Friday, August 27, 2021


Speaking of Which

My interest in writing something this week has waxed and waned. At first I wanted to point out how pleased and proud I am that Biden has stuck to his guns on troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, despite the barrage of sniping not just from the usual quarters (Republicans for partisan purposes, warmongers of all stripes) but from a mainstream media that loves to add fuel to whatever panic is taking hold at the moment. Then an anti-US, anti-Taliban fringe group [also see: Anatol Lieven: Who are the Islamic State in Afghanistan] dispatched a suicide bomber near the Kabul airport, killing 170 civilians and 13 US troops, and Biden vowed revenge (while still defending withdrawal). Someone should take him aside and remind him that "revenge is a dish best served cold," lest he throw out a brave and conscientious stand in a fit of anger. ISIS wants the US there, in range as targets, driving more and more people into their desperate ranks. It was stupid to let Osama Bin Laden bait us into "the graveyard of empires" in 2001, and it would be even stupider to repeat that mistake now. [PS: Biden did order a drone strike in Nangahar Province, allegedly on an ISIS target.]

While Biden hasn't (yet) back-peddled from the August 31 withdrawal date, it's coming on Tuesday, so we'll know more then -- one reason I wanted to hold off writing. Meanwhile, pressure to do something stupid is building: e.g., Leon Panetta, a CIA Director and Secretary of Defense under Obama, says "Bottom line is that our work is not done in Afghanistan. We're going to have to go back in to get ISIS." I don't know how he could possibly imagine that could work. The US is tied up just now trying to get the few Afghans willing to help the US out of the country. How can they possibly support a new infusion of troops without any kind of local support? The only chance I see to hunt down "those responsible" for the attack is to subcontract it to the Taliban. I have no idea whether they would be amenable to that, but from a practical point of view, it's more important to get them to disband terror groups than to satisfy America's revenge cravings.

Speaking of irrational revenge fits, Josh Marshall has another good piece on the origins of the US invasion of Afghanistan: Remembering the Origins of the United States' 20 Year War in Afghanistan, in turn keying off an opinion piece by persistent warmonger Robert Kagan: It wasn't hubris that drove America into Afghanistan. It was fear. While it may be true that fear was the big selling point, I remember a lot of hubris. I also remember Arthur Vandenberg telling Harry Truman that if he wants to arm to confront Russia in what became the Cold War, he'd first have to "scare the hell out of the American people." That's what he did, aided by Republicans who had their own reasons for trumping up the Red Scare. But after the Gulf War of 1990-91, America's leading hawks (including Kagan) were convinced that the US military could have done so much more to clear out Saddam Hussein in Iraq, but were held back by cowardly politicians. The hawks stylized themselves as Vulcans (see James Mann's book, The Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet), and organized their Project for a New American Century (PNAC). (By the way, the first thing they did was to prepare a plan for Netanyahu to undermine the Oslo Accords, which promised to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Their most fervent dream was that the US should be free to attack its enemies with the same impunity Israel had gotten away with.)

Marshall corrects a lot of things Kagan glosses over. Along the way, he quotes Max Boot as writing: "Afghanistan and other troubled lands today cry out for the sort of enlightened administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets." That sounds a lot more like hubris than fear, but it also sounds incredibly stupid and racist. British rule reduced India from about 20% of world GDP to less than 5% -- meanwhile, the English working class weren't exactly wallowing in luxury. Imperialism may have benefited someone, but claiming it advanced humanity is ridiculous.

As it happens, I've been thinking about Boot's 2002 book, The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power. The book was an important part of the neocon argument, specifically meant to overthrow the Powell Doctrine (which argued that wars should only be fought if you had: overwhelming force, clear objectives, and an exit plan; the 1990-91 Gulf War was Powell's triumph, but the aftertaste was bitter). Boot offered thumbnail histories of several dozen US military adventures that he classified as "small," excluding wars fought on home ground (including the many Indian wars), the two World Wars, and the ones in Korea and Vietnam that got big and ugly. From his subset, he argued that the US doesn't need to worry about small wars (resources, objectives, exit plan), because they all work out OK in the end. Within 2-3 years, Afghanistan and Iraq destroyed what little plausibility his argument ever had, but a more critical eye on the wars he touted should have raised doubts.

Take, for instance, Pershing's long march through Mexico following a border raid by Pancho Villa in New Mexico (it was originally called the "Punitive Expedition"). This lasted about a year, needlessly provoked the Mexicans, and in the end accomplished absolutely nothing (other than that it convinced a young officer named Dwight Eisenhower that the US needed better highways). It's a pretty close analog to the effort to catch Bin Laden (or Panetta's proposed punishment of ISIS-K), except that it was much closer, and didn't bother trying to over throw the Mexican government, or getting stuck with rebuilding the ruins it created. But sure, it could have been worse. They could still be looking for Villa, while turning millions of Mexicans into refugees.

By the way, amidst all of the articles about Afghans trying to flee the Taliban, I haven't seen a single piece about the more than two million Afghan refugees that the US wasn't able to settle and protect during the last 20 years. Most are in Pakistan or Iran, so it will be interesting to see whether the net number of refugees rises or drops once the Taliban settles in.

Marshall's article includes a graph of US troop levels in Afghanistan over time. Offhand, it appears as though the security situation deteriorated as US troop levels increased, at least up to 2009, when the military panicked and Obama ordered a "surge" up to 100,000 troops. The model there was the supposedly successful "surge" in Iraq, although what little success could be found there had more to do with turning Sunni leaders against an increasingly erratic Al-Qaeda-in-Iraq, partly through bribe and partly because the US offered some protection against Shiite death squads (also encouraged by the US). No such magic switch was found in Afghanistan, so while the "surge" may have checked a Taliban offensive, it made no headway.

Beyond that, McChrystall's counterinsurgency program was defeated not by the Taliban but by American soldiers, who refused to accept the added risk of limiting civilian casualties. While Petraeus had supported McChrystall in theory, he quietly scuttled the program when he took over. After that, the only hope was "Afghanization," which worked even worse than "Vietnamization" had done to provide camouflage for a US withdrawal.

Some more Afghanistan links:

Also, a quote from Jeffrey St. Clair: Roaming Charges: Hour of the Goat, which says much of what I originally wanted to say:

One of the reasons Biden is having such a hard time making the case for the US's exit from Afghanistan is that he is congenitally inarticulate and he has no one around him who can make the case for him. Nearly everyone in both parties has been corrupted by this war: voted for it, funded it, planned it, rationalized it, stood silent as it started, very early on, to go bad, closed their eyes to drone killings, torture, and an occupation with no end. Even Bernie Sanders and Ron Paul. They own this war and the war ended up owning them. Aside from Barbara Lee, there aren't any heroes in this 40-year-long fiasco. But if Biden can stand firm as he's ambushed from all sides, not retreat from his retreat, and finally bring the occupation to an end, he'll go down in the history books a lot more credibly than the jackals who are assailing him.

St. Clair also notes a tweet from a @toddstarnes: "For every American who is killed, a city in Afghanistan should be wiped off the face of the Earth." The Romans used to talk about "decimating" villages. Hitler proclaimed bounties like this, up to 100-to-1. Morally Starnes is no better; mathematically, he's even worse.


A couple more brief notes on recent pieces:

Robert Christgau: Out of the Box: A substantial and very favorable review of the HBO Max documentary Betrayal at Attica. I should probably write more about this piece and the movie itself, which I watched again yesterday, but want to get this out without further delay. By all means, do watch the movie.

Luisa S Deprez: How Republicans Stoke Anti-Government Hatred: Refers to a new book by Amy Fried/Douglas B Harris: At War With Government: How Conservatives Weaponized Distrust from Goldwater to Trump. Needless to say, it's a lot easier to break trust than it is to restore it. Trust in government matters because it's the one institution that is capable of helping people without having a side angle or ulterior motive (mostly based on money, something obviously biased to them that has). The main reason many people don't vote their economic interests is that they don't trust politicians to deliver, ergo distrust in government favors those with money, especially those whose money buys them personal connections to politicians. Adolph Reed extends this argument: The Whole Country is the Reichstag.

Henry Giroux: For Stanley Aronowitz: Radical labor historian, died a week or two ago. I read and admired his 1973 book False Promises: The Shaping of American Working Class Consciousness, and met him around then, when Paul Piccone brought him to Washington University for a lecture.

Hugh Iglarsh: The New Ozymandias: Twilight Reflections on the Obama Presidential Center. From this angle, the photo of the model of the "Great Tower of Nothing" looks especially garish.

David Klion: The 9/11 Museum and Its Discontents: "A new documentary goes inside the battles that have riven the institution." I'm not sure I even knew it existed, let alone had sold a half billion dollars worth of tickets since 2014. I find the whole thing rather creepy. "This is the story of 9/11 a visitor is left with: They attacked us for no good reason, we mourned, we rallied, and eventually we got the bastards [i.e., Bin Laden]."

Robert Kuttner: Biden Should Retire Fed Chair Jay Powell. When Trump replaced Janet Yellen (and I don't recall any Republicans suggesting he shouldn't pick his own Fed Chair), he was given a list of two candidates, and picked Powell. On paper, he looked like much the better candidate, and turned out to be better than expected, at least on monetary policy. (Not that he was loose enough for an inveterate debt-hog like Trump.) I always felt that Obama made a big mistake in renominating Ben Bernanke instead of picking a Democrat, but there was a big campaign to boost Bernanke, and Obama was a born sucker. There's another campaign this year to give Powell another term, and some economists I like (like Mike Konczal and Dean Baker) seem to be behind it, so I was interested to see Kuttner argue otherwise. He does so mostly on regulatory issues, and he's probably right there. One of the big problems with the Fed is that, while hawks on interest rates can choke the economy and put lots of people out of work, low interest rates mostly get sucked up by speculators and used to inflate the price of assets.

Ian Millhiser: A new Supreme Court case could blow up decades of US diplomacy: This is the case where a Texas judge ordered Biden to reinstate a Trump-declared "Remain in Mexico" immigration policy. Millhiser argues that "Kacsmaryk's decision is dead wrong," then gets even more upset.

Timothy Noah: The Blueprint for Corporate Power Turns 50: On Lewis Powell's famous letter to the US Chamber of Commerce, which urged corporate leaders to corrupt politics in favor of their class interests.

Aaron Rupar: How Ron DeSantis's Covid response became the model of what not to do.