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Medieval Nightmare Finds a Home in the American Way of Making War

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Ten years ago this fall we sat in the walled garden of a bullet-pocked Kabul villa on a brilliant sunlit afternoon, interviewing American reporters about what they thought the prospects were for a U.S. success in Afghanistan now that the "war" was over.

At that particular moment Afghans were open to American solutions and for the first time in decades, hopeful. Kabul was ruined but peaceful, but just below the surface was the unshakeable feeling that something was wrong. The young, thoughtful and concerned photo journalist Chris Hondros of Getty Images spoke of the fractured nature of Afghan society and doubted that the West could help the country overcome the deep divisions caused by twenty five years of war. He complained that his job had been made much tougher because an entire generation of Americans had never been informed of what they needed to know in order to comprehend why Afghanistan was so important. USA Today's Berlin bureau chief Steve Komarow, who'd rotated back into Kabul after taking part in the brief American invasion, echoed the American confusion about what to do about a mission and a country no one seemed to really understand. "Nobody wants Afghanistan to revert to what it was, but on the other hand there's a tension between that and being seen as a colonial power," Komarow said. "The United States doesn't want to own Afghanistan. It really wants the Afghans to work it out, however they want to work it out."

Tension might still be the best of a slew of inadequate words to describe Washington's schizophrenic relationship to Afghanistan. Tension between the Obama administration and a Republican Congress over the longest running war in American history and how to end it, tension between Washington and the government of Hamid Karzai, tension between President Obama and the wisdom of his own military commanders and tension over Pakistan's perennial role as an alleged U.S. ally while continuing to use the Taliban as an advance guard for its military's strategic ambitions in Central Asia. And tension between the reality of people's lives and the invented reality of a war machine that has long lost any relevance to the real nature of American security.

U.S. objectives in Afghanistan from day one were never clear and in fact were mostly irreconcilable with the ground reality. American policymakers in the 1980s never thought through the consequences of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood-inspired Peshawar seven Mujahideen groups, and in fact deferred to Pakistan's ISI in halting any Afghan efforts at creating an exile nationalist government following the Soviet invasion. Pakistan's strategy meshed perfectly with the extremist philosophy of the Saudi trained extremists who targeted Afghan nationalists and moderates along with Soviet soldiers and Afghan communists. For over two hundred years, Afghanistan's identity had been centered on Pashtun nationalism. Annihilating Pashtun tribal leadership was key to Pakistan's long term planning and beginning in the early 1970s ISI supported the rise of the Tajik Burhanuddin Rabbani's Jamaat I Islami and the de-Pashtunized Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hesbe Islami, in order to replace it.

The anti-Soviet Jihad of the 1980s was a time in which the U.S., Pakistani and Saudi interests converged over Afghanistan but as U.S. attention waned following the end of the Cold War, the interests of these former partners began to diverge. The instability caused by that divergence was made apparent on 9/11, but instead of responding with workable solutions to complex ground realities inside Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Middle East, the U.S. plowed ahead with a pre-cast ideological blueprint that was at once astonishingly inappropriate, profoundly unworkable and in the end self-defeating.

Did President George W. Bush's neoconservative policymakers really expect to reconcile Afghanistan's complex mix of tribes and ethnicities and heal the war's wounds without the blessing of Afghanistan's recognized Pashtun leader, King Zahir Shah? 75 percent of the delegates to the U.S. brokered Loya Jirga (tribal council) that created the new Afghan government petitioned to have the king nominated as head of state. Just weeks before being assassinated in 2001, Ahmed Shah Massoud had agreed to support the return of the king as the only way to establish a lasting peace. Did Washington really believe it could force brutal and corrupted warlords - men that Steve Komarow described as "charming killers" - onto a government as powerless as Hamid Karzai's and expect them to establish a democracy? And did the Bush administration really believe it could blindly hand over responsibility and billions of dollars to Pakistan's military establishment, march off to Iraq and then expect Pakistan to uphold America's interests?

It is not hard to understand the growing sense of institutional desperation surrounding the latest events. Headlines that tell of U.S. soldiers urinating on Taliban corpses, Koran burnings, increasing incidents of Afghan soldiers attacking NATO and American trainers and the slaughter of Afghan men, women and children in their sleep, are evidence of disintegration, not a winning end game. But news reports that America's own soldiers were ordered to disarm in the presence of their own Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta while on an official visit to Camp Leatherneck in Kandahar in mid-March indicate that Washington may not just be losing the war, but as in Vietnam, may also be losing the army that is fighting it.

Should this happen - and from reports on the morale of American troops who've been forced into repeated combat tours it appears that it is - the U.S. experience in Afghanistan may soon match the Soviet experience in Afghanistan and with a similar conclusion. For the last year the Pentagon has insisted that its strategy of handing off responsibility to a U.S./NATO funded Afghan National Army of 350,000 troops is going according to plan, that the U.S. intends to stay on only in an advisory capacity after 2014, and that all is well. Even if all was well, the idea that Afghanistan's economy could ever provide the $6 billion annually necessary to support an army of that size is a complete fantasy as are mostly all the other assumptions underpinning such an army.

If, as Washington's numerous critics of Afghan policy insist, Afghanistan can't be expected to operate as a centralized European-style democracy, then why should anyone expect Afghanistan to produce a centralized European-style army? As the Soviets learned over their ten year occupation, Afghanistan's decentralized tribal society doesn't really do standing armies. According to the Center for Advanced Studies' Chris Mason, the Afghan National Army really has something like 100,000 men on a good day and there are very few good days. More than 40 percent of what remains disappears every year, 75 percent is on drugs, and the rest is so riddled with Taliban infiltrators as to make the concept of an Afghan army meaningless. Add to that the fact that the U.S. has largely built an army of Northern Tajiks who use the U.S. to intimidate their traditional opponents, the Pashtuns and you have a formula for civil war when the U.S. leaves, with or without the Taliban.

Another critic of the official narrative is Lt. Colonel Daniel L. Davis. Reporting after a 12 month second tour of Afghanistan which covered 9,000 miles and visits to troops in multiple provinces Davis maintains that there is virtually no reality backing the U.S. narrative. Davis wrote in the Armed Forces Journal in early February 2012, "In all of the places I visited, the tactical situation was bad to abysmal. If the events I have described - and many, more I could mention - had been in the first year of the war, or even the third of fourth, one might be willing to believe that Afghanistan was just a hard fight, and we should stick it out. Yet these incidents all happened in the 10th year of war."

Afghanistan played a major role in the 1980s as a first step in curing the so called Vietnam syndrome in the United States. But the American decision to use Afghanistan to give the Russians their own Vietnam syndrome (instead of reassessing the Cold War assumptions that had produced the devastating Vietnam quagmire in the first place) was a double edged sword.

In a remarkably self-effacing 1972 New Yorker article titled "Reflections: In Thrall To Fear," Senator J. William Fulbright traced the origins of the devastation caused by Vietnam to the intellectual corruption of the Cold War. But his shock was in realizing that the actual thinking behind the Cold War and the Truman Doctrine was not based on facts or logic or even the metrics of modern warfare, but on a medieval ideological methodology that in effect defied reason.

"Our leaders became liberated from the normal rules of evidence and inference when it came to dealing with Communism... The effect of the anti-Communist ideology was to spare us the task of taking cognizance of the specific facts of specific situations. Our 'faith' liberated us, like the believers of old, from the requirements of empirical thinking... Like medieval theologians, we had a philosophy that explained everything to us in advance, and everything that did not fit could be readily identified as a fraud or a lie or an illusion."

The United States has had 90 years to formulate a working relationship with Afghanistan. It had numerous opportunities to help Afghanistan grow and modernize before Soviet Communism and Afghan nationalism made it a Cold War target, but it chose to defer to British and then Pakistani interests. Even after the Soviet defeat from which it benefited, the U.S. had the chance to intervene but chose instead to back away and leave its fate to others. On 9/11 Afghanistan's fate became interlocked with America's, but once again Washington chose a path which allowed Afghanistan to drift into chaos.

Senator Fulbright's reflections are a tragic and largely forgotten commentary on the Cold War. But were he here today to witness the futile debates over policies that were always irreconcilable and the Vietnam-like quagmire they have caused in Afghanistan, he would be the first to recognize that the medieval theologians had been at it again, only this time around the fraud, the lie and the illusion had hardened into a permanent and perhaps terminal reality.

Copyright © 2012 Gould & Fitzgerald All rights reserved

Published on The City Lights Booksellers & Publishers' Blog

Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould are the authors of Invisible History: Afghanistan's Untold Story , Crossing Zero The AfPak War at the Turning Point of American Empire and The Voice. For more information visit their websites at www.invisiblehistory.com and www.grailwerk.com