The President’s speech is history now. Al Qaeda is still the objective and General Stanley McChrystal will get 30,000 more troops and 18 months to make his counterinsurgency plan work. In a country the size of Afghanistan, even ten times that number wouldn’t matter. What does matter is that little has changed in Washington and it appears that Washington cannot change. It’s too bad that the interests of the United States and those of the Afghan and Pakistani people are apparently mutually exclusive. Before this all began in the 1970’s and the U.S. support for extremist Islam began, Afghanistan did have a government. It was decentralized, but it was a government and it did function alongside a secular tribal structure that had been moving toward modernization for a century.
The Afghans came to the U.S. in the late 40’s and early 50’s asking for help. They needed some basic infrastructure development. They needed a cement factory, paved roads. They needed a hospital and some city buses. They didn’t get them. They at least expected that their external security would be protected by the Americans the way it had been by the British Empire. It wasn’t. During the Eisenhower administration the U.S. made it clear to the Afghans, often in insulting and demeaning ways that Pakistan would be America’s ally and that Afghanistan would have to fend for itself. Washington liked Pakistan’s plucky military brass. They liked their style, their uniforms and their British accents.
Kabul finally got the message and turned to Moscow. It was only then that Washington got interested, but even then, not very interested. The President’s speech struck a new milestone for Washingtonian denial. The public dialogue on the issue had been prepared for months. Senator John Kerry had already signaled that the U.S. was backing away from a full blown commitment to Afghanistan both civically and militarily. In a major foreign policy speech to the Council on Foreign Relations on October 23rd Kerry said, ‘Achieving our goals does not require us to build a flawless democracy, defeat the Taliban in every corner of the country, or create a modern economy—what we’re talking about is ‘good-enough’ governance…’
Kerry’s speech was clearly aimed at rebuffing General Stanley McChrystal’s desire to mount a full blown counterinsurgency campaign while reflecting Washington’s traditional foreign policy opinion-makers who wanted America’s sympathies, money and effort shifted to fighting Al Qaeda in Pakistan where – in their opinion – America’s real interests lay. It was an old tune, but coming from this new President’s lips, the old-song that “We did not ask for this fight” sounded particularly hollow. Throughout the 1980’s and into the 1990’s the United States stoked a bonfire under Kabul and then walked away just in time to have the house burn down. Laying the blame on “years of Soviet occupation and civil war and after the attention of America and our friends had turned elsewhere,” put the emphasis on the wrong part of the sentence. The United States wanted a Russian Vietnam in Afghanistan but instead had lit the fuse on Armageddon.
The president’s speech picked up where Kerry left off by skirting the enormous tasks facing Washington in the months ahead. It reframed them so as to elicit public support for the military’s surge while belaboring a threat from an Al Qaeda that paled in comparison to what was really happening in Central Asia. It was a Mikhail Gorbachev moment. The world had been there before. Washington’s beltway lived in perpetual fear of repeating Vietnam. But what it had on its hands was Russia’s Vietnam and that was more than Washington could comprehend.
Everywhere America went with its army it brought the same baggage, the same military trainers, the same weapons, the same techniques and the same mission. The instruments of American government had no institutional memory for failure or success. The standard tools of American corporate/military-statecraft – its Congressional supporters and legions of lobbyists – its government supported think-tanks and universities – were intended to produce a corporate-friendly American client. Where they worked the United States got partners and allies and where they didn’t, the United States got quagmire.
From an American politico/military perspective, America was repeating America’s Vietnam. But from a Taliban and Al Qaeda perspective, from the perspective of every teenage boy who looked to Osama bin Laden as a role model and in the mind of every jihadi who planted an improvised explosive or pointed a Kalashnikov, America was repeating Russia’s Vietnam. The more troops America sent, the closer it came to making their dream come true.
Regardless of what the president said in his Afghan speech, the United States did ask for this fight. Whether it can be won in 18 months with 30,000 more troops remains to be seen. Whatever the outcome, the good news is that we won’t have long to wait.
Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould, a husband and wife team, began their experience in Afghanistan when they were the first American journalists to acquire permission to enter behind Soviet lines in 1981 for CBS News and produced a documentary, Afghanistan Between Three Worlds, for PBS. In 1983 they returned to Kabul with Harvard Negotiation project director Roger Fisher for ABC Nightline and contributed to the MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour. They continued to research, write and lecture about the long-term run-up that led to the US invasion of Afghanistan. They are featured in an award winning documentary by Samira Goetschel. Titled, Our own Private Bin Laden which traces the creation of the Osama bin Laden mythology in Afghanistan and how that mythology has been used to maintain the “war on terror” approach of the Bush administration. Invisible History: Afghanistan’s Untold Story published by City Lights (www.citylights.com), January 2009 chronicles their three-decade-focus on Afghanistan and the media.