Pros: Powerful and concise indictment of the folly of US intervention in Central Asia
Cons: At times too brief and concise
I must confess I do not understand what is happening in Afghanistan and Pakistan (the Afpak war in Pentagon jargon), even after having read extensively Ahmed Rashid, considered one of the most informed journalists on the topic (his 500-page Descent into Chaos confused me a great deal). If you believe this devastating new book by Elizabeth Gould and Paul Fitzgerald (long-term Afghanistan correspondents), the Pentagon and the White House also have very little understanding of the situation, which is a little more than unsettling.
The 200-page book, just released, is a brilliant indictment of the insane US military occupation of Afghanistan. It also casts grave doubts on the rationale for continuing American interventionism and makes a strong case for retrenchment.
The book is very concise, and the obligatory historical introduction is kept to a minimum: it begins in 1577 with the earliest British colonial adventures in the region, and is especially critical of the disastrous policies following British retreat and the creation of seriously flawed borders.
But the “Great Game of Central Asia” has become recently important in view of the natural resources the region contains, and after WWII it has drawn the attention of the remaining superpowers. In a strategic effort to bring the USSR to its knees, the US and its secret services have engineered and built an extensive web of paramilitary groups, stoking religious fundamentalism and terrorism. The Taliban, Al Qaeda, and other groups,- the authors remind us – are all creature of the Cold War. Now the fundamentalist forces unleashed by the US are wreaking havoc across the whole territory, and threaten the spread of political chaos all the way from Iraq to India.
At the outset, the authors trace the rise of the Taliban movement. At the origin is the massive funding, recruiting and training by the CIA and the ISI, the Pakistani secret service, acting in concert against the USSR. The book then details the early years of the Bush involvement, when Iraq was the more prized target, and the recent Obama strategy toward counterinsurgency, with a modest troop surge, the extension of the war into Pakistan and the growing assassination program, which cannot but remind the reader of the bloody Operation Phoenix in Vietnam.
The case presented against the military strategies created by the Pentagon is overwhelming: the US could not control the country even with 500,000 troops (just as the Russians could not), and large sections of it are in the hands of tribal leaders, with whom the US is desperately trying to make a deal. Much of the focus is on the covert support of the Talibans by the ISI and by the Pakistan government, all of it through the massive injections of US funds into Pakistan. Indeed, the US taxpayer is financing its troops and also the resistance movements to US occupation.
Of course, the game Pakistan is playing is understood in Washington, hence the recent forays across the border and the assassination program. The US, however, still has no viable strategy, continues to fund Pakistan, which funds the Talibans as part of its own strategic games against India, and is negotiating with the worst terrorists, hoping for a strategic retreat. Needless to say, a coalition government composed of warlords and terrorists is unlikely to return Afghanistan to a peaceful existence, and especially to to the secular administration which, like in Iraq, existed before the CIA fanned the flames of Islamic radicalism.
The central part of the book (Obama’s Vietnam) examines the parallels between the two military disasters and confirms that Americans are using again a failed strategy, consisting of bombing, systematic assassination and inability to understand the reality under which they operate. Later, the book examines the variety of factions the constitute the anti-American resistance and succeeds in impressing upon the reader two major facts: the resistance landscape is unbelievably complex, and the US military does not have a clue about it.
The US continues to believe that bringing death from the skies and targeted assassinations can lead to victory, without trying to understand the socio-political reality they are trying to influence and mold into a stable democracy. To what extent is this strategy dictated by powerful lobbies who stand to gain fortunes by selling Washington useless but lethal hi-tech gadgets? Does Washington really believe that the drone assassination program is a viable alternative in state-building to the establishment of civil authority and political justice? In what amounts to a transfer of funds from the US tax-payer (or the foreign lender) to the booming defense industry, the US military may have found the Holy Grail: an interminable war, in the style of Orwell’s 1984, complete with a disinformation campaign by the compliant, corporate press, and accompanied by conservative think tanks whose members enjoy the profits of the war machine, while claiming the US is trying to defend freedom and democracies, two values the US has squelched more than any other country in the world since the beginning of the Cold War.
The book ends with a set of sensible recommendations, like establishing ties with the population, understanding their customs and culture…all recommendations sure to fall on deaf years. As an example, the authors cite a complaint by president Karzai about the US stepped-up counterinsurgency program consisting of bursting into people’s homes at night to arrest suspects. Karzai remarked that it generates hate against the US and, indirectly, Karzai himself, because it violates the sanctity of Afghan homes. General Petraeus responded, dismayed, that he was astonished and disappointed by the statement, which was making Karzai’s position untenable.
Finally, in its epilogue, the authors trace a line of continuity spanning from early post-WWII US interventions up to Obama’s war regime today. In spite of the seemingly increased insanity of the war operations, the authors claim to see a logical sequence of events, framed in the lunatic language of American exceptionalism and a boundless inability to acknowledge global overstretch. In this perspective, the US is unable to change course, because it is controlled by a single doctrine and cannot readapt its myths and beliefs to a changing reality. America is destroying, throughout the world, what is claiming to protect.
Hence the suggestion that a complete retreat (very unlikely) would do more good than harm. This brutal but fair conclusion quotes an article in the leftist British newspaper The Guardian, which reminds its readers that the US cannot offer the world its model, because the model has failed:
“ The US...has nothing substantial to offer Afghanistan beyond feeding the gargantuan war machine they have unleashed. In the affluent West itself modernity is now about dismantling the welfare system, increasing inequality and subsidizing corporate profits…this bankrupt version of modernity has little to offer to Afghans other than bikini waxes and Oprah imitators”. In other words, if the US really must engage in nation building, it ought to start with the most bankrupt nation of them all: itself.
I found this short book highly informative, well structured and devastating in its conclusions. If you believe the substance of its claims, the world is in the hands of a group of mad men (Pentagon, White House, US secret services) who administer death and misery throughout a vast region, without a realistic objective and mired in a war without possible end. It is the stuff of nighmares. I hope the authors are wrong but I feel they are absolutely correct in their analysis.