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Friday, December 02, 2011

Ten years after

Today a colleague of mine asked me whether we really can put Afghanistan in historical perspective yet. We have, he said, a new story on Iraq--it was a mistake to go in, we botched it up initially, but starting in 2007 we managed to make it work fairly well and now we're leaving--but Afghanistan is more confusing. What did I think? It set me thinking.

The Bush Administration--as I think I pointed out in my very first post here in the fall of 2004--was never very interested in Afghanistan itself. Instead, it created the Bush dcotrine--that the Taliban, which had sheltered Al Queda, had to be brought down as well as Al Queda itself--to introduce a whole new foreign policy that would lead to the invasion and conquest of both Iraq and Iran, as well. Donald Rumsfeld also saw Afghanistan, which had no modern military forces, as a laboratory for new, capital-intensive forms of warfare. Within months, the Taliban had been swept away--but the Administration had bigger things on its mind. General Franks was already ordered to plan Iraq while the first Afghan war was in progress. And I am increasingly convinced that the Bush Administration hardly cared about Al Queda, except as an excuse, at all. They could not find and kill Osama Bin Laden in seven and a half years, while Barack Obama took only two and a half. As I understand it, Bin Laden had been in his last home for roughly the last half of the Bush Administration. I am not sure that I will live to read the full story of how we located him--it may take 30 years or more to come out.

The initial invasion of Afghanistan nonetheless drove the Taliban out, and by 2005 or so level-headed American observers, including one who used to share my office, were convinced that it was gone for good. But it was reconstituting itself in Pakistan. Barack Obama entered office while the situation was deteriorating, and he had already argued that we had neglected Afghanistan in favor of Iraq. So protecting the Karzai regime from the Taliban became his goal as well. We have cleared some key areas of Taliban for the moment--just as we cleared some areas of South Vietnam of Viet Cong in 1969-71--but whether the Afghans can build a lasting foundation there remains to be seen.

The Bush Administration was, in one sense, right: Afghanistan is a remote, poor country with almost no geopolitical significance. Perhaps after Bin Laden escaped we needed some bases there to find and kill him, but the Taliban has never had broader political ambitions. The real question at stake was the political future of the Muslim world. The Bush Administration was determined, first, to show that in the post cold war world there was no room for well-armed, medium size states that had shown a willingness to act against American interests by force. They eliminated Ba'athist Iraq but could never move on to Iran. Secondly, at least some of them, including Bush himself, thought they could start the Arab world down the path to democracy. That, now, has happened too--but with results very different from what Bush had in mind.

The Egyptian elections gave two Islamist parties, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists, well over half the votes. Something similar has happened in Tunisia. The Egyptian brotherhood has announced that it opposes, for now at least, a coalition with the Salafists. But the significance of these developments remains enormous. A clash of civilizations looms on the horizon, because the momentum of western civilization has been halted, and then reversed, in the last half century. One hundred years ago there seemed to be no alternative to copying the west, even in the Muslim world. Even the alternatives to liberal democracy such as Communism and Fascism were clearly offshoots of the western rationalist tradition. Now all that is changed, changed utterly. Turkey, the big outpost of westernization in the region, has become much more religious and its long-time alliance with Israel is in tatters. The Egyptian colonels' regime that ruled for about 55 years is giving way to Muslim democracy. Hezbollah has become enormously influential in Lebanon and Hamas is probably the true representative of the Palestinians. But we should not be surprised. Western civilization has been under attack from the left and the right here in the United States. And Israel, founded as a socialist democracy, is tending more towards theocracy every year. A clash of civilizations looms because the hegemony of western civilization is now a thing of the past.

Israel was created by secularists in the wake of the Second World War, when no one imagined what a role religion would play in the lives of those not yet born. It dreamed, apparently, of a relatively secular Middle East in which it could co-exist with its neighbors. The peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan and the negotiations with the Palestinians in the 1990s seemed to offer hope that this was possible--but it looks much less likely now. As the New York Times courageously reported last weekend, the settler movement now has a new goal: the ethnic cleansing of Arab neighborhoods within Israel. If Egypt and even Turkey become avowed enemies again Israel will face very serious threats--and there is also the question of the Iranian nuclear program. As an American, I am concerned that renewed conflict could draw the US into a major regional war. In my opinion, it should not.

I think that in another 50 years Afghanistan will be something of a footnote to history, rather like the anarchist movements of the first half of the twentieth century, which faded into insignificance after the advent of Communism. The 21st century equivalent of the Communist challenge will be the advent of new Islamist regimes. It may be much less serious, it may require a completely different kind of response--but it is real. The events of 1979-81--the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, the Iranian revolution, and the assassination of Anwar Sadat--pointed in the direction things were going. They have a long way to go yet.


Anonymous said...

Is pure rationalism good for us though? It suggests linear progress in human affairs separate from nature.

I mean, we need to recognize cyclical facts about ourselves as animals with souls, so to speak, in conneciton with all earth systems.

Religion takes that somewhat into account with a sort of superstitious feeling that we better watch out as maybe some "unknown unknowns"(Rumsfeld) are looming out there to hit us over the head with God's wrath for our arrogating power we actually do not possess, at least for the short term.

The short term being sort of the time since we discovered "science" and lost our shyness towards nature, observing it instead of participating it.

This had a lot to do with the magic of free energy, i.e. stored super energy from the precambrian, or whenever, not based on annual solar net energy, like from trees and crops. We used to be superstitious because such a reliable excess did not exists. God's wrath was simply weather and climate variability causing zero population growth if not total starvation at times.

I prefer sort of putting our cyclical view of history into balance with religions like Buddhism or shamanism. See Rome or US, British, etc. empires as quick resource drawdowns of some arrogant tribal lords. Scientists and social theorists of the enlightenment as their handlangers justifying the drawdown in terms of "human rights" as opposed to a broader view of the natural order of things in nature where humans have been here 1% the time of, say, spiders and will be long gone when spiders are still spinning their webs.

It's hard to get your mind around this when you grew up believing another way but atheists don't exist in foxholes and I think we are in a terrible foxhole now in a world going down fast in so many ways. I am all for peaceful religion and recognition of our human limits but I fear people will just use religion as an excuse to become another warlord in another empire without human or natural rights for nature, i.e. even worse than now. So things can only get worse before they get better.

Anonymous said...

Afghanistan is another open spigot draining the life blood out of our economy and our government's resources. However, it would be irresponsible to just pull out without a sustainable regime in place like we did to the South Vietnamese. Our allies would likely be massacred by the returning Taliban forces leaving us and them much less well off diplomatically. This begs the question " will we ever have sustainability in Afghanistan?"

Bozon said...


Great timely post.

Huntington generally had been poo pooed by the prevailing theorists.......a long list...

I was not one to poo poo Huntington.

Many thanks,

PJ Cats said...

Dear Mr. Kaiser,

I wonder if the 'clash of civilization'-frame is the right perspective to look at modern day events. As I recall, Huntington presents the Muslim-realm as a monolithic block, dominated by religion. Apart from that being foolish to begin with, it is a far stretch from the present day situation. I don't think Huntington ever reckoned with such a thing as democratic elections in Egypt and Tunisia.
I can think of various perspectives to view current events: the functioning of various democratic systems in east and west, the influence of money and power structures, the growth of information networks and (economic/cultural) interdependence, environmental and resource depletion problems and maybe problems of political confidence. I honestly don't think that the 'war on terror' delivers any historical perspective, as it was largely a mirage (as such, it's an interesting phenomenon, but I'd probably place it in the 'political confidence' section).
It won't come as a surprise as all these perspectives deliver vastly different viewpoints. This includes the question of Afghanistan. Apart from eradicating Al Qaeda, there really wasn't that much to do out there. We heard about mineral resources, but they have strangely vanished from the discourse. Anyway, Tony Blair was lying through his teeth once again, when he said that the people in Afghanistan could count on a sustained effort from the West. But lying politicians... it seems you have a whole new breed of those over there in the US.

Ray C Neill said...

It is remarkable to me how the significance of Afghanistan has waxed and waned over the last few decades. America certainly valued this desolate country as it watched the Russian invasion and their subsequent depletion of military resources and attention. After a period of quiet, the Taliban unwittingly gave America a reason to enter the Middle East under the ruse of pursuing Al-Qaeda. Presently, by supporting Karzai, this region may slide onto the Middle East back burner once again although the Taliban have never totally left Afghanistan as evidenced by their continuing sporadic guerilla attacks on Nato forces. Their power has been severely diminished but undoubtedly Karzai will need to deal with them sometime although he holds a significant hammer metaphorically. So is all right with the world ? Hardly, the U.S. is re-evaluating its allegiance with Pakistan- a country that has proven to be either colossally inept or deftly capable at the business of accepting buckets of money for little service. Being such a capricious ally may raise Afghanistan's stock once again as a neighbour of Iran. Let us be clear on this importance. Iran has a population that almost matches the entire Middle East and although Iran has had nuclear ambitions since the Shah was in power, it may actually be stumbling closer to this capability. Afghanistan and Iraq may prove to be the best way to exert some control over Iran's future. Therefor, to rule out Afghanistan's geopolitical importance may once again prove to be a magnificent underestimation. Ray C Neill

James50 said...

"And I am increasingly convinced that the Bush Administration hardly cared about Al Queda, except as an excuse, at all. They could not find and kill Osama Bin Laden in seven and a half years, while Barack Obama took only two and a half. "

This kind of slander about the intentions of Bush is unworthy of you. Both Bush and Obama wanted to bring down Bin Laden. It took 10 years between them. It was not a matter of motivation.

Anonymous said...

Interesting points and analysis as always. One comment however, instead of stating the Bush Administration could not "find and kill Osama Bin Laden in seven and a half years, while Barack Obama took only two and a half", I believe a more accurate statement would be "the US Government took 9 1/2 years to find and kill Osama bin Laden." You're correct that none of us may know the truth for another 30 years, but I think its a stretch to imply that the current administration somehow made direct changes that caused bin Laden's death within a shorter timeline. Again, though we cannot know for sure, I believe that the decisions the President made this past May were based on many years of painstaking collection and analysis, much of which likely pre-dated his presidency.