James Fallows

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

James Fallows: Afghanistan

  • About That Terrifying Bagram Crash Video

    We don't know for sure, but at face value it looks like an aerodynamic stall.

    By now you've seen the tragic footage of a Boeing 747 cargo plane crashing soon after takeoff from Bagram airport in Afghanistan. 

    What does this look like, from an aviation perspective? To get the caveats out of the way:
      - I don't know first-hand that this is an authentic video, although it has been publicized widely without debunking that I have seen;
     - It is certainly possible that there are causal factors that this video doesn't reveal, from sabotage to some external force somehow not shown on screen;
     - And whatever else you can think of.

    Still, if you ask what this looks like, the answer is: It looks like an aerodynamic stall.

    As explained in some previous posts about crashes, here and here, an aerodynamic stall is nothing like a normal car-engine stall. The simplest way to envision it is to think of bicycling up a very steep hill in high gear. At some point, you won't be able to keep the bicycle's speed up -- and since a bike needs to be moving forward to stay upright, at that point it will fall over.

    So too with an airplane. Its wings have to move through the air at a certain speed, conveniently known as "airspeed," to generate the lift that keeps the plane aloft. If they go too slowly, which often* comes from climbing too steeply, at some point they stop generating enough lift -- and then like a bike going too slowly up a too-steep hill they will "fall over" and the plane will come out of the sky.

    That is what we seem to see in the video above, starting just a few seconds in. Every pilot has done "stall recovery" drills, in which you point the airplane too steeply upward, until eventually it stalls, noses over, and begins to fall. Then you recover in the prescribed way. But usually you do these drills a few thousand feet up into the sky -- to avoid exactly the fate shown in the video.

    Why would an experienced flight crew get into this trouble -- if that is what occurred? Again, I don't know for sure, but one possibility would be "cargo shift." Suppose the cargo in a heavily laden plane was not securely strapped down, so that as the plane accelerated for takeoff, the cargo might shift toward the tail. That could make the plane too tail-heavy to fly. (To be more precise, it could shift the plane's center of gravity outside the acceptable flight envelope.) In general, a pilot increases a plane's airspeed -- and avoids the risk of a stall -- by pointing its nose down. The weight loaded into a plane is carefully calculated to be sure it is appropriately balanced between nose and tail so that the pilot can point the nose up and down as needed. If the tail became too heavy, essentially making the plane a see-saw with too much weight on one side, the pilot would be helpless to avoid a stall and crash.

    A stall, perhaps from shifting cargo, is what this looks like. We'll learn more about what actually occurred.
    * For the aviation crowd: yes, I realize that the technical way to put the point is that the angle of attack has become too high, which can occur even when the plane is not climbing.

  • Forgotten War, Forgotten Deaths

    The war that goes on, and that most Americans can ignore

    Thumbnail image for IraqInvade2.jpg

    With a few weeks' retrospect, it's clear that the most objectionable part of the Chuck Hagel confirmation melee was not the personal smears, nor the posturing by Senators Graham and McCain et al, nor the first-ever filibuster of a SecDef nomination by senators who didn't want their blocking tactic to be called by its real name, nor even the demand by Senator Ted Cruz that Hagel disprove pulled-from-thin-air insinuations that he could be on the North Korean payroll.

    The most objectionable part, of a process supposedly meant to assess the fitness of a former senator and wounded combat veteran to serve as civilian head of the military, was most senators' apparent boredom with the war in which American troops were being killed and wounded even as they spoke. Oh, that war, the one in Afghanistan. The one in which an average of six Americans per week were killed last year. Here are their names. The famous Word Cloud of questions by Senate Armed Services Committee members showed the mind-space, among our legislative leaders, that Afghanistan now claims:
    Thumbnail image for hagel word cloud (1).jpg

    Why bring this up when looking back on 10 years of war in Iraq? The connection is that the situation in Afghanistan has festered so long largely because American strategy, troops, money, material, and effort were prematurely diverted for five or six years, starting midway through 2002, because of the impending invasion of Iraq. As we reflect on the cost of that diversion, here are two memorable pieces of writing to seek out.

    One is Brian Mockenhaupt's "The Living and the Dead," about the members of a USMC platoon in Afghanistan. I hope you will set this aside for a half-hour's sustained reading. I predict that if you do you will think about the people serving in our country's name, and their sacrifice, for a long time.

    The other is Gerald Seymour's novel A Deniable Death. At face value this is entirely different from Mockenhaupt's careful journalism. Seymour is a veteran thriller-writer, and this is a genuinely gripping page-turner. But it is about the same moral drama that is described in "The Living and the Dead," and whose consequences Chuck Hagel must now deal with, and that the senators mostly ignored. A brief sample, involving one of the book's major figures: an Iranian engineer who excels in the art of making extremely damaging "improvised explosive devices," or IEDs for Iraq and then Afghanistan:
    He would tell his audience of the effect that the explosive devices... had on units' morale, and give them, as a rallying cry, the conclusion that one casualty, without a leg or arm, needed four men to bring him back from an explosion and a helicopter to fly him to the rear...

    He spoke, too, of the medium-term damage to troops' psychology, if they had been exposed to situations where bombs were widespread, particularly if there had been casualties in their unit: a larger number of enemy combatants in the Iraq war had gone home with post-traumatic stress disorder, as sick as if they had been severely wounded, and would not return.
    The wars have rolled on, with most of America not noticing. I am writing this item mainly to suggest that Brian Mockenhaupt's essay, in particular, will make you reflect on the choices the country has made. 
  • Out of Afghanistan: William Polk Answers a Critic

    'Our opponents are going to be at least major players, and probably dominant members, of whatever government emerges in Afghanistan. This will happen whether we like it or not. At issue is how quickly and how violently it happens.'

    In response the three-part series on Afghanistan by William R. Polk -- parts one, two, and three --  a reader who served as a U.S. military officer during the Iraq-Afghanistan era sends this complaint:

    The end of that was ... sort of disappointing.  It's not that I disagree with anything Mr. Polk wrote, it's just that it's not clear to me he's very far from consensus opinion and, damn, this stuff is harder to do than I think his essay implies.  I mean, I guess I'd like to hear Mr. Polk flesh out how to do Taliban inclusion if he'd care to. 

    My major objections to what he's saying is that as far as I can tell, the administration has been trying through all kinds of back channels to quietly negotiate with the Taliban.  They're coy about it, but that's to be expected, no?  That's so they can always tell the Taliban, hey man, we could walk away (even if we couldn't).  But it seems like negotiation with the Taliban has been going on on a back burner at varying levels of intensity back even into the end of the Bush administration.

    It also seems like there's a hell of a problem coming from the fact that we just don't know a lot about internal command-and-control of the Taliban (understandably or else we might do better at whuppin' em).  That's why, as I recall, we got strung along by a Taliban "negotiator" who wasn't empowered to negotiate.  I don't think the Taliban care to give us a lot of insight into their organization, either.  Maybe Karzai or someone can get that, if we're not at the table?  I'd like to hear how Mr. Polk wants to identify a partner who's empowered to do anything and how to ensure that there's "Taliban" consensus for whatever we negotiate.

    Lastly I think there's a damn hard regional problem, of course, that really ought to be in those last two sections of Mr. Polk's, but it isn't there.  Look, the Taliban in Pakistan have happily launched two really nasty attacks on Pakistani Army installations, and so the Pakistani Army isn't really happy with those guys at all, except for those parts of that Army which think there's somehow a discrete Afghan Taliban which functions as a cat's paw.  One way or another there's another powerful force at the table trying to position the Talibs and they haven't settled on their objectives yet (weirdly, "Pakistan" shows up nowhere in that whole second installment.)  That matters! 

    When we negotiate with the Taliban and Pakistan isn't at the table, Pakistan makes trouble.  When Pakistan is at the table, Karzai makes trouble.  Omitted from Mr. Polk's list of objectives is that we need to quiet cross-border mischief (in both directions), no?  So I think this problem becomes a lot more, "look here, let me explain it all clearly to you" when you neglect the regional issues, and it gets pretty much intractable when you remember them.  But I'd like to hear his try at it.

    I sent this note to Polk, at his home in France. It is not every day that you hear views on current policy from people who can say, "as I suggested to Walt Rostow about Vietnam..." But for the record here is his response:

    I am grateful to  [this reader] for his thoughtful remarks on my draft policy paper and will here reply to a few of the points he makes.
    The first and perhaps most significant issue is how to get the Taliban "to the table,"  that is to negotiate.
    In my experience in negotiating ceasefires, I have found several common characteristics of the process.   The first is evaluation of what the other side offers.
    I am not privy to what may have been communicated to the Taliban privately, but what appears to have reached them surely falls far short of what they would virtually have to demand.  At the low end, it is to surrender and accept what they would regard as a humiliating outcome of their insurgency; at the upper end, it would be to accept a fragile and largely ceremonial position in a government dominated by the current regime.  If I were a Talib, I would certainly not regard either the low end or the high end as acceptable.  To accept would almost certainly fracture their already-diffuse movement and probably lead to the assassination of the current leaders.
    The second characteristic is that each side is constantly evaluating the other.  So the "window of opportunity" is shifting.  What was possible a few years ago is likely to be much more difficult today.

    Again, if I were a Talib, I would doubt that the Karzai regime would or even could deliver on a deal to end the war.  Put simply, too much money is being made for anyone from Karzai on down to stop.    
     At the top, America is willing to tolerate members of the Karzai regime and adherents bleeding the economy virtually  to death as they ship their ill-gotten gains and their families to bolt-holes in Dubai and elsewhere.  According to the most recently figures, which are probably far from complete, at least $1 billion a year is drained off and sent abroad.  At the bottom, everything is for sale.  As in Vietnam,  soldiers and paramilitary forces sell their arms and ammunition to the insurgents.  And, among civilians, nothing happens without a bribe. This "black" economy is thought to amount to about a quarter of the gross domestic product of the country.
    With so much money to be gained -- at least in the short term by not making a settlement -- the regime and its adherents will try to hang on.  And, again trying to think as a Talib presumably thinks, I would conclude that time is on my side, that the greed of the regime will doom it.  As one of their former senior officials said to me, "if you do not negotiate [soon], they will take it all."
    During the Vietnam war, while a member of the Policy Planning Council, I proposed to its chairman, Walt Rostow, that at minimum we prevent the flight of money and Saigon government officials abroad.   Otherwise, so long as they could, they would get rich and then abandon the country.  I believe we face a similar dénoument in Afghanistan.
    So how, your reader asks, can we get the Taliban to negotiate?
    The answer is far too complex to be handled in a short reply, but there are a few obvious steps to be taken and some equally obvious steps to be avoided.
    One to be avoided is the current American tactic of killing or removing "high value" Taliban; doing so does not stop the fighting but does apparently often swing  effective control increasingly to the younger, less experienced combatants who, presumably, are less inclined to negotiate.  It also strengthens their position with the general population which hates and fears our drones and our special forces.
    One to be admitted is that, as in Vietnam, we must accept the fact that our opponents are going to be at least major players and probably dominant members of whatever government, hopefully a coalition, emerges in Afghanistan.  This will happen whether we like it or not.  At issue is how quickly and how violently it happens.
    As the process begins, other issues must be addressed.
    One to be embraced is diffusion of outside intervention.  Some sort of multinational  peace-seeking force will probably be useful; certainly a multinational aid effort will be required.  In these activities, America should play a decidedly modest role, but will have to contribute much or most of the funds.
    And, finally in this short list, one to be acknowledged is that no foreigners are going to remake Afghan society.  That has proven to be beyond the capacity of the British (who didn't try very hard) and the Russians (who tried very hard) and us.  As I laid out in my paper, however, there are things we can encourage and help to do, but the continuity or evolution of Afghan society will depend on what the Afghans themselves do.
    Finally, as your reader points out, Pakistan and other neighbors will play important roles in Afghanistan's future.  The struggle over Kashmir has given both Pakistan and India a stake in Afghan politics; the resurgence of Islam in Russia and former Soviet Central Asia has in effect reversed the old "Great Game;"  the attempt to stop the drug trade (in which the Iranians have lost more soldiers than we have lost in Afghanistan) has given the Iranians a stake in the Afghan future; and the history-proven centrality of Afghanistan's routes from north to south and east to west and its newly discovered natural resources have now involved the Chinese.
    To be sure, nothing about Afghanistan is simple.  So we must not waste further time and effort and lives trying to do the impossible and must develop a feasible strategy to move toward a more reasonable, if still far from satisfactory, future.  That is what I attempted in my paper.

    Now that we have a defense secretary in place -- albeit one whose fiercest critics say they are glad he has been "weakened" by the fight -- we'll see where any of these plans lead.

    To go back to my previous comments on Fred Kaplan's book: It's worth remembering something now taken for granted about the Obama administration. That fact is that Obama, having mistakenly (in my view) accepted the Petraeus/McChrystal argument for a "surge" in Afghanistan during his first year in office, two years later had the resolve to correctly (in my view) declare the experiment a failure and curtail what otherwise could have been an open-ended American exposure. What Obama called in his State of the Union address the end of "our war" in Afghanistan will be good news for some people there and bad news for others. But there is a limit to what the U.S. can sanely undertake for other countries by force of arms. If Obama had decided differently, we could be in for many more years of the dilemmas William Polk describes.

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  • Involving the Taliban in Afghanistan Solution: William R. Polk, Part 3

    "The Taliban claim to a major degree of participation in whatever government evolves cannot be successfully denied."

    William R. Polk's first installment in this series, about the Soviet experience in Afghanistan, is here; the second, about Afghan realities constraining U.S. options, is here. This is the third and last for now, an analysis of the least-bad way for the U.S. to manage its extrication from Afghanistan. For completeness, his 1958 article on "Lessons of Iraq" is here. The points below follow "Point I. Basic Facts" from earlier today:

    By William R. Polk

    II. The Essential Objectives of the Afghan People and The World Community:

    The fundamental objective shared by the Afghans and foreigners is a peaceful and secure country, able and willing to manage its own affairs and to act as an independent member of the world community;

    This objective is brought into sharp focus by the insistence of the member nations of the NATO alliance that Afghanistan, under any government, prohibit the use of its territory or other facilities for acts of terrorism or subversion in member countries and their allies.  This, after all, was the justification for the overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2003.  This is the second objective;

    The third objective is particularly important for, but not necessarily understood by,  Americans.  It is not only to eliminate or cut down on the vast expenditures of money (much of it borrowed) and human resources (much of it wasted in battle or used in unproductive ways) but also to avoid a "blowback" by the warping or degradation of their institutions, comity and laws caused by fear, apparent necessity for drastic action and excessive concern with "security;"

    The fourth objective of the member nations of the NATO alliance and particularly of the United States is to end or at least diminish the costs to them of the war. Member nations of the NATO alliance are already acting to accomplish for themselves this objective.   Afghans generally do not share it:  the Taliban movement, fractured though it may be, is determined regardless of  cost to induce the foreigners to leave and to reestablish something like the regime that was destroyed by the American invasion.  The Karzai government wavers between the NATO/ American and the Taliban objectives.  In principle, it seeks total independence but its power brokers (aided and abetted by influential outside participants) are making vast amounts of money off the occupation and are in no hurry to end it.   That is to say, there is a small but significant area of agreement on the objectives but not on timing, on the means to achieve them and on whom will control the action.

    III. Objectives Desired By The Afghan People and The World Community:

    Although, in current conditions they have not uniformly or vigorously articulated it, we may assume that a desired objective of all the Afghan people is a more adequate standard of living with both an improved diet and an enhanced level of health as well as a level of education that will enable to achieve and sustain a strong economy;

    Both the majority of the Afghan people and concerned foreign powers desire a level of stability sufficient to prevent civil strife and invite further foreign intervention;

    Member countries of the NATO alliance as well as China and Russia would like for Afghanistan to take a place suitable to its capacities in legal world trade.  Specifically, they would like to profit from Afghanistan's mineral resources, to make use of its routes of trade and to get its help in interdicting the drug trade;

    Since some aspects of Afghan society, notably the position and role of women, appear to outsiders as ugly and "medieval," they would like to foster the "evolution" of the society along contemporary Western lines.  This objective is not widely shared in the country today although, briefly in the 1960s and 1970s, it was the policy of the then Afghan government and was approved by a wide swath of urban society.  Under conditions of peace and independence, especially if these are brought about through negotiations, it is likely gradually to re-emerge.
    IV. Accomplishment of These Objectives:

        Accomplishment of these objectives will be, at best,  a complex task and can be accomplished only gradually.  Rarely throughout its long history and only briefly in the last century have the Afghans had the opportunity to set their own agenda or to mobilize themselves to accomplish their own aims.   Moreover,  even discounting for the handicaps under which they have lived,  they have not made satisfactory use of the opportunities they have had.  (That is, except in the paramilitary field where they have taken on and essentially defeated both the Soviet Union and the United States.)  Unless or until the Afghans gain the necessary scope of action to manage their own affairs and even to commit their own mistakes, they are unlikely to make significant progress in non-military endeavors.   This scope can come only after an end to foreign control of their affairs.  Therefore, the necessary but not sufficient step is true independence.

        Costly and disappointing experience should have taught Western governments, and particularly the United States government, that the successful "engineering" of another country's government by foreigners is rare and that the beneficial recasting of an exotic society is even more rare.  Foreign powers can contribute only marginally to local initiatives.  To succeed, action must be modest.

    V. Means of action:

        The United States government must acknowledge, as does the Karzai government, that the Taliban claim to a major degree of participation in whatever government evolves cannot be successfully denied.  This will be politically difficult for Western governments, but the sooner they, and particularly the United States government, recognizes this fact, the stronger will be its means of action.  We must assume that the Taliban knows, as did the Vietminh in their war against the American occupation in Vietnam, that time in on their side.   While painful, the Taliban struggle is sustainable at acceptable cost and is fought in their neighborhood while the NATO and American campaign is enormously expensive, not popular with their own peoples and is remote from their concerns.  Thus, a wise American policy would seeks negotiations at the earliest feasible time.

        Negotiation is the most efficient, fastest and least costly way ahead.  The elements that will arise in negotiations are not many but are fundamental.  

        First is the revamping of the central government to include the Taliban.  Absent this, there will be no productive negotiation.   President Karzai himself has called for their inclusion. Before negotiations are undertaken, precisely what would be involved cannot be made clear.  Hints have suggested participation in a sort of government of national unity with each side staking a claim to spheres of influence or control.   The Taliban want more; Karzai wants to give less.  This, of course, is the essence of negotiation.  Neither Karzai nor the Taliban trust the other to abide by the deal they make.  So a careful step-by-step process will be required and probably some form of guarantee will have to be devised to overcome the lack of trust.

        Second is the structure of the state.  Probably some sort of federal configuration will be necessary, but, at all costs, the country should not be "balkanized."   This is because Afghanistan's several ethnic/religious/linguistic communities are so mingled that splitting the country into pieces, as some have suggested, would set off a panic flight that would create millions of new refugees;  moreover, the resulting mini-states would be too weak to sustain themselves and so would invite perennial intervention.

        Probably the negotiators will agree to continue the traditional, ethnicity-based arrangement of provinces.  Exact boundaries may prove difficult to determine but something like the Pushtun south, the Tajik northeast, the Turkic north and the Hazara central massif will constitute the major elements.  Afghans will probably agree to keep the current freedom of movement among the provinces; indeed, it probably could not be effectively curtailed.

        In this somewhat loosely unified state, the negotiators will probably easily agree that area around Kabul should be a federal district, as it historically has been, administered by the central government.   The foreign negotiators and donors of aid should endeavor to get agreement on making the federal district the leader in modernization.  For example, strengthening of the university with such associated professional schools as the medical training college, augmented by European and American universities and foundations, acting like the Rockefeller Foundation did in China, will attract potential leaders from the provinces and help to integrate the country.  Such a policy will be difficult to sell to the Taliban.

        Third, and more difficult to be agreed will be the allocation of military power.  Today, it is of two very different kinds:  the Karzai regime has, at least on paper, a standing army while the Taliban has, effectively, a guerrilla army.  If negotiations are delayed beyond the withdrawal of the foreign, mainly American, forces, it is likely that the standing army will simply implode.  Soldiers will just go home.  That is what happened in many revolutionary situations, most recently in neighboring Iran.  This is another reason, obviously, to undertake negotiations sooner rather than later.

        What negotiators should aim to achieve is the creation of a relatively small standing army.  It should be small because such limited human and monetary resources as the country has are desperately needed elsewhere and a large army, absent other vigorous public institutions, which do not yet exist, would likely lead to a military take-over and derailment of the development program.

        Fourth is the role of the government of national unity in other aspects of rule.  Control of foreign affairs would give the central government the means to negotiate with and encourage donors and investors.  Since external aid would pass through its hands, the central government could allocate aid projects among the provinces and so exercise a subtle but considerable influence over their policies.  Continuation and strengthening of a uniform currency, under control of a central bank, will also help to unify the country, but given the level of corruption and flight of money, this may be stoutly resisted by Karzai's supporters; the Taliban will be less concerned with this issue.

        Fifth is the crucial issue of the smaller-scale structure of the state: village assemblies are the backbone of Afghanistan.  Their role is absolutely crucial.  It should be easy to convince a government of national unity to support them.  One way to do this is to give them authority over local aid projects.  First on the list could be small, inexpensive, locally-built, farm-to-market roads (to connect with the ring road  (see map)  so that farmers can get their produce to market before it spoils.  Such a program was highly successful even half a century ago, when I first observed it,  but it was aborted by invasion, civil war and the break-down of rural order.   Such a program in the aftermath of a negotiated end of war would meet locally-perceived needs, give a much-needed example of success and engender a new sense of "ownership."   Thus, the village assemblies will be empowered, encouraged to support peace and make a serious attack on the current massive unemployment.



    VI Dangers and Costs of Negotiation and Non-negotiation

             Since, obviously, negotiations that include the Taliban will be politically costly, the United States government and particularly the current administration is likely to delay or even to avoid action.  Given this contingency,  a second category of action must be considered.  What would it entail?

        The first step would be the setting of a clear, firm and reasonably proximate date for the evacuation of foreign forces.  Moves have been made in this direction, but they have been weakened by hedging on timing and numbers.   So they have not had the effect on the Karzai regime, the Taliban or on the general public that is needed.   It is important to understand exactly why clarity and determination are crucial.  In summary, it is because they are necessary to change the "political psychology" of the Afghans.  And only if such a change is brought about can progress can be made on either the essential or the desired objectives stated above.

        Consider the reaction of the Afghans.  The Taliban is committed to continue fighting until foreign forces evacuate the country.  It is unlikely that they will accept a partial or long-delayed evacuation. If not,  the war will continue.  The Karzai regime shows two responses to lack of a clear policy:  on the one hand, its "power brokers" continues at a truly astonishing scale and speed to profit from the occupation and, on the other hand, they are withdrawing their assets and families to safe havens abroad.   Meanwhile, the general population can make no significant contribution to peace but, in part, helps to continue the insurgency by passively allowing or actively helping the Taliban.
        The evidence of this is made clear in the way the way the Afghan community has viewed the war.  At the present time, the Taliban can not only move virtually at will and draw support from the people but can destroy even such foreign donations as clinics, schools, bridges, etc..  The reason, as stated above, is that the Afghans regard these results of foreign activities as part of the military tactic to dominate them. Americans and Europeans with a sense of history will recall that in the 1950s, the Vietnamese also acquiesced in guerrilla tactics, allowing free passage and providing support, but also destroyed the works of the French (and later the Americans).  The Vietcong murdered even doctors, nurses and teachers.  Other insurgent groups have followed the same policy.

        So, if we  believe it is to our shared interest to move Afghanistan toward a degree of security which would allow an American administration to withdraw without a politically unacceptable defeat, we must change the context in which our actions are judged: that is, we must disconnect military tactics - our self-defeating counterinsurgency action-- from developmental programs.

        If a firm date in the reasonably near term is believed, the Afghans can feel that their principal, shared objective has been achieved: the foreigners have agreed to leave.   At that point, the village assemblies - jirgas, shuras and ulas -- will begin to view the construction in their neighborhoods of a clinic, the opening of a school or the laying of a farm-to-market road as intrinsically valuable; they will want these things for themselves and their fellow villagers.  

        Will the Taliban and/or local militias under the command of warlords continue to do as it is now doing to thwart this process?  Probably.  But if they do, they will gradually but inexorably lose the support of the villagers on whom they rely.  (Thus, in Mao's often quoted phrase, the "water" will dry up around the "fish.") In this new context, they will be seen as operating against the public good in ways that can no longer be justified as opposition to foreign domination.  In short, their cause will have become redundant and their opposition to foreign-financed and conceived beneficial activities will come to be seen as unpatriotic and anti-social.

    VII. Anticipated Results:

            Over time:  Afghanistan can evolve into a relatively peaceful society in which citizens will have a chance for a considerably improved standard of living and, in the context of Afghan cultural norms, will come to share an acceptable form of participatory democracy.  More Afghan émigrés, now constituting a drain on neighboring countries and needed at home to replace the over 1 million Afghans killed or died in the wars, will return as about 6 million already have. While results within Afghanistan itself will be modest, the benefits to outside powers will be immense:  the enormous drain on the financial resources of the US and other powers will end, the wounding and killing of their soldiers will cease; and the dislocations of their societies in reaction to their perception of threats of terrorism and subversion will lessen as Afghanistan can no longer be used as a launching pad for actions against them.  In short, the program laid out here is to the interest of all parties and should be undertaken with all deliberate speed.

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  • Getting Out of Afghanistan: William R. Polk, Part 2

    'Foreigners find failure easy in Afghanistan'

    William R. Polk is a long-time scholar and analyst of U.S. foreign policy who published an Atlantic article called "The Lessons of Iraq" back in 1958. Two days ago, I posted the first part of his long assessment of the options now available for the United States in Afghanistan. That part dealt with the Soviet failure in Afghanistan and what lessons it might hold.

    In parts two and three, Polk turns to American policy options. This installment, number two, sets out some of the basic but often-forgotten realities of Afghanistan. In the final part, which will be ready later today, Polk examines the trade-offs for America and Afghanistan and recommends a course of action.

    Toward a Feasible Afghan  Policy
    By William R. Polk

        Too much of what we read in reports and analyses on Afghanistan is based on wishful thinking. It is late, but not too late, to move toward an affordable and sustainable policy.  To arrive at such a policy, we must begin by considering historical, geographical, ethnic and economic realities on the ground rather than merely focusing on what the Afghans, the Americans and other nations desire.   

    I The Basic Facts

    Afghanistan has a surface area of 6.5 thousand square kilometers (about the size of Texas or the combination of France, Belgium, The Netherlands and Denmark) of which 85% to 90% is mountainous and/or desert.  The central massif, broken by deep valleys, rises to a maximum height of nearly 8 thousand meters and much of the south and west is sand, rock or salty marsh. Thus, the economically "usable" Afghanistan is comparable to just Florida or the combination of Belgium and The Netherlands. The country has few known natural resources. Energy has been particularly lacking.  Water power is hampered by erosion, causing generators to disintegrate and storage lakes to fill with sediment.  Both oil and coal have been found but have only begun to be developed.  Timber is in very short supply, with forests covering less than 5% of the surface; much of the earlier forest areas have been denuded (destroyed by war or cut for fuel).   Ground water almost everywhere, except in the far north,  is unavailable while rain falls heavily and creates often devastating floods  in March-April.  Other floods come when snow melts in mid summer.  These times are inappropriate for most agriculture; so Afghanistan cannot feed itself.  The  reality is that Afghanistan is and will remain a poor country.

    The population has risen over the last half century, from perhaps 10 million in 1962, when I first went there, to 31-33 million in 2012.  Today,  over half of the Afghanis are below the age of 18, so a major upsurge of population can be anticipated in the years ahead.  Before the Soviet invasion and occupation, the population was at least 80% rural:  most Afghans were settled peasant farmers, living in some 22,000 villages, but perhaps 1 in each 8 or 9 was a nomad.  Religiously, about 5-6 people in each 10 are Sunni Muslims and somewhat more than 3-4 in 10 are Shia Muslims.  Ethnically, the population is divided into at least two dozen communities of which the Pushtuns (aka Pathans) (4 in each 10), the Tajiks (3 in each 10) and the Hazaras (1-2 in each 10) are the largest.  These groups speak off-shoots of the Indo-European family of languages, mainly Dari, a dialect of Farsi (Persian).  Smaller Turkish and Mongol groups speak languages in the Ural-Altaic (or East Asian) family while other, even smaller,  communities speak languages in the Semitic family of languages.  Thus, Afghanistan is culturally, socially and politically diverse.

    While, the diversity of the country is evident, it is important not to exaggerate its effects.  The inhabitants of the cities, towns and villages share shaping influences of means of earning their livings, religious belief and practice and historical experience.   The best known traditional code of life is the Pushtunwali of the Pushtuns,  but similar "social contracts" are  echoed in the other communities;  Islam in Afghanistan, like Christianity in Europe and America, is divided, but overall there is an intense loyalty to it;  and the experience of nearly all Afghans, shaped by generations of warfare, set them apart, they fervently believe, from all foreigners.  At minimum, the Afghans have a unity in their difference from others.

    Thumbnail image for US_Army_ethnolinguistic_map_of_Afghanistan_--_circa_2001-09.jpg

    Throughout history, central governments have functioned only intermittently and in sharply limited spheres except in the few cities.  Effective government is traditionally primarily a function of village communities: each village runs its own affairs under its own leaders; its inhabitants were economically virtually autarkic, making most of their clothing and tools and eating their own produce. 

     This lack of national cohesion thwarted the Russians during their occupation: they won almost every battle and occupied at one time or another virtually every inch of the country, and through their civic action programs they actually pacified many of the villages, but they could never find or create an organization with which to make peace. Baldly put, no one could surrender the rest. Thus, over the decade of their involvement, the Russians lost about 15,000 soldiers - and the war. When they gave up and left, the Afghans resumed their traditional way of life, what might be called "the Afghan way."

    "The Afghan way" is today manifested in three aspects of government:
      first, the central government is weak.  Its writ is hardly noticed, much less obeyed, outside of downtown Kabul and a few other cities.  Religious law, outside the control of government, is supreme.  Secular law exists only on paper.  Those who can read it are usually powerful enough not to have to  pay any attention to it.  Many of the powerful, rich and well-connected have their own private "armies."  Indeed, the most striking characteristic of Afghanistan is that it is a country of private armies.  Thus, as Thucydides wrote of the ancient Greeks, "the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must."  Poorer Afghans live in fear of theft, kidnap or murder.  Their only recourse is the payment of protection money.  It follows that such government as exists, at least outside village communities, is corrupt at every level, from the traffic policeman to the president.  A UN study in 2010 found that officials and thugs "shake down" their fellow citizens each year to an amount equal to about a quarter of the country's gross domestic product.  The sometime US commander, General David Petraeus, described the ruling institution as a "crime syndicate."  

        A June 2010 report to the US House of Representatives Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs entitled "Warlord, Inc." detailed one aspect of extortion and corruption to show how millions of foreign assistance dollars are funneled into the crime syndicate.  As the report makes clear, there are four major results of this activity:  the crime syndicate becomes overwhelmingly powerful; the action of the Karzai family and associates demeans the very concept of government; the participants in the scam will do anything to continue the flow of money into their hands; but, they are hedging their bets by moving their new fortunes and their families abroad with all deliberate speed in full public view.  As President Karzai himself already admitted in a well-publicized speech in November 2008, "The banks of the world are full of the money of our statesmen."  Consequently, virtually no Afghan acknowledges the legitimacy of the Karzai government or its edicts.   Most competent observers believe that once American troops are withdrawn, the existing government will collapse.  Those now in power obviously agree with this assessment as shown by their rush to get their fortunes and their families abroad to safe havens.

    The traditional Afghan means of achieving political legitimacy is not by the system the central government,  partly at American insistence, has employed: election.   Even if it were, election is discredited today as fraudulent.  The traditional Afghan way to achieve legitimacy is by consensus.  Every social group, beginning in each village, comes together in a council.  In the Pushtun areas, these councils are known as jirgas;   in the Tajik area, shuras; and in the Hazara area, ulus.  These councils are not, in the Western sense of the word, institutions; rather they are "occasions."  They are called into being when some locally pressing issue cannot be resolved by the local headman or a respected religious figure.  The members are not elected but are accorded their status by popular acclamation. Often the members are religious leaders.  The code they enforce is what the local people see as their "way."  That is, what they believe to be fair, right and proper.  Throughout Afghanistan the definition of these attributes is Quranic.

    While such councils seem exotic to Americans, they are, in fact, remarkably widespread - the wartime Yugoslav partisans created odbors for similar purposes; as did the Greek EAM andartes.  In Greece then, as in Afghanistan today, they were led by men regarded by their neighbors as ipefihinos or "responsible men." Similar needs gave rise to juntas in revolutionary Spain; "councils of public safety" in revolutionary America; comités de salut public  in revolutionary France;  and soviets in revolutionary Russia.  None of these groups came about in elections; indeed, it is the electoral process itself that is exotic in most of the world. It still has not taken root in many places including Afghanistan.

    As broader areas perceive common issues,  local assemblies then give rise to "elevated" councils.  In Afghanistan, local councils joined in regional councils to deal with shared concerns and ultimately coalesced into a single national council, known as the Loya Jirga.  The Loya Jirga shares characteristics with constitutional assemblies.  Its role in Afghan life was never fully understood by either the Soviets or the Americans.  That role is described in the current constitution as "the highest manifestation of the will of the people of Afghanistan." Its will was thwarted by US interference behind the scenes to impose Hamid Karzai as interim president of the country in 2002.  Consequently, the working of the Loya Jirga was regarded by many Afghans as corrupted by foreign forces.  

    Third, virtually all Afghans share a deep commitment to Islam.  In fact, Afghanistan is perhaps the most religious of all the Muslim lands.  Religion permeates all aspects of life, literally from the cradle to the grave.  And the most common Afghan version of Islam, a variation of the Hanafi School of law, is the most rigid now being practiced.  We think of the extremists as members of the Taliban (literally "religious students"), but they would have little power if what they enforced was not what Afghans believed to be proper.   

    This perception is demonstrated by Afghan history.  Twice in the last half century, Afghan governments tried to lead their citizens into a modern (read: "Western") program of reform.   In the 1960s and 1970s, the government of Prime Minister Mohammad Maiwandwal seemed to be on the way to turning Afghanistan into a progressive modern state with heavy emphasis on the liberation of women, the spread  of education and openness to foreign influences.  His administration was easily overthrown; a decade later, the culturally more progressive of the two Communist parties, the urban-based Parcham, took power and set in motion an even more radical modernization program.  In reaction, large units of the army went into rebellion, butchering "modernists" and their Soviet advisors.  Huge uprisings broke out all over the country, even in larger towns and cities where reformist ideas were more acceptable than in rural areas.

    When it conquered most of Afghanistan in 1996, the Taliban government enforced the strictest form of Islam practiced in modern times;  many of its draconian actions were derived from the Old Testament and are proclaimed but not practiced in Ultra-Orthodox Judaism and in some obscurantist Christian sects.   For implementing them, the Taliban regime has been widely criticized not only by non-Muslim foreigners but also by most non-Afghan Muslims.  To our eyes, the Taliban was seen as imposing an ugly,  retrograde, "Medieval" rein of terror, but it was not so regarded by many, possibly even most, Afghans.  Thus, two of the things to be determined in Afghanistan's future are how rapidly and how much such attitudes can be expected to change.   Many intelligent Afghans, including former senior members of the Taliban organization, have told me that such change will come but is unlikely so long as the country remains under foreign occupation.

    Afghan society is also notable for its poverty.   That has always been true, but during the brutal Soviet invasion and occupation and in the devastating civil war that followed, nearly 1 in each 10 Afghans was killed or died and about 5 million people fled to Pakistan or Iran while other millions - no one knows how many - lost their homes but stayed in Afghanistan.  Most living inhabitants have known no time of peace or even minimal security.   Large numbers are sick or suffering from wounds and lacking in skills needed to improve their condition.
    Public health and education are both near the bottom of the world scale:  more than 1 Afghan in each 3 lives on less than the equivalent of US $0.45 (45¢) a day  and more than 1 in each 2 preschool children are stunted because of malnutrition.  They are the lucky ones: 1 child in 5 dies before the age of 5.  Life expectancy is about 45 years.  On education, nearly 90% of Afghan women and nearly 60% of Afghan men are illiterate.   Only 1 in each 5 Afghan children attends primary school and from ages 7 to 14 at least 1 in each 4 drops out of school to work.  

    Both the Soviet and American occupation forces have mounted "civic action" programs with the proclaimed purpose of raising the standard of life of the Afghan people.  Obviously, the Afghans need help, so Americans  - and the Russians before them - have thought that they should welcome efforts to aid them.  But independent observers have found that they do not.  Based on some 400 interviews throughout the country, a team of Tufts University researchers found that "Afghan perceptions of aid and aid actors are overwhelmingly negative."  We must ask why this is.

    The reason appears to be that the Afghans, and particularly  the insurgents, understand from published pronouncements that "civic action" is a form of warfare.  In their decade of occupation, that is the way the Russians used it; it is the way the American government uses it today.  The official position was neatly summed up by General David Petraeus as he fought in Iraq:  "Money," he said, "is my most important ammunition in this war."  The Afghans take him at his word.

    Related to this perception of the actions of foreigners, Afghans generally suffer from what might be called an "invasion complex."  Throughout history -- with rare exceptions --  Afghanistan has been more acted upon than acting upon others.  In the long period of pre-history, it was the route by which Central Asian invaders (probably the founders of the ancient Indus River civilization and certainly the later Indo-European tribesmen who founded India's later kingdoms) reached the sub-continent.  Afghanistan was the route across which Alexander the Great's Macedonians, various other East Asians fleeing from China and invading Turks plunged into South Asia.  More recently, it was the scene upon which the conflict between Tsarist Russia and British India, the so-called Great Game, was played.  Finally, Russia invaded in 1979 and occupied the country for a decade.  A vicious civil war followed until the Taliban took control of about 90% of the country in the late 1990s.  Their government was overthrown by the US in 2001.  Supported by some NATO military contingents, America has occupied the country ever since.  This long experience has left a residue of fear and even hatred of foreigners that permeates Afghan society.

    The country is landlocked, about 500 kilometers from the nearest sea, and is surrounded by Iran, Pakistan, China and the former Soviet Union with frontiers aggregating some 5.4 thousand kilometers.  The capital, Kabul, is only about half as far from the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, as New York City is from Washington D.C.  The area in between, which the British called "the Northwest Frontier,"  is the homeland of the Pushtuns, a Pashto-speaking, Sunni-Muslim people.  Roughly one-third of them --14 million -- live in Afghanistan (where they make up about 40% of the total Afghan population) and the other two-thirds -- 25 million -- live in Pakistan (where they aggregate about 16% of the total population).

    Afghanistan's neighbors have undeniable interests in the country:  when it is weak, foreigners intrude and when it is strong it reaches into their domains.  Particularly in religion, it interacts strongly with both South and Central Asia and Russia where 1 in each 7 is a Muslim and are rapidly increasing.  Pakistan's interests are the closest, but it is not alone:  India seeks to use Afghanistan to backstop its policy toward Pakistan and Kashmir; China has a new interest in Afghan energy production; the Russian Federation wants to prevent encouragement of Muslim disaffection in its Central Asian provinces and its allies; Iran shares Shia Islam with a major ethnic community, the 1 to 2% who are Hazaras, has deeply influenced Afghan culture including the language of the majority of Afghans and seeks to choke off the pernicious drug trade originating in Afghanistan.

    The roles of foreigners have undergone major changes in recent years and these changes will increasingly affect what is possible for outsiders to accomplish. First the Soviet Union and later America and the European Union have each fought for a decade against Afghan opponents.  Neither has "won."  And, in the course of warfare and occupation, new interests new interests have been created.  Among these is the almost desperate need of their leaders to avoid admitting failure.

    Foreigners find failure easy in Afghanistan.  It is known as the graveyard of empires.   The British lost a whole army there in 1842 and two subsequent campaigns ended in failure; a Russian invasion in 1929 was a near catastrophe, and in the 1979-1989 occupation as mentioned above, the Russians lost about 15,000 soldiers.  The American invasion and occupation, has so far cost over 2,100 casualties and perhaps five times that many gravely or even permanently wounded.   Few believe it can succeed.    

        These are the key facts forming the pattern in which policies must be accommodated; so what is possible to do that is acceptable to the Afghans and foreigners?

    Stay tuned for part 3, with Polk's answers to that closing question, later today.

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  • Will We Learn Anything from Afghanistan? William R. Polk, Part 1

    A scholar who has been studying U.S. policy toward Afghanistan since the Eisenhower asks what we can take from the last decade's victories and defeats.

    PolkPhoto.jpegWilliam R. Polk's first appearance as an Atlantic author came 55 years ago. While Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House, while Americans were absorbing the impact of the launch of Sputnik, while the showdown over integrating Little Rock Central High School continued, he wrote an article for us in 1958 called [yes] "The Lessons of Iraq." You can read it here and note how much of the analysis still applies.

    In the years since then Polk has been a scholar and diplomat concentrating mainly on Middle Eastern affairs. Three years ago he made a return visit here to report on his latest trip to Afghanistan.

    Now he has written a two-part essay on what Americans should take from their past ten-plus years of combat in Afghanistan. Through all these decades, a central theme in Polk's writing has been the crucial importance of recognizing and learning from strategic mistakes -- but also the seeming impossibility of doing so. This first of his dispatches concentrates on the lessons of the Soviet Union's struggles in Afghanistan. This one is about 3500 words long, or the scale of a medium-sized Atlantic story. I turn the stage over to William R. Polk.

      President Obama intends to "wind down" the Afghan war over the next years and to leave only a training mission there.   He inherited from President Bush and has continued, even enlarged, the American expenditures -- thousands of casualties, hundreds of thousands of wounded and a trillion dollars.   The experience has been, or should have been, as Kipling wrote of another war, "no end of a lesson."  Yet, I wonder, has it really been a lesson, and have we heeded it?  Might we do the same things again?

        As I have ruminated for years over these questions, which may be nearly vital for our country and our beliefs, I have reached the conclusion that we do not see or understand the similarities of events; rather we think of each venture as unique.  What happened in Vietnam has no relevance to what happened in Iraq.  After all, the  two countries are far apart, speak different languages and...well you know the rest....

        Fortunately, most of the current wars appear to be over even though they have left us with huge burdens.  But, as we survey what may be the prospect of new burdens, do our leaders connect the past to the present and the future?  I find little evidence to suggest that they do.

        Perhaps, I have thought, this is partly because of our rotation of leadership.  The new leaders are sure that they can do better what the former leaders did badly.  It is also, I think, because our memories are weak and our attention spans are short.    Perhaps we really don't care.  Or all the above.

        Here, I am trying to do two things, hence two papers I lay before you:  the one is that by looking not only at our involvement in the current war, Afghanistan, but also looking at what the Soviet Union did and tried to do there, I can single out a few things that should command attention even of our leaders.  The other, addressed in my second paper is,  given what we know and what we have experienced, what now makes sense for us to do.


    What the Russians did in Afghanistan And What We Can Learn From It.
    By William R. Polk

    I have long been a student of Afghan affairs.  I first went there in 1962 when I was a Member of the Policy Planning Council.  During that visit, I made a 2,000 mile trip around the country during which I managed to talk with dozens of village elders, government officials and the diplomats and advisers from all the main states.  The result was a policy paper I presented to the Secretary of State's policy committee.

        The main argument in my paper was that the wisest policy for America was a modest and discrete involvement designed to help the Afghans manage their own affairs.  To accomplish this goal,  I proposed various ventures in education, health and infrastructure.  

        Above all, I proposed, America should avoid actions that were likely to restart the "Great Game,"  the competition for control of Afghanistan between Imperial Russia and the then British-dominated South Asia.  Neither we, nor the by-then Soviet Russians, nor the by-then independent South Asians - and certainly not the Afghans - would gain.   What the British called a "Forward Policy" had long since proven wasteful, sterile and self-defeating.  Its modern version, proclaimed by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, was likely to repeat in Afghanistan what he and his brother Allan were already doing in Iran:  ultimately nullifying attempts, slow and weak as they were, toward increased national capacity and improvement of life.
    Secretary of State Rusk was complimentary of my effort but cautioned me not to waste my time: Afghanistan was not then and would never be of any significance..  Believing this, we phased down from the Dulles policy because we were distracted by urgent considerations in Vietnam.  The Russians, similarly, eased their activities because they too were distracted by other events, notably in Eastern Europe.  And, onto this relatively open field, the Afghans began a program of national enhancement.   The university took the lead.  Ideas, programs and even new styles of social interaction and dress appeared.  It was as though the Afghans had heard Chairman Mao say "let a hundred flowers bloom."  They -- not he -- meant it.

    But the modernization movement was shallow and weak.  It needed all the help it could get.  What I had urged we do might have made a crucial difference, but our policy machine had only two settings, full speed ahead or stop.  No moderation.  We didn't quite stop, but we came close.  And we drifted with events so when the King's cousin, Daud Khan overthrew the various and competing reformers and radicals, and installed a rightist dictatorship, we hardly noticed.
    Neither, at first, did the Russians.  In fact, they were quite content with the Daud dictatorship.   As the former British ambassador to Moscow, Sir Rodric Braithwaite, in his excellent study of Soviet policy , has observed,

    "Because the Soviet government valued its relationship with the Daud government, the Ambassador and the Chief Soviet Military Adviser were instructed to have no dealings with the PDPA [Communist Party] leaders."

     As we did in Iran and elsewhere, they conducted their more sensitive relationships through their intelligence channel. There message they sent along that channel was dispiriting to the Afghan Communists: stop fighting among yourselves support President Daud.

    The Afghan Communists did not listen.  Few though they were  -  Braithwaite suggests only about 1,500 -- they were determined to seize power.  Although we do not know much about their thinking, it is likely that they were driven rather than inhibited by recognition of their weakness.  As they watched Daud purge one after another of his initial allies, they must have realized that if they did not seize power, Daud would imprison or kill them too.  And, because they were split between an urban, university-oriented faction (known as Parcham) and a rural-based faction (known as Khalq), Daud found them an easy target.   He took the initiative and began on April 25, 1978  to arrest the leaders, some of whom he had killed, but he purged too casually: from prison, the would-be rebels managed to get their junior military officer allies to strike on their behalf.

    The coup itself, as coups often are, was the easy part.  But the inexperienced young Party chiefs and their army colleagues soon overplayed their hands.  Even when their objectives were laudable, as some were, they were unpopular among the generally conservative society.  So eleven months after the coup, the army mutinied. Russian officers were killed and the regime teetered.
    What the Russians then faced sounds very familiar to us today with just the change of a few names and dates.  What, the Russians leaders wondered, was their real interest:  if they moved to protect their Afghan allies, they might disrupt the Russian-American détente which, despite Soviet repression of revolts in Eastern Europe, Leonid Brezhnev thought of as his "page in the history books."   Was Secretary Rusk right?  Was Afghanistan not important, or at least not important enough to risk other policy goals?  And what response might a new "Forward Policy" draw?

    The Soviet government had reason to worry about a possible American reaction even though Afghanistan was not a major American concern.  Neighboring Iran was.  And  there the American position, the very keystone of the then American Middle Eastern policy, the Shah's regime, had been rudely overturned by the January 1979 Revolution.  As the Russians were reacting to the revolts in Eastern Europe, it must have seemed to them not inconceivable that the Americans, motivated by their belief in the "Domino Theory" (that when one ally falls, the others are likely also to fall), would react to their Iranian fiasco by invading Afghanistan.   Even if they did not send in troops, the Russians must have considered, the Americans might seek to establish intelligence-gathering bases to replace those they had operated in Iran.  Worse, in the context of the Cold War, they might get themselves into position to engage in espionage among the restive Muslim population of Central Asia.  Suddenly Afghanistan seemed significant.

    But not, of course, as significant as Eastern Europe.  So wise statesmen exercise what they believe to be prudent.  But in strategy what passes as prudence is sometimes the first step in a process that soon becomes imprudent..  What they did was similar to the cautious first steps President Kennedy took on Vietnam almost twenty years before - send in some "advisers," food and other non-lethal aid.  If more was needed, send weapons and set about training the native army on how to use them.  Not much would be needed in their wars, both the Americans and the Russians believed.  Intervention could be limited in both scale and time.  All was under control.  

    What was not under control was the local ally.  As in Vietnam so in Afghanistan, the native government failed to rise to the challenge.  Worse, it presented to its own people, and gradually to the world, the face of a vicious, totalitarian, corrupt regime.  

    The Russians were under no illusions about the Afghans. Braithwaite found evidence in their archives of their recognition of  "the deviousness, brutality, and incompetence of their Communist allies in Kabul."  When the Afghan Communists tried to justify their policy by comparing it to Stalin's purges, the "evolved" Soviet leadership was infuriated.   What Stalin did was long ago and no longer permissible.

    Undeterred, the Afghan Communists arrested and killed tens of thousands of their fellow citizens.  Massacres were followed by new uprisings which in turn were bloodily repressed.  They found it convenient when some of the repressions were blamed on the Russians.  Increasingly, even whole formations of army troops deserted to the rebels.  

    As  the weeks and months passed and clashes increased in scale, the "men on the ground," the embassy, the KGB station and the military advisers urged deeper involvement.  Heeding their demands while seeking to assuage  religious and ethnic sentiments, the Soviet government began to send in small detachments of  Central Asian Turkish-speaking Muslim troops.  This was an advantage the later American forces did not have:  the Americans must have appeared to Afghans, as we see in photos, like beings from outer space in their odd helmets, eye shades and camouflage uniforms.

    The initial contingents did not suffice.  There was always a need for more.  The next step was to bring in the Soviet equivalent of the Green Berets or Special Forces, the  SpetNaz.  Initially, their task was to defend the other Russians, but gradually, of course, they were drawn into the conflict.  As Braithwaite wrote,

    "Thus by the late summer of 1979 several of the military units that were to play a significant role in the first days of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan were already in place....Step by step, with great reluctance, strongly suspecting that it would be a mistake, the Russians slithered toward a military intervention because they could not think of a better alternative."

    During this period, when not distracted by events in Eastern Europe, the Politburo was thrown into turmoil.  As we now know, even some of those we in the West thought of as the hardest of the hardliners were opposed to intervention.  Yuri Andropov, then head of the KGB, was recorded as saying (as Braithwaite summarized the record),   "If Soviet forces went in, they would find themselves fighting against the people, suppressing the people, firing upon the people.  The Soviet Union would look like aggressors.  That was unacceptable....Tanks could not solve what was essentially a political problem.  If the revolution in Afghanistan could only be sustained with Soviet bayonets, that was a route down which the Soviet Union should not go."

    And while many in Washington continued to argue about the reality of a Sino-Soviet split,  Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko sourly commented that "It would be a splendid present for the Chinese [because] All the non-aligned countries would come out against the Soviet Union."
    Leonid Brezhnev observed that the Afghan army was falling apart and the new and unpopular Afghan government just wanted the Russians "to fight their war for them."  The Russians were equally blunt in talks with the Afghans.  Alexei Kosygin lectured the Afghan president, a fellow Communist, that 'If we sent in our troops, the situation in your country would not improve.  On the contrary, it would get worse.  Our troops would have to struggle not only with an external aggressor, but with a part of your own people.  And people do not forgive that kind of thing.'"

    Another argument must have been in the minds of those aging men.  Although it is hardly known outside of the Kremlin, there was a precedent to make the Soviet leaders hesitant. This Russian intervention would not be the first.  In 1929, Stalin had sent a task force of a thousand men, dressed in Afghan army uniforms, to help the then ruler keep his throne.  They failed. Amanullah Khan fled and the military mission was withdrawn. Subsequently, the officer who had led the mission was shot.  In high stakes Soviet leadership, it was prudent to remember the past.

    But probably the deciding cause was that even in the Politburo few people had any idea of what might be involved.  As Braithwaite writes - similar words might have written about America's wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan --  "Needless to say, the experts who actually knew about Afghanistan - and there were many of them in the Soviet Union in those days - were neither consulted nor informed." Instant experts came to the fore while seasoned observes were shunted aside: "no one in authority bothered to debrief [the very able Soviet ambassador who had spent 7 years in Afghanistan] or ask his opinion.... When the crisis peaked, the senior Soviet officials in the Afghan capital were men with little or no experience of the country."

    What differed from Vietnam was that, unlike the American generals in Vietnam,   the Soviet Army leaders were strongly opposed to intervention.  The chief of staff argued all the way to the Politburo:

    "the Afghan problem had to be settled by political means; the Afghans had never tolerated the presence of foreigners on their soil; the Soviet troops would probably be drawn into military operations whether they liked it or not.  His arguments fell on deaf ears..."
     When the decision to intervene was made by the civilian Party leadership on Christmas day 1979,  a powerful military force that ultimately numbered over a hundred thousand men and women, supplemented by various paramilitary formations, raced toward Kabul.

    Powerful though the Soviet army was, it proved insufficient.  The chief of the Soviet General Staff told them it was.  I have never met a general who believed he had enough men or equipment. Counterinsurgency theory, based on the Vietnam war, held that the ratio of soldiers to natives needed to be about 20 or 25 per thousand.  The Soviet forces always would fall far short of that.  The 100 thousand they could muster gave a ratio of about  3 soldiers per thousand.  (The American ratio has varied around 2 per thousand.)

    To supplement what their own personnel could do, the Russians soon moved to create or reform existing organizations in the military and police.  Their efforts with the Afghan army were, at best, of limited success.  On paper, it was a formidable force, and the Russian-trained officer corps was actually reasonably competent, but the soldiers were mainly  "Shanghaied" villagers.  They not only could not be relied upon to act independently (as is true in Afghanistan today despite years of training and billions of dollars committed to this goal) and ran away when under fire (as our troops today complain they often do),  but also about two in each three deserted with their weapons.  Many joined the resistance or turned over their weapons to it.

    The more entrepreneurial of the peasants-turned soldier learned to turn desertion to a profit.  They took advantage of the offer of a bounty to enlist. "Renting" tribesmen was a Soviet policy copied twenty years later in northern Iraq by General Petraeus.  As he said, "money is my most important ammunition in this war."  While it made Petraeus's reputation, it did not work for him any more than it did for the Soviets.  Many Iraqis and  Afghans pocketed the money and when convenient walked home.  The Afghans may have been shrewder military-businessmen: as the Russians learned, some "soldiers" changed sides time after time.  

    The Soviet program with the gendarmerie was more successful.  The political police, the KhAD, Khadamat-e Etela'at-e Dawlati, which were partially patterned on the Soviet Spetsnaz and the KGB's special forces, and Kashad were more effective or at least more long lasting.   Although their brutality created masses of new enemies for the Russians, they continued to employ them.  After renaming them, President Karzai today continues to use them.

     Unlike the Americans, the Russians did not use foreign mercenaries or Russian "contractors." In 2009, the 60,000 American regular troops were overmatched by some 68,197, often third-world, mercenaries.  Blackwater, aka Xe, has become a major contractor with an income of c. $1 billion.  It is not alone.   Most American installations are now guarded by private armies.

    Almost from the beginning the Soviet forces engaged in counterinsurgency tactics.  The Russians learned that they could get better intelligence, and so win battles and avoid ambushes, if they performed "civic action."  Instead of money, they offered services.  Inspired by the Médecins Sans Frontières,  they trained intelligence officers in rudimentary medical skills - as American forces later did -- before sending them out into the villages.   They undertook large-scale programs also in education,  government reform, social affairs including women's rights, irrigation and road building.  Remarkably, they trained over 70,000 workers in relatively modern techniques.   But, as Braithweaite has written,

    "They discovered...that most Afghans preferred their own ways, and were not going to change them at the behest of a bunch of godless foreigners and home-grown infidels.  The Russians did not, and could not, address this fundamental strategic issue."  

    At the urging of the neoconservatives, the American government would later fall into the same trap:  the history they did not heed proves that while the reforming of a government is sometimes possible, the restructuring or recasting of a whole society is almost certainly beyond the capacity of foreigners.  It must evolve internally or it will not evolve at all.  

    More pointedly, if reform of any sort or the provision of aid is tied to the tactics of foreign control, it will be regarded by the natives not as beneficial but as the very front line in the war.  Neither the Russians nor the Americans have learned this simple truth.

    After five years of warfare, a new Soviet government under Mikhail Gorbachev began to try to negotiate and scale back.  In November 1986, it arranged to install a new, still Communist-dominated but more broadly based, government in Kabul.  As in Hamid Karazai's Afghanistan today, Muhammad Najibullah's government then set out a two-pronged policy:  build up the army and gendarmerie but proclaim a policy of national reconciliation.  To enhance Najibullah's prestige, the Russians increased their aerial bombing of areas they did not control.

    Meanwhile, the guerrilla war continued.  As Braithwaite points out, the toll on the Soviet force, particularly on helicopters, was only a small fraction of the cost to America during the Vietnam war.  And he dispels the myth that the American provision of the "Stinger" SAM was what turned the tide:  "Gorbachev had decided to withdraw a full year before the first Stinger was fired."
    Another myth attributes a particularly sinister tactic to the Russians:  the seeding of rebel areas with bombs disguised as toys or cattle food.  As Braithwaithe points out, these devilish devices were copies of bomblets  first used by Americans in Vietnam.

    Gorbachev decided in 1986 to get out of Afghanistan and began, as President Barak Obama was later to do, by withdrawing a part of the Russian contingent.  He quickly discovered that getting out was slower and harder than going in.   Chief of the Soviet General Staff Sergei Akhromeev summed up the failure:

    "In the past seven years [600,000] Soviet soldiers had had their  boots on the ground in every square kilometer of the country.  But as soon as they left, the enemy returned and restored everything the way it was before.  We have lost this war. "

    The Russians finally turned to diplomacy, but they were too late.  Not having opted to negotiate, they found that the insurgents, having victory in sight, were in no mood to give up any advantage.  Thus, they refused to sign the agreement formalized on April 14, 1988 in Geneva  between the Afghan government and Pakistan (which was involved both because it was sheltering millions of Afghan refugees and because it was the conduit of aid to the insurgents) and guaranteed by the United States and the USSR.   

    That was nearly but not quite the end of the Communist regime.  Even with its 300,000-man army, it rapidly gave up most of the country.  As did the Saigon regime, it lasted a further three years without external support.  Finally, in 1992 it literally ran out of gas: the weapons the Russians had left behind could not be used against the rebels who steadily consolidated their gains.  The real price of the war was then to be paid, first by the Afghans and then by the Russians.  

    The insurgents had proved unbeatable partially because they were not unified; now the lack of unity made it impossible for them to govern.  With the Russians gone, they turned on one another, tore the cities - particularly Kabul --  into rubble and caused about a quarter of a million more Afghans to flee or die.  

    The price the Russians paid, like that being paid by America, was to be measured in shattered lives, wasted treasure and warping of institutions.  Post-traumatic stress disorder was not then so well understood in Russia and the Russian government was less sympathetic or helpful to its veterans.  But, recognized or not, about one in two soldiers suffered from it.   Malaise reached every corner of Russia and played no small part in the collapse of the Soviet system.  America is today far stronger, but the final tab of America's Afghan adventure - in money, institutions and beliefs -- has yet to be paid.  

    End of part 1.

    More »

  • Today's Sobering Reading on the Afghanistan Disaster

    Are we ready to start learning the 'lessons of Afghanistan'?

    Thumbnail image for SpinneyTime.jpg

    Over the decades I've often quoted the analyses and judgments of Franklin "Chuck" Spinney. In the late 1970s and early 1980s he was part of an influential group of defense analysts (along with John Boyd, Pierre Sprey, Tom Amlie, Tom Christie, and others) whose work I described in National Defense. That is him, on the cover of Time magazine 30 years ago, at the right.

    Then during the 2008 campaign he made a number of calls and projections that seem obviously true in retrospect but were at odds with "savvy" political wisdom at the time. You can see samples here, here, and here.

    Spinney is back on the geo-strategic beat, with a dispatch arguing that the situation in Afghanistan is turning into an all-fronts disaster for the United States, and that the only positive outcome would involve (a) recognizing that fact, and (b) looking honestly at the sources of failure so as to reduce chances of their repetition. He is experienced enough to know that it often is impossible to draw honest lessons from failure, or even to admit or recognize it. But just after an election, at a time when the Afghan issue is less politicized than it has been (and perhaps should be), and when a new secretary of defense is about to take charge, is a good time to try.

    Please read Spinney's entire dispatch. But here is a central part of his argument, which involves the logic of the Afghan "surge" that Gen. Stanley McChrystal and others persuaded a new President Obama to support in 2009:

    The problem is not just a strategic one of extracting our forces with dignity; nor is it a political one of fingering who is to blame, although there is plenty of blame to go around. It stems from deep institutional roots that reveal a need for reform in our military bureaucracies and particularly our leadership selection policies.

    That is because the next Secretary of Defense must deal with the consequences of a strategic oversight that was made by and approved at the highest professional levels of the American military establishment -- a plan which it then imposed on its weak and insecure political leaders.  This suggests a question: Will the new defense secretary succumb to business as usual by sweeping the dysfunctional institutional causes of the Afghan debacle under the rug or have the courage and wisdom to use this sorry affair as a reason to clean out the Pentagon's Augean Stables?
  • And I Also Shouldn't Just Embed Charts From 'Spy'

    It's March Madness time, international division

    On the other hand, you can't Subscribe!™ to that magazine any more, since it has lamentably been out of business since the Clinton era. (Previously in the "I know I shouldn't..." category.) Thus I will go ahead.

    A wonderful chart from Spy back in the first George (H.W.) Bush era has a dark resonance these days. It was an NCAA-style bracket for "The World Championship." Here is a detailed shot of the final matchups, which deserve a look given the deteriorating news out of Afghanistan. Click for more detailed image:


    The joke back then, in 1989, was that Afghanistan, victor in one semi-final match over the USSR, would meet Vietnam, victor over the United States in the other semi-final (in overtime), for the championship. The U.S. did, though, manage to beat Grenada in a consolation-round game. Now...

    Full bracket below; you can download the whole chart here. Thanks to reader AW for the reminder, and retroactively to all at Spy.


  • Feeling Thankfully Placid? I Can Fix That: Today's Af-Pak Reading

    Where Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul agree with a famous defense analyst

    During some period of alertness during the turkey-comatose weekend, you might consider reading an essay by Franklin "Chuck" Spinney -- my long-time friend and a former guest blogger -- about the situation in Afghanistan. (It's in Counterpunch. This should go without saying, but I have learned always to say: in endorsing one article from any site or publication, I am not necessarily endorsing everything that appears there.)

    Here is how this one begins:

    It is becoming increasingly clear that the AF-PAK war will end in yet another grand strategic defeat for the United States.  To date, President Obama, has been able to distract attention from this issue, but given the stakes in 2012, that dodge is unlikely to last. Get ready for an ugly debate over "who lost the Afghan War."

    To those readers who disagree with my opening line, I urge you to study Anthony Cordersman's most recent situation report on the AF-PAK War, THE AFGHANISTAN- PAKISTAN WAR AT THE END OF 2011... Reading the report is heavy slogging but I urge readers to download and examine it -- at the very least, take a few minutes  to read the executive summary.

    Now compare Cordesman's systematic, detailed, and workmanlike analysis to the bizarre obscurantism peddled one week later, on 22 November, co-authored by Michael O'Hanlon (Brookings Institution) and former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz (American Enterprise Institute) in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, entitled Defining Victory in Afghanistan.

    O'Hanlon and Wolfowitz posit the bizarre thesis that the admittedly less than successful outcome against the FARC guerrillas in Colombia is a favorable model for justifying continuing business as usual in Afghanistan. Viewed through the refractions of their Columbian lens, O'Hanlon and Wolfowitz conclude, "Our current exit strategy of reducing American troops to 68,000 by the end of next summer and transferring full security responsibility to Afghan forces by 2014 is working. In a war where the U.S. has demonstrated remarkable strategic patience, we need to stay patient and resolute."

    Are O'Hanlon and Wolfowitz living on the same planet as Cordesman or do they live in some kind of parallel universe?

    I submit it is latter. Here's why -

    If you're interested so far, go to the site for more. Spinney is effectively in the "cut our losses" camp concerning Afghanistan, a political position occupied in the campaign only (to my knowledge) by Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman. For the past five or six years now my instincts have put me in that same camp, including in skepticism about the buildup that President Obama announced two years ago. In my view, problems in Afghanistan trace almost irreversibly back to the disastrous 2002 decision to shift U.S. troops from that theater to preparations for (needless) war in Iraq. Like anyone's, my judgments can be wrong: for instance, the intervention in Libya has turned out better than I feared it would. But it is hard to see plausibly encouraging signs in reports from Afghanistan.

    Also worth considering: on the general theme of how to make plans when outcomes are uncertain and evidence about the future is sketchy, see Richard Danzig's essay Driving in the Dark from the Center for a New American Security. It moves beyond assertion of "unknown unknowns" to offer practical suggestions for dealing with the certainly uncertain.

  • 'Taking Stock of the Long Wars': A Proposal

    Ten years ago, U.S. forces began their combat in Afghanistan. How's it going? Here is a way to find out.

    Ten years ago today, U.S. forces began their military action in Afghanistan. American forces have been engaged in Iraq for more than eight and a half years. These are the biggest but not the only elements of the "long wars" -- or, as it is often called in defense circles, "the long war" -- that the United States has waged in response to the 9/11 attacks of 2001.

    This morning the Atlantic's National Channel posted a proposal about dealing with the long wars. Here is the background to what appears there:

    This summer, at the request of the White House, former Senator Gary Hart led a small group of volunteers preparing a memorandum on ways to transform the defense establishment. Hart has a long background in such efforts, as I have mentioned several times before. In the early 1980s, as a Senator, he was a leader of the Defense Reform coalition in Congress. A decade ago, he was co-chair of the Hart-Rudman Commission, which among other recommendations warned the incoming George W. Bush Administration of the need to be on guard against a major terrorist strike.

    The item posted today is co-authored by Hart and several people who worked with him on that memorandum, including me. The others are Andrew Bacevich of Boston University, familiar to Atlantic readers; and John Arquilla, of the Naval Postgraduate School. Today's item concerns one specific recommendation that is timely to highlight on this 10th anniversary of the beginning of U.S. combat in Afghanistan: the formation of a new "Commission to Study the Long Wars," which would carefully assess what is working, and what is not, in America's new open-ended struggles and commitments. The rest is explained in the post itself.

    I hope you will read this -- it's short but, in my view, important. And I hope the Administration will take this advice.

    More »

  • Two Worthwhile Af-Pak/OBL Reads

    Obama explains his concept of justice, and Leslie Gelb explains the opportunity for a real "mission accomplished" moment

    1. I didn't watch Obama's interview on 60 Minutes last night. But the transcript -- on CBS's site, along with video of the full 34-minute session with Steve Kroft -- is surprisingly engrossing, direct, and specific. In contrast to the chaos of some of the initial White House explanations of the raid -- armed, unarmed, human shield, whatever -- Obama is quite deliberate about the process of building intelligence, the nature of the risk he accepted, and his lack of squeamishness about, as he put it, "taking bin Laden out." The last exchange of the interview:

    >>KROFT: Is this the first time that you've ever ordered someone killed?

    PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, keep in mind that, you know, every time I make a decision about launching a missile, every time I make a decision about sending troops into battle, you know, I understand that this will result in people being killed. And that is a sobering fact. But it is one that comes with the job....

    As nervous as I was about this whole process, the one thing I didn't lose sleep over was the possibility of taking bin Laden out. Justice was done. And I think that anyone who would question that the perpetrator of mass murder on American soil didn't deserve what he got needs to have their head examined.<<

    I watched that exchange, the final minute of the online clip. You could imagine these words being delivered in a crowing, triumphalist, or otherwise offputting manner. Instead the presentation was both unapologetic and sober. "Justice was done." There is a lot more to know about this episode, but this interview deserves study, for content and tone -- and for the revelation of Obama's reasoning process. (The Atlantic Wire has an item on it now.)

    2. Leslie Gelb -- long of the State Department and Pentagon, the NYT, and the Council on Foreign Relations -- argues in the WSJ that with the death of bin Laden, the United States has a chance to declare "Mission Accomplished," and mean it this time. He begins:

    >>Afghanistan is no longer a war about vital American security interests. It is about the failure of America's political elites to face two plain facts: The al Qaeda terrorist threat is no longer centered in that ancient battleground, and the battle against the Taliban is mainly for Afghans themselves.<<

    Why is this significant? Because -- as I tried to argue just after the news broke, and also this weekend on NPR -- the death of bin Laden offers America its only chance for anything resembling a clearcut "victory" in the post-9/11 struggles. We are never going to eradicate the threat of terrorism, from al Qaeda or others. Within human time scales we are not going to modernize Afghanistan. So if we are to have an alternative to permanent commitment there, plus "permanent-emergency" distortion of Constitutional rules at home driven by reaction to terrorism, this is as good a moment as will ever come.

    Of course bin Laden's death doesn't mean the end of al Qaeda. Of course it does not end the likelihood of attacks within the US, nor the need to take steps against them. But it is the best chance we'll get to alter policies that need to be changed. 

    3. Bonus: Steve Benen, in the Washington Monthly, on the ongoing embarrassment to the nation of the remaining torture apologists, led by Liz Cheney.

  • To Honor Tim Hetherington

    Many people are dying in Libya now. Among them, an accomplished photographer killed in the line of duty.

    In light of the tragic news that photographer and film maker Tim Hetherington was killed today by government shelling in Libya, and that colleagues Chris Hondros and Guy Martin were gravely wounded and, by some reports, may also have died [Update: the death of Hondros as well has now been confirmed], two suggestions:

    - Give an extra thought to members of the much-reviled "mainstream media" who expose themselves to danger and inconvenience to help us understand the world. They are no longer our only ways of gathering such understanding, but they play an indispensable part.

    Please spare a thought as well for Atlantic reporter Clare Morgana Gillis, captured with several colleagues more than two weeks ago in Libya and still held there.

    - Please be sure to see Tim Hetherington's powerful documentary movie (with Sebastian Junger), Restrepo. I won't spoil the experience by telling you what will learn, but I promise you will learn something. It is about a year in the life (and deaths) of an American combat unit in Afghanistan. The shot below is of Junger and Hetherington (on the right) at Outpost Restrepo while filming the unit's activities.


  • Two Stories to Read Today

    An account from 1966, and one from 2011, tell the same story about America's longest wars

    1) "Anatomy of an Afghan War Tragedy," by David Cloud, in yesterday's Los Angeles Times.  This is the most vivid recent rendering of a truth that in our bones we all understand: that the most technologically advanced, complex, and "sophisticated" new U.S. combat tools are ill-matched to the realities of a mountainous, pre-modern society with no obvious battle lines or clear distinctions between friend and foe. Read this story before your next discussion on whether American strategy can "succeed" in Afghanistan. Read and weep.

    Illustration from the LAT site:
    Thumbnail image for LATimesIllustration.png

    Esquire.png2) "M," by John Sack, published in Esquire forty-five years ago with the cover line, "Oh My God -- We Hit a Little Girl!" Bonus question/current-events IQ test: See if you can guess why I am suggesting reading these two stories back to back.

    This John Sack article, which I remember seeing as a teenager, is part of a wonderful Esquire project of putting "The 7 Greatest Stories in the History of Esquire Magazine" on line, in their entirety. Congrats to Esquire's Tim Heffernan for this effort, and to the Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf for the tip to it, via his The Best of Journalism site.
    Can't say it often enough: by far the best way to read these long online essays is with Instapaper, which sends beautifully and readably formatted versions to your iPad, Kindle, portable computer, etc. More about it here.

  • More on 'Destroy the Town'

    The battlefront news from Afghanistan is uncomfortably familiar

    Two days ago I mentioned the similarity between a powerful Washington Post article by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, about the introduction of heavy tanks to Afghanistan, and the "destroy the town to save it" tragedies of Vietnam. Reader Nils Gilman noticed another resonance, from his time as a PhD student at UC Berkeley:

    >>Reading your reference to the Washington Post article about the US deploying M-1 tanks in Afghanistan brought back uncanny memories from my dissertation days.

    I wonder whether the anonymous senior officer who Chandrasekaran quotes -- claiming that "blowing up so many [Afghan] fields and homes, [and thus] making people travel to the district governor's office to submit a claim for damaged property, [has the benefit of] connecting the government to the people" -- is aware that he is making exactly the same argument that Samuel Huntington made in his infamous Foreign Affairs piece ("The Bases of Accommodation," July 1968) in which he defended the carpet-bombing of the South Vietnamese countryside on the grounds that this would drive the peasants into the cities, where they would be less tempted by Communism and more loyal to the government.

    At the time, The Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars quoted one of Huntington's colleagues as saying, "Sam has simply lost the capacity to distinguish between urbanization and genocide." That may have been a bit harsh, but it quite rightly underscores the political folly of applying mass firepower in a campaign to win hearts and minds.<<

    I was not really of age to notice the cautionary stories out of Vietnam in the mid-1960s. I have often wondered how people gauged -- and for a while decided to ignore -- the darker and darker stories about the regimes the U.S. was backing and the difficulties of winning hearts and minds with firepower.

    Well, we're re-running that experiment in real time now, with the darker and darker reports from Afghanistan -- about the Karzai regime, about civilian casualties and resulting embitterment, about the need to "heavy up" with M1 tanks. Americans who today are "not really of age" to assess these stories will, later on, wonder why they did not get more attention right now.

  • 'Destroy the Town to Save It'

    Winning hearts and minds by bulldozing homes?

    Via my Atlantic colleague James Gibney, a pointer to the astonishing, deadpan final words of Rajiv Chandrasekaran's  article in the Washington Post yesterday, about the deployment of M1 Abrams tanks to Afghanistan as a ramping up and "conventionalizing" of the war against the Taliban.

    >>"Why do you have to blow up so many of our fields and homes?" a farmer from the Arghandab district asked a top NATO general at a recent community meeting.

    Although military officials are apologetic in public, they maintain privately that the tactic has a benefit beyond the elimination of insurgent bombs. By making people travel to the district governor's office to submit a claim for damaged property, "in effect, you're connecting the government to the people," the senior officer said.<<

    Nearly five years ago, I was at seminar at Ft. Leavenworth, where David Petraeus was then the commanding general. The topic of the meeting was the new Counter Insurgency, or "COIN," doctrine, which Petraeus and the Marine Corps' James Mattis were heading an ambitious, serious, scholarly-soldier effort to rewrite.

    Petraeus is now in charge in Afghanistan; Mattis is his successor at CENTCOM; their doctrine was published (PDF here, link to published book here) and received wide attention, discussion, and acclaim. And everything about it was the antithesis of bringing in heavy tanks, bulldozing families off their land, and hoping for a positive payoff when they "connect" to the government by going to beg for relief. What can he and Mattis think of the effort they now oversee? They're just past the generation that served in Vietnam, but they know every detail of its history -- and understand what stories like Chandrasekaran's bode.

    Bonus: this summer, after Petraeus took over for Stanley McChrystal, a special Afghan version of COIN guidelines was briefly published on some military sites. It was quickly taken down, but it included items like these:

    >>■ "Be a good guest. Treat the Afghan people and their property with respect."

    ■ "Walk. Patrol on foot whenever possible and engage the population."

    ■ "Fight hard and fight with discipline: Hunt the enemy aggressively but use only the firepower needed to win a fight." <<


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