backward-looking threat to the near-term stability of South Asia”?  Esp given the relatively small area in which the largely Pashtun Taliban have influence.

What are the best means to accomplish this? What is the role of Afghan stability in the larger projects of defeating Al Qaeda and the pursuit of a stable, modernizing, “normal” South Asia beyond Afghanistan?

In strategic terms, the Afghan war is in some ways a sidebar to the main event in the region. Elsewhere in South Asia, in Pakistan and in India, American influence is at best indirect. Even so, these regional American interests at issue in the Afghan war are very powerful; to confirm this, consider the alternative of Pakistan’s failure at the Taliban’s hands.

Too bad Coll does not discuss how Pakistan might “fail at the Taliban’s hands”, or the consequences of such. Perhaps this is just a thrilling lead-in to his next installment.

About the author

Steve Coll is president of New America Foundation, and a staff writer at The New Yorker. Previously he spent 20 years as a foreign correspondent and senior editor at The Washington Post, serving as the paper’s managing editor from 1998 to 2004. He is the author of six books, including The Deal of the Century: The Break Up of AT&T (1986); The Taking of Getty Oil (1987); Eagle on the Street, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the SEC’s battle with Wall Street (with David A. Vise, 1991); On the Grand Trunk Road: A Journey into South Asia (1994), Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (2004); and The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century (2008).

Mr. Coll’s professional awards include two Pulitzer Prizes. … Other awards include the 1992 Livingston Award for outstanding foreign reporting; the 2000 Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Award for his coverage of the civil war in Sierra Leone; and a second Overseas Press Club Award for international magazine writing. Mr. Coll graduated Phi Beta Kappa, Cum Laude, from Occidental College in 1980 with a degree in English and history.

Source:  his bio at the New American Foundation website.


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.

Some posts about the war in Afghanistan:

  1. Why are we are fighting in Afghanistan?, 9 April 2008 — A debate with Joshua Foust.
  2. Real experts review a presentation about the War (look here, if you’re looking for well-written analysis!), 21 June 2009
  3. The Big Lie at work in Afghanistan – an open discussion, 23 June 2009
  4. “War without end”, a great article by George Wilson, 27 June 2009
  5. The trinity of modern warfare at work in Afghanistan, 13 July 2009
  6. Powerful insights about our war in Afghanistan, part 1, 18 July 2009
  7. We are warned about Afghanistan, but choose not to listen (part 2), 19 July 2009
  8. Powerful insights about our war in Afghanistan, part 3, 20 July 2009
  9. You can end our war in Afghanistan, 20 August 2009
  10. “Afghanistan by the Numbers – Measuring a War Gone to Hell”, by Tom Engelhardt, 9 September 2009
  11. How many troops would it take to win in Afghanistan?, 15 September 2009

16 thoughts on “A new reason to kill thousands of people? Stay tuned for the answer!”

  1. I’m not saying you’re sloppy or anything, but you might want to make sure you’re spelling Steve Coll’s name consistently.

    Also for someone who has made his “name” writing exploratory essays that often do not conclude by advocating a specific policy, you sure are intolerant of other people doing so.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Thanks for catching the spelling!

    “you sure are intolerant of other people doing so.”

    Where do you see this “intolerance”? I noted it. I did not condemn it.

    “writing exploratory essays that often do not conclude by advocating a specific policy”

    That is not correct. As the tag cloud shows, the 4 subjects discussed most on this site are climate science, the current recession, the Iraq War, and the Af-Pak War — for each of which I have given specific recommendations.

    I have stated my recommendation on the Af-Pak War many times. I do not do so in every post (by Internet standards, they’ll too long already):
    * Limit our involvment in Afghanistan to civilian and military aid. No combat troops other than descrete use of special ops.
    * Continue intense support of Pakistan.
    * If Afghanistan falls, attempt to strike deals with the new regime (as we have with so many unpleasant regimes since WWII).
    * If Pakistan takes heat from the new Afghanistan, they can go to the Security Council for permission to conduct cross-border ops. With little US involvement, approval should be easy (Russia and China will probably applaud).

    This is an application of a defensive grand strategy, as I and others (esp William Lind) have advocated. For details see section 5 (Grand Strategy) of the FM reference page Military and Strategic Theory. For a summary see these posts:
    * How America can survive and even prosper in the 21st Century – part I, 7 June 2008
    * How America can survive and even prosper in the 21st Century – part II, 14 June 2008

    Much of this is explained well in “The ‘safe haven’ myth“, Stephen M. Walt, blog of Foreign Policy, 18 August 2009.

  2. Do we have any ambitious investments to spare for California, New Orleans, or Detroit? Mortgages and health care might be worthy of consideration.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Why have the war’s advocates successfully evaded this question? That is, what is the relative benefit of the Af-Pak War compared to our domestic needs?

    To place this in proportion: we spent $3 billion on the cash for clunkers program, which had a substantial effect on our GDP (and more on the auto industry). We spend over $4 billion month in Afghanistan.

  3. Pretty much every one of his paragraphs contains a factual error. But I don’t think Coll would care. It’s simple racism, the white mans burden, and the domino theory that he is sprouting wrapped up in American exceptionalism.

    The real question for these people is not how they would do it (they are theologians that have no practical idea) but how many people would they kill to achieve it – or to make it even simpler – how many Americans would you kill to achieve America’s destiny in the world.

    When you ask that question and you have to really press them on it, you get a glimpse into the dark abyss of their souls, a place that they try so hard to disguise with fine words. Because there is no limit to how many people they would kill. To them the killing doesn’t matter, they would kill everyone.
    Fabius Maximus replies: This seems to me an extraordinarily lightweight start to his series on the War, more like something Tom Friedman would write. Surprising from such an experienced and knowledgeable guy. Perhaps war-fever has gripped us, like the period before WWI.

  4. Fabius,

    I’m fine with being criticized — in fact, I appreciate it (it means something is important enough to discuss). What I’m pointing out is, when you complain about an essay not having a concluding point — and there really is no other way to read that dig — and then admit that many of yours don’t because each one is part of a larger body of work… well, that’s kind of the pot meeting the kettle.
    Fabius Maximus replies: At the bottom of each post is the section “For more information from the FM site“. Titles like “You can end our war in Afghanistan” (20 August 2009). Plus there are the subject indexes on the right side menu bar.

    I gave a link to your 3-part series about the Af-Pak strategic situation. Do you see any links — or even hints — there where a reader can find your recommendations about the war?

  5. Now let’s think about the assumptions behind the title of this post, and commenter Oblat:
    “A new reason to kill thousands of people”
    “It’s simple racism, the white man’s burden”

    As Fabius would do, I ask that both you support these assertions with evidence. So far, multiple people detailing strategic concerns, human rights concerns, and plain old simple genuine care for another people have been written off in this space as, essentially, desperately seeking a disingenuous moral justification for bloodlust and murder.

    That’s a few steps beyond unfair. Rather than assuming the worst of someone’s motives, it helps to engage with their ideas — Fabius, you do this often but not always in your posts, and it’s why I enjoy your site. The petty moral condemnations are just a distraction.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Obit discusses motives, which I do not do here.

    (1) “you support these assertions with evidence”
    You want me to explain why a new reason for a war war means killing thousands of people? You’re kidding, right? What do you think happens in war?

    (2) “human rights concerns, and plain old simple genuine care for another people have been written off in this space”

    What does “written off” mean? I note that doing these good deeds involves killing people. You appear to believe that we should kill thousands of folks in Afghanistan in an attempt to ensure human rights for these peoples. I suspect a majority of the US public considers that daft.

    (3) Citing “human rights” as a reason for the war raises many questions.
    (a) Doesn’t Islam conflict with the concept of “human rights”, rights which are superior to any particular religion or custom?
    (b) Did the Afghanistan government ask for help to bring human rights to their people? If so, which ones? What fraction of the Afghanistan people support this? For example, more rights to women? (It is not true that all or even most women in Islamic nations support feminism)
    This confusion results from the bastardized policy mechanism for the Af-Pak war — esp using NATO instead of the UN. A formal request by Afghanistan to the UN would have made our goals clear, and provided greater legitimacy to the war.

  6. It really is remarkable that Americans appear to have decided to let 5 of their major cities (Baltimore, Cleveland, New Orleans, Detroit and St. Louis) rot and die and now an entire half of one of our biggest states, California, degenerate and collapse.

    In previous eras, Americans seemed to have the attitude that we’re all in it together, and when one state got into trouble, the rest of us pitched in to help them out. But today, in 2009, Americans seem to have no problem authorizing the waste of hundreds of billions of dollars on pointless lost foreign escapades in third world hellholes like Afghanistan, while disdaining spending so much as a dime to rescue our own failed and degenerating cities.

    For perspective: the Navy’s shipbuilding program is projected to cost $737 billion over the next five years. And the federal government can’t spare 24 billion to help out California get through its budget crunch?

    The GAO says the costs of the F 35 Joint Strike Fighter are now estimated at 1 trillion dollars — yet American can’t spare a few billion to revitalize Detroit or Baltimore or New Orleans?

    Watching America’s nonchalant indifference to its own decay is like watching a person with multiple infected wounds. As the wounds fester, you keep wondering if the person will do anything about the problem — and as the infection turns to gangrene, you really start to get scared.

    One or two infected wounds, and you may lose a finger or an arm. But if you keep walking around with a bunch of untreated infections, eventually you’re going to die. America cannot keep spending trillions on crazy foreign wars while letting its major cities fester and turn into wastelands.
    Fabius Maximus replies: These decisions show our priorities. Or rather, those of our ruling elites — and our passivity to their decisions.

  7. >”As Fabius would do, I ask that both you support these assertions with evidence.”

    Read the article it’s about how the Taliban need to be defeated so that the worlds next “modernizing transformation” can occur.
    * “This process is of interest to the United States not only because it would create a better world…”
    * “It is along this modernizing pathway that American policy should concentrate its most ambitious investments.”

    “Take up the White Man’s burden–
    In patience to abide,
    To veil the threat of terror
    And check the show of pride;
    By open speech and simple,
    An hundred times made plain
    To seek another’s profit,
    And work another’s gain.”
    -– Rudyard Kipling, “The White Man’s Burden“, 1899

  8. This is insanity.

    1) the Mumbai attacks… am I wrong, or were those planned by Lashkar-e-Taiba, which, despite links to the Taliban and al Qaeda, is primarily interested in Kashmir? Why would defeating the Taliban have any impact on their beef with India? Are we now assuming that if we stop al Qaeda and the Taliban, LeT will end its terrorist activities?

    2) Why is the operating assumption that bin Ladenand the al Qaeda leadership that they are somehow the head of the beast that needs to be cut off? Ok, Somali rebels/terrorists claim fealty to al Qaeda–how much of this is posturing and how much is actually giving planning control to the “bosses” in the Af-Pak border? Seems to me that Zarqawi didn’t put much stock into listening to Zawahiri or bin Laden, why should we assume this global “al Qaeda” network will fold once we capture/kill those guys?

    It seems to me the whole we must fight al Qaeda assumption is flawed in the same way the link between bin Laden and Saddam was–we are making stretches to demonstrate interconnectedness of threats that aren’t related to justify a military action whose rightness is presupposed, not proven.

    And then we have the Islamo-Fascist Domino Theory of why we need to be in South Asia, which appears to assume that countries will fall without our interference, ignoring any evidence of our destabilizing presence. Pakistan seemed a whole lot more stable before we pushed the Taliban out of Afghanistan, but now we must stay there to keep them from falling because of an undernourished constitutional democracy. Craziness.

    The justifications here–it is “uncontroversial” that we must stop the AQ leadership, our national “interest” is a stable South Asia. What??? How is this passed off as critical thought? Coll glosses over any examination of the whys there, says it is, and uses garbage development speak to prove that we need South Asia modernized. This is not an unarguable answer. Latin America overcame political violence and instability? Try Colombia (civil war!!!), Mexico (drug war!!!), Peru, Bolivia, Venezuela, Honduras (there’s a freakin coup going on!!!), Nicaragua, and Guatemala for starters. Haitian economic integration? The creation of a sizable middle class? As far as anyone can tell, the political and economic transformation of Latin America is incomplete, its effects unclear, and, most importantly, done without an expensive foreign war.

  9. One may admire or one may despise the ethnocentric dynamism which created and sustained the British Empire, but to believe the ersatz “American Empire” possesses a ruling elite guided by “White Man’s Burden” ideology is plainb stupid. In fact, those few who possess vestiges of same are likely to be non-interventionist Buchananites.

  10. The assumption that democratic capitalism is the best path for development is arguably ethnocentric… it is OUR path, and those of the countries whose ethnicities and histories our founders drew from. We did not roll into Afghanistan and Iraq and say “hey, why don’t you build your own government.” We went there to create democracies. I am not sure that’s racist or ethnocentric, though the underlying assumption that these people can’t possibly know how to create a working government very well might be.

    As for an answer to FM’s question, my guess is that the conclusion, like every other justification for a war we aren’t doing well in, will be “we have to stay because it will be worse if we leave.” We double down on war, and increase the aid budget to brighten the halo.
    Fabius Maximus replies: That democratic capitalism is the best path for development is arguable wrong. As shown by the history of Japan, the “tigers” of southeast Asia, and China.

  11. Comment #8: In fact, those few who possess vestiges of same are likely to be non-interventionist Buchananites.

    Non-interventionists with the white mans burden ? – no wonder those Buchananites sound so conflicted.

    FM: “This seems to me an extraordinarily lightweight start to his series on the War.

    I suspect he feels with reality closing in on him from all sides that the justification needs to be very “nuanced”. His real problem is that he doesn’t seem to know a lot about the subject. As underscore33 pointed out there are lots of factual errors in the text. I started making a list but gave up.

  12. The “White Man’s Burden” is still with us for sure. The rhetoric of the foreign policy elites and their cheerleaders has been divorced of the explicit racism of the 19th century, but even in its colorblind form the basic premise is the same: that the “civilized” peoples have a moral duty to bring enlightenment to the “savages.” Thomas Barnett for example. If we (or more accurately, certain priviledged interests) happen to benefit in the process, and a lot of people with funny names happen to get vaporized, well who can blame us as our motivations were so noble . . . After all, we come in peace!

    “Personally, I think, uh … they don’t really want to be involved in this war. I mean … they sort of took away our freedom and gave it to the, to the gookers, you know. But they don’t want it. They’d rather be alive than free, I guess. Poor dumb bastards.”
    — EIGHTBALL in the movie Full Metal Jacket

  13. This is a variation of “They’re just like us.” Yeah, that’s the ticket, the Marshall Plan, worked in Germany see? It’ll work in Afghanistan, same way…that’s right, we’ll put those Afghan machinists and physicists back to work pronto. Can do, that’s what I say, good old can do American spirit. Except they’re actually, you know, living in the fourth century, an important detail.
    It does seem to militate in favor of either a big economic development effort, or double down on war though.

  14. Barnett pushes his own version of Trotskyism. Instead of an International Working Class, it’s an International Middle Class. Hard to put to find any such inferences in Kipling.

  15. Ken,

    There are differences between Kipling and Barnett, to be sure. I can’t find a single mention of the internet in Kipling’s poem, either. My point is that they share (along with Trotskyism and pre-modern Christianity) a fundamentally messianic vision of the world: “What we have is so good, that we’re going to give it to you whether you want it or not — in fact it’s so good that we have a moral obligation to force it on you, even at the cost of your life (which we feel really terrible about, but you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs, you know).”

    The ironic thing is that for a culture convinced of its superiority, we seem pretty damn miserable and unsatisfied . . . It’s OK, though, I’ll just pop over to Wal-Mart and pick up a giant tub of barbeque-flavored popcorn and see if there’s any new reality shows on the tube. That’ll fill the giant sucking spiritual black hole for a few more hours . . .

  16. “It really is remarkable that Americans appear to have decided to let 5 of their major cities (Baltimore, Cleveland, New Orleans, Detroit and St. Louis) rot and die and now an entire half of one of our biggest states, California, degenerate and collapse.”

    Hmmmmm. Innovative strategy. Hmmmm, i wonder. How much of Wall Street could be airlifted, and could we convince them to, naaaah, they’d NEVER fall for that one :P

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