Point Austin: Twilight of the Empire
Waist-deep in the big desert, the orders arrive to march on
That's not to say the latest LBJ-like escalation is a good idea. Even the generals admit that scarcely 100 al Qaeda fighters remain in Afghanistan – we need 100,000 to capture or kill 100? Not even the Persians were so foolish at Thermopylae. On those numbers alone, we should declare victory and begin an orderly withdrawal – even the ragtag Afghan army is fully sufficient, and sufficiently motivated, to rid the country of a handful of foreign thugs. Instead, we are now told that we must dislodge, if not eliminate, "the Taliban" (a mysterious appellation that means quite different things according to who's talking) – when every single day that the U.S. remains as an occupying army, we enlarge the ranks of the Taliban.
Obama's 2010 "surge" will bring the total to roughly 100,000 U.S. troops, or about the same as the very slowly "drawing-down" number in Iraq – with the now-explicit deadline of July 2011 for a similar withdrawal from Afghanistan. We'll see. It's not quite the 40,000 that Gen. Stanley McChrystal publicly (and dishonorably) demanded, but the bitter truth is that's about all Obama can currently deliver from actually available forces. The imperial well is frankly running dry.
By official military estimates, it would take at least 200,000 troops to maintain an effective counterinsurgency. Many of these soldiers will be redeploying for the second or third or fourth time – is there any reason to believe that the already extraordinary strains on these young people and their families will lessen in the coming years? In the absence of a real jobs program – that would just cost too much, is the utterly hypocritical refrain, while we prepare to waste another $30 billion on conquest – is this all they can muster instead?
Obama struck all the careful notes about limited goals and Afghan responsibility, and a reassurance that after eight years of an increasingly unpopular war, it should only be two or three more, and that there is in fact light at the end of the tunnel, etc. Salon's Glenn Greenwald had a useful column Tuesday showing how closely the Obama explanations of the "new" strategy echo the Bush explanations of the "old" strategy. He might as easily have cited Lord Auckland in 1838, declaring that the British were arriving to defend the Afghans against "foreign occupation and factious opposition." That worked out really well.
On the floor of the House Wednesday, Austin Congressman Lloyd Doggett put the likely situation succinctly: "2011 will not mark the end of the war, just the beginning of the next installment request for what is already a deteriorating eight-year war, whose elusive end is always just over the horizon."
Down These Mean Streets
Although a source is hard to come by, the story goes that Mohandas Gandhi was once asked by a reporter, "What do you think of Western civilization?" and the sage coyly replied, "I think it would be a very good idea." In fact the question gives the game away – who are we to ask such things of those for whom our "civilization" has historically meant, first and foremost, war, devastation, occupation, subjugation?
Apocryphal or not, it's a helpful text in contemplating our latest contribution to Eastern civilization – yet another expansion of the wars in the Middle East and South Asia, yet more death and devastation for U.S. soldiers, and much more suffering of Afghan men, women, and children, in our names. In the wake of Obama's speech, there will undoubtedly be a temporary spike in his approval ratings, with reflexive hawks in both parties welcoming his decision as "difficult but necessary" and applauding the manliness of facing our responsibilities head on. Speaking only politically, Obama undoubtedly believed he had no choice – even to withdraw, he would first have to escalate – and it's unlikely that there is sufficient congressional opposition to create a serious roadblock.
Eventually, the Afghans will receive the latest U.S. message more directly, at gunpoint – how do you think those Afghan poll numbers would look?
There are all sorts of ancillary theories about why we are in Afghanistan – squelching "terrorism," contemplating future gas pipelines, staving off disaster in Pakistan, suppressing the opium trade, clumsily spreading pseudo-democracy – and each has some small merit. But all together they do not explain why the U.S. is in fact pursuing an irrational, counterproductive, exhausting, and self-destructive policy that bankrupts the homeland while not beginning to accomplish its explicit purposes.
More simply, the U.S. behaves in this way internationally because we have a virtual monopoly on military force, spending more on our specialty than the rest of the world combined. When confronting foreign difficulties, it has become almost the only thing we know how to do, well or badly. As the old saw goes, when your only tool is a hammer, every problem seems to demand plenty of nails. More distressingly, once proud of our civilian political traditions, over the past century we have steadily constructed a national culture (and corporate economy) that increasingly honors, promotes, and openly thrives on militarism and aggression and reflexively disdains and excoriates compromise and international collaboration.
In sum, we are making more war on Afghanistan because we have been making war on Afghanistan, and therefore it is necessary to keep making war on Afghanistan. The treadmill continues to move relentlessly, and no national politician dares step off – indeed cannot even conceive of such a course – because we no longer know how to live in the world in peace. Once that has happened, the tactical military decisions along the way no longer seem to make much difference.