Afghanistan

2010 06 26
Recently read: Coming up for air edition


Posted by in: Afghanistan, Books, Canada, History

Whew! Busy, busy. But at least I can read on the subway on my way to work.

Adrienne Mayor. The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy

Rome fought four wars—the so-called Mithradatic wars—against Mithradates in the first century B.C. The wily, resourceful Mithradates makes such a perfect subject, and the story of his setbacks and accomplishments is so much fun, that I’m surprised that Hollywood hasn’t been all over him. Perhaps now they will be. Mayor tells his story with real verve. Mithradates was especially famed for his extensive toxicological investigations—for practical reasons he was very interested in how to poison others and how to build up immunity to poisons that others might use on him—and Mayor, an expert in ancient toxicology, is especially well-suited to relate this part of the story. Where the evidence grows thin, at the beginning and the ends of Mithradates’ life in particular, Mayor allows herself speculative passages that might have been more suitable to a historical novel. But that’s partly just a matter of taste, and these passages are usually marked out very clearly as speculative. This book is recommended.

Janice Gross Stein and Eugene Lang. The Unexpected War: Canada in Kandahar

Solid, though now somewhat dated (published 2007), account of Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan. Emphasizes the extent to which policy was not really driven by larger strategic considerations, but rather emerged through a series of accidents. My only complaint is that the book might be a bit opaque to readers unfamiliar with Canadian politics. This is a pity, since I think it would be really useful for Americans to have a sense of what the war looks like from the perspective of a close coalition partner.

Edward Gorey. Men and Gods: Myths and Legends of the Ancient Greeks

This book is a children’s classic published in 1950 and recently resurrected by the New York Review of Books in their excellent children’s series. The stories are well told, though it dragged in places. That might just be me, though—I’ve never had much interest in Greek myth. A chart at the back helps the reader keep track of Latin equivalents of Greek gods and heros, but there is no introduction explaining why Gorey chose to use the Latin equivalents in the first place.

Félix Fénéon. Novels in Three Lines

This is a collection of three line news summaries written by Fénéon for a French newspaper over the course of 1906. The summaries occasionally touch on politics, but they’re mostly about every day pieces of news: suicides, burglaries, assaults, and accidents. This might sound monotonous—and actually I would recommend that people not try to read the book through cover to cover without a break—but Fénéon’s summaries are, as the title of the book suggests, absolute masterpieces of compression. Fénéon was an anarchist and an important behind-the-scenes literary and cultural figure in late nineteenth and early twentieth century France. He wrote little and the contents of this book were only saved for posterity by lucky chance.


Howls of outrage (3)

2010 01 13
A poll in Afghanistan


Posted by in: Afghanistan

Last month I was complaining about Michael Walzer’s lazy aside about the important question of public opinion in Afghanistan about a continued U.S. presence. So it’s worth noting that a poll (via Matthew Yglesias) conducted in the country very recently suggests that support is actually fairly high (68%) for a continued U.S. presence, giving some support to Walzer’s position.

I’ve been very, very bleak about the prospects for success (whatever that means, exactly, which is part of the problem) in Afghanistan, and although it hardly settles the question, it’s good to know that a fair number of Afghans don’t agree with me on the issue. They are, after all, considerably better acquainted with what’s happening in their country than I am. Since I’m not going to get my way about leaving the country, I’m always happy to find evidence that I’m mistaken to think staying is futile.

As Yglesias points out, the polls show a fairly sharp division between the Pushtun belt in the South of the country and the rest of the country on the issue of a continued military presence. I gather this is at least in part because the US and coalition forces are widely perceived in the country as a bulwark against Pashtun hegemony, and supported or rejected on that basis. I think there’s some truth to the perception, actually. Unfortunately, the U.S. and its allies are stuck in the middle of some pretty sharply conflicting visions of the country’s future, and I’m not sure they have any more idea how to resolve them than I do.


Howls of outrage (4)

2009 12 09
Walzer on Afghanistan


The other day, Commenter DC mentioned this Michael Walzer piece on Afghanistan. One line in it was irritating enough to rouse me to write a letter to Dissent this morning:

Re: Is Obama’s War in Afghanistan Just?

In support of his position on Afghanistan, Michael Walzer remarks, “I also think that most of these people [that is, Afghans] would agree (they should be asked).” I would like to second Walzer’s proposal that Afghans be asked what they think. If any organization had bothered to conduct opinion polling in Afghanistan, Walzer might have been able to discover its results with a search engine, thirty seconds of spare time, and just a smidgen of curiosity. It is a shame that Walzer was forced instead to speculate about a matter of real importance to his position.


Howls of outrage (7)

2009 12 05
Rashid on Obama on Afghanistan


I thought Obama’s recent speech on Afghanistan was pretty stinky. As I skimmed through it, grumbling to myself, I wondered what Ahmed Rashid would make of it. Answer here, and very much worth reading.

In the lead up to Obama’s decision about what to do about Afghanistan I had drawn some faint comfort from the story that he had supposedly rejected all four of the plans presented to him, and sent his advisors back to the drawing board. I always had the impression that one of the things that made Bush such a wretched decider-in-Chief was that he tended to select only from the options presented to him by his advisors, since he lacked the imagination and the background knowledge to force them to rethink the options they presented to him.

But so much for Obama’s ability to free himself from the conventional wisdom here. His speech was such a disappointment, not just because the arguments were lousy, but because they so clearly failed to really engage the concerns of those of us who feel that an Afghanistan surge isn’t going to help (as Rashid’s post makes very clear). Really engaging the concerns of the other side is the sort of thing that Obama often does very well, so the failure to do it in this case is all the more striking. This makes me worried not just about the decision he’s making, but the process of decision-making that’s getting him there.

I’m not implacably opposed to any sort of U.S. presence in Afghanistan, so long as it’s got a clear exit date. But I don’t see any realistic prospect for success there. I don’t know what most proponents even mean when they talk about success in this context. Even when I do, I really don’t see how the benefits of hanging around (militarily) outweigh the costs, either for the U.S. or for Afghanistan.

I don’t even understand most of the time what people mean when they talk about “the Taliban.” The Taliban movement which consolidated control over a large part of Afghanistan prior to September, 2001, and which was led by Mullah Omar, no longer exists. It has not really existed for years now. Scattered remnants of the original crew remain, but not in a coherent form as a political movement. When people speak now about the Taliban it isn’t clear whether they mean to refer to this original movement, to some remnant of it, to plain old organized crime groups, to disaffected Pashtun nationalists, to disaffected Afghans of any ethnic or religious background, or to something else altogether.

I think this ambiguity is often the result of honest confusion, but it’s worth noting how very useful it is to proponents of the war. The original Taliban movement makes a rhetorically persuasive target. They gave shelter and support to people who attacked us! How could we go wrong making war against them? But when the target morphs into, say, some ill-defined and shifting group of disaffected Pashtun nationalists whose main enemy is the sharing of power with other ethnic groups in the country—well that represents a much less feasible and clearly defined target.

In any case, I think the appropriate response when someone starts talking about “the Taliban” in Afghanistan is to say “Who?


Howls of outrage (7)

2009 08 03
Recently read: Sowing Crisis


Rashid Khalidi. Sowing Crisis: The Cold War and American Dominance in the Middle East

I read and enjoyed Khalidi’s The Iron Cage back in January, and so got this, Khalidi’s latest book, out of the library shortly afterwards (I’m only getting around to writing about it now). Sowing Crisis is a more sharply polemical book than The Iron Cage and I liked it a bit less, partly because I have a limited appetite for polemic and partly because Khalidi isn’t really great at it. (He’s not awful; just not great.) Nevertheless, there is a lot in this wide-ranging review of American foreign policy to learn from and by stimulated by. Khalidi’s main objective seems to be to try to get Americans to understand how non-Americans see American foreign policy. This is a worthwhile project, and Sowing Crisis is a worthwhile book.


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2009 04 09
Recently read: The Taliban and the Crisis of Afghanistan


Posted by in: Afghanistan, Books

ed. Robert D. Crews and Amin Tarzi. The Taliban and the Crisis of Afghanistan

A collection of academic papers about the Taliban movement, past and present. These are by scholars and written, I think, for scholars. But the wealth of detail and insight here makes it worth the trouble for a non-specialist if she wants to move past a lot of superficial reporting about the region. Topics include the causes of the rise of the Taliban; the intersection of the Taliban’s religious fanaticism and Pashtun politics; the Taliban’s anti-modern approach to the private sphere; and the present day neo-Taliban. This last issue is of particular relevance to the situation in the country today. The media often speaks about the Taliban, but the movement splintered after its defeat, with multiple spokesmen issuing conflicting demands and threats with little apparent coordination between them.


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2009 04 04
Recently read: Taliban


Posted by in: Afghanistan, Books

Ahmed Rashid. Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil & Fundamentalism in Central Asia

At the end of the 1990s, Ahmed Rashid finally got around to distilling two decades of reporting about Afghanistan into a book. It turned out to be an valuable resource, an insightful and crisply written account of the rise of the Taliban. It was a good bet when it was published in 2000, however, that the book would end up as ignored as the troubled country ruled over by the Taliban. But of course in the fall of 2001 the world found itself suddenly riveted by the country and the movement that had not long ago consolidated power over most of it. I think it’s safe to say that Taliban ended up selling more copies than anyone anticipated when it was first published.

I got my hands on this book after finishing Rashid’s more recent (and excellent) Descent into Chaos. Once you get over the oddness of reading about the Taliban as if they are still in power, there’s a lot here of continuing relevance and interest. The book is divided into three sections, the first devoted to the history of the movement, the second to the relationship between Islam and the Taliban, and the third to what Rashid calls “The New Great Game,” the struggle for power and control of the valuable resources in the region by oil companies and regional governments.

There is no doubt that the Taliban showed ingenuity and cunning in their rise to power. As others have pointed out, it’s not sufficient to explain the rise of the Taliban by pointing to their fundamentalism, their backing from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and their promise of a resurgence of Pashtun influence in the country. For other movements led by other leaders (the best example is Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader and founder of the Hezb-e Islami) had these things in spades, and nevertheless failed to match the Taliban’s achievements.

These achievements notwithstanding, the overriding impression of the Taliban one takes away from the book is of a group of dangerously ignorant fanatics, ill-equipped not just to provide even the most basic services for the people they claimed the right to rule over, but even to interpret the religious texts they claimed implausibly as the basis for their demented style of rule.

The most frustrating moments in the book for me were those chronicling the futile attempts of aid organizations to secure permission from the Taliban to provide aid to the displaced and the widowed and the orphaned. Having forbidden the education of women, the Taliban then forbade women to see male doctors. After aid organizations responded by hiring a number of foreign female Muslim doctors to provide desperately needed care, the Taliban then decreed that these foreign Muslim female doctors would need to be accompanied at all times by a close male relative. True, this was infeasible, but Allah would provide. (Unfortunately, Allah usually did not get around to it.) As Rashid points out, this sick set of priorities runs contrary to both the letter and the spirit of Islam.

This book would have been almost as upsetting to read in 2000 before the full tragedy unleashed by the Taliban and their guest, bin Laden, became apparent. Afghanistan was in a desperate position when the Taliban began their rise in 1994, so much so that they were often welcomed as an alternative to the squabbling warlords who tore the country apart in the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal. By the time Rashid published his book in 2000, the Taliban were themselves, he suggests, on a course to collapse into hostile factions, and were deeply feared and resented in much of the country, especially the North. The Taliban were able to consolidate their rule over much of the Pashtun-dominated South, but they had a much harder time holding territory in Northern parts of the country, where different ethnic minorities saw them as illegitimate occupiers. Looking ahead from 2000, Rashid sees only a few faint glimmers of hope.

Looking ahead from 2009, it’s not clear how much more hopeful the situation really is today. It’s not just that former members of the Taliban, or groups sympathetic to the general aims of the Taliban, are still at war with NATO and the government in Kabul. It’s that the basic conditions for chaos and instability which led to the rise of the Taliban persist to this day. These were formed over a decade of resistance to the Soviets and a decade of fighting after the withdrawal; they are not intractable, but they discouragingly close to it.


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2009 03 04
Recently read: Descent Into Chaos


Ahmed Rashid. Descent Into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia

At roughly 500 densely packed and depressing pages, this not an easy book to read. But it added immeasurably to my appreciation of the current position of the US and its allies in Afghanistan and Central Asia and of how that position came to be so desperate. Ahmed Rashid is an famously well-connected veteran Pakistani journalist. His book takes us from the weeks before September 11, 2001 right up to 2008, pausing from time to time to provide some historical perspective to his main narrative. It’s a valuable book to have on hand as we watch policymakers struggle to discover a way out of their—and for a substantial subset of this site’s readers, our—current predicament in Afghanistan.

Rashid gets his book off to a poor start with a long and unremarkable introduction that reads like just another litany of Bush’s misdeeds. It’s all true, of course, but you can find this sort of thing in any number of places, if you still care to, which I don’t. As soon as the book proper is underway, however, Rashid starts to unpack his case in copious detail and to draw on an almost uniquely broad range of sources and experiences. (When I’m interested in a subject I have an insatiable appetite for detail about it, but it did occur to me that readers who take a less Aspergerish approach to a subject might wish that Rashid’s editor had succeeded in forcing more of these details into the footnotes.)

The main thing I took away from Rashid’s book is how reliably most actors in the region have made a bad situation worse whenever they’ve been given a choice about how to proceed. Afghanistan is a poor, landlocked, and long-troubled country, but it’s been made much, much worse than it ever needed to be by the cascading effects of a series of poor decisions by just about everyone involved.

In the late 70s, the CIA weighed stability in the country against the chance to goad the USSR into a debacle, and chose the latter. On December 24, 1978, Brezhnev took the bait, and the Soviet army blundered into the country, against the advice of his top generals.* Seeing the chance to trap the USSR into a painful “Vietnam” of its own making, the US then poured money into resistance fighters in the region. That decision reflected another ranking of priorities: the prospect of stability and the development of democracy in Pakistan was trumped decisively by the goal of encouraging resistance to the USSR in Afghanistan. Accordingly, the US channeled money and arms through Pakistan, entrenching and legitimizing the military’s intrusions into the country’s political life, and encouraging the slow-spreading poison of radicalism, militarism, criminality and drug-trading in the entire region.

After the withdrawal of the USSR, there followed several years of horrific fighting between rival warlords. The success of the Taliban movement owes something to popular disgust at the instability and corruption sown by these warlords. It also owes something to money and logistical support from the ISI, Pakistan’s highly secretive intelligence agency, which sought to cultivate ties in Afghanistan in order to train and encourage Kashmiri militants and provide Pakistan with strategic depth in the event of a full out conflict with India.

As it happens, after September 11, 2001, it was Pakistan which ended up providing strategic depth to the Taliban, after Taliban forces were routed by US air power and US proxies on the ground. It was there, in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan (which are, in fact, anything but Federally Administered), that the Taliban and Al Qaeda found refuge, in some cases with the support of the ISI, which continued to play a dangerous double game of privately supporting and publicly (sometimes) condemning militant groups, for both ideological and strategic reasons. The ISI’s continuing support for the Taliban and other militants was a sore point for US-Pakistan relations, but the Bush administration continued to believe, against all evidence, that Musharif was their man, and refused to push Pakistan too hard on the issue.

The US went into Afghanistan without a clear policy on the issue of “nation building.” Bush had trouble walking back from his earlier campaign pledge to avoid such activities, and Rumsfeld remained, to the end, deeply hostile to the notion and employed all his considerable bureaucratic savvy to thwart the efforts of others in the US administration who wanted a more substantial engagement with the country. After much dithering, there was briefly talk from Bush himself of a Marshall Plan for the country, but the idea quickly slipped away as if forgotten as other priorities loomed into view.

The main other priority looming into view was a new war on a different front. At precisely the moment that the US faced the daunting prospect of stabilizing Afghanistan, it turned its attention to Iraq. I have long seen it written that the war in Iraq provided a distraction from Afghanistan that seriously jeopardized that mission. But until Rashid’s book I had not grasped the details, or understood how much evidence there really is for the proposition. Efforts to establish Karzai’s new government in Kabul were undermined by a policy Rashid calls “warlordism,” that is, providing financial and political support to warlords who then worked to undermine the government in Kabul. With resources diverted to the coming war in Iraq, Washington had clearly determined that nation building in Afghanistan would have to be done on the cheap, and warlordism seemed to offer a shortcut to the difficult and resource-intensive process of establishing and extending Kabul’s legitimacy and reach.

Stand back for a moment and marvel at the various trade offs involved here: The US pursues the Iraq War at the expense of the larger mission in Afghanistan, and loses both. The Bush administration’s uncritical support of Musharif helps set the conditions for the ISI’s continuing support for the Taliban. This in turn vastly complicates the hope of achieving even minimal security in Afghanistan, and plays a role in allowing Al Qaeda figures to escape and plan more attacks (the more recent London and Madrid bombings were almost certainly plotted from within the FATA). Having sacrificed security in Afghanistan to the goal of maintaining solid relations with Pakistan, US policymakers were then forced to watch conditions in Afghanistan destabilize Pakistan, further diminishing their leverage with the country.

There’s much more like this in Rashid’s book, if you can stomach it, buttressed by a wealth of supporting facts and argument. Since the book’s publication conditions on the ground have further deteriorated. As the new administration tries to salvage the mess handed down to it from its predecessors, I hope Rashid’s book gets the attention it deserves.

* I’m simplifying to make a point, at the risk of giving the CIA far too much credit. The decision to invade might well have been made without any CIA involvement, as Brezhnev was intervening in a complicated conflict involving the USSR’s communist allies in Afghanistan and their enemies.


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2008 09 16
Talking to the Taliban


Graeme Smith is a Canadian journalist currently stationed in Afghanistan who writes for the Globe and Mail. Yoon and I know his sister, Caitlin, a jazz musician now living in NYC. A few months ago, while he was taking a short break from Afghanistan, brother and sister showed up at one of Yoon’s gigs, and then the next evening we all went out for a beer. It was a very pleasant opportunity to pepper someone knowledgeable with questions about Afghanistan.

Anyway, I noticed the other day that Graeme Smith recently won an “Online Journalism Award” for a series on the Taliban, and I just now got around to watching it. I think it’s really very good – far more nuanced and interesting than your average reporting from a war zone. This is especially impressive considering that he’s working in a short-form format – a series of little clips between 4 and 7 minutes long. Anyway, the series is called Talking to the Taliban.

When I last spoke to Graeme I threatened to interview him for this blog. I may get around to that when his book comes out, if I can get my hands on a copy in a timely manner, and he’s still willing.


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2008 03 31
Drunk


Posted by in: Afghanistan

I don’t think there are enough drunken blog posts. So here you are.

I do realize this is not at all about Afghanistan.


Howls of outrage (6)

2006 10 04
Iraq and Afghanistan: Responses


[Second update: Update: Having slept on it and thought about it some more, I see that this post is seriously muddled. Here is all that I should have said:

Thanks to Norm for the response. Norm is right that my post was broad and ill-focused, whereas his was focused on a single point of comparison between Iraq and Afghanistan. I wrote the original post because I thought that Norm’s response to the Guardian piece was exasperating. I still find it so. You would think from reading Norm’s posts that pro-war voices weren’t incessantly claiming that the war has made us safer. You would think that the same reasons weren’t being advanced for future wars. You would think this because Norm writes as though there is something unreasonable in the Guardian’s bringing up, again, the claim that the war made us less safe. What is the problem with it? It is supposed to be: The Guardian includes Afghanistan in a list of Muslim grievances, along with the Iraq War, but only seems to accept that this gives a reason against the Iraq War. Gotcha!

In response to this, I want to say two things:

a) First, even if Norm is correct in his interpretation of the Guardian argument, it doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to see how to make sense of it: The Iraq War was much, much more polarizing than Afghanistan. Even if safety were our sole concern, it is perfectly reasonable given this fact to accept the one war and reject the other. And if you want to be fancy, you can even point out that the Iraq War made the war on Afghanistan more polarizing in retrospect, by fixing it within a troubling narrative of U.S. misbehaviour.

b) But in any case, Norm gets the Guardian argument wrong, and with it a significant part of most reasonable anti-war positions, which was the main point of my post, and which Norm does not seem to dispute. The real argument is much better than the one Norm criticizes. It is that on top of everything else, the war made us less safe. As for Norm’s response to this, I confess that it simply makes no sense to me. Of course, if that’s the argument, then it may not be decisive for him. But that was my point. The process of argument will involve going through lots of considerations that by themselves are not decisive. But it is nevertheless important. It is nevertheless very much worth saying.

I’m still unclear on what is wrong with pointing out that it is false to say that the war made us safer. The evidence for this grows stronger every day, but many proponents of the war – and future wars – deny it. What, I wonder is an appropriate response to all this? It would really help if Norm gave some hint as to what that might be. Without so much as a hint, it is reasonable to take both posts as suggesting that there is not much of a concern here. Surely the dismissive tone in Norm’s rejection of the Guardian piece suggests this. But surely this part of the anti-war argument deserves better and more thoughtful treatment.]

Many thanks to Norm for responding to this post. Let me just say a few quick things about his response. First, Norm writes (see original for hyperlinks):

(A) In saying he finds my repeated comparison of the two countries odd, Chris gives the impression that I have compared them in ways that I haven’t. Thus he writes:
[1] Whatever you think of Afghanistan, there was at least a clear casus belli… [2] Moreover, once the U.S. and allies were into Afghanistan, they had a commitment to the country, a commitment which the adventure in Iraq made much, much harder to fulfil. Indeed, even if the case for invading Iraq had been as strong as the case for invading Afghanistan, a supporter of the war in Afghanistan could have consistently rejected the war on Iraq on the grounds that the second mission would endanger the first. [3] Finally, far from providing a “gotcha!” moment for Norm, the fact that so many people supported the first war and rejected the second might be better taken as a tip-off that these people are not actually raving pacificists or knee-jerk anti-Americans.

The problem with all of the three points in this paragraph is that my comparisons of Iraq and Afghanistan have not concerned them – not any of them, and not in any shape or form. I have used the comparison to make the same single point – and repeatedly. This point is that Muslim anger, as a root cause of terrorism, comes from the invasion of Afghanistan as well as from the Iraq war. This creates a difficulty for those who emphasize the second anger but ignore the first.

Wait a minute. Let’s back up. Here’s the problem: The leaders of the U.S. and Britain sold a war on Iraq on the grounds that it would make us safer. Set aside when and how the humanitarian arguments came into it. The main argument from these people was that it would make us safer. And, whadda ya know, it did not. Rather, borrowing numerous scenes from the Complete Wet Dream Fantasies of O. bin Laden, Volumes 1 through 15, the U.S. proceded to wage a war that was regarded, not unreasonably, as an aggressive attempt to consolodate U.S. hegemony in the region, and then clinched the impression with a regime of massive detention and a torture scandal. We are not amused. Indeed, we are by turns enraged and depressed. And to be honest, this accounts for some of the emotion in my response to Norm. But damn it, this matters. This matters to anyone – supporter of the war or not – who thinks that part of the so-called War on Terror involves an appeal to ideas and ideals, and who wants to avoid handing radicals propaganda victories that they can use to further radicalize people still on the sidelines.

Now enter the CIA, which adds its voice to the chorus of people claiming that the Iraq War made us less safe. This becomes the subject of a piece in the Guardian, which also mentions Afghanistan among the causes of discontent among Muslims. If Norm thinks that there is anything reasonable in this complaint, he does not say. What he does say is this:

The Guardian yet once more today plays upon the ‘rage and fury that has been generated by Iraq’ (not only rage, also fury); and yet once more it fails to follow through on its own thought. For, including Afghanistan as well as Iraq amongst the ingredients of the ‘poisonous brew’ (one ‘heavily spiced by anger and resentment’) with which we are now faced, the paper omits to say what we’re supposed to do with this information.

It’s hard to avoid the inference that we’re being told that the war in Iraq should not have happened, not only for all the other reasons the Guardian thinks it indeed shouldn’t have, but specifically because it has made the democracies more vulnerable to terrorist attack. But, as I’ve pointed out before, the same reasoning then applies to the intervention in Afghanistan; and the Guardian seems unable to handle this idea. More generally, are we supposed to conclude that no nation should ever enter a conflict when by doing so it might provoke some form of retaliation from those inimical to its aims? That a country should never engage in a war it can’t win in short order? It’s hard to think the editor of the Guardian could explicitly sign up to this conclusion, and that maybe is why the paper’s leader today doesn’t follow through on the thought which it nonetheless gestures towards.

[Update: You’re better off just skipping the next paragraph.]

Far from allowing anything reasonable in the Guardian’s position, Norm mocks the language in the piece, implying (?) that the position is in fact unbalanced and drammatic. And it looks – it still looks after I’ve reread it a number of times – as though Norm thinks that he’s really got ‘em. Now Norm says that it was a “limited comparison,” and that I’ve read too much into it. Well, read the post for yourself and decide whether I’ve read too much into it. In response to a reasonable Guardian piece worrying about the cumulative effects on Muslim opinion of various policies, and in particular Iraq, his main response was to make this point about Afghanistan. Since the piece seemed eminently reasonable, and since Norm seemed mainly interested in dismissing it, I took what he said to carry the burden of the response to the Guardian’s position. Norm does not actually say, “I, Norm Geras, reject the Guardian’s position on this issue for this reason, and that’s that.” But he certainly seems to imply that he’s found the real defect in the Guardian’s position. At any rate, this partly accounts, I think, for the breadth of my criticisms.

[Update: Rereading this last paragraph I wonder if I’ve misunderstood what Norm means by “limited comparison.” I took it to mean “limited in ambition,” but Norm must mean “limited in scope.” I still think, though, that he’s a) misreading the Guardian argument; and b) employing a terrible argument against it himself; and c) being unclear about how much his argument is supposed to show. But I do apologize for getting this bit wrong, if that’s what I’ve done.]

As for the comparison, Norm is right that he has repeatedly made the point. But how much is it supposed to show? He still does not say, beyond the point that it is limited. To be fair, the Guardian piece Norm is specifically responding to here does not get into the business of saying how much worse Iraq was compared to Afghanistan on the issue of provoking anger among Muslims – it is, after all, mainly concerned with Iraq. But the question is entirely relevant to Norm’s point, which is, I think, vitiated by the vast space ellided by the phrase “as well as” in his claim that “Muslim anger . . . comes from the invasion of Afghanistan as well as from the Iraq War.” The Iraq War was enormously more controversial and polarizing than the War on Afghanistan. (If Norm denies this, he should say so, and we can look together at global opinion surveys to try to test my claim.) It was so because the casus belli was so different for each, which is why I mentioned this. Indeed, the Iraq War was so polarizing that it is easy to see how it might have a serious impact on how the War on Afghanistan is viewed by many people, both currently and retrospectively. So as for the difficulty created, it’s hard to see much of one. Muslim anger about the War in Afghanistan was real, but by itself the war surely radicalized few. Seen as part of a larger story in which a dominant Western military power is occupying countries with substantial Muslim populations, I think it’s more problematic, and worth mentioning. But all of this pales in comparison to the kind of anger aroused by the Iraq War. It is this massive discontent about the Iraq War which makes it so alarming to people who care about this sort of thing.

How relevant is this sort of consideration any way? Recall that I wrote:

I think the key here is in the phrase “not only” which I’ve put in bold. Critics of the war seem to me for the most part think that on top of the fact that the war was an unjustified aggressive war with terrible consequences, it has also made us less safe. Norm is right that by itself the fact that the war has made us less safe isn’t a decisive argument against it. (Of course, if the war had made us more safe, that wouldn’t have been a decisive argument for it. Other considerations might have outweighed it.) I think that sometimes he’s right to imply that critics are the war aren’t sufficiently clear about the logical structure of the argument. But put properly the point is perfectly reasonable. Indeed, it’s one reason I’m so very bitter about this war.

In other words, I thought that Norm missed the logical structure of the anti-war argument. Indeed, I thought that Norm’s criticisms missed the logical structure of the argument, even though the “not only” in his own account of the argument captured that logical structure. Indeed, the main point was that Norm misread the argument, in a way that made it look weaker than it is. Still awake? OK, in response, Norm skips over what the Guardian actually meant and moves to the claim that if I am right about the Guardian’s position, he blocked the argument in a post a year ago. Turning to the post in question, I do in fact remember it, but I’ve read these lines about 15 times and they still makes no sense to me:

However, it can be urged on behalf of those emphasizing the increased terrorist threat as a reason against Britain’s role in Iraq that they aren’t – not most of them, anyway – operating on the premise that that threat to British lives is the sole, or even a sufficient, reason against British participation in the Iraq war. What they believe, instead, is that it is one among the many compelling reasons there were against the war. But, of course, this is just what is disputed by people who supported the war, and who think that the balance of reasons was in the other direction. For us the combination of reasons against the war proferred by its opponents isn’t going to work, indeed it hasn’t worked; and so throwing in the increased terrorist threat as just one among many, or at least several, reasons also won’t work unless it is itself being given as a decisive reason.

First of all, please do recall that it was the Bush/Blair administrations that put this issue at the very centre of the Iraq War debate. Since it is false, it calls for a response. But beyond that, I just can’t follow Norm’s point. If lots of people, as so many did, supported the war, in part, because they thought it would make them safer, why can’t we try to counter that impression? Why can’t we urge people to reassess the effects of the war on their safety? If this is admitted by all to be one reason we take into consideration, why can’t we argue that it seems stronger and stronger as more evidence accumulates in its favour? These matters are still in dispute, which is why they’re worth discussing. All by itself, as I say, this might not be a decisive consideration. But so what? Norm doesn’t argue for his position all at once, so why does he expect the Guardian to do so?


Howls of outrage (2)

2006 09 28
On top of everything else


Update: Thanks to Norm for the response. I’ve responded to his response here.

Norm writes (See original for hyperlinks; emphasis mine):

It’s hard to avoid the inference that we’re being told that the war in Iraq should not have happened, not only for all the other reasons the Guardian thinks it indeed shouldn’t have, but specifically because it has made the democracies more vulnerable to terrorist attack. But, as I’ve pointed out before, the same reasoning then applies to the intervention in Afghanistan; and the Guardian seems unable to handle this idea. More generally, are we supposed to conclude that no nation should ever enter a conflict when by doing so it might provoke some form of retaliation from those inimical to its aims? That a country should never engage in a war it can’t win in short order? It’s hard to think the editor of the Guardian could explicitly sign up to this conclusion, and that maybe is why the paper’s leader today doesn’t follow through on the thought which it nonetheless gestures towards.

I find Norm’s frequent comparison of Iraq with Afghanistan very odd. Whatever you think of Afghanistan, there was at least a clear casus belli. (This appears to be one reason that Afghanistan failed to inspire the same sort of massive backlash in the Middle East that the Iraq War did.) Moreover, once the U.S. and allies were into Afghanistan, they had a commitment to the country, a commitment which the adventure in Iraq made much, much harder to fulfil. Indeed, even if the case for invading Iraq had been as strong as the case for invading Afghanistan, a supporter of the war in Afghanistan could have consistently rejected the war on Iraq on the grounds that the second mission would endanger the first. Finally, far from providing a “gotcha!” moment for Norm, the fact that so many people supported the first war and rejected the second might be better taken as a tip-off that these people are not actually raving pacificists or knee-jerk anti-Americans.

But set that aside. I think the key here is in the phrase “not only” which I’ve put in bold. Critics of the war seem to me for the most part think that on top of the fact that the war was an unjustified aggressive war with terrible consequences, it has also made us less safe. Norm is right that by itself the fact that the war has made us less safe isn’t a decisive argument against it. (Of course, if the war had made us more safe, that wouldn’t have been a decisive argument for it. Other considerations might have outweighed it.) I think that sometimes he’s right to imply that critics are the war aren’t sufficiently clear about the logical structure of the argument. But put properly the point is perfectly reasonable. Indeed, it’s one reason I’m so very bitter about this war.

I understand that Norm is reluctant, as am I, to rehash all the old arguments for the war. But there is nonetheless something increasingly dislocated about expressions of support for the war and occupation without some sort of renewed examination of the reasons for it. Iraq has been occupied for some time now. Things have gotten steadily worse in spite of it. A vast majority of Iraqis appear to want the U.S. to leave. The arguments have been made before, but the ground keeps moving from beneath them. The onus is on supporters of the war to explain how a continued presence, unpopular as it is in Iraq, will improve things, and to make some attempt to set conditions on a withdrawal to allay fears that the mission is ill-focused and open-ended.

How long, and what manner of occupation, then? With what conditions and goals? When do you decide that the mission is over? When do you give up? And what, while we’re at it, about war crimes committed by the U.S. in the course of the occupation, for example, in the second seige of Fallujah? And, looking back, has any of this bloodshed and violence made us any safer as many supporters of the war continue to claim? If Norm wants to convince anyone of anything surely this would be the place to focus his arguments.


Howls of outrage (2)

2005 10 22
The Beauty of Afghanistan Remembered


Posted by in: Afghanistan, Photography

Photos from 1977.

via


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2005 06 27
The Taliban and A.Q.


Bradford Plumer, who is usually right, is surely wrong about this:

Initially, of course, the Bush administration tried to negotiate with the Taliban and get them to turn over bin Laden, Zawihiri, Abu Zubaydah, and the rest. That didn’t work, but if it had worked, and bin Laden had been handed over on a silver platter, there may not have been an invasion at all�judging by Richard Clarke’s Against All Enemies, Rumsfeld wasn’t all that excited about attacking Afghanistan in the first place�and instead the U.S. would’ve been sitting around handing out indictments and prosecuting terrorists. True, there still would’ve been some military action: the U.S. would have almost certainly bombed more al-Qaeda camps in the region, and the Taliban likely would’ve collapsed eventually after alienating all those Islamic militants it had been counting on to fight the Northern Alliance. But the whole thing might’ve been much less than the full-scale war we actually got.

Not likely, in my opinion. For one thing, it was clear early on, and it became much clearer later, that the Taliban had fairly extensive ties with A.Q. and had benefited in the past from that cooperation. If the Taliban regime had simply coughed up bin Laden and Bush had pronounced himself satisfied, I think Bush would have been pilloried by his own side as deplorably weak.* What, his hawks would ask, happened to deterrence? And what, in the future, happens to regimes who get very cosy with terrorist groups? Can they wipe the slate clean in the future by simply coughing up a few bad guys, after years of helping them? No. This is the sort of thing that calls for a demonstration war, or no one would ever have let Bush dress up in a flight suit.

And indeed, as I remember it, it was fairly easy to tell at the time that the Bush administration wasn’t keen to see the Taliban cave in to the demand to hand over bin Laden. The demand was made bluntly, with a very short deadline, and then not followed up with much in the way of serious diplomacy. And I’m willing to bet that if the Taliban had served up the whole A.Q. crew on a platter, more demands would have followed. The Bush administration wanted war.**

* True, Pakistan also had ties to A.Q., but the ties were easier to renounce and ignore, and Pakistan, a much larger nuclear power, would have been impossible to invade anyway.
** Not that war was unjustified. That’s a separate question.


Howls of outrage (3)

2005 03 23
The Real Afghanistan


An interesting piece in the New York Review of Books, by Pankaj Mishra.


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