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!

Excerpt #1

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.

Excerpt #2

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.

Excerpt #3

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.

Excerpt #4

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

  1. Thoughts on fixing America’s national security apparatus, 11 August 2008
  2. These days all US Presidents are War Presidents (part 3), 23 November 2008
  3. Obama’s cabinet are the best and brightest (here we go, again), 20 February 2009
  4. 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:

  1. Our futures seen in snippets of the past, 16 June 2008
  2. President Grant warns us about the dangers of national hubris, 7 July 2008
  3. de Tocqueville warns us not to become weak and servile, 21 July 2008
  4. Let’s look at America in the mirror, the first step to reform, 14 August 2008
  5. Can Americans pull together? If not, why not?, 29 August 2008
  6. A wonderful and important speech about liberty, 23 July 2009
  7. A warning from Alexis De Tocqueville about our military, 7 August 2009
  8. Another note from our past, helping us see our future, 16 September 2009

9 thoughts on “Seeing today through the eyes of a future historian”

  1. You have a DX? Nice. Bet you can’t get 1984 though.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Amazon had a problem with one version of 1984. There are several others available on the Kindle.

  2. It’s shocking to realise that the only lesson learnt from Vietnam is that the population won’t support a draft. The government has learnt how to continue a war, but not how to successfully win one.
    Fabius Maximus replies: We have the manpower to field a large army. But the cost! It’s astonishing at the cost of operating even a relatively small American army, one to small to occupy even moderate-sized third world nations.

  3. Most of the partisan sniping at Obama over his lack of business experience rings hollow, but one object lesson every business manager learns eventually is the illusion of control you describe. Maybe if he was a surfer instead of a BB player it would have helped. Not the kind of lesson you want to learn waging a war. Nice creative writing motif.

  4. Not a snowballs chance in hell of getting a Kindle in the UK sadly…however there was a very good print copy of a book dealing with the Vietnam war from the political and militray perspective called “Masters of War” By Robert Buzcanco. Although written in the early 90s it does show how few lessons have been learned.

    Not sure if it’s available on Kindle…you may have to read it the old fashioned way

  5. Comment #4: “Although written in the early 90s it does show how few lessons have been learned

    “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”
    — Upton Sinclair, from I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked (1935)

    Fabius Maximus replies: What a great quote! This also might explain why the literature about counter-insurgency ignores one of the major factors: the far greater rate of success by local forces compared to foreign armies. Since Korea our military has fought foreign insurgencies — and looking forward they see this as the major source of work. Seeing that they cannot do it well due to deep structural reasons would be bad for both morale and one’s career.

  6. Following on atheist’s “great quote”, who in government, or in a position to influence government, is free of this career-based inability to think? I once thought that the financial interests who backed Bush I — the old East Coast establishment — would eventually be horrified with the results of the Iraq invasion and put an end to it. But they didn’t. Evidently at the very top, in the broadest reaches of the establishment, ongoing war is considered a reasonable, or at least unavoidable, national policy.

    Their logic might be simply this: America needs to maintain its global dominance, by some means or other, so that American companies can go on making profits. It doesn’t matter whether we’re winning wars as much as we’re showing that we’re willing to go on fighting them, or rather, destroying anyone who opposes us.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I disagree. Think of almost every other aspect of national policy. Social welfare systems. Social retirement systems. Regulatory machinery. Enviromental regulation. All have these have intense debate among participants having a wide range of views. Debate among defense professionals is, by comparison, about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. They seldom acknowledge (except to dismiss), let alone engage, the broader issues debated.

    Bernard Finel sees the result, the “The Decline of the Defense Intellectual Base” (posted at his blog, 22 September 2009) — but not the cause. Perhaps because he is inside the apparatus, and hence lacks the perspective to see how it works.

  7. Afghanistan is the show, the stuff we all can see. It’s a drama put on for our benefit.

    The real war, is in the countries surrounding Afghanistan. That’s where the action is. We need the troops in Afghanistan, strictly for focus and distraction, while we work in the background in other ways. This is totally Vietnam II.

  8. Update — more analogies to the past

    U.S.: Fears of Blame for Defeat Shadow Afghan War Meetings“, Analysis by Gareth Porter, Inter-Press Service, 28 September 2009:

    In a remarkable parallel with a similar turning point in the Vietnam War 44 years ago, President Barack Obama will preside over a series of meetings in the coming weeks that will determine whether the United States will proceed with an escalation of the Afghanistan War or adjust the strategy to reduce the U.S. military commitment there. The meetings will take place in the context of a request from Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, for 40,000 additional troops, which reached Washington over the weekend. That would bring the total U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan to 108,000 – nearly a 60-percent increase.

    Obama has hinted at serious doubts about being drawn more deeply into the war in Afghanistan, and administration officials have signaled that a key issue is whether the proposed counterinsurgency war could be won.

    A plan backed by Vice President Joe Biden to scale back U.S. forces in Afghanistan and to focus more narrowly on al Qaeda was one of the options discussed at a Sep. 13 meeting of top administration officials, according to a report in The Age (Melbourne) Friday. That plan would reportedly depend on U.S. Special Forces to track down al Qaeda and ratchet down the counterinsurgency war.

    But the decisions that emerge from the coming meetings are more likely to be shaped primarily by the concerns of the military and of the White House about being blamed for a defeat in Afghanistan that now seems far more likely than it did just six months ago.

    In that regard, the approaching White House meetings recall similar consultations in June 1965, when President Lyndon B. Johnson and his civilian advisers responded to a request from Gen. William Westmoreland and the Joint Chiefs of Staff for a major troop increase in South Vietnam by discussing ways to limit the U.S. military commitment in South Vietnam.

    President Johnson, Secretary of Defence Robert S. McNamara and National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy were all doubtful that the war could be won even with a much larger troop commitment.

    Johnson, like Obama today, also had an alternative to further escalation of the war – a proposal for a negotiated settlement from Undersecretary of State George Ball, which was strongly opposed by others in Johnson’s national security team, including McNamara.

    But a few weeks later, Johnson went along with an open-ended troop commitment in Vietnam because he was unwilling to face the likelihood of charges by the military that he was responsible for the loss of South Vietnam.

  9. Kent State, round two? “US Braced for Surge of Protest Over War in Afghanistan“, The Observer, 27 September 2009:

    “The conflict in Afghanistan used to be called the ‘forgotten war’. But with the number of soldiers dying there outstripping casualties in Iraq, support – for the fighting and for President Obama – is melting away. A broad coalition of anti-war groups is also already co-ordinating protests and demonstrations for the coming weeks, hoping to emulate the successes of the Vietnam protests…”

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