26 August 2021

The agony of Afghanistan, part two: the myth of control

Source: Facebook memes, 2015  

(Part one, last week.)

Of all the explanations and excuses I've heard in the last few hours concerning the Kabul airport tragedy, two comments ring out to me with special clarity.

Veteran Democratic Party strategist James Carville (video): "... There's no elegant way to lose a war. We lost this war fifteen years ago; all Joe Biden was doing was telling us what time it is. ... When you lose a war you don't look good."

U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (Twitter): "It took me a few years in Washington to understand how much of this town runs on war. Some of this is driven by raw profit motive, but much of it is simply due to the laudable but fatally faulty belief that there is no problem in the world that American intervention can’t solve."

There is a particular form of pseudo-patriotic American self-deception that seems to dominate commentary about the situation, including today's terrorist bombings near the airport.

To sum up: We must be in control.

And here's today's Republican corollary: if we, the USA, are not in control, it's the president's fault!

Politicians and pundits continue to trumpet the myth of American dominance, despite evidence that very little has gone the USA's way militarily on the international stage in the last three decades. Our military and intelligence budgets amount to roughly 50% of the whole world's military spending, so you'd think that (by the world's logic) we could actually get something done somewhere.

When it turns out that we cannot control the situation, according to this myth, it must be a failure at the top. It's all the fault of weak politicians. None of these rhetorical Rambos can seem to understand that actual control (that is, any control that is sustainable and worth having) can never be obtained by the well-financed and technologically impressive capacity to blow people up at any point on the globe. "The illusion of control," said therapist Mary Grunte, "is the carrot from hell."

Both Donald Trump and Joe Biden have been blamed for what is supposedly a basic strategic error: announcing our Afghan end date in advance. But how is it even possible to end a war and withdraw one's army, contractors, and local allies by surprise, at a moment's notice? For example, critics point to the overnight withdrawal of soldiers and contractors from Bagram air base without advance notice; does anyone really think that those soldiers and contractors would have been safer if their enemies around that indefensible perimeter knew what their plans were ahead of time -- or that some kind of magical secrecy was ever possible?

But what might be possible for just one location -- an overnight departure, with practically no advance notice -- would be impossible on a larger scale. In any case, critics will criticize: instant departure, wrong! Advance notice, wrong!

Maybe the argument against an agreement with the Taliban on a departure date is actually an argument that the USA should stay there until Afghanistan could be perfectly tamed to our specifications -- in other words, more or less forever. But was that ever really true? Did the USA's voters, whose early enthusiasm for the war in Afghanistan waned just a few years in, ever show any sign that they would tolerate this war indefinitely? In any case, both Trump and Biden were determined not to stay.

The anti-date argument says that the USA lost its bargaining leverage when it agreed to a date. No! The U.S. lost its leverage when its mission morphed into an unwise and unsustainable nation-building project! At that point, or soon after, the Taliban had all the chips: they could either wait for the USA to recognize that unsustainability, as Biden did ten years ago, or they could continue bleeding the USA indefinitely while chipping away at a corrupt and unpopular Afghan central government.

So then, if a permanent occupation or garrison is not an option, the argument against the departure date basically depends on bluffing the Taliban, pretending that the USA might stay after all, when we know (and any Taliban commander who can read also knows) that it will not. How many soldiers and civilians would the U.S. be willing to sacrifice for the sake of a bluff? 

As soon as the USA decided not to pretend to stay, then a departure was inevitable, and setting the date ahead of time was the only practical way of organizing the complex logistics. Now, before our very eyes, we see the logistical and security issues that are involved with relocating a hundred thousand people -- some of whom are not sure until the very end that they even want to depart.

The last gasp of the control myth, as the scene shrinks to Kabul airport and its surrounding area, is expressed in the Republican talking point that the relocation of USA citizens and allies has been hopelessly mismanaged. "Biden is letting the Taliban dictate U.S. foreign policy." Not exactly. The Taliban is simply asserting the authority that it gained by being the victorious side, and the USA is in the uncomfortable but unavoidable position of needing to negotiate the zones of safety it requires for the delicate operation of keeping evacuation paths open. To bully and shoot our way out would guarantee the loss of innocent lives, so the USA authorities prudently ignore the control freaks while carrying out their mission. Lives will most likely be saved by diplomacy -- including offers of future recognition, aid, financial ties, if the withdrawal goes well -- not by swagger.

And: the more the USA chooses diplomacy over swagger at various other trouble spots on the world stage, the more likely the USA will continue to be able to dictate a viable foreign policy rather than being backed into Kabul-like corners.

None of this is to say that the actions of the Pentagon and the U.S. administration in this current operation are above examination and reproach. Failures in intelligence and execution should be identified, with consequences imposed regardless of political interests. But total control of the situation was never an option.

Acknowledging the end of this godforsaken project may be far from a total loss for the USA. In the best case, we might kill the imperial myth of control.

Now would be a good time to read (or re-read) Tom Engelhardt's book The End of Victory Culture. Engelhardt describes and illustrates how citizens of the USA have tended to see any national enemy as subhuman, victory as inevitable, and defeat (when it comes, as in Viet Nam) as an occasion for vindictive retaliation.

Heather Cox Richardson sums up this difficult day.

Shadi Hamid on what we in the USA did not understand about Afghanistan -- and the Taliban did.

Afghanistan and the "digital Dunkirk."

Now John Fea finally understands what happened to Jim Bakker: he got canceled.

Talking about COVID-19 and vaccines theologically: Roger E. Olson. Ron Selleck. And ... looking forward to the end, eventually, of the pandemic.

Empathy in Minnesota: a case study in Christian community breakdown.

What in the world (or not) is an Einstein ring?

Philip Jenkins guesses that the late Andrew Walls is the most important scholar you didn't know. (Judy and I had the good fortune to meet Andrew Walls and hear him lecture at the International Baptist Theological Seminary back in 2009.) 

Jack Wallen's reflections on the Linux desktop, on the occasion of Linux's thirtieth birthday. (In case you're wondering, I've been a Linux fan for thirteen of those thirty years, now using a version named Pop!_OS on a System 76 laptop.)

Nancy Thomas on Sheena and Sheera, the anomalous women. (Which of them is in the Bible?)

Steve Guyger and the Excellos, "School Is Over." (Part of a streamed concert.)


Nancy Thomas said...

Thank you, Johan. This analysis of the "agony in Afghanistan" is the most helpful I've read. If only we could learn from the whole experience.

Johan Maurer said...

Nancy, thanks as always for your encouragement.

kfsaylor said...

We live in social contexts (the world over) wherein human relations are guided, informed, and governed by the reflective nature through the agency of political, religious, educational, and economic institutional structures and the individual agents of those institutions. There is a different way wherein human relations are guided through the agency of the direct and continous experience of the spirit of Jesus Christ in the conscience and consciousness. In this indwelling experience, people are aware of the living motion of the spirit through it's increased and decreased presence in given relationships, interactions, and circumstances. This awareness of the spirit's increase and decrease is our guide; it draws us out of the reflective process and establishes us in the living and active presence of Christ as our sole and sufficient guide in human relations. This frees human conscience and consciousness from the rule and governance of the reflective process, and its agencies and agents, as the rule human relations.

Anonymous said...

Joe Biden, wake up