Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

22 September 2009

Apocalypticism, or Dominoes Redux


[For a post on the timing of de-escalation, click here. For a response to David Brooks’ column of 9/25/09, click here.]

So far, the War in Vietnam is the longest in our history. Measured from the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution to the fall of Saigon, it lasted 10 years, eight months. In contrast, our previously longest war, our War of Independence, ran about seven years. Our two bloodiest wars—the Civil War and World War II—each lasted only about four.

The War in Vietnam was unique in another respect as well. It was the first war we fought on a false premise. We thought that if we failed to “hold the line” against Communism in Vietnam, all of Southeast Asia would fall like dominoes, with unpredictable and disastrous results.

We lost badly, but nothing of the kind happened. As far as the Vietnamese were concerned, the War in Vietnam was an anti-colonial war of national liberation, in which we took over the role of colonial master from the French. The Soviet Union and the “Red” Chinese played only minor roles, although both were happy to see their ideological “enemy” bleed in such a long and useless conflict.

Today, 34 years after the fall of Saigon, Vietnam is more a trading partner than an enemy. Like China, it is authoritarian but “Communist” in name only. It has enthusiastically entered the global capitalist trading system and become a host to innumerable multinational corporations. It eagerly receives American and other foreign tourists. It is rapidly becoming one of the Southeast Asian “tigers” whose hard work and sensible economic policies are raising standards of living and contributing to international trade.

So the premise of our fight in Vietnam proved completely false. There were no “dominoes.” Vietnam’s fight against the West was not part of the “global Communist conspiracy.” We were wrong, badly wrong, about the facts. You have only to watch the 1995 confession of error by the late, former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara—made a generation too late—to know how wrong we were.

At 6.5 years and counting, the War in Iraq is already longer than our two bloodiest wars and almost as long as our War of Independence. We fought it, too, on a false premise: that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. We invaded to avoid the disaster of a “mushroom cloud” over one of our cities, but Saddam had no weapons to produce one. He didn’t even have a program to develop nuclear weapons. Some of us also believed that Saddam had something to do with 9/11—a proposition now also completely discredited as false.

So we invaded Iraq on false premises and have stayed to build a new nation and a better Middle East. The success of that effort is still unclear, but our reason for going there initially was wrong, badly wrong.

Could be the same thing be happening in Afghanistan?

We began military operations there for two reasons. First, we wanted to capture or kill the perpetrators of 9/11. We’ve achieved partial success in that effort. With Pakistan’s help, we have the operational mastermind of 9/11 (Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) in custody.

We have failed to find bin Laden and Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s chief propagandist and nominal operational leader. But our effort to do so could proceed with drones, intelligence and covert operations, and in any event we believe they are hiding in Pakistan, not Afghanistan. Continuing that limited effort doesn’t require occupying all of Afghanistan, far less transforming it into a new kind of nation the like of which Afghanistan has never been.

What is supposed to justify those far more ambitious goals is another premise entirely. We believe that, if we left, Afghanistan would become a “failed state” and a “haven for terrorists,” and we would face the threat of something like 9/11 all over again, again and again, for the foreseeable future. In short, we think that if we leave and don’t finish the impossible job we have undertaken, the Apocalypse will come, just as we feared in Vietnam and Iraq.

So the most important factual question to ask ourselves today has nothing to do with the competence (or lack thereof) of the Karzai government. The question is very simple: if the Taliban won and regained control over Afghanistan again, would our feared Apocalypse follow? Is our apocalyptic vision for Afghanistan any different from our fear of dominoes falling in Southeast Asia or mushroom clouds arising from the hands of an embattled dictator in Iraq?

I don’t know the answer to those questions, but I do know two things. First, they are the questions that every intelligence agent, military officer, policy maker and reporter on the conflict should be trying to answer. If the answers to them are “no,” then our major reason for making war evaporates. The conflict in Afghanistan becomes a local or regional matter, like Vietnam’s quest for independence and unification, which is at best peripheral to our national interest (and incidentally far more central to Russia’s).

Second, there are hints that the answers to those crucial questions might indeed be negative. It was bin Laden, not Mullah Omar, who declared war on the United States and the West. It was bin Laden, not Mullah Omar, who had the crazed vision of jihad against all of the mightiest nations in human history, including the United States, Russia and (to a lesser extent) the EU and modern Asia. It was bin Laden, not Mullah Omar, who built the terrorist training camps, oversaw, financed and approved 9/11, and made Afghanistan (and now the Pakistani border areas) a haven for terrorists.

All Mullah Omar did was “harbor” bin Laden and his crew and give them refuge. Now both he and bin Laden are fugitives in the borderlands of northwest Pakistan.

Mullah Omar’s motives for “sticking with” bin Laden are at best unclear. When he was still talking to Western reporters, he cited Islamic hospitality—a real command of the Quran. Early in the game, bin Laden’s money was probably a factor, but whether any of it remains is unclear. Undoubtedly Omar had some affection and respect for the Saudi and other foreign volunteers whose money and clumsy military assistance had helped throw out Russian invaders a generation before.

But there is little evidence that Mullah Omar—let alone any leader of the myriad loosely affiliated tribal and local groups that call themselves the “Taliban”—supports the global jihad that bin Laden tried to start and claims to lead. More likely, if the Taliban won, they would simply consolidate control over their battered country and begin the hard job of rebuilding it after over three decades of unremitting war. While suspicious and fearful of the Taliban’s authoritarian rule, many Afghans seem to prefer its order and rude Islamic justice to the perpetual corruption and rule by AK-47 that they have endured for thirty years.

And as for a “failed state,” the Taliban may offer exactly the opposite. As we learned belatedly to our chagrin, Afghanistan has never been much of a state in modern terms. It is a loosely affiliated conglomeration of various tribes and ethnic groups (some with warlords), living (until the seventies) in a state of relatively peaceful but often corrupt coexistence. The only force that seems to have united this “nation” during the past thirty years is the Taliban. Maybe their odd brand of authoritarian Islamic rule, which seems to vary in strictness from place to place with local culture, is just what Afghanistan needs to take its next baby steps toward something resembling a modern nation. The Taliban certainly offer a type of civic discipline that is rare in recent Afghan history.

Are these conclusions certain? Of course not. But they appear to be at least as likely as the apocalyptic notion that a nationalist religious movement born of dual invasions and long suffering would, after achieving victory, fail to savor the moment and rebuild the homeland but instead would embark upon a Quixotic, perpetual global jihad at the behest of a wild-eyed dreamer, sometime helper, sometime guest, and sometime pest.

If these suspicions are accurate, then continuing the War in Afghanistan in its present form would make us three for three. We would have fought our three longest recent wars (Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan) on false premises. We would have wasted our young people’s lives and treasure chasing apocalyptic visions that only we can see.

The classic definition of “paranoia” includes two elements: (1) delusions of persecution and (2) delusions of grandeur. We certainly have had visions of persecution: dominoes falling, mushroom clouds blooming, and a perpetual terrorist movement bent on making something like 9/11 a regular event. We had over half a million troops in both Vietnam and Gulf I, but we had less than a third that number in Iraq, and we have about an eighth that number in Afghanistan. Apparently we are beginning to believe our own myths of grandeur: that our forces have the strength of ten because their hearts are pure.

We’ve accused the Russians of paranoia because they feared our proposed Maginot Line for missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic. But maybe we need to look in the mirror and examine our own paranoid visions. Already they have produced our most abject loss in war (Vietnam) and a long conflict in Iraq that has drained our morals, spirit and finances. Maybe they are wrong again.

Timing is Everything

The posts above and below (and a separate, longer essay incorporating the Powell Doctrine) argue that escalation in Afghanistan is not the best strategy—at least not if we hope to turn our military attention elsewhere within the next decade. Iran and North Korea pose even greater short- and medium-term threats than a Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, and we don’t know where besides Afghanistan international terrorism will rear its ugly head. Therefore we should remain nimble, keeping at least part of our small but superbly trained and led military forces available for contingencies. We shouldn’t double down willy nilly in Afghanistan when doing so would leave us precious little military slack.

The logic above and below falls on the side of an anti-terrorism, anti-Al Qaeda strategy and against an anti-Taliban strategy. Defeating the Taliban decisively would require decades of nation building halfway around the world, i.e., a long-term commitment of people and resources that our people are unlikely ever to support.

But that’s all a matter of substance. Timing is another matter entirely. For three reasons, de-escalating now would be unwise, and the President (who is never unwise) is unlikely to do so.

The first is political. Now that General McChrystal has made his request for more troops, with the full support of General Petraeus and the Pentagon, denying that request would be political suicide for the President and the Democratic Party. Republicans would demagogue the denial into a picture of weakness and indecisivness, which would add to the unease that many independents feel about the President’s vital but expensive domestic initiatives. Democrats would lose badly in the 2010 congressional elections—now just over a year away—and the chance of making any lasting change in our country’s direction would evaporate.

Rory Stewart, one of the few on-the-ground experts on Afghanistan who is neither a soldier nor a politician now (although he once was a British soldier), appeared on Bill Moyers’ Journal last night and aired this view. He believes the President has boxed himself in by allowing the McChrystal report to issue so publicly, and I agree.

But domestic politics is not the only reason why de-escalating now would be unwise. There is also international politics. Our President is a uniquely thoughtful, cerebral, and intelligent leader, of the kind that right wingnuts used to deride as an “egghead.” His speech in the United Nations sketched a new world that every person of good will desires, but there was little toughness in it. Many at home and abroad wrongly took his recent decision to postpone the Central European Maginot Line for missiles (and build a far better system closer to Iran) as a concession to the Russians and therefore a sign of weakness.

As a result, many leaders abroad are now making the same mistake about our President that we at home did before the 2008 elections. They think our President—and therefore we—are weak.

False perceptions of weakness can tempt risk-takers and even start wars. So the President had best dispel them as soon as possible. Doing so requires escalating, not de-escalating, in Afghanistan, at least for the moment.

That final reason why proper timing forbids de-escalating now relates to alternative strategies. My separate essay on Afghanistan suggests that negotiating with the Taliban and bringing in the neighbors are the two most promising long-term strategies. But deal making, whether with the Taliban or with neighbors, requires a position of strength. We will have no leverage with the Taliban or Afghanistan’s neighbors (including Iran!) if they all think we are already on our way out.

All these points caution against refusing McChrystal’s request for more troops now. Unfortunately, granting that request won’t magically generate trained troops. It takes six months to train a soldier and three to train a marine for the unique Afghanistan mission. So the bulk of the troops won’t arrive on site until next summer, and by then the 2010 election campaign will be in full swing. Therefore no change in strategy is realistic until late next year.

If you think that basing military strategy on politics is regrettable, think again. As Von Clausewitz said, war is politics by other means. From the President and his economic team, through SecDef Gates, down to our brilliant four stars (Petraeus and McChrystal), we have the deepest and most competent executive team—by far—that I have ever seen in my lifetime, and I’m 64. There’s not a one of them whom I would replace. We don’t want to let demagogues at home or abroad, or our foreign enemies and detractors, underestimate them or make their job harder.

Nor do we want to deny our military brass the time needed to think through the new anti-terrorism strategy and develop an effective transition plan. For several years, they have been developing and implementing an anti-insurgency strategy in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Our military leaders are indeed the best and the brightest, but they need time to switch gears. Not only do they have to re-orient their mindset to a new mission. They also have to prepare detailed tactics to get from here to there, and to exploit as much as they can of the old strategy in implementing the new. That includes deceiving the enemy about what our strategy really is.

So don’t expect a drawdown of troops before the 2010 elections. And don’t ever expect a public announcement of a change in strategy until well after the fact.

As Ted Salinger reported, President Kennedy planned to de-escalate our disastrous involvement in Vietnam, but only after the 1964 presidential elections. Kennedy never lived to see those elections, and the escalation that followed is history. But even Jack Kennedy, perhaps the most open and transparent president of the Cold War, knew that there are some things you don’t blurt out in public.

Just as in poker, feinting and bluffing can be crucial in war and diplomacy. We the people can’t deny our Commander in Chief or our superb military those ploys. So we on the left will just have to suck it up and trust our President and his superb team to do what works best and to change strategy for the better only at the right time, and in secret. If the delay gives our military folk extra time to work even greater miracles than they did in Iraq, so much the better.

Response to David Brooks’ column of 9/25/09:


Today David Brooks of the New York Times wrote an impassioned plea for support of General McChrystal’s proposed “surge” in Afghanistan. It deserves a response.

As usual, Brooks writes well and makes some powerful arguments. He adopts General Petraeus’ and General McChrystal’s views that drones and fortified bases won’t suppress an insurgency. I agree with him there. I also agree that civilians like myself (and Brooks) should never argue too confidently with competent generals, let alone brilliant ones like Petraeus and McChrystal, who extracted some hard lessons from Vietnam and used them to turn around our debacle in Iraq.

But no one is contesting the valor and competence of our military, far less its superb present leaders, whose growth under fire and success under near-impossible conditions in Iraq have been dazzlingly impressive. What we’re contesting is whether giving these precious national resources another mission impossible—and so soon—is as essential to our way of life as neoconservatives claim.

Unfortunately, the rest of Brooks’ argument has gaping holes in logic that badly need filling. The worst is treating the Taliban and Al Qaeda as the same.

Brooks never comes out and says so. But his conclusion rests on this equivalence, and he makes the point implicitly.

He begins his argument with a proposition made famous by Dubya. We are, he says, “involved in a long, complex conflict against Islamic extremism.” He then proceeds to characterize “a Taliban reconquest” of Afghanistan as “a moral atrocity from which American self-respect would not soon recover.” The implication is that the Taliban and Al Qaeda are both movements of Islamic extremists and therefore the same.

That’s a complete non-sequitur, a grevious error in logic. It’s also the very type of error that led us to disaster in Vietnam. There we assumed that the Vietnam’s Communists were one with Russia’s and China’s—an error that the war’s chief architect, the late Robert S. McNamara later acknowledged was false. That error led us to the now-rejected “domino theory” and thence to our longest and (so far) unambiguously losing war.

No one in the West (except perhaps our own intelligence, which isn’t telling) knows for sure what the Taliban’s goals are. We stopped talking to them after they refused to hand over Al Qaeda in late 2001 and we started fighting and bombing them in consequence.

But we have a lot of circumstantial evidence to distinguish the two. The Taliban are Pashtun Afghanis and Pakistanis. Al Qaeda’s members are largely Saudi, with a few Yemenis and other Middle Easterners thrown in. As a movement, Al Qaeda grew out of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, a reaction to oppression of radical Muslims in Egypt. Osama bin Laden internationalized that movement when he broke with his family and kingdom in Saudi Arabia and later (more decisively) when he issued his so-called “fatwa,” declaring jihad against the U.S. and the Western World.

In contrast, the Taliban from the beginning were a nationalist Afghan-Pashtun movement. That movement grew out of the war with Russian invaders and the decades of civil war, warlord rule, and rampant corruption that followed. The Taliban’s goal was not to conquer the world and install a new global Islamic Caliphate, but to unify and organize their Pashtun homeland under a regime of Islamic justice. Until we attacked them, bought off and supplied their non-Pashtun enemies in 2002, they had been relatively successful in achieving that goal. No one in the U.S. had thought to classify them as an enemy, let alone a “moral atrocity,” until after 9/11. Even then, their sole crime against us was harboring an enemy.

Logic suggests that nothing much would change about Al Qaeda’s position if the Taliban “reconquered” Afghanistan. Al Qaeda, we believe, is now holed up somewhere in northwestern Pakistan, where it has relatively free reign. Maybe it would move back into Afghanistan, where it might operate still more freely.

While it moved, Al Qaeda would be vulnerable to detection, betrayal and attack. But in any event the Taliban would be unlikely to give it completely free reign for three reasons. First, the Taliban would have spent the better part of two decades enduring unspeakable privation and suffering to gain control of their homeland. They would not likely be eager to turn that control over to a bunch of Saudis, Yemenis and other refugees from the Gulf states who don’t even speak the same language. That outcome would defy both logic and human nature.

Second, as a rival power promoting global terrorism, Al Qaeda would be a constant source of instability in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. It would inevitably clash with the Taliban, who look to strict Islam not as a source of perpetual conflict, but as a basis for stability, rude justice and continuity. In any such conflict, the Taliban would almost certainly win (just as Sunni Muslims did in Iraq) because they are more numerous, better fighters, and operating in their own homeland with popular support.

Finally, the Taliban would eventually come into conflict with Al Qaeda because their goal of Afghan reconstruction is incompatible with global jihad. Global jihad means perpetual war, but there is every expectation that the Taliban, on “re-conquering” Afghanistan, would put down their weapons after thirty years of war and turn their organizational talents to rebuilding their homeland.

I hasten to add that these conclusions are educated guesswork. But so is Brooks’ implicit conclusion to the contrary—that Al Qaeda would thrive and multiply under Taliban rule, far more than in Pakistan. All he offers us to prove that conclusion is the observation that both groups are Islamic extremists. That’s pretty thin evidence.

Even if Brooks implicit assumption is right—that Al Qaeda would thrive in a Taliban-governed Afghanistan—building a new nation is not our only alternative. There are still other options for fighting Al Qaeda. There are covert operations, such as the Navy Seals’ recently successful lightning strike in Somalia. There is containment, using intelligence, electronic surveillance (including satellites and drones) and border enforcement. And there is deterrence, using our air force, missiles and (if necessary) nuclear capability.

Brooks’ final attempt to push our emotional buttons brings in Pakistan. He fears that a Pashtun-Taliban takeover of Afgahnistan might spread into Pakistan and eventually gain control over Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. But a glance at the region’s ethnic map all but dispels those fears. Pashtuns already are the dominant ethnic group in Afghanistan, and they already cross the border into Pakistan. That’s why Al Qaeda, with the Taliban’s approval or acquiescence, was able to gain sanctuary in Pakistan. But the majority Punjabis vastly dominate the Pashtun, both in territory and population, and they control Pakistan’s highly organized military and intelligence services. The fear of a Pashtun conquest of the Punjabis, who built and control the nuclear weapons, is vastly overblown, especially so soon after Pakistan’s massive invasion of the Swat Valley seems to have cleared it of Taliban. The Pashtun in Pakistan are no match for the ruling Punjabis and never will be.

Throughout the four decades of the Cold War, we had little doubt about the Soviets’ intentions. They repeatedly advertised their desire for global Communist domination. General Secretary Khrushchev himself said, “We will bury you!” Yet because we feared nuclear annihilation, we held back from apocalyptic conflict, and eventually the fire of global Communism burned itself out. Deterrence and containment, without direct conflict, brought about the most dramatic and most peaceful “regime change” in human history.

There is no reason to suspect that Islamic extremism won’t suffer a similar fate if met with the same quiet determination. And, in the absence of any similar statements by the Taliban, there is no reason to believe they share Al Qaeda’s megalomanic dreams of global domination. Not every regime in the world is Hitler’s Nazi Germany redux, even if it’s our enemy now.

It is possible, although unlikely, that the Taliban share Al Qaeda’s every goal and are just keeping silent. But there is no evidence to that effect.

All we have is illogical fears of commentators like Brooks. How can we credit those fears after what happened in Vietnam and Iraq? Should we send another twenty thousand of our finest into the Afghan meat grinder—with a few hundred billion more dollars that we need for our own reconstruction—without such evidence? I think not.

Our excellent generals have given us a plan to win, and their extraordinary record in Iraq bids us credit their plan. But the generals did not even address the question why we should double down.

Until we have solid evidence that failing to do so will risk the sort of catastrophe about which Brooks and others speculate, there will be no popular consensus for escalating this war. We need to answer first questions first, not with fear and speculation, but with facts and evidence. Already fear and speculation have gotten us into two more wars than we need have fought, one of which was our first loss ever.

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