Get Rethink Afghanistan Updates
Join us on Facebook Follow us on Twitter Follow us on Twitter Get E-Mail Updates
Join Us on Facebook

Archive for August, 2010

Posted by Newshoggers.com on August 31st, 2010

From our partners at Newshoggers.com

By Dave Anderson:

We were told that the Iraqi insurgencies were desperate from 2003 to today despite most of those groups achieving one of their primary objectives,  forcing the United States out of Iraq, or at least out of their region and their hair.  High levels of US casualties were a sign of desperation.  Low levels of US casualties were a sign of desperation.  Successful IED attacks were a sign of desperation, unsuccessful IED attacks were a sign of desperation.  Effective assassination campaigns as well as a four year choke-hold on Iraqi oil exports through the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline were definitely signs of desperation.  Boycotting elections and participating in elections were both signs of desperation.  They were desperate at all times despite denying the United States its maximal goal set.   

Now it looks like the Taliban is officially getting 'desperate:'

The number of US wounded in Afghanistan is reaching the same levels as the number of wounded needed to retake Fallujah in the Fall of 2004. 

As the U.S. troop buildup in Afghanistan continues, Landstuhl is
experiencing an increase in wounded patients to levels unseen since the
2004 battles in the Iraqi city of Fallouja.

The complexity and severity of wounds are also increasing, said Army
Col. John M. Cho, a chest surgeon who is the hospital's commander. On a
medical rating scale, the number of patients above a level considered
extremely critical has increased 190% in the last two months, he said.

November 2004 saw intense house to house fighting between heavy infantry against dug-in opponents who had months to prepare positions for the anticipated assault.  Afghttp://www.typepad.com/site/blogs/6a00d8345f80b469e200e5501e4f718833/post/composehanistan has not had any large division size assaults against prepared positions that will grind up infantry and spit out dead and wounded.  So if Afghanistan's wounded levels are comparable to the wounded levels seen during the Fallujah assault, the frequency and intensity of combat is most likely as high or higher than it had been at any point in Iraq when those insurgents were desperately fighting the US to a strategic draw. 

And the Taliban has expanded its presence into non-Pashtun dominated areas over the past couple of years:

Petraeus acknowledged the spread of Taliban influence, especially to
parts of the formerly peaceful north, but said the campaign to counter
the insurgency was nearing its final stages.

"I don't think anyone disagrees that the footprint of the Taliban has
spread," he said, adding the insurgents had "reconnected in various safe
havens and sanctuaries outside and inside the country," a reference to
Pakistan.

Fighting has expanded from the Pashtun south and east to the entire ring road including areas where NATO/ISAF forces had long considered to be relatively secure.  This is putting pressure on governments whose forces have low domestic backing for the Afghan deployment in a bind as the north was the easy deployment zone.  Now German, Swedish, Norwegian and Danish forces are in routine combat and are taking politically very difficult casualties.  Those nations are likely to draw down their forces, like the Dutch did, because the political costs are not worth the minimal security benefits.  Peak foreign forces is either this week or last week, and foreign forces will draw down significantly even if the US does not. 

So the only conclusion that one can rationally draw from this evidence is that the Taliban is desperate:

Petraeus said the intensified fighting was a reflection of the
militants' desperation as the alliance poured in more resources in an
effort to speed an end to the war which began in 2001 when a US-led
invasion toppled the Taliban regime.

Share this:
Bookmark and Share
Posted by The Agonist on August 30th, 2010

From our partners at The Agonist

Noah Schactman | August 30

Wired – There may not be quite as many bombs falling from the sky. But don’t let that fool you. The United States has dramatically escalated its air war over Afghanistan.

Spy plane flights have nearly tripled in the past year; supply drops, too. There are even more planes buzzing over the heads of troops caught in firefights, according to statistics provided to Danger Room by the Air Force (.pdf).

The increased numbers show how the American military has retooled its most potent technological advantage — dominance of the skies — for the Afghanistan campaign. But so far, at least, the boost in air power doesn’t seem to have shifted the war’s momentum back to the American-led coalition.

An influx of Reaper drones and executive-jets-turned-spy-planes allowed U.S. forces to fly 9,700 surveillance sorties over Afghanistan in the first seven months of 2010. Last year, American planes conducted 3,645 of the flights during a similar period.

Share this:
Bookmark and Share
Posted by The Agonist on August 30th, 2010

From our partners at The Agonist

Aug 30

The Guardian – The bodies of five volunteers working for a female MP have been found riddled with bullets in western Afghanistan, amid a growing campaign of violent intimidation against women running in the country’s elections.

The men, aged between 20 and 35, were found dead by villagers in the Adraskan district of Herat province, some distance from where they were kidnapped by gunmen on Thursday while out campaigning for Fauzia Gilani.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of 10 of her campaign workers as they travelled in remote countryside. Five of the workers were released before the others were found dead.

The insurgent movement has not yet claimed responsibility for the murders, but Gilani – one of hundreds of women running in next month’s elections – said she believed the “enemies of Afghanistan” were responsible.

“These people were just my volunteers,” she said. “They were just trying to help – I wasn’t paying them any money.”

She said she did not know whether they were targeted because she is a woman, but said that in western Afghanistan, the “society is controlled by men”.

Share this:
Comments Off
Bookmark and Share
Posted by Newshoggers.com on August 29th, 2010

From our partners at Newshoggers.com

By Steve Hynd

On Thursday, veteran correspondent and director of the Asia Program at the Center for International Policy Selig S. Harrison had some important geopolitical news in an op-ed piece for the New York Times. Harrison reports that Pakistan has effectively handed control of an entire strategic portion of Pakistani-occupied Kashmir to China, which has moved in thousands of troops.

The entire Pakistan-occupied western portion of Kashmir stretching from Gilgit in the north to Azad (Free) Kashmir in the south is closed to the world, in contrast to the media access that India permits in the eastern part, where it is combating a Pakistan-backed insurgency. But reports from a variety of foreign intelligence sources, Pakistani journalists and Pakistani human rights workers reveal two important new developments in Gilgit-Baltistan: a simmering rebellion against Pakistani rule and the influx of an estimated 7,000 to 11,000 soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army.

China wants a grip on the region to assure unfettered road and rail access to the Gulf through Pakistan. It takes 16 to 25 days for Chinese oil tankers to reach the Gulf. When high-speed rail and road links through Gilgit and Baltistan are completed, China will be able to transport cargo from Eastern China to the new Chinese-built Pakistani naval bases at Gwadar, Pasni and Ormara, just east of the Gulf, within 48 hours.

Chinese troops are improving infrastructure – roads, railroads and dams – as well as building permanent-looking bases. And Harrison is clear about the move's strategic importance to the region.

What is happening in the region matters to Washington for two reasons. Coupled with its support for the Taliban, Islamabad’s collusion in facilitating China’s access to the Gulf makes clear that Pakistan is not a U.S. “ally.” Equally important, the nascent revolt in the Gilgit-Baltistan region is a reminder that Kashmiri demands for autonomy on both sides of the cease-fire line would have to be addressed in a settlement.

…Gilgit and Baltistan are in effect under military rule. Democratic activists there want a legislature and other institutions without restrictions like the ones imposed on Free Kashmir, where the elected legislature controls only 4 out of 56 subjects covered in the state constitution. The rest are under the jurisdiction of a “Kashmir Council” appointed by the president of Pakistan.

Now, China isn't exactly a U.S. enemy and if they want a base in the Gulf then they're legally allowed one if the host nation (Pakistan) will co-operate - but many analysts have written about China's maritime expansion in worrying tones, seeing an eventual confrontation with the US as more possible because of it.

However, others worry more about a nascent confrontation between India and China, with Pakistan a troubling third nuclear-armed party to any possible conflict. And many more have written that solving the "Kashmir Problem" is essential to solving the Indo-Pakistani rivalry that fuels, amongst other instability, the proxy war that the U.S. trapped itself into refereeing in Afghanistan.

So China's presence in this key Kashmiri area matters.

Yet I'm not seeing any foreign policy "wonks" commenting on Harrison's report. What gives?

Update: Eric Randolph at the excellent Current Intelligence webmag mentions the Harrison report as he looks at other recent Chinese provocations of India. He writes:

The PLA sees Kashmir as a vital part of achieving strategic regional dominance, since it provides an easy way of ensuring co-operation with Pakistan (on top of all the aid and nuclear trading), and a highly symbolic way of pressuring India, which hates anyone interfering in Kashmir.

…In observing the inscrutable goings-on of Chinese politics, it is always difficult to judge where real decision-making lies, but these latest reports show the extent to which China’s strategic interests have the potential to rile India, and are being carried out by an increasingly autonomous military that is unconcerned about causing offence.

That's surely noteworthy.

Share this:
Bookmark and Share
Posted by The Agonist on August 28th, 2010

From our partners at The Agonist

Elyas Wahdat | Khost | Aug 28

Reuters – Foreign and Afghan troops killed 24 insurgents as they fought off pre-dawn attacks on two bases in eastern Afghanistan on Saturday, officials said, with the Taliban saying suicide bombers were among the attackers.

The attacks targeted the U.S. military’s Forward Operating Base Chapman and nearby Forward Operating Base Salerno in Khost province near the eastern border with Pakistan, where U.S. and other foreign forces have been stepping up operations against a resurgent Taliban.

Seven Central Intelligence Agency officers were killed by a suicide bomber inside Chapman last December, the second-most deadly attack in CIA history. [ID:nSGE5BU01G]

Despite the presence of almost 150,000 foreign troops, violence across Afghanistan is at its worst since the Taliban were ousted by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in late 2001.

Share this:
Bookmark and Share
Posted by Newshoggers.com on August 27th, 2010

From our partners at Newshoggers.com

By Steve Hynd

Thus, the final prop under the cracked foundations of justification for two ongoing occupations disappears. From Bloomberg:

The effort to keep weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of terrorists has been slowed by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the head of U.S. special forces.

Fewer elite commandos are available for the hunt and their expertise has been degraded by “the decreased level of training,” Admiral Eric Olson said. They now have only a “limited” capability for this mission, he said.

Meanwhile, the threat of extremists acquiring and using chemical, biological or nuclear arms “is greater now than at any other time in history,” Olson told the Senate Armed Services Committee in a written response to a question posed by lawmakers after a hearing March 16 on his command’s budget.

Now the pro-war crowd can't even keep up the lame excuse that we're occupying the country next door in case Al Qaeda gets it's hands on Pakistan's nukes.

The final verdict has to be that both Iraq and Afghanistan have been national security disasters which should be ended as quickly as humanly possible.

Share this:
Bookmark and Share
Posted by Josh Mull on August 27th, 2010

I am the Afghanistan Blogging Fellow for The Seminal and Brave New Foundation. You can read my work on The Seminal or at Rethink Afghanistan. The views expressed below are my own.

Our troops in Afghanistan have some questions about the strategy in Afghanistan. Spencer Ackerman reports:

Some considered the war a distraction from broader national security challenges like Iran or China. Others thought that its costs — nearly ten years, $321 billion, 1243 U.S. deaths and counting — are too high, playing into Osama bin Laden’s “Bleed To Bankruptcy” strategy. Still others thought that it doesn’t make sense for President Obama simultaneously triple U.S. troop levels and announce that they’re going to start coming down, however slowly, in July 2011. At least one person was convinced, despite the evidence, that firing Gen. Stanley McChrystal meant the strategy was due for an overhaul, something I chalked up to the will to believe.

But if there was a common denominator to their critiques, it’s this: None understood how their day-to-day jobs actually contributed to a successful outcome. One person actually asked me if I could explain how it’s all supposed to knit together.

I’m wondering the same thing. It’s never been clear to me exactly how a massive foreign military occupation translates to a stable, secure and democratic society in Afghanistan. How does one lead to the other, how do we get from A to B? (more…)

Share this:
Comments Off
Bookmark and Share
Posted by Newshoggers.com on August 27th, 2010

From our partners at Newshoggers.com

By Steve Hynd

The Washington Post has a piece today entitled "CIA making secret payments to members of Karzai administration".

The CIA is making secret payments to multiple members of President Hamid Karzai's administration, in part to maintain sources of information in a government in which the Afghan leader is often seen as having a limited grasp of developments, according to current and former U.S. officials.

The payments are long-standing in many cases and designed to help the agency maintain a deep roster of allies within the presidential palace. Some aides function as CIA informants, but others collect stipends under more informal arrangements meant to ensure their accessibility, a U.S. official said.

 If you find that unsurprising, well, you're not the only one. If you think that it makes a mockery of any pretense that Afghanistan is a sovereign nation, well, stomping on Afghan sovereignty has been the American standard operating procedure since 2002.

But what's interesting to me is that the WaPo's current version differs significantly from a syndicated version at the Monterey Herald and other news sites. The following third paragraph no longer appears in the WaPo's version:

"Half the palace is on the payroll," said a U.S. official, who said some officials function as agency informants, but that others collect stipends under more informal arrangements meant to ensure their accessibility to the CIA.

In fact, the WaPo's official version has no mention of the payroll being as large as "half the palace", saying only that a "significant number of officials in Karzai's administration are on the payroll."

Meanwhile, the official version contains the following not in the syndicated version:

Paul Gimigliano, a CIA spokesman, disputed that characterization, saying, "This anonymous source appears driven by ignorance, malice or both."

There's no mention of the change or the reason for it at the Washington Post's website.

I'm imagining a late-night, angry phone call to the WaPo's editors from the CIA, demanding some damage control.

Update: Robert Naiman emails to point out the similiarity in language between the WaPo's "some officials function as agency informants, but that others collect stipends under more informal arrangements" and this from the NY Times on Wednesday:

It is unclear exactly what Mr. Salehi does in exchange for his money, whether providing information to the spy agency, advancing American views inside the presidential palace, or both.

If that's not the same anonymous official feeding the writer words, then it's another working from the same script.

And the reason for the leaks? Robert writes: it's the first time I remember seeing an Obama Administration official quoted denouncing the anti-corruption drive as "mission creep":

"Some administration officials argue that any comprehensive campaign to fight corruption inside Afghanistan is overly ambitious, with less than a year to go before the American military is set to begin withdrawing troops.

'Fighting corruption is the very definition of mission creep,' one Obama administration official said."

Interesting.

Share this:
Comments Off
Bookmark and Share
Posted by Newshoggers.com on August 26th, 2010

From our partners at Newshoggers.com

By Steve Hynd

The competition between rising Asian powers China and India has been described as the contest of the coming century:

 China has officially become the world’s second-biggest economy, overtaking Japan. In the West this has prompted concerns about China overtaking the United States sooner than previously thought. But stand back a little farther, apply a more Asian perspective, and China’s longer-term contest is with that other recovering economic behemoth: India.

How China and India manage their own relationship will determine whether similar mistakes to those that scarred the 20th century disfigure this one.

Indeed, in an important sense the current war in Afghanistan can be seen as a proxy war for that competition. We've heard a lot about Pakistani meddling in Afghanistan recently and seen that the US is between a rock and a hard place that essentially dictates that it must continue courting its some-time allies in Islamabad if it ever wants an exit, even as the fund and train militants killing US troops. We also hear plenty about how Indo-Pakistani mutual fear drives much of the Afghan narrative. We hear less about Indian meddling or about China's ambitions to access Afghanistan's resources for itself, although the reporting is there.

But what we hear least about is the tangled weave of national interests that means China courts Pakistan as a proxy for it's own competition with India, to the point where Pakistani experts concede that, given a choice between alliance with the US or China, Pakistan's military will choose China "every day of the week, and twice on Fridays".

Pakistan is preserving its (probably partial) control over regional extremist groups as a hedge against India. India really is a threat to Pakistan because Pakistan is allied with China, which really is a threat to India just as India really is a threat to China. What, you thought confusing competition with threat was an American hegemonic perrogative?

China has strategically allied itself with Pakistan in a geopolitical move against India which concentrates as much on economics as on military support – although in Pakistan's military-heavy economy the two are inseparable. For instance, dredging the harbor at Gwadar has given both China and Pakistan an important economic asset as well as China an advance naval base. All concerned have so far decided that the benefits of trade outweigh their wish to fight their enemies directly, and so have largely confined themselves to military posturing and proxy forces. But Afghanistan is the battleground for a facedown between India and China/Pakistan, each trying to deny the other important overland trade access to the Middle East and Europe. The latter see the U.S. as primarily an ally of India and theories run wild as to America's true motives.

India, in it's turn, is feeling ignored and unloved by the U.S. after the false spring of Bush's nuclear giveaway and the bipartisan rush to sell India lots of expensive but obsolescent weaponry. And it's trying to create a new strategy that accepts the reality of America and the West's continuing bamboozlement by Pakistan – including through outreach to nations like Saudi Arabia and Iran as well as more traditional allies like Russia and France.

The likelihood of open war, however, remains remote. China and India are nuclear powers, as is China's ally Pakistan. Jonathan Holslag, author of China and India: Prospects for Peace, told Time in March:

The scope for these two countries to develop peacefully and fulfill their national interests without entering into competition is getting smaller due to internal social pressures and rising nationalism. I am not arguing that they don't want to develop peacefully, but that the options for doing so are not that great. They'll be competing at all levels, not only for economic opportunities, but for regional influence. This will lead to an uncomfortable and risky situation.

…It wouldn't first be open war. China and India are building up their interests in conflict-prone and unstable states on their borders like Nepal and Burma — important sources of natural resources. If something goes wrong in these countries — if the politics implode — you could see the emergence of proxy wars in Asia. Distrust between India and China will grow and so too security concerns in a number of arenas. It's an important scenario that strategic planners in both Beijing and Delhi are looking at.

That "proxy war" scenario is what we're already seeing in Afghanistan – and the US stepped right into the middle of it.

Some Indian national security thinkers are beginning to realise that landward proxy feuds- like Afghanistan and, even more importantly, Kashmir - are ultimately a losing concern for India too. Vikram Sood served in India's RAW intelligence agency for over three decades and retired as its chief. He wrote in the August 25 edition of the Deccan Cronicle (bold emphasis mine):

While some American experts [describe the] Chinese attitude as a sign of defensive nationalism — assertive in form but reactive in essence, the fact is that since about the middle of 2009 the Chinese have talking more and more about their “core interests”. As D.S. Rajan, director of the Centre for China Studies, Chennai, points out, Chinese leader Dai Bingguo said in July 2009 that “the PRC’s first core interest is maintaining its fundamental system and state security, the second is state sovereignty and territorial integrity, and the third is the continued stable development of the economy and society”. Translated into specifics, it means protection of its interests in Tibet, Taiwan, Xinjiang, the South China Sea and its strategic resources and sea trade routes.

China’s assertiveness about the South China Sea, its umbrage at US secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s July 2010 remarks in Hanoi on creating an international mechanism to resolve this issue, has been particularly visible in the past few weeks. Dai Bingguo conveyed to Ms Clinton in May 2010 that China regarded its claims to the South China Sea as a core national interest. The Chinese have closely watched the growing US-Vietnamese ties, which includes an American offer of a civil nuclear deal to Vietnam on lines similar to the India deal. A triangular acrimony between the US, China and Vietnam has been growing for some time.

…The message [was] that the western Pacific was China’s sphere of interest and influence. It suggested a division of zones of influence between the Eastern and Western Pacific. The US and China have their own geostrategic rivalries to settle, and the Chinese may have assessed that their moment has come.

Yet China remains concerned with its intricate trade and financial links with the US, and also with the security of its trade and supply routes that transit the Malacca Straits. It has endeavoured to develop extensive land routes through Central Asia, but these are inadequate. It is a matter of time before China will make its presence more visible in the Indian Ocean. It has port facilities in Hambantota and Gwadar, and a presence in the Arabian Sea as it battles Somali pirates. China has expanded its contacts with Iran, more in competition with Russia than the US, it seeks mineral wealth in Afghanistan, its relations with Pakistan need no elucidation and it has developed strong ties with Burma. Thus while we may agonise over challenges across our land frontiers, we would be ignoring the new challenge in the Indian Ocean unless we plan countermeasures now.

Vikram Sood is pointing to a truism here: maritime trade and maritime power, be it military or economic, always trumps the land-based version. To coin a historical analogy, India's almost monomaniacail focus on Pakistan, Kashmir and Afghanistan makes as much sense as if England in the 16th and early 17th centuries had focussed entirely on Scotland, Wales and Ireland to the exclusion of France.

India has also yet to make the intellectual leap that likewise eludes America: that positioning all your strategic planning around a terrorist threat that kills less than car accidents or lack of healthcare is simply a recipe for draining the nation's coffers and distracting it from a brighter future. China pretty much owns Pakistan and will own Afghanistan within a decade. India would be better served, in my opinion, by turning its back upon both in their entirety, rather than shackle itself to a ball and chain designed by China. Although national pride demands that something, anything, be "done now" about terrorism, the truth is that such attacks are gnats stinging an elephant, doing more damage by distraction than by the pain they inflict.

India has the potential to surpass it's rival China in a decade or two if it concentrates all its energy on maritime economic expansion and on development of its infrastructure. It can only do that if it avoids the trap turning obsessively inland creates for it. For the next two decades, it should do its very best to pretend that it is an island.

As for America's role in the competition, it is setting off entirely on the wrong foot. It seems as if American policymakers cannot see the wood for the trees, enmired as the West is in Afghanistan. In hock to China and pandering to Pakistan for an Afghan exit, it appears to have forgotten India almost entirely. Although it is important to Indians that they pursue their own strategic independence, that's no reason why America and India should not have closer ties which would help it see its national interests as more parallel to America's. In that respect, George Bush got something right – although his choice of a nuclear deal was not the best one as a first step.

The U.S. should be backing, investing in, India's economic expansion. But the one place it can be of most use is in strengthening the structures of international governance. Here, there is a "deep need", as The Economist's leader of August 19 puts it:

one that it took Europe two world wars to come close to solving: emerging Asia’s lack of serious institutions to bolster such deals. A regional forum run by the Association of South-East Asian Nations is rendered toothless by China’s aversion to multilateral diplomacy. Like any bully, it prefers to pick off its antagonists one by one. It would be better if China and India—and Japan—could start building regional forums to channel their inevitable rivalries into collaboration and healthy competition.

Globally, the rules-based system that the West set up in the second half of the 20th century brought huge benefits to emerging powers. But it reflects an out-of-date world order, not the current global balance, let alone a future one. China and India should be playing a bigger role in shaping the rules that will govern the 21st century. That requires concessions from the West. But it also requires commitment to a rules-based international order from China and India. A serious effort to solve their own disagreements is a good place to start.

Here, at least, the U.S. can do some good by adding its diplomatic weight in international forums.

Share this:
Comments Off
Bookmark and Share
Posted by alexthurston on August 26th, 2010

This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: Today, to end this site’s summer, we offer a stirring excerpt from Andrew Bacevich’s new book, Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War (Metropolitan Books).  What follows below is the introduction to the book which stands on its own as a riveting political essay about a personal odyssey into recent history and the realities of our moment, but also offers a powerful sense of the book itself, which is simply a must-read (and also on the New York Times extended bestseller list). To catch Bacevich discussing his book in one of Timothy MacBain’s TomCast audio interviews, click here or, to download to an iPod, here.

With this post, TD hangs out the old “gone fishing” sign until September 7th, when we’ll return with renewed energy and new posts.  In the meantime, my thanks to the amazing crew of TomDispatch readers who recently contributed $150 (or more) to this site in return for a personally autographed copy of Chalmers Johnson’s new book, Dismantling the Empire: America’s Last Best Hope.  Your dollars make TD’s life a far better one, believe me.  In addition, for anyone who meant to, but didn’t take up the offer, it remains open until we return in September.  You can click here to check out the original offer or here to make your $150 contribution and receive your signed book.

A further thanks to all of you who, in the last month, used one of the TomDispatch book (or book cover) links to travel to Amazon.com and buy a book (or anything else).  As we get a cut of any purchase you make at Amazon once you’ve arrived via TD, you continue to provide us with a small but growing stream of revenue (at no cost to you).  Your purchases of the Bacevich book, the Johnson book, and my new book, The American Way of War:  How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s, have been prodigious -- and appreciated.  While my own book won’t make any bestseller lists, it is in its second printing thanks, in part, to you.  Those of you who haven’t bought the three books can do so in a single cut-rate package deal at the Amazon page for my book.

Finally, my thanks and a deep bow of appreciation to the whole TomDispatch crew -- Joe Duax, Nick Turse, Andy Kroll, Christopher Holmes, and Timothy MacBain -- whose hard work makes it all possible. Have a good end of August.  See you after Labor Day.  Tom]

The Unmaking of a Company Man
An Education Begun in the Shadow of the Brandenburg Gate

By Andrew Bacevich

Worldly ambition inhibits true learning. Ask me. I know. A young man in a hurry is nearly uneducable: He knows what he wants and where he’s headed; when it comes to looking back or entertaining heretical thoughts, he has neither the time nor the inclination. All that counts is that he is going somewhere. Only as ambition wanes does education become a possibility.

My own education did not commence until I had reached middle age. I can fix its start date with precision: for me, education began in Berlin, on a winter’s evening, at the Brandenburg Gate, not long after the Berlin Wall had fallen.

As an officer in the U.S. Army I had spent considerable time in Germany. Until that moment, however, my family and I had never had occasion to visit this most famous of German cities, still littered with artifacts of a deeply repellent history. At the end of a long day of exploration, we found ourselves in what had, until just months before, been the communist East. It was late and we were hungry, but I insisted on walking the length of the Unter den Linden, from the River Spree to the gate itself. A cold rain was falling and the pavement glistened. The buildings lining the avenue, dating from the era of Prussian kings, were dark, dirty, and pitted. Few people were about. It was hardly a night for sightseeing.

For as long as I could remember, the Brandenburg Gate had been the preeminent symbol of the age and Berlin the epicenter of contemporary history. Yet by the time I made it to the once and future German capital, history was already moving on. The Cold War had abruptly ended. A divided city and a divided nation had reunited.

For Americans who had known Berlin only from a distance, the city existed primarily as a metaphor. Pick a date — 1933, 1942, 1945, 1948, 1961, 1989 — and Berlin becomes an instructive symbol of power, depravity, tragedy, defiance, endurance, or vindication. For those inclined to view the past as a chronicle of parables, the modern history of Berlin offered an abundance of material. The greatest of those parables emerged from the events of 1933 to 1945, an epic tale of evil ascendant, belatedly confronted, then heroically overthrown. A second narrative, woven from events during the intense period immediately following World War II, saw hopes for peace dashed, yielding bitter antagonism but also great resolve. The ensuing stand-off — the “long twilight struggle,” in John Kennedy’s memorable phrase — formed the centerpiece of the third parable, its central theme stubborn courage in the face of looming peril. Finally came the exhilarating events of 1989, with freedom ultimately prevailing, not only in Berlin, but throughout Eastern Europe.

What exactly was I looking for at the Brandenburg Gate? Perhaps confirmation that those parables, which I had absorbed and accepted as true, were just that. Whatever I expected, what I actually found was a cluster of shabby-looking young men, not German, hawking badges, medallions, hats, bits of uniforms, and other artifacts of the mighty Red Army. It was all junk, cheaply made and shoddy. For a handful of deutsche marks, I bought a wristwatch emblazoned with the symbol of the Soviet armored corps. Within days, it ceased to work.

Huddling among the scarred columns, those peddlers — almost certainly off-duty Russian soldiers awaiting redeployment home — constituted a subversive presence. They were loose ends of a story that was supposed to have ended neatly when the Berlin Wall came down. As we hurried off to find warmth and a meal, this disconcerting encounter stuck with me, and I began to entertain this possibility: that the truths I had accumulated over the previous twenty years as a professional soldier — especially truths about the Cold War and U.S. foreign policy — might not be entirely true.

By temperament and upbringing, I had always taken comfort in orthodoxy. In a life spent subject to authority, deference had become a deeply ingrained habit. I found assurance in conventional wisdom. Now, I started, however hesitantly, to suspect that orthodoxy might be a sham. I began to appreciate that authentic truth is never simple and that any version of truth handed down from on high — whether by presidents, prime ministers, or archbishops — is inherently suspect. The powerful, I came to see, reveal truth only to the extent that it suits them. Even then, the truths to which they testify come wrapped in a nearly invisible filament of dissembling, deception, and duplicity. The exercise of power necessarily involves manipulation and is antithetical to candor.

I came to these obvious points embarrassingly late in life. “Nothing is so astonishing in education,” the historian Henry Adams once wrote, “as the amount of ignorance it accumulates in the form of inert facts.” Until that moment I had too often confused education with accumulating and cataloging facts. In Berlin, at the foot of the Brandenburg Gate, I began to realize that I had been a naïf. And so, at age 41, I set out, in a halting and haphazard fashion, to acquire a genuine education.

Twenty years later I’ve made only modest progress. What follows is an accounting of what I have learned thus far.

Visiting a Third-World Version of Germany

In October 1990, I’d gotten a preliminary hint that something might be amiss in my prior education. On October 3rd, communist East Germany — formally the German Democratic Republic (GDR) — ceased to exist and German reunification was officially secured. That very week I accompanied a group of American military officers to the city of Jena in what had been the GDR. Our purpose was self-consciously educational — to study the famous battle of Jena-Auerstädt in which Napoleon Bonaparte and his marshals had inflicted an epic defeat on Prussian forces commanded by the Duke of Brunswick. (The outcome of that 1806 battle inspired the philosopher Hegel, then residing in Jena, to declare that the “end of history” was at hand. The conclusion of the Cold War had only recently elicited a similarly exuberant judgment from the American scholar Francis Fukuyama.)

On this trip we did learn a lot about the conduct of that battle, although mainly inert facts possessing little real educational value. Inadvertently, we also gained insight into the reality of life on the far side of what Americans had habitually called the Iron Curtain, known in U.S. military vernacular as “the trace.” In this regard, the trip proved nothing less than revelatory. The educational content of this excursion would — for me — be difficult to exaggerate.

As soon as our bus crossed the old Inner German Border, we entered a time warp. For U.S. troops garrisoned throughout Bavaria and Hesse, West Germany had for decades served as a sort of theme park — a giant Epcot filled with quaint villages, stunning scenery, and superb highways, along with ample supplies of quite decent food, excellent beer, and accommodating women. Now, we found ourselves face-to-face with an altogether different Germany. Although commonly depicted as the most advanced and successful component of the Soviet Empire, East Germany more closely resembled part of the undeveloped world.

The roads — even the main highways — were narrow and visibly crumbling. Traffic posed little problem. Apart from a few sluggish Trabants and Wartburgs — East German automobiles that tended to a retro primitivism — and an occasional exhaust-spewing truck, the way was clear. The villages through which we passed were forlorn and the small farms down at the heels. For lunch we stopped at a roadside stand. The proprietor happily accepted our D-marks, offering us inedible sausages in exchange. Although the signs assured us that we remained in a land of German speakers, it was a country that had not yet recovered from World War II.

Upon arrival in Jena, we checked into the Hotel Schwarzer Bär, identified by our advance party as the best hostelry in town. It turned out to be a rundown fleabag. As the senior officer present, I was privileged to have a room in which the plumbing functioned. Others were not so lucky.

Jena itself was a midsized university city, with its main academic complex immediately opposite our hotel. A very large bust of Karl Marx, mounted on a granite pedestal and badly in need of cleaning, stood on the edge of the campus. Briquettes of soft coal used for home heating made the air all but unbreathable and coated everything with soot. In the German cities we knew, pastels predominated — houses and apartment blocks painted pale green, muted salmon, and soft yellow. Here everything was brown and gray.

That evening we set out in search of dinner. The restaurants within walking distance were few and unattractive. We chose badly, a drab establishment in which fresh vegetables were unavailable and the wurst inferior. The adequacy of the local beer provided the sole consolation.

The following morning, on the way to the battlefield, we noted a significant Soviet military presence, mostly in the form of trucks passing by — to judge by their appearance, designs that dated from the 1950s. To our surprise, we discovered that the Soviets had established a small training area adjacent to where Napoleon had vanquished the Prussians. Although we had orders to avoid contact with any Russians, the presence of their armored troops going through their paces riveted us. Here was something of far greater immediacy than Bonaparte and the Duke of Brunswick: “the other,” about which we had for so long heard so much but knew so little. Through binoculars, we watched a column of Russian armored vehicles — BMPs, in NATO parlance — traversing what appeared to be a drivers’ training course. Suddenly, one of them began spewing smoke. Soon thereafter, it burst into flames.

Here was education, although at the time I had only the vaguest sense of its significance.

An Ambitious Team Player Assailed by Doubts

These visits to Jena and Berlin offered glimpses of a reality radically at odds with my most fundamental assumptions. Uninvited and unexpected, subversive forces had begun to infiltrate my consciousness. Bit by bit, my worldview started to crumble.

That worldview had derived from this conviction: that American power manifested a commitment to global leadership, and that both together expressed and affirmed the nation’s enduring devotion to its founding ideals. That American power, policies, and purpose were bound together in a neat, internally consistent package, each element drawing strength from and reinforcing the others, was something I took as a given. That, during my adult life, a penchant for interventionism had become a signature of U.S. policy did not — to me, at least — in any way contradict America’s aspirations for peace. Instead, a willingness to expend lives and treasure in distant places testified to the seriousness of those aspirations. That, during this same period, the United States had amassed an arsenal of over 31,000 nuclear weapons, some small number of them assigned to units in which I had served, was not at odds with our belief in the inalienable right to life and liberty; rather, threats to life and liberty had compelled the United States to acquire such an arsenal and maintain it in readiness for instant use.

I was not so naïve as to believe that the American record had been without flaws. Yet I assured myself that any errors or misjudgments had been committed in good faith. Furthermore, circumstances permitted little real choice. In Southeast Asia as in Western Europe, in the Persian Gulf as in the Western Hemisphere, the United States had simply done what needed doing. Viable alternatives did not exist. To consent to any dilution of American power would be to forfeit global leadership, thereby putting at risk safety, prosperity, and freedom, not only our own but also that of our friends and allies.

The choices seemed clear enough. On one side was the status quo: the commitments, customs, and habits that defined American globalism, implemented by the national security apparatus within which I functioned as a small cog. On the other side was the prospect of appeasement, isolationism, and catastrophe. The only responsible course was the one to which every president since Harry Truman had adhered.

For me, the Cold War had played a crucial role in sustaining that worldview. Given my age, upbringing, and professional background, it could hardly have been otherwise. Although the great rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union had contained moments of considerable anxiety — I remember my father, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, stocking our basement with water and canned goods — it served primarily to clarify, not to frighten. The Cold War provided a framework that organized and made sense of contemporary history. It offered a lineup and a scorecard. That there existed bad Germans and good Germans, their Germans and our Germans, totalitarian Germans and Germans who, like Americans, passionately loved freedom was, for example, a proposition I accepted as dogma. Seeing the Cold War as a struggle between good and evil answered many questions, consigned others to the periphery, and rendered still others irrelevant.

Back in the 1960s, during the Vietnam War, more than a few members of my generation had rejected the conception of the Cold War as a Manichean struggle. Here too, I was admittedly a slow learner. Yet having kept the faith long after others had lost theirs, the doubts that eventually assailed me were all the more disorienting.

Granted, occasional suspicions had appeared long before Jena and Berlin. My own Vietnam experience had generated its share, which I had done my best to suppress. I was, after all, a serving soldier. Except in the narrowest of terms, the military profession, in those days at least, did not look kindly on nonconformity. Climbing the ladder of career success required curbing maverick tendencies. To get ahead, you needed to be a team player. Later, when studying the history of U.S. foreign relations in graduate school, I was pelted with challenges to orthodoxy, which I vigorously deflected. When it came to education, graduate school proved a complete waste of time — a period of intense study devoted to the further accumulation of facts, while I exerted myself to ensuring that they remained inert.

Now, however, my personal circumstances were changing. Shortly after the passing of the Cold War, my military career ended. Education thereby became not only a possibility, but also a necessity.

In measured doses, mortification cleanses the soul. It’s the perfect antidote for excessive self-regard. After 23 years spent inside the U.S. Army seemingly going somewhere, I now found myself on the outside going nowhere in particular. In the self-contained and cloistered universe of regimental life, I had briefly risen to the status of minor spear carrier. The instant I took off my uniform, that status vanished. I soon came to a proper appreciation of my own insignificance, a salutary lesson that I ought to have absorbed many years earlier.

As I set out on what eventually became a crablike journey toward a new calling as a teacher and writer — a pilgrimage of sorts — ambition in the commonly accepted meaning of the term ebbed. This did not happen all at once. Yet gradually, trying to grab one of life’s shiny brass rings ceased being a major preoccupation. Wealth, power, and celebrity became not aspirations but subjects for critical analysis. History — especially the familiar narrative of the Cold War — no longer offered answers; instead, it posed perplexing riddles. Easily the most nagging was this one: How could I have so profoundly misjudged the reality of what lay on the far side of the Iron Curtain?

Had I been insufficiently attentive? Or was it possible that I had been snookered all along? Contemplating such questions, while simultaneously witnessing the unfolding of the “long 1990s” — the period bookended by two wars with Iraq when American vainglory reached impressive new heights — prompted the realization that I had grossly misinterpreted the threat posed by America’s adversaries. Yet that was the lesser half of the problem. Far worse than misperceiving “them” was the fact that I had misperceived “us.” What I thought I knew best I actually understood least. Here, the need for education appeared especially acute.

George W. Bush’s decision to launch Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 pushed me fully into opposition. Claims that once seemed elementary — above all, claims relating to the essentially benign purposes of American power — now appeared preposterous. The contradictions that found an ostensibly peace-loving nation committing itself to a doctrine of preventive war became too great to ignore. The folly and hubris of the policy makers who heedlessly thrust the nation into an ill-defined and open-ended “global war on terror” without the foggiest notion of what victory would look like, how it would be won, and what it might cost approached standards hitherto achieved only by slightly mad German warlords. During the era of containment, the United States had at least maintained the pretense of a principled strategy; now, the last vestiges of principle gave way to fantasy and opportunism. With that, the worldview to which I had adhered as a young adult and carried into middle age dissolved completely.

Credo and Trinity

What should stand in the place of such discarded convictions? Simply inverting the conventional wisdom, substituting a new Manichean paradigm for the old discredited version — the United States taking the place of the Soviet Union as the source of the world’s evil — would not suffice. Yet arriving at even an approximation of truth would entail subjecting conventional wisdom, both present and past, to sustained and searching scrutiny. Cautiously at first but with growing confidence, this I vowed to do.

Doing so meant shedding habits of conformity acquired over decades. All of my adult life I had been a company man, only dimly aware of the extent to which institutional loyalties induce myopia. Asserting independence required first recognizing the extent to which I had been socialized to accept certain things as unimpeachable. Here then were the preliminary steps essential to making education accessible. Over a period of years, a considerable store of debris had piled up. Now, it all had to go. Belatedly, I learned that more often than not what passes for conventional wisdom is simply wrong. Adopting fashionable attitudes to demonstrate one’s trustworthiness — the world of politics is flush with such people hoping thereby to qualify for inclusion in some inner circle — is akin to engaging in prostitution in exchange for promissory notes. It’s not only demeaning but downright foolhardy.

Washington Rules aims to take stock of conventional wisdom in its most influential and enduring form, namely the package of assumptions, habits, and precepts that have defined the tradition of statecraft to which the United States has adhered since the end of World War II — the era of global dominance now drawing to a close. This postwar tradition combines two components, each one so deeply embedded in the American collective consciousness as to have all but disappeared from view.

The first component specifies norms according to which the international order ought to work and charges the United States with responsibility for enforcing those norms. Call this the American credo. In the simplest terms, the credo summons the United States — and the United States alone — to lead, save, liberate, and ultimately transform the world. In a celebrated manifesto issued at the dawn of what he termed “The American Century,” Henry R. Luce made the case for this spacious conception of global leadership. Writing in Life magazine in early 1941, the influential publisher exhorted his fellow citizens to “accept wholeheartedly our duty to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit.” Luce thereby captured what remains even today the credo’s essence.

Luce’s concept of an American Century, an age of unquestioned American global primacy, resonated, especially in Washington. His evocative phrase found a permanent place in the lexicon of national politics. (Recall that the neoconservatives who, in the 1990s, lobbied for more militant U.S. policies named their enterprise the Project for a New American Century.) So, too, did Luce’s expansive claim of prerogatives to be exercised by the United States. Even today, whenever public figures allude to America’s responsibility to lead, they signal their fidelity to this creed. Along with respectful allusions to God and “the troops,” adherence to Luce’s credo has become a de facto prerequisite for high office. Question its claims and your prospects of being heard in the hubbub of national politics become nil.

Note, however, that the duty Luce ascribed to Americans has two components. It is not only up to Americans, he wrote, to choose the purposes for which they would bring their influence to bear, but to choose the means as well. Here we confront the second component of the postwar tradition of American statecraft.

With regard to means, that tradition has emphasized activism over example, hard power over soft, and coercion (often styled “negotiating from a position of strength”) over suasion. Above all, the exercise of global leadership as prescribed by the credo obliges the United States to maintain military capabilities staggeringly in excess of those required for self-defense. Prior to World War II, Americans by and large viewed military power and institutions with skepticism, if not outright hostility. In the wake of World War II, that changed. An affinity for military might emerged as central to the American identity.

By the midpoint of the twentieth century, “the Pentagon” had ceased to be merely a gigantic five-sided building. Like “Wall Street” at the end of the nineteenth century, it had become Leviathan, its actions veiled in secrecy, its reach extending around the world. Yet while the concentration of power in Wall Street had once evoked deep fear and suspicion, Americans by and large saw the concentration of power in the Pentagon as benign. Most found it reassuring.

A people who had long seen standing armies as a threat to liberty now came to believe that the preservation of liberty required them to lavish resources on the armed forces. During the Cold War, Americans worried ceaselessly about falling behind the Russians, even though the Pentagon consistently maintained a position of overall primacy. Once the Soviet threat disappeared, mere primacy no longer sufficed. With barely a whisper of national debate, unambiguous and perpetual global military supremacy emerged as an essential predicate to global leadership.

Every great military power has its distinctive signature. For Napoleonic France, it was the levée en masse — the people in arms animated by the ideals of the Revolution. For Great Britain in the heyday of empire, it was command of the seas, sustained by a dominant fleet and a network of far-flung outposts from Gibraltar and the Cape of Good Hope to Singapore and Hong Kong. Germany from the 1860s to the 1940s (and Israel from 1948 to 1973) took another approach, relying on a potent blend of tactical flexibility and operational audacity to achieve battlefield superiority.

The abiding signature of American military power since World War II has been of a different order altogether. The United States has not specialized in any particular type of war. It has not adhered to a fixed tactical style. No single service or weapon has enjoyed consistent favor. At times, the armed forces have relied on citizen-soldiers to fill their ranks; at other times, long-service professionals. Yet an examination of the past 60 years of U.S. military policy and practice does reveal important elements of continuity. Call them the sacred trinity: an abiding conviction that the minimum essentials of international peace and order require the United States to maintain a global military presence, to configure its forces for global power projection, and to counter existing or anticipated threats by relying on a policy of global interventionism.

Together, credo and trinity — the one defining purpose, the other practice — constitute the essence of the way that Washington has attempted to govern and police the American Century. The relationship between the two is symbiotic. The trinity lends plausibility to the credo’s vast claims. For its part, the credo justifies the trinity’s vast requirements and exertions. Together they provide the basis for an enduring consensus that imparts a consistency to U.S. policy regardless of which political party may hold the upper hand or who may be occupying the White House. From the era of Harry Truman to the age of Barack Obama, that consensus has remained intact. It defines the rules to which Washington adheres; it determines the precepts by which Washington rules.

As used here, Washington is less a geographic expression than a set of interlocking institutions headed by people who, whether acting officially or unofficially, are able to put a thumb on the helm of state. Washington, in this sense, includes the upper echelons of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the federal government. It encompasses the principal components of the national security state — the departments of Defense, State, and, more recently, Homeland Security, along with various agencies comprising the intelligence and federal law enforcement communities. Its ranks extend to select think tanks and interest groups. Lawyers, lobbyists, fixers, former officials, and retired military officers who still enjoy access are members in good standing. Yet Washington also reaches beyond the Beltway to include big banks and other financial institutions, defense contractors and major corporations, television networks and elite publications like the New York Times, even quasi-academic entities like the Council on Foreign Relations and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. With rare exceptions, acceptance of the Washington rules forms a prerequisite for entry into this world.

My purpose in writing Washiington Rules is fivefold: first, to trace the origins and evolution of the Washington rules — both the credo that inspires consensus and the trinity in which it finds expression; second, to subject the resulting consensus to critical inspection, showing who wins and who loses and also who foots the bill; third, to explain how the Washington rules are perpetuated, with certain views privileged while others are declared disreputable; fourth, to demonstrate that the rules themselves have lost what ever utility they may once have possessed, with their implications increasingly pernicious and their costs increasingly unaffordable; and finally, to argue for readmitting disreputable (or “radical”) views to our national security debate, in effect legitimating alternatives to the status quo. In effect, my aim is to invite readers to share in the process of education on which I embarked two decades ago in Berlin.

The Washington rules were forged at a moment when American influence and power were approaching their acme. That moment has now passed. The United States has drawn down the stores of authority and goodwill it had acquired by 1945. Words uttered in Washington command less respect than once was the case. Americans can ill afford to indulge any longer in dreams of saving the world, much less remaking it in our own image. The curtain is now falling on the American Century.

Similarly, the United States no longer possesses sufficient wherewithal to sustain a national security strategy that relies on global military presence and global power projection to underwrite a policy of global interventionism. Touted as essential to peace, adherence to that strategy has propelled the United States into a condition approximating perpetual war, as the military misadventures of the past decade have demonstrated.

To anyone with eyes to see, the shortcomings inherent in the Washington rules have become plainly evident. Although those most deeply invested in perpetuating its conventions will insist otherwise, the tradition to which Washington remains devoted has begun to unravel. Attempting to prolong its existence might serve Washington’s interests, but it will not serve the interests of the American people.

Devising an alternative to the reigning national security paradigm will pose a daunting challenge — especially if Americans look to “Washington” for fresh thinking. Yet doing so has become essential.

In one sense, the national security policies to which Washington so insistently adheres express what has long been the preferred American approach to engaging the world beyond our borders. That approach plays to America’s presumed strong suit — since World War II, and especially since the end of the Cold War, thought to be military power. In another sense, this reliance on military might creates excuses for the United States to avoid serious engagement: confidence in American arms has made it unnecessary to attend to what others might think or to consider how their aspirations might differ from our own. In this way, the Washington rules reinforce American provincialism — a national trait for which the United States continues to pay dearly.

The persistence of these rules has also provided an excuse to avoid serious self-engagement. From this perspective, confidence that the credo and the trinity will oblige others to accommodate themselves to America’s needs or desires — whether for cheap oil, cheap credit, or cheap consumer goods — has allowed Washington to postpone or ignore problems demanding attention here at home. Fixing Iraq or Afghanistan ends up taking precedence over fixing Cleveland and Detroit. Purporting to support the troops in their crusade to free the world obviates any obligation to assess the implications of how Americans themselves choose to exercise freedom.

When Americans demonstrate a willingness to engage seriously with others, combined with the courage to engage seriously with themselves, then real education just might begin.

Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University.  His new book, Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War (Metropolitan Books)has just been published. This essay is its introduction.  Listen to a TomCast audio interview in which he discusses the book by clicking here, or to download to an iPod, here.

Excerpted from Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War, published this month by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Copyright (c) 2010 by Andrew Bacevich. All rights reserved.

Share this:
Bookmark and Share
Peacemakers take action to lead the charge to end the war. Join forces with the over 100,000 people who make a difference.
FACT SHEETS

BLOG POSTS FROM DERRICK CROWE
BLOG POSTS FROM ROBERT GREENWALD
RECENT POSTS

SEARCH THE BLOG
Subscribe via RSS
Become a Peacemaker



Bronze Telly Award
QUESTIONS
For general questions, email us here.
For technical issues regarding this site, contact us here.

PRESS

For Press inquiries, please contact Kim at: bravenewfoundation.press@gmail.com



CREDITS
Director: Robert Greenwald - Executive Director: Jim Miller - Producer: Jason Zaro - Associate Producer: Dallas Dunn, Jonathan Kim, and Kim Huynh - Researcher: Greg Wishnev - Editor: Phillip Cruess - Political Director: Leighton Woodhouse - VP Marketing & Distribution: Laura Beatty - Production Assistant: Monique Hairston

LEGAL
Anyone is allowed to post content on this site, but Brave New Foundation 501(c)(3) is not responsible for that content. We will, however, remove anything unlawful, threatening, libelous, defamatory, obscene, racist, or that contains other material that would violate the law. By posting you agree to this.





Brave New Foundation | 10510 Culver Blvd., Culver City, CA 90232