F. Scott Fitzgerald observed, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” From that perspective, some of the proud members of Washington’s reality-based community exhibit the characteristics of very intelligent super-achievers when they ridicule President George W. Bush’s grandiose plans for remaking Iraq—while embracing similarly ambitious designs for nation-building in Afghanistan.
But then, as George Orwell wrote in 1984, “the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them” amounts to the kind of Doublethink that politicians use to deceive and manipulate their people. Is that what critics of the Freedom Agenda are doing these days when they seem “to use logic against logic” (Orwell’s words) in offering conflicting policy recommendations for two regions in the Broader Middle East?
Realists urge the U.S. to take a cautious approach to achieving ethnic and religious reconciliation in Mesopotamia, pointing to deep-rooted conflicts between Arabs and Kurds, Shi’ites and Sunnis. But these same Realpolitik types become born-again idealists as they insist that American leaders, together with the entire “international community,” should help resolve the ancient differences between Pashtun and Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara, and the Aimak and the Turkmen and the Baloch people. You see, the Aimak are not so different from the residents of Chevy Chase, Maryland. They just want to live together in peace with their friendly neighbors the Baloch, and we have the obligation to help them do that.
Well, forget Fitzgerald and Orwell. Since some of my best friends are Iraq skeptics and Afghanistan enthusiasts, I’ll try to be somewhat neutral. Embracing the judgment of a value-free social scientist, I propose that my pals are neither super-smart jugglers nor duplicitous propagandists. Rather, they may be suffering from a mild form of cognitive dissonance.
One assumes that rational political players holding two contradictory ideas will try to reduce the dissonance by rejecting one. They could propose that we actually undertake nation-building in both Iraq and Afghanistan or, like other powers (the British Empire, czarist Russia, the Soviet Union) who tried without success to impose their preferred order on Afghanistan, we admit that we will probably not be able to get these many tribes to sing “Kumbaya” around the campfire in Kandahar.
They won’t be the last aspiring policymakers to deal with the stress of holding conflicting ideas at the same time. Neoconservatives are finding out that establishing an empire and spreading democracy are mutually contradictory. Since learning that reality the hard way—somewhere on the roads between Baghdad and Beirut and Gaza—they have been trying to minimize their dissonance by denying discomforting evidence like the tendency of free elections in Arab countries to bring anti-Western figures to power.
Meanwhile, the rest of us continue to pay the costs of juggling imperial imposition and democracy promotion. And contrary to the expectations that many opponents of the neocons have invested in the “antiwar” Democratic presidential candidate, these costs will only rise if President Obama decides to play Queen Victoria and Woodrow Wilson simultaneously. He seems inclined to do just that.
“As president, I would deploy at least two additional brigades to Afghanistan to re-enforce our counter-terrorism operations and support NATO’s efforts against the Taliban,” candidate Obama promised during a foreign-policy address at the Wilson Center in Washington. “As we step up our commitment, our European friends must do the same, and without the burdensome restrictions that have hampered NATO’s efforts,” he explained to members of the foreign-policy establishment, who want to see U.S. troops relocated from Iraq to Afghanistan to do nation-building there—and to do it right this time.
John McCain argues that Iraq is more important to long-term American security, but believes that the U.S. should now undertake a surge in the Hindu Kush to match the one in Mesopotamia. Obama contends that Iraq is a costly diversion from Afghanistan, which he believes is more crucial to winning the war on terror. “We must also put more of an Afghan face on security by improving the training and equipping of the Afghan army and police, and including Afghan soldiers in U.S. and NATO operations,” he said in his Washington address, insisting, “the solution in Afghanistan is not just military—it is political and economic.” As president, he would increase our non-military aid by $1 billion to fund local projects. Sounding like an enthusiastic nation-builder, Obama stressed that “we must seek better performance from the Afghan government, and support that performance through tough anti-corruption safeguards on aid, and increased international support to develop the rule of law across the country.”
One could dismiss much of this mumbo-jumbo rhetoric about ambitious plans to rebuild, remake, restructure, reconstruct, and reform the “failed state” of Afghanistan and its mishmash of ethnic, religious, and tribal groups, its underdeveloped economy, nonexistent military, and “civil society”—whatever that is. But notwithstanding (or perhaps because of) the mess in Iraq, Washington continues to be mesmerized by the notion—popularized by chroniclers such as our own Rudyard Kipling for poor people, the travel reporter turned military strategist Robert Kaplan—that Afghanistan could become our last New Frontier. A great cinematic romantic adventure. Another good war to eclipse the Iraqi bad war.
There in the snowy mountains and green valleys of the Hindu Kush, the exploits of Special Ops hunks and foreign-aid babes—joined by Blackwater professionals and DynCorp contractors delivering “customer-driven solutions”—could make any of us, including our War President, feel a certain “Afghanistan Envy,” as Slate’s Fred Kaplan put it. “I must say, I’m a little envious,” Bush admitted, speaking by video conference from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to U.S. personnel in Afghanistan. “If I were slightly younger and not employed here, I think it would be a fantastic experience to be on the front lines of helping this young democracy succeed,” said the ex-National Guard bombardier who passed an opportunity to take part in that great American drama in Southeast Asia. “It must be exciting for you,” he continued, “in some ways romantic, in some ways, you know, confronting danger. You’re really making history, and thanks.” Kaplan noted, “I suspect very few of these men and women see themselves as indulging in enviable adventures from The Green Berets orGunga Din.”
That Bush, Obama, McCain, and the rest of the Washington elite regard Afghanistan as a good war has to do with the shared narrative about the U.S. campaign there. Indeed, some of the most vociferous antiwar voices in this country, including contributors to The American Conservative on the Right and The Nation on the Left, supported the launching of that war on Oct. 7, 2001 in response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The war’s stated purpose was to capture Osama bin Laden, destroy al-Qaeda, and remove the Taliban regime that had provided support and safe haven to the terrorists. But while President Bush vowed that bin Laden would be captured “dead or alive” and made the destruction of al-Qaeda and the Taliban a top priority, he is expected to leave office with most of their leadership, probably including bin Laden, alive and well after they relocated from Afghanistan to Pakistan’s tribal areas.
There is no doubt that bringing to justice those responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon—or better still, Coalition forces killing bin Laden and his conspirators, Che Guevara-style, on the battlefield—would have provided appropriate closure to the horrific events of 9/11. Like other Afghanistan-centric voices, Obama argues that instead of shifting American intelligence, military, and financial resources to invade Iraq, President Bush should have continued to fight the war in Afghanistan to victory.
But how does he define “victory”? Pursuing al-Qaeda and the Taliban into Pakistan and completing the nation-building project in “liberated” Afghanistan.
The part where Afghanistan enthusiasts fantasizing about V-Day get their narrative wrong begins after the devastating American and British aerial bombing campaign. (Remember the Daisy Cutters?) According to the fairy tale concocted by Washington and popularized by the media, we encouraged a bunch of pro-American Afghan good guys to liberate their country from Islamofascist bad guys and create the conditions for building a democratic and unified nation-state. In this version, the Northern Alliance and their leader, the late Ahmed Shah Massoud, played the role of the Free French Forces during the other Good War. (The Iraqi National Congress and Ahmed Chalabi were assigned this part in the bad war.) The role of Vichy is played by the Taliban, and the Nazi occupiers are represented by al-Qaeda.
What’s wrong with this story, and why does it matter? First, we need to remember that the outside military and financial backers of the Taliban and by extension of al-Qaeda—the only governments to recognize the Taliban as the legitimate government in Kabul—were our staunch allies Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The Pakistanis needed an Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban’s Pashtun fundamentalists to counterbalance the power of India, their regional rival. (The Pashtun are the main ethnic group in Afghanistan and on the other side of the border in Pakistan.) For the Saudis, the Talibs helped spread their anti-Western Muslim doctrine of Wahhabism. Before 9/11, the Northern Alliance was a military-political umbrella organization uniting various Afghan groups otherwise fighting each other to resist the Taliban. It remains dominated by the Tajik, the Shi’ite Hazara, and the Uzbeks and is backed by Russia, Iran, Turkey, and India.
To make a long story short, the horrors of 9/11 were perpetrated by the religious, political, and military partners of our Pakistani and Saudi allies. And the defeat of the Taliban was achieved through the help of anti-Western warlords allied with four regional players—an adversary (Iran), a not-so-great-friend (Russia), a friend (Turkey), and a rival of Pakistan (India). We formed an ad hoc partnership with the Northern Alliance, providing them money and arms while at the same time pressuring the Pakistanis and the Saudis to end their support for groups responsible for the deaths of 3,000 innocent Americans. This was an example of a sensible Realpolitik policy—co-operating with a mixed bag of local and regional players to capture our enemies and destroy their military infrastructure. An ideological crusade to bring democracy to Afghanistan wasn’t part of the plan.
Pursuing the same kind of realistic approach, we could have encouraged the remnants of the Northern Alliance to work with their regional backers to co-opt Pakistan and members of Afghanistan’s Pashtun majority into an imperfect political settlement. This, in turn, would probably have led to the creation of a loose confederation of ethnic groups, locally controlled and secured by backing from Russia, India, Turkey, Iran—and Pakistan and the United States.
Instead, we insisted on imposing our man, the Pashtun Hamid Karzai, as head of a central government, while hoping against hope that Pakistan would back this arrangement. In the process, we antagonized the Indians, the Iranians, and the Russians, and most importantly, the various gangsters that had helped us “liberate” the country.
To support the fragile balance of power and pursue an ambitious nation-building scheme, we now have two military operations that seek to stabilize Afghanistan. Operation Enduring Freedom is a combat operation led by the United States against al-Qaeda remnants, primarily in the eastern and southern parts of the country along the Pakistan border. The mission consists of 20,000 troops, including about 18,000 U.S. forces. The second operation is the International Security Assistance Force, established in 2002 by the international community and controlled by NATO. ISAF has about 47,000 troops from 40 countries, including 17,000 American troops. The main problem has been the reluctance of our NATO allies to deploy more troops to take part in combat operations due to strong public opposition at home to fighting what has become an Afghan civil war.
Indeed, the good war in Afghanistan is not so good anymore. “In a remarkable shift, Afghanistan, where U.S. officials were once confident of victory, is now rivaling Iraq as the biggest cause of concern for American policymakers,” according to a recent front-page story in the Wall Street Journal. In fact, a Pentagon assessment issued in June on conditions in Afghanistan since the invasion acknowledged that Taliban guerrillas have regrouped since their fall from power and “coalesced into a resilient insurgency,” making Afghanistan now more dangerous for American forces than Iraq. The Pentagon review states that the fledgling national government in Kabul remains incapable of extending its reach beyond the capital or taking effective counter-narcotics measures.
The insurgency that had once been limited to small portions of the country is now spreading to its more stable eastern parts. It carried out a record 2,615 roadside-bomb attacks in 2007, up from 1,931 in 2006. The roadside bombings, along with a wave of suicide and other attacks, killed more than 6,500 people in 2007, another post-invasion record. “The Taliban is likely to maintain or even increase the scope and pace of its terrorist attacks and bombings in 2008,” the report stressed. It concluded that “the greatest challenge to long-term security within Afghanistan is the insurgent sanctuary” within the tribal areas of Pakistan—our formal ally in the war on terror and a recipient of billions in U.S. military and economic aid. The document adds that the ceasefire accords between Pakistan and the militants resulted in “substantially” more cross-border attacks.
That so many American realists are clamoring for “victory” in Afghanistan while giving up on Iraq would probably surprise the proverbial man from Mars. Imagine him as Martian von Clausewitz landing in Washington this year. Based on hard-core geostrategic calculations, he would probably argue that the U.S. has more reason to remain engaged in Mesopotamia—including the need to maintain access to the energy resources in the Persian Gulf and to protect key allies in the region from the alleged threat of Iran—than to be drawn into Afghanistan’s civil war in the name of nation-building.
“It is a rule in the life of modern nations that nationalism trumps all else,” columnist William Pfaff recently wrote. “If the government in Saigon or a government in Baghdad or Kabul, cannot, even with appropriate foreign material assistance, establish and maintain order within its own frontiers and by its own means, armed legions of foreign democracy-teachers, state-builders and winners of hearts and minds cannot do it for them.” And as Pfaff suggested, if the Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks do not wish to be ruled by Pashtun religious reactionaries, they should not need thousands of NATO and U.S. troops to defend them. “If they will not defend themselves, there is nothing the foreigners can do to save them from their countrymen,” he concluded.
Iraq and Afghanistan skeptics recognize that both countries are involved in civil wars, with tribal forces fighting over territory and resources in order to preserve their power and identity. Their political, economic, and religious interests don’t necessarily correspond to or conflict with American interests. After all, in Afghanistan, Pakistan backed al-Qaeda and Iran supported the Northern Alliance. In Iraq, the U.S. has partnered with a Shi’ite movement with ties to Iran.
During the 20th century, the U.S. and its allies had an interest in preventing aggressive global powers from dominating these regions. Such a threat doesn’t exist today—unless one considers the mythical Caliphate, the brainchild of the al-Qaeda–neocon coalition. The notion that America will succeed in nation-building through military force in either Iraq or Afghanistan is pure fantasy.
One hopes that Obama and company will resolve their cognitive dissonance by modifying their belief about the moral benefit and policy utility of nation-building. Indeed, the new administration should abandon these fantasies and instead embrace a realist policy of working with regional powers to secure the limited but actual U.S. interests in Afghanistan and the rest of South and Central Asia—weakening the influence of radical Islam; damaging the infrastructure of terrorist groups; preventing unstable regimes and terrorist organizations from gaining access to weapons of mass destruction.
In that context, Washington should no longer depend on Pakistan—an unreliable client state and unstable regime with ties to radical Islamic groups—to serve as its strategic ally in the region. Instead, the U.S. should provide incentives to India, which is emerging as a leading economic and military partner, to counterbalance the power of Pakistan as part of an effort backed by Russia and Turkey to reduce the influence of radical Islam in Afghanistan and the rest of the region. Some remnants of the Taliban are expected to return to Afghanistan, but they should know that if they provide refuge to anti-American terrorists again, they face another rendezvous with those Daisy Cutters. At the same time, the U.S. should make the capture of Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda terrorists hiding in Pakistan a condition for any improvement in America’s relationship with Islamabad.
This set of policies may not sound as romantic as nation-building. But a U.S. president who has the gift of a first-rate intelligence and who claims not to be using the methods of Doublethink will suffer no dissonance if he decides to pursue them.
Leon Hadar is a Cato Institute research fellow in foreign-policy studies and author, most recently, of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.