Andrew Bacevich on Afghanistan

Posted: April 16, 2010 by Scott Kistler in Politics
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Bill Moyers interviewed Andrew Bacevich last week.  Bacevich gave his usual interesting perspective on foreign policy.  He’s a conservative (more of the paleoconservative variety, though not fully) former colonel who believes that our global military commitments are hurting our political system and don’t accomplish their goals.  Here’s an older interview where he makes that point.

Some quotes from the most recent interview follow:

On military victory:

BILL MOYERS: Given what’s happening in the killing of these innocent people, is the very term, “military victory in Afghanistan,” an oxymoron?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Oh, this is—yes. And I think one of the most interesting and indeed perplexing things that’s happened in the past three, four years is that in many respects, the officer corps itself has given up on the idea of military victory. We could find any number of quotations from General Petraeus, the central command commander, and General McChrystal, the immediate commander in Afghanistan, in which they say that there is no military solution in Afghanistan, that we will not win a military victory, that the only solution to be gained, if there is one, is through bringing to success this project of armed nation-building.

And the reason that’s interesting, at least to a military historian of my generation, of the Vietnam generation, is that after Vietnam, this humiliation that we had experienced, the collective purpose of the officer corps, in a sense, was to demonstrate that war worked. To demonstrate that war could be purposeful.

That out of that collision, on the battlefield, would come decision, would come victory. And that soldiers could claim purposefulness for their profession by saying to both the political leadership and to the American people, “This is what we can do. We can, in certain situations, solve very difficult problems by giving you military victory.”

Well, here in the year 2010, nobody in the officer corps believes in military victory. And in that sense, the officer corps has, I think, unwittingly really forfeited its claim to providing a unique and important service to American society. I mean, why, if indeed the purpose of the exercise in Afghanistan is to, I mean, to put it crudely, drag this country into the modern world, why put a four-star general in charge of that? Why not—why not put a successful mayor of a big city? Why not put a legion of social reformers? Because the war in Afghanistan is not a war as the American military traditionally conceives of war.

On our longest war:

I mean, one of the obvious things about the Afghanistan war that is so striking and yet so frequently overlooked is that we’re now in the ninth year of this war.

It is the longest war in American history. And it is a war for which there is no end in sight. And to my mind, it is a war that is utterly devoid of strategic purpose. And the fact that that gets so little attention from our political leaders, from the press or from our fellow citizens, I think is simply appalling, especially when you consider the amount of money we’re spending over there and the lives that are being lost whether American or Afghan.

BILL MOYERS: But President Obama says, our purpose is to prevent the Taliban from creating another rogue state from which the jihadists can attack the United States, as happened on 9/11. Isn’t that a strategic purpose?

ANDREW BACEVICH: I mean, if we could wave a magic wand tomorrow and achieve in Afghanistan all the purposes that General McChrystal would like us to achieve, would the Jihadist threat be substantially reduced as a consequence? And does anybody think that somehow, Jihadism is centered or headquartered in Afghanistan? When you think about it for three seconds, you say, “Well, of course, it’s not. It is a transnational movement.”

For a counterpoint on Bacevich’s downgrading of the importance of a territorial state, see Peter Bergen’s article for the necessity of the Afghan war from fall 2009.  On page 4, he writes: “But it isn’t just a safe haven that Al Qaeda wants; it is a state. As Zawahiri explained shortly after September 11 in his autobiographical Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner, “Confronting the enemies of Islam, and launching jihad against them require a Muslim authority, established on a Muslim land that raises the banner of jihad and rallies the Muslims around it. Without achieving this goal our actions will mean nothing.” No wonder Al Qaeda remains so committed to Afghanistan–and so deeply invested in helping the Taliban succeed.”

On dealing with al-Qaeda:

First of all, we need to assess the threat realistically. Osama bin Laden is not Adolf Hitler. Al-Qaeda is not Nazi Germany. Al-Qaeda poses a threat. It does not pose an existential threat. We should view Al-Qaeda as the equivalent of an international criminal conspiracy. Sort of a mafia that in some way or another draws its energy or legitimacy from a distorted understanding of a particular religious tradition.

And as with any other international criminal conspiracy, the proper response is a police effort. I mean, a ruthless, sustained, international police effort to identify the thugs, root out the networks and destroy it. Something that would take a long period of time and would no more succeed fully in eliminating the threat than the NYPD is able to fully eliminate criminality in New York City.

On ending the war:

But war termination for us has come to be very difficult, because of our inability to understand the war that we undertake.

We are now close to a decade into what the Pentagon now calls, “The Long War.” And it is a war in which one-half of one percent of the American people bear the burden. And the other 99.5 percent basically go on about their daily life, as if the war did not exist.

I mean, the great paradox of the Long War, is that it seems the Long War consists of a series of campaigns with Iraq and Afghanistan being the two most important, although one could add Pakistan and Yemen to the list, in which there seems to be no way to wind down the campaign.

Or to claim from the campaign some positive benefit that allows us to say that the end date of the long war is any closer. And we do find ourselves in this circumstance where permanent war now seems to have become the norm. And we don’t know what to do about that.

Part II of the interview got into the cultural background of the war:

My own sense is that we probably have succeeded in clearing the enemy in Marjah. We probably can succeed in clearing the enemy in any part of the country. I’m quite skeptical about whether this government out of the box concept is viable. Matter of fact, it strikes me as remarkably naïve.

BILL MOYERS: Why are you skeptical?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, we’ve tried this before in Marjah. This notion of bringing government or development out of the box. It turns out that back in the 1950s, in the Eisenhower era, the US Agency for International Development had undertaken a massive agricultural reform project in Marjah with the intention of basically converting the nomadic local population into peasant farmers.

It was well-funded. I am sure that the people who designed it had the best intentions in the world. And it was utter, complete and total flop. Why was it a total flop? Because the people who lived in the region simply didn’t share the view of the United States about what a better life looked like.

And the point here is, again, granting that people who are in the development business have the best will in the world. There are enormous cultural barriers that interfere with the effective deliverance of the kind of programs that are promised. So, I mean, no, let us see- but I think that the Americans tend to come at these problems with a sense of optimism and expectation that tends not to be justified by what we know from the history of development programs.

BILL MOYERS: You wrote the other day, I think, in “America” magazine, that we—Americans suffer from a deficit of self-awareness. Explain that to me.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, it’s this forgetfulness. It’s this assumption that what we value, what we believe is the- are the keys to happiness, necessarily are shared by people who come from a different place, whether it’s a different place historically or culturally or religiously. I have a wonderful student of mine at Boston University who worked in Afghanistan in their ministry of economic development on an internship a summer ago. And she just finished her master’s degree and is heading back to Afghanistan.

And she is smart and she is just a terrific person in every respect. But the other day, we were- she was defending her MA thesis. And we were sort of arguing about this cultural question. And she said to me, “You know, there are some things that we tried to do that aren’t cultural.” And she-

BILL MOYERS: That we Americans try to do?

ANDREW BACEVICH: That in our programs that we try to introduce in places like Afghanistan. Not everything has a cultural connotation. And she said, “Let me give you an example.” And the example she offered was a laptop. She said that, “You know, in order to have a functioning society, in order to advance yourself, in order to grow an economy, you have to have access to the Internet. And therefore, you need to know how to use a laptop.”

And my response was, “I understand what you just said. But the laptop carries with it enormous cultural connotations. The Internet carries enormous cultural connotations. And for us simply to assume that because we view those mechanisms as central to our understanding of modernity, it doesn’t follow that people in Afghanistan are going to share that view.” That’s part of our problem, I think, that we work from the assumption that at the end of the day we have the answers. And we’re trying to share the answers with those who apparently need them….
BILL MOYERS: They had a team of researchers who interviewed a representative sample of Afghani, ordinary Afghani people, who it turns out have a very negative view of our efforts there, of our economic and aid efforts there. Now what explains that? That we would keep trying to do it, when they have such a negative reaction to it?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I think that gets to this deficit of self-awareness. There is a confidence that we have accrued. I think particularly since World War II. This is not something that somehow appeared overnight. A confidence that history as we understand history—and in many respects, I think the only history that Americans even have any awareness of really is the history of the 20th century.

And Americans tend to see the history of the 20th century as a triumphal narrative. It was in the 20th century that the United States achieved such enormous preeminence. It was in the 20th century that seemingly, we demonstrated the superiority of our system as competitors- totalitarian competitors in the left and the right either were crushed or fell by the wayside.

And I think as a consequence of that interpretation of the 20th century. It’s not an interpretation that I would agree with, but as a consequence of that interpretation of the 20th century, Americans have come to believe quite deeply that the answers to the world’s ills are found here. That the keys to life, liberty and happiness that we have embraced are not only applicable to Americans, but they’re applicable to Afghans and they’re applicable to Pakistanis and so on.

And we’re simply not willing to acknowledge either the contradictions in our own way of life or the possibility that if you’re an Afghan or a Pakistani, that you may just define happiness or fulfillment in a radically different way. And despite the fact that we confront failures like Vietnam, and I think I would also argue strongly like Iraq, we cling to this notion that we possess history’s secrets. And of course, that’s we’re called upon to share them with others.

But I think the larger question really is the cultural one. I have come to believe that- this refers back to what we were talking about a couple of minutes ago- that the Islamic world is wrestling with this enormous crisis or this enormous challenge of how to reconcile a belief with modernity.

He argued that this belief that we have the answers for the Muslim world in turn fuels the violent reactions that we are trying to combat.  He assigned the real beginning of “the Long War” or the “War on Terror” to Jimmy Carter:

Well, exactly right. That I- my sense is that the longer the long war goes, and again, we’re already approaching the end of its first decade, the more likely it is that we will actually exacerbate the problem that gave rise to the 9/11 attacks in the first place. We have you know we Americans believe that the global war on terror began on 9/11, that the long war began on 9/11.

And again, this is a convenient sort of absence of historical awareness and memory. My own sense of a better start date to understand how we’ve gotten where we are would be Jimmy Carter’s promulgation of the Carter doctrine in January of 1980. That was the policy statement that kicked off the process of militarizing US policy in the Islamic world.

… this was in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which was incorrectly perceived to suggest that the Soviets were about to, you know, sweep across the entire Persian Gulf. The president said that the Persian Gulf is a vital national security interest. And the United States will use all means necessary to include military force in order to prevent a hostile power from controlling the Persian Gulf.

What the Carter doctrine became was a rationale for militarizing US policy, not simply in the Persian Gulf, but more broadly across the Middle East. And if we look at the record of US interventionism since 1980, whether we begin with President Reagan’s intervention in Lebanon that ended with the catastrophic Beirut bombing. Or up through the various wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and so on.

You know, if we if we look back over 30 years and say, “Okay, given the trillions of dollars invested, given the thousands of American lives lost, is that 30 year project stabilizing the greater Middle East? Is it is it contributing to American security? Is it is it is it enhancing American power in abundance? Or is it possible that the 30 year long effects are just the opposite?” And again, it seems to me you think about it for about three seconds. It becomes crystal clear that this military approach to trying to ensure stability, in fact, is creating ever more instability.

On his skepticism that the Democrats can make any difference:

[B]ecause I mean, frankly, the answer goes back to the aftermath of the 2006 off-year elections. You’ll remember that this was the election in which Democratic leaders in the Congress said, “give us the power and we will shut down the Iraq War.” We gave them the power. They reneged on the promise. So the Democratic Party even when there was a Republican president was not willing to confront the president and to act in ways to limit the prerogatives of the commander-in-chief.

BILL MOYERS: But what do we make of that?

ANDREW BACEVICH: I think what we what we make of that is that the militarization of our political class is far more advanced or far deeper I think than most of us appreciate.

I do think that the Afghanistan war was justified, and I don’t believe that we can leave lightly.  The question is if our presence there can do any good.  I pray that God will give our leaders wisdom in this.


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