Defeating Ourselves in Afghanistan

Long-time author and reporter on the Afghan debacle of the last generation Steve Coll describes a collapsing U.S. Afghan policy that is also “destabilizing” Pakistan and is seen by the Pakistani military (not to mention himself) as imperiled because “the logic chain of the American military campaign is broken.” [The New Yorker 3/29/12.] Too focused on short-term advantage and, more seriously, benefit specifically of American and allied elites rather than the populations of either Afghanistan or America, Washington’s policy all too often amounts to lifting rocks only to drop them on its own feet. Afghanistan is just the most recent example in a long line of making the same mistake over and over.


U.S. policy toward the Muslim world is manifestly ineffective. The particular locus of crisis moves around, but the bottom line is the same: harsh military repression combined with long-standing background economic policies that support client regimes while undermining popular economic development jointly provoke fully justified anti-American feeling. The U.S. needs a new grand strategy, a real strategy thoughtfully constructed of an incremental series of mutually supporting and logically consistent steps that build on each other to create a political atmosphere in which momentum builds toward an outcome of benefit to both Muslim and American societies, rather than focusing exclusively on elites. 

Elites of course prefer padding their own pockets, but the price (albeit one paid primarily by the populations) is recurrent instability, including terrorism and wars. To a degree, current U.S. policy does already have “an incremental series of mutually supportive and logically consistent” components, though one should not push the ‘logically consistent’ part too far, but the real problem is that these components rest on a zero-sum foundation. That may be the tried and true historical foundation for great power politics, but the world has changed. Events from 9/11 to the 2007 financial crisis to the horrifying years of the Iraqi insurgency should suffice to demonstrate how outdated and self-defeating the old zero-sum policy of force has become. As columnist and strategic thinker William Pfaff put it:

The United States’ millenarian notions of a national destiny and the militarism that has infected American society have been responsible for a series of wars from which Washington has gained little or nothing, and suffered a great deal, while contributing enormously to the misfortune of others. [“Manufacturing Insecurity,” Foreign Affairs 11-12/10, 140.]

One can obviously make a strong moral argument for positive-sum policy, but that is not needed; even from the perspective of pure self-interest, zero-sum foreign policy in a tightly interdependent world is a self-defeating proposition. The most effective way to achieve a more rational and stable situation is by designing a positive-sum strategy while keeping one’s gun in one’s holster. (Everyone knows the gun is there.) Even if U.S. policy were perfectly logical, with all moves fully consistent, a policy based on a zero-sum foundation that considers force the conflict resolution method of choice is in today’s world a non-starter.

The Peace Candidate on Washington’s Afghan War

It was a waste, there’s not gonna be a happy ending, and I think the Republicans have dug a hole for themselves because they’re trying to out-militarize the president, say ‘we should do more.’ Yet 75 percent of the American people say ‘we’ve had enough.’ [Ron Paul on Face the Nation.]


But as the whole decade-long Afghan war demonstrates, U.S. policy toward the Muslim world is far from logically consistent. The Pakistani-Afghan theater of the broader U.S. confrontation with politically active Islam is a case study in mutually contradictory, self-defeating policies based on a zero-sum view of the world that comes dangerously close to defining the world’s one billion Muslims as “the enemy.” Washington seeks military victory but it is precisely its use of military force to resolve political, cultural, and economic disagreements that breeds hostility. Washington wants Pakistan’s support while seeking to deny it desperately needed Iranian gas imports. Washington provides nuclear technology to India, thus aggravating Islamabad insecurity and contradicting its policy of opposing Iran’s nuclear program. And the rising prospect of a U.S. military retreat from Afghanistan seems increasingly to look, in Washington’s eyes, like defeat rather than transformation from a vigorous but short-sighted military policy to a vigorous but long-term policy of encouraging politically-active, reformist, independent Islamic stabilization and development. 


Grand Strategy

Grand strategy is composed of a coordinated set of policies. Faced with Hitler or Attila, one naturally turns to violence because destruction appears the only alternative. Fortunately, no such threat is even remotely visible on the political horizon, so the U.S. has choices. Counterintuitively, however, the U.S. has restricted itself since 9/11 (with the exception of some fine words, e.g., in Cairo) to a grand strategy of military empire, arbitrarily denying to itself a range of powerful foreign policy tools that, in the hands of a skillful superpower, can have impressive effectiveness.

The ineffectiveness of brute military force for creating a new world of long-term benefit to American society has in barely a decade been made glaringly clear. Iraq and Lebanon are in Iran’s orbit, Somalia a basket case, Afghanistan a looming U.S. defeat, and Pakistan a crisis very visible on the horizon. Turkey is alienated, and Israeli democracy under domestic attack. The U.S. should seize the opportunity to come up with a more effective grand strategy than the combination of invasion, drone bombings, and blatant military threats backing up economic sanctions to force adversaries to surrender in return for the right to kneel at the “negotiating” table. [“Grand Strategy.”]



A policy of support for independent, reformist Islamic political  activism would not be a policy leading to U.S. empire or U.S. control over local resources or U.S. military bases for dominating Central Asia, but it might be a policy consistent with U.S. security and with a reasonable probability of being effectively implemented. 

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