Go to previous post:
“Intelligence,” a utopian fantasy:

Go to Electrolite's front page.

Go to next post:
Matthew Yglesias

Our Admirable Sponsors

October 13, 2002

Jim Henley, liberal Electrolite’s favorite right-winger, has a post blowing holes the size of aircraft hangars into one of the more persistent liberal pieties about Afghanistan. Read it and see. [10:51 PM]
Welcome to Electrolite's comments section.
Hard-Hitting Moderator: Teresa Nielsen Hayden.

Comments on Jim Henley,:

David Margolies ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2002, 01:45 PM:

Actually, he blows holes is charicatures of liberal pieties. But blowing holes in charicatures is never that hard. No serious commentator has ever said helping Afganistan would be easy, just that it was probably a good idea and that if we made no effort, it would likely rebound on us as it did before. Henley's point is (1) its hard, so (2) why bother. (Henley is clearly not a disciple of jkf: bear any burden yadda yadda, but I digress.)

Liberals do make three points: (1) We do not know how hard helping Afganistan is because we have not made any effort, so at least making an effort might be desirable; (2) absent an effort, it is very likely Afganistan will revert to Taliban-like government supporting an Al Quaeda like organization, and if that happens, what was the point; and (3) what is past is prologue: if that what happened in Afganistan, what will happen in Iraq? Are we to assume that Bush's calls for democracy in Iraq, with better lives for Iraqi's are just smoke and mirrors, like his similar calls for action is Iraq? I understand that we cannot reveal our intentions all teh time, but isn't something vaguely resembling truth from the president sometimes a good idea?

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2002, 02:02 PM:

I don't think the above so much as lays a glove on Henley's main argument, which is that the level of "commitment" to Afghanistan that would actually do the job we imagine doing is beyond what Americans of any political stripe are willing to undertake. As Jim says, "As for 'disarming the warlords,' there's a word for that: war. "

Regarding Iraq, you may or may not be aware that Jim is a vigorous opponent of the forthcoming war.

David Margolies ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2002, 02:18 PM:

I am aware of Jim's views on Iraq. I am also aware of what he said about warlords etc. But it seems to me there is a lot of room between what we are doing now (almost nothing) and eliminating warlords by force.

I have to admit to getting lost in the distinctions he makes. He first points out that _hawks_ are saying that reforming Iraq will be easy because Afganistan was easy, and then he argues against his _liberal_ friends. Are they hawks? Are they arguing Iraq will be easy?

Then he says that the sdministration knows what it is doing: it is lying in a good cause, because if it actually did what it said it would do in Afganistan, that would be bad because it would be a quagmire.

Now me, I do not disagree with the facts as he states them. I just feel that:

1. Liberals I know (such as myself -- I am very Socratic) do not believe that Afganistan is easy, but it is worth trying to find more effective things to do and then trying to do them. Our current policy seems a recipe for disaster (and when the disaster happens, how smart will the administration seem then?)

2. It would be better if the administration actually leveled with the American people. (Jim, like so many others, is reduced to reading tea leaves: he tells us what he thinks is happening in Afganistan, based on skimpy news reports, and then infers administration policy, and then comments on that inference.)

3. Iraq will not be like Afganistan (I cannot tell whether Jim agrees of not).

4. Hawks are in general wacko (Jim seems to agree).

Chris Quinones ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2002, 03:14 PM:

And our knowledge that stabilizing Afghanistan would take more than we're willing to commit (not that I'm certain of this) sort of undermines the arguments given for booting out the Taliban, since they had given a sense of stability to the country. Sure, they were harboring Al Qaeda; we could have given them hell in any number of ways for that without deposing them and destabilizing the whole country to the current extent. Using our military to find bin Laden and his minions to bring them to justice would have sufficed, but the guys in charge here have bigger fish to fry. (No, this isn't fully argued. Yes, fleshing my contentions out would be a good thing. Maybe, I'll actually do this RSN.)

David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2002, 05:29 PM:

Since the US first went into Afghanistan after 9/11 my main concern has been that while we're generally good at winning the war we generally suck at winning the peace. But it occurs to me that Mr. Henley's post may be missing one interesting point, which is that stabilizing Afghanistan is one job several of our nominal allies have actually expressed interest in. Last I heard, that was still being hampered by the US not wanting international peacekeepers roaming around getting in the way of our search-and-destroy teams. Maybe we ought to figure out if there's really anything we're still searching for or anything we particularly need to destroy.

Not to say there hasn't been an insane amount of wishful thinking on the left as to what we could accomplish in postwar Afghanistan -- in some ways even crazier than what Wolfowitz et al. seem to think we'd be able to do in postwar Iraq. (Side bet on whether we stick around to do that job, by the way, anyone?) Universal disarmament, fifty percent of the legislative seats set aside for women.... Get real. Maybe for a small handful of Afghanistan's Western-educated elite, but not for the rest of the population. Most of the country, we'd be lucky to bring it into the eleventh century, never mind the twenty-first -- lucky to get feudalism, never mind democracy.

Jim Henley ::: (view all by) ::: October 14, 2002, 10:14 PM:

Interesting comments, everyone, and thank you. If I may:

Dave Margolies: I'm sorry if my item was unclear in its movement from dealing with the liberal argument to dealing with the neocon argument. I think you're probably inferring "liberals think it's easy" from "just shows up with bags of money etc." I'll cop to being a bit flip there. But I find "liberals know it's hard but we have to try" no more compelling. My argument is not "It's hard, so why bother," my argument is "It's probably impossible, so let's not dig ourselves in even deeper."

And no, I'm indeed not a disciple of JFK. I think the quote you reference is fatuously overblown. (I recognize you were referencing, not endorsing, BTW.) In your first message, I agree with your point 2, and I suspect I agree with your point 3, if the questions are rhetorical. Your point 1 I couldn't disagree with more: I think we know very well how hard it would be to rebuild Afghanistan, and it is a good reason for not trying - the best. The sin of the administration lay in overselling the Afghan invasion in the first place. The sin of the hawks is to continue pretending that Afghanistan represents such an unalloyed triumph that only fools could worry about how the conquest of Iraq will go.

While Patrick focused on the "liberal pieties" part of the post, I didn't myself think of it as primarily a critique of liberalism. Nevertheless, I do think "There must be something we can do" (always) is the liberal piety, and I do indeed reject it.

On parts of your second message that I don't think I adequately dealt with: I do not say the Administration is lying in a good cause; or, put it this way, I don't credit them for it. I think they made a big mistake in presenting the overthrow of the Taliban as a "liberation." I think you undersell the structural problems in "finding something better to do in Afghanistan." We're not that smart, and besides, the terrorist playbook has all kinds of calls for that situation. You put peace corps volunteers in the field. They blow a few up. You send out some raiding parties or launch a few bombing missions. Said excursions get trigger-happy or just unlucky. Now that many more people hate you. Stir, simmering over low heat, until quagmire thickens.

The popular alternative is to cave to the wishes of the nastiest local actors, as NATO did in postwar Kosovo, which the KLA has almost completely cleansed of Serbs and other non-Albanians. But there sure was a lot of bright talk about fostering multiethnic pluralism at the time of the armistice!

Or you can get your nose bloodied and bug out (Somalia), or you can just turn nasty (Russia in Chechnya.)

Yes, it would be better if the Administration leveled with the American people, wouldn't it? Early on, Alan Bock averred that we've entered a period where US political analysis has become akin to the "Kremlin-watching" of old.

I don't know what Iraq will be like, but I don't think it will be good. As for hawks, yes they are wacko, but you may never ever call them on it. Being a hawk means never having to say you're sorry. If your pet intervention blows up in your face that simply means your next preferred intervention is urgently needed right now, and anyone who calls you on the previous cockup simply "hates America." (Or Australia...)

Christine: I don't disagree. If my argument amounts to anything, it's that the Afghan War skeptics have not been proven so obviously wrong as the conventional wisdom implies. I was not an Afghan War dove, but I may yet be proven wrong by events.

Dave Moles: Interesting point about other countries who do want to - I will NOT type scare quotes, I will NOT - help in postwar Afghanistan. Westerners would, I think, be subject to the same terror war plan outlined above. No matter what country the peacekeepers and reconstructors were from, once they started getting attacked, You Know Who would be the ones going after the attackers. And there we are. But maybe not.

I appreciate everyone's comments very much. Hesiod posted a critical response on Counterspin today also, which I hope to get to tomorrow. (Probably not tonight.) Also a related item on how the problem with neocons is that every country has them.

David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: October 15, 2002, 12:45 AM:

Jim: I take your point about the scare quotes. On terror war against peacekeepers and reconstructors -- certainly I expect the guys with guns would be in for a tough ride wherever they came from. As for the peace corps volunteers, I'm not so sure.

A buddy of mine spent a year or so in Afghanistan with an Asian medical relief charity, and one of the ideas I got from his stories was that the country's traditional Islamic values cut both ways. The tradition of hospitality was more sacred than I think most Western observers can really understand, on a gut level. The few times the relief workers did get hassled, usually by younger Taliban "fighters" -- kids with guns, not the real veterans -- the kids' commanders came down on them like a ton of bricks. "These people are guests in our country! They're here to help! They didn't have to come here! Respect them!"

I don't see al-Qaeda having any qualms about blowing up peace corps volunteers, but I don't see them getting much support from the real Afghanis, either. (One reason why, of course, it's important to keep relief work and armed occupation as well-separated as possible.) As for the warlords' people, I could be wrong, but I don't think they think that way. In an odd way, I don't think their thinking is that advanced.

One question -- well, one and a half. You say you weren't an Afghan War dove. I agree with you that the change in marketing spin to "liberating Afghanistan" was a bad move -- though I'd say it's rhetorically on a par with most of what our government has said about its foreign policy over most of the last couple of hundred years. But what do you think the objective of the Afghan War was? And how do you think we're doing on acheiving it?

David Margolies ::: (view all by) ::: October 15, 2002, 12:25 PM:

My disagreements with Jim Henley are now reduced to this: I still believe it is worth thinking about what we might do in the region, deciding on right courses taking risk fully into consideration, and acting. I simply do not agree that all action is useless and counterproductive.

Let me give an example (though from Pakistan rather than Afghanistan): we could have eliminated the tariffs (and quotas if they still exist) on textiles. That would have aligned local workers and businessmen with our interests without even having to expose Americans to risk (we could work entirely through Pakistanis). But of course that turned out to be politically beyond the pale.

nick sweeney ::: (view all by) ::: October 16, 2002, 07:59 PM:

Jim deserves to be thanked for bringing an element of nuance into this discussion, since too many arguments are posed in the style 'So, do you think Afghans are worse off now?' Which leads us nowhere: in fact, to be a little flippant, the opium poppy growers are having a glorious year. But I agree with other people commenting here that the liberal argument, pointing out the increasingly slapdash tactics of the 'clean-up' operation in Afghanistan, is more nuanced than Jim admits in his post.

There are a number of issues: the cult of personality that grows up around the memory of Massoud is likely to empower those Panjsher Tajiks whose ethics are nowhere near as clear-cut as their murdered leader, and the tension between Tajiks and Pashtuns is the most immediate threat to stability. That's not something that the US can necessarily address, but as it becomes increasingly clear that the US troops in Kabul are akin to the Swiss Guard defending the Pope during the war of Italian unification, things aren't likely to improve. Then there's the apparent cementing of the Uzbek fiefdom of Abdul Rashid Dostum in and around Mazar (note that we don't hear too many stories of beauty salons and women using computers from there) which could become the hotbed of an opposition movement, should Dostum decide to take his ball and go home.

So, Jim's right to argue that facing down the warlords is a ticket to the Soviet quagmire; but the current sitatuation runs the risk of turning Afghanistan into a Kashmir.

What's needed? Well, building roads would be a start.

Tom ::: (view all by) ::: October 17, 2002, 12:12 PM:

I am not too sure judging by recent events how to judge the "success" or otherwise of the Afghan venture. Suffice to say that a lot of al-Qaeda operatives in that country are probably now dead and much of their operations have been seriously damaged but clearly there are a lot of them still at large. Was the U.S. wrong to attack when it did? No. I honestly cannot see how, after 9/11 and after the Taliban failed to make any meaningful effort to hand over bin Laden, the U.S. could have shrugged its shoulders and simply sought to treat the whole atrocity as a police matter, as some commentators have implied. That does NOT mean that pro-war types like Andrew Sullivan or Victor Davis Hanson are right to hail the operation as a great success, but their detractors are making the opposite mistake of picking holes in Bush's actions without offering any credible alternative.

I am not sure Bush's detractors did offer such an alternative. If I am wrong about that it would be good to see that pointed out.

As for Iraq, I am one of those fairly "hawkish" libertarians who nevertheless have a whole bunch of doubts about the pre-emption doctrine, not least the parallel that Jim Henley has drawn between pre-emption and the precautionary principle when applied to things like gun control, the so-called Greenhouse Effect, etc.

As for Saddam's alleged desire to use nukes along with any other WMDs he may possess, we are in the realms of speculation. My reason for thinking the U.S. and its allies may have to topple him stem from my reading of his track record and failure to comply with a raft of UN resolutions. But it is not an easy call to make. What is troubling is that a lot of commentators, not all on the right by any means, talk about a pre-emptive invasion without giving any indication of how risky such a venture is or how large a break it represents with the ideas of sovereignty and respect for national borders.

Jim Henley ::: (view all by) ::: October 17, 2002, 05:10 PM:

First, I apologize for abandoning this thread for a few days. I've been caught up in sniper stuff.

David Moles: Re "what do you think the objective of the Afghan War was? And how do you think we're doing on acheiving it?" It's a damned interesting question! I think the administration had multiple goals that conflicted more than they let on.

1) Topple the Taliban. The bastards probably didn't know about the September massacres in advance, but they sure knew it was the kind of thing bin Laden wanted to do.

2)Capture or kill Bin Laden and Mullah Omar. ("Dead or alive," remember.)

3) Capture or kill the upper echelon of al Qaeda.

4) Capture or kill as many rank and file al Qaeda people as possible.

5) Minimize US casualties during all this.

6) Minimize civilian casualties during all this.

7) Keep Pakistan's government from falling during all of this.

We certainly accomplished 1, at least for now. Otherwise, the bottom three goals seem to have seriously interfered with goals 2-4. I probably have the administration's real priorities out of order. (5-7 should come before 2-4.)

The administration essentially chose to refight the Kosovo War in Afghanistan: we provide the airpower, local allies provide the ground muscle. That worked in Kosovo because, really, the local allies were the only ones with anything at stake in the matter. We had no critical concerns of our own. (But don't get me started!)

In Afghanistan, I think, the model was problematic. The local allies had much less interest in our goals (the capturing and killing parts) than we did. For the sake of Musharraf, we allowed elements of the Pakistani intelligence services that are not our friends to do things we shouldn't have let them do. (The famous airlift of ISI people that probably contained folks from al Qaeda and the Taliban too.)

Next: We're all science fiction fans here, right? Remember the part in Starship Troopers where Johnny Rico informs us that there will always be a need for the infantryman to confront the enemy in his hole and make him surrender or die?

We tried to skip that part.

It MAY be that a thermobaric bomb killed bin Laden months ago. But we don't know. Our reliance on airpower was great for the purposes of minimizing US casualties, but it also meant that we have a poor idea of who, when and how many of the enemy we killed. One thing we can be sure of is that we killed fewer people than we think we did. (Recall Gulf War Phase I when we all thought that Operation Desert Sabre had killed "hundreds of thousands" of Iraqi troops. It later developed that the encirclement was never complete, that many troops have been pulled out ahead of time and that we killed at least an order of magnitude fewer enemy soldiers than we thought we had.)

In a way, I think we made it impossible to know when we've won.

Now, darker minds would suggest that our real goal was Bagram air base, plus the new armed presence in the 'stans - all good for the encirclement of China. But then, darker minds would also say that making it impossible to know when we've won is also a feature, if you're someone who prefers that the war be as close to perpetual as possible.

Ampersand ::: (view all by) ::: October 17, 2002, 06:54 PM:

As I said on my blog in response to Jim's original post, "Jim makes a persuasive case - but I'm not totally convinced. Fifteen years ago, warlords were able to stand against the Soviets because they were being propped up by US aid and support. Today, there isn't a power in the world able to prop up the warlords against focused US action (or even an international action). So the two situations aren't the same."

I don't think Afghanistan will have democracy and full civil liberties from border to border anytime soon. But feminist goals for Afghanistan - giving women everywhere in Afghanistan an increased ability to attend school or walk the streets without fear of rape gangs - is a great deal less ambitious and more achievable than the goal of turning Iraq into a model democracy. I'd also argue that improving the status of women is a realistic (albeit long-term) place to begin transforming a culture.

And Afghanistan has one advantage to it - very little we do can make things worse.

Simon Shoedecker ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2002, 09:03 AM:

Topple the Taliban. The bastards probably didn't know about the September massacres in advance, but they sure knew it was the kind of thing bin Laden wanted to do.

And they defiantly continued to support him after he did it. That counts as accessory to the crime in most books.

I'm not sure when it became a liberal piety that Afghanistan would be easy to reconstruct, if that is indeed what is being suggested here? Maybe I'm missing something, because my recollection from late 01-early 02 is that the liberal piety was that we'd get bogged down in Afghanistan like the Russians did, or like we did in Vietnam. It was the conservative piety that we'd clean up the country in a jiffy.

Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: October 18, 2002, 01:54 PM:

I mouth liberal pieties not infrequently, and my concern in declaring war on Afghanistan was that we'd do a half-assed job and leave Afghanistan in a worse condition than it was under the Taliban, which would make more people throughout the world hate us and want to kill us.

This post on Amptoons--"Meanwhile, it still sucks to be female in Afghanistan"--leads me to fear that I was right. Specifically note this: "Human Rights Watch has documented that harassment, assault, and rape (including gang-rape) are ongoing problems for many women in Afghanistan, especially women who live outside of Kabul".

The reason that the Afghan people welcomed the Taliban (who were mostly invaders) was because for the most part the Taliban were successful in stopping the "warlords" (that is, the leaders of armed bandit gangs) from committing robbery and rape throughout the country.

I don't know if the US could, under any circumstances, create a real government for Afghanistan which would lead to a good life for its people. I do know that there's no evidence that the current administration gives a shit.

Perry de Havilland ::: (view all by) ::: October 27, 2002, 01:25 PM:

I am not sure why you regard the splendid Jim as being 'on the right' given his typically libertarian dislike of much that the American 'right' holds dear.

Also: I don't know if the US could, under any circumstances, create a real government for Afghanistan which would lead to a good life for its people. I do know that there's no evidence that the current administration gives a shit

What would you like Bush to do? Bush wants Afghan polity to help the US achieve its mission locally, which is to say, the US is not just 'giving value' for which the locals must be grateful, it is also taking value in terms of local support. This means there are severe limits to the American ability to dictate values, behaviour and policies to people whose support US needs extremely badly. Short of making Afghanistan an American colony and trying to impose American civil values at bayonet point on the entire population, what else can the US do? Is an Imperial solution an appealing option, assuming it is even possible?