We Have Watches, They Have Time
This speech by Paul McGeough, senior correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald, is a must read if you are trying to get a handle on the current situation in Afghanistan and possibilities for the future. McGeough has been writing from Afghanistan since 2001. Here's just a short excerpt:
After eight years, Washington finds itself in the same position that the Soviet Union was in Year 8 of its occupation of Afghanistan, seemingly having learnt nothing from history - until McChrystal's bombshell assessment.
I want to read from a defence official's letter dated August 17. He calls for an honest admission of failure after eight years, citing the squandering of huge material resources and considerable casualties and a failure to stabilise the country - militarily or politically. Most of the population has lost trust, because the campaign is bogged down and a strategic breakthrough is unlikely.
"The experience of the past years," he continues somberly, "clearly shows that the Afghan problem cannot be solved by military means only. We should decisively reject our illusions and undertake principally new steps, taking into account the lessons of the past, and the real situation in the country..."
That might have been a note to General McChrystal as he prepared his report - but the date was August 17, 1987. And the author, Colonel K. Tsagalov, was addressing the then newly appointed Soviet defence minister, Dmitry Yazov.
Same ole, same ole... The two wars are replete with dispiriting similarities. Perhaps the most striking for my purposes is the near identical position on the timelines, in which Moscow then, and Washington now, are placed. Timed from the date of their respective invasions, only three months separate the letter by Tsagalov and the report by McChrystal. And just 18 months after the Tasgalov letter, General Boris V. Gromov walked over a bridge on the Amu Dari and into Uzbekistan - he was the last of the Soviet occupation forces to quit Afghanistan.
The greatest strength the Taliban has had - and still has - is time. I'm indebted to Ambassador Eikenberry for first drawing to my attention a quote that already is a leitmotiv of this conflict. As he told it, either he or one of his officers was quizzing a Taliban captive on the insurgency's view of how the crisis would unfold. "The trouble with you American's," the prisoner said, "is you have watches - we have time." And it was the Coalition that gave the Taliban time - in spades.
This is obviously important on a policy level. But it is also important to understand as we begin to see the right wing gear up to become the defenders of the Afghanistan mission. With Dick Cheney out there shamelessly accusing the president of "dithering" after having punted for eight years, caring nothing about Afghanistan, ignoring Pakistan even to the extent that they didn't even bother to find people knowledgeable of the region to staff their embassies. His obnoxious gall knows know bounds.
This tracks with their views of terrorism before 9/11. Dick Cheney, essentially a simpleminded imperialist, and his neocon allies (who have a more sophisticated if equally delusional worldview) believed that a powerful nation's only defense against any threats is a show of massive overwhelming force. And if it's perceived as somewhat irrational, so much the better. ("My guy's crazier than your guy!") Just as the PNAC and other neocon organizations like it ignored the terrorist threat, which by its nature depends upon such things as shared intelligence, diplomatic outreach and economic cooperation far more than military action, they ignored the fundamental challenges of trying to deal with Afghanistan. If a nation's leaders believe that human beings are only motivated by fear and hatred then a constant show of massive force and cruel authoritarianism is logically their main organizing principle. They simply ignore threats and challenges that don't fit that paradigm.
They actually believed that "victory" in Iraq would solve the problems in Afghanistan. The bad guys would see that you don't fuck with Crazy Uncle Sam and we'd open up outposts all over the world just in case someone needs a reminder of that "lesson."
The hawks are actually incapable of dealing with the challenges of the current world order. But they are going to be pushing the administration's buttons in ways that are tiresome and boring in their predictability. And they may very well be effective because many Americans are likewise drenched in a puerile national chauvanism that has them believing, despite all evidence to the contrary, that America cannot lose. It's that fantasy that makes people turn even an obvious ignoramus like George W. Bush into a "war president." The political temptation to give in to that is overwhelming.