Yesterday's announcement of new steps in Afghanistan makes clear that President Obama is not going to make a sudden break with the recent past in foreign policy, as his Vice President apparently wanted him to do. The titans of the older Democratic establishment to whom he has given the key roles--Hillary Clinton and Richard Holbrooke--have evidently taken on many of the goals of the Bush Administration as their own--although the President defined his objectives quite carefully and left himself plenty of room to re-evaluate. From my perspective, being very familiar with the rhetoric that has flown between the civilian and military branches of government for the last few years, we seem to have made a bureaucratic compromise that reflects long-standing Pentagon concerns, but which does not, alas, address some of the most fundamental contradictions in our policy, especially with regard to Pakistan.
What the United States did in response to 9/11 in Afghanistan was essentially a revival of 19th-century imperialism. The western powers in the second half of the 19th century rarely extended their influence in Africa, Asia and Latin America out of greed or rapacity. As several scholars showed during the 1970s, what happened more frequently was that initial contacts--usually economic ones--between the western powers and third world nations broke down existing structures in those nations, leaving a vacuum which some western power rushed in to fill. Often the initial contacts involved loans which the recipients could not pay--the dynamic that led the British and French into Egypt in 1882, beginning 70 years of British occupation. Sometimes, as in China in 1900, law and order broke down and threatened westerners' lives and property. The response generally involved the military occupation of the capital city, deals with local elites, the recruitment of native troops to keep order, and sometimes attempts to replicate at least some western legal or governmental institutions. In some places--India for instance--the imperialist legacy has been quite extraordinary. In others it is barely visible.
During the second half of the twentieth century contacts between the western powers, Israel, and the Arab world created some violently anti-western opposition movements. In the 1990s one of the those movements, Al Queda, found a home in Afghanistan, then ruled by the Taliban. After 9/11 the United States government immediately decided that their safe haven had to be eliminated. It also decided not to pursue the option of taking advantage of an existing conflict between the Taliban and Al Queda to do so in cooperation with Afghanistan's rulers, and overthrew the Taliban as well. These were the days of "transformation" under Donald Rumsfeld, and although a Marine major I had in class at that time estimated that we would need at least two divisions to subdue Afghanistan, the United States instead went in with minimal forces and turned immediately to Iraq. For several years the operation appeared to be a spectacular success. Then, things began to go badly.
Two major problems have plagued our effort. First of all, Afghanistan is a very tribal, traditional society with no tradition of strong central authority. It has a very large area and a population of 32 million--considerably larger, and far more dispersed, than Iraq. Poppies are the main cash crop. American aid, as in South Vietnam, Iraq, and numerous other client states, has fueled a very corrupt culture. We have been trying to train a large army and police force (and this remains a centerpiece of President Obama's plan), but we really don't know if the requisite cultural values to support such institutions exist. Meanwhile, Afghanistan needs all kinds of economic and social help, as well.
The bureaucratic battle that is reflected in the new policies has evolved more or less as follows. Beginning in 2001, the US military, which had been extremely cautious about nation-building involvements for 30 years, embraced its new Middle Eastern missions with gusto. It has deployed old and new forms of firepower in Afghanistan and Iraq, including pilotless drones, and it has killed a lot of people, which, as David Brooks noted in his column yesterday is still what the militar does best. But that recipe has not solved the problems of those two countries, and the Pentagon has been claiming loudly to anyone who would listen that the rest of the federal government--"the interagency," as it is now known--has to do the things that the military cannot. Those things include the enormous task of turning traditional societies into relatively modern states--a task for which no consistently successful recipe has ever been discovered, especially during a war. The Pentagon's view, ably represented by Secretary Gates, is reflected in the new plan, which calls for unspecified civilians to take over a great many critical tasks in Afghanistan. As Fred Kaplan of Slate noted this morning, it is not yet clear exactly where those civilians are going to come from--or who is going to protect them against insurgents.
Yet another aspect of the Pentagon's military mission--the training of Afghan security forces--is also being drastically expanded. I have very mixed feelings about this for several reasons. First of all, the United States is apparently committing itself to paying for these forces over the long haul, which cannot, in my opinion, be good for any of the parties involved. Secondly, as I have been told my extremely capable military personnel, the training of foreign forces is not a mission in which the average American soldier of today can be expected to excel. It is not what most soldiers signed up to do, or what they have shown aptitude for. The pitfalls of the mission are visible in a youtube clip that recently came to my attention, which can be found here. The American senior enlisted man berating these Iraqi troops (probably at least a couple of years ago) is neither typical nor unique. He is responding to a very stressful situation without thinking very clearly about how things look from the standpoint of his Iraqi trainees--that they did not ask him to come to Iraq and tell them how to behave. I found this clip rather eerie because 38 years ago, when I was in the US Army myself, I heard quite a few soldiers talk about South Vietnamese troops in ver similar terms. (It also occurs to me, thinking about a recent column that Bob Herbert wrote about sexual assaults in the military, than an institution in which troops feel free to use "woman" as a terrible insult is bound to have problems along those lines.)
Even more serious, however, is the question of Pakistan. The Obama plan apparently counts on securing more effective Pakistani cooperation against Al-Queda and the Taliban across the border, and even on changing the focus of the Pakistani military from possible war with India to combating Islamic fundamentalism. Yet a recent New York Times story made crystal clear what I have been hearing from experts on the region for years: that major elements of the Pakistani government want the Taliban back in power in Pakistan. For a variety of reasons, the U.S. and Pakistani governments have been maintaining their "alliance" even though with respect to Pakistan they actually lack the foundation of any alliance: a common objective. Very likely we are reacting to the increasing Taliban threat within Pakistan itself differently as well. While Washington thinks it should turn Islamabad into a more enthusiastic ally, many Pakistanis probably feel that these problems wouldn't be happening if the Taliban were back in Afghanistan where they belong. Has Richard Holbrooke, who has never lacked self-confidence, apparently persuaded himself that he can get the Pakistanis to reverse their policy?
I am, as many of my readers must know by now, a dedicated anti-imperialist. I do not think that attempts by stronger powers to transform weaker ones (particularly of different cultures) have good results in the vast majority of cases, and I also do not think that the whole enterprise can be reconciled with the essential principles, as I understand them, of the United States. The latter is simply my personal belief; the former will be tested once again by the facts on the ground. Let me repeat that the President's statement gave himself plenty of room to re-evaluate how things are going in another year. I hope that he does so on the basis of the best information available.