Ghost Wars – Steve Coll

Two events on successive days in September 2001 changed the trajectory of modern Afghanistan. On the 11th, terrorists hijacked four planes in the United States, crashing two into the Twin Towers in New York and one into the Pentagon in Washington DC. On the 10th, suicide bombers posing as reporters assassinated Ahmed Shah Massoud, known as the Lion of Panjshir, the leading Afghan leader opposing the Taliban. Coll’s book tries to explain what led to these two events.

The story in “Ghost Wars” begins in 1979 with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Afghan government was in effect a client state of the Soviet Union, but plagued by civil war and insurrection, leading to a stream of military aid, which grew to a flood and finally a full-fledged invasion. As part of its Cold War strategy, the US worked in tandem with Pakistan’s ISI and the Saudi intelligence services to funnel resources to Afghan rebels.

The rebels were not a united front and aid was not distributed evenly. Pashtun mujahideen in the southern part of the country received the lion’s share, for a number of reasons. They were close by Pakistan and so easy to supply, as well as being the preferred allies or clients of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. At the same time, devout Christians saw fundamentalist Muslims as natural allies—fellow religionists in the fight against Communism.

Ahmed Shah Massoud, the independent Tajik leader in the northern Panjshir Valley received the short portion, being harder to supply, attached to illegal opium smuggling, and not as fanatical in his religion. In years to come this choice would prove costly. The actions of the CIA, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia in the last years of the Cold War kicked off a transnational, radical Islamist movement of which Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda was just one particularly virulent strain.

Coll tackles the monumental task of mapping the shifting currents of Afghan politics, including the rival alliances during the 1980s, the rise of the Taliban after 1994, and how these developments were related to the other political developments in the Middle East, but it is made even greater still by also charting how American interest in the region waxed and waned throughout the region. The result is both the story of the situation in Afghanistan and an enormously frustrating one of bureaucratic and political calculus in America. Nowhere was this more evident than in the 1990s when the US administrations declared the Cold War won and Afghanistan a lost cause that was not worth engaging with. The result was that the US had effectively no presence in the region for years, until after the threat from terrorists trained in Afghan bases originally supported by the United States was beyond dispute.

There is too much in Ghost Wars to do a summary justice, but several themes stand out. One is the wide the blind spots of many US policy makers. These included the decision to cultivate militant religious fanaticism and to abandon the region after the end of the Cold War, both of which smacked of short-term thinking with little long-term planning. But equally frustrating were those issues that the US policy makers were concerned with. In the 1990s this meant a focus state-sponsored terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, to the exclusion of transnational actors and conventional attacks. The deliberations in Coll’s recounting, moreover, seemed to register too little awareness that the agendas of even American allies would not necessarily align with the best interests of the United States. The confluence, then, went to explaining how the United States lost touch with, let alone control over, this powerful movement it had helped set into motion.

A second, related, theme is the deep divisions between Afghan and Arab. Coll makes clear that the Arabs were outsiders in Afghanistan, sometimes tolerated, but never really accepted, which added a second level of complexity to the situation. Moreover, it was in this somewhat fragile situation where Osama bin Laden began his slow rise—tolerated because of his wealth, but a relatively minor player until the United States made him the face of transnational Islamic terrorism.

Ghost Wars is a deeply frustrating book to read, by turns making the reader feel for for the Afghans, the CIA, and becoming infuriated by the seemingly-obvious mistakes out of blindness, short-term thinking, and a host of other considerations. But it is also a compelling look at developments that continue to affect the world today even as it seems that US administrations (not simply the one in office today) continue to make some of the same mistakes of policy and rhetoric that characterized the US interactions with Afghanistan from 1979 until 2001. Radical Islamic terrorism is not a phenomenon that developed in a vacuum and the United States is complicit in its rise.

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I am now reading Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem and so far I’m finding it as good as it is touted to be.

Assorted Links

  1. The Land of Big Groceries, Big God, and Smooth Traffic-a note in The Atlantic about a number of misconceptions and American idiosyncrasies that people visiting for the first time experience. Some speak highly of the United States, some are funny, some are depressing.
  2. Gore Vidal obituary – From the Guardian. Vidal is one of my favorite authors, from his essays to his novels (of which I have only read five or six). My favorite is Creation, in which Vidal discusses politics and religion, but mostly tries to break free from the conception that the Greeks were the spark that lit civilization. Since I am working on my doctorate in Greek history, this is a particularly pertinent reminder and something I subscribe to. A final project for a course I took at graduate school we had to write a world history syllabus, and Creation was an assigned reading on mine.
  3. Syria: Lamp in the Storm– An article about Syria (originally posted by Will), non-violence and what the UN can do to stop combat. He is critical of the limited numbers and limited mandate of the UN contingent preparing for Syria, and argues that what is happening in Syria is not merely a limited conflict that only matters to Syria, but is something that does concern the world at large. If only Syria had nuclear weapons.
  4. Siri, Take This Down – An article in the Atlantic about the next possible evolution in writing, namely the widespread use of voice to text. Right now it is not that widely used, and the use of dictation has fallen by the wayside, too. I personally prefer writing by hand, as I have written here and here. This article cites Heidegger’s lectures on Parmenides where he touches on some of the same issues, and so I may revisit the topic.
  5. How to save an independent bookstore-An article in the Washington Post about some innovative and ambitious plan to save an independent bookstore in San Fransisco.
  6. Faces of Hope– Some pictures on The Atlantic from Afghanistan.
  7. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?

Assorted Links

Some articles I have been reading. This is an extended edition largely because I spent the last week hiking in the White Mountains and only just got back to the internet.

1. Will Civil War Hit Afghanistan When The U.S. Leaves? – An article in the New Yorker about the fate of Afghanistan. The Afghan interviewed is largely critical of the United States for the failure to create lasting institutions, including and especially a strong national army. It hits on most of the main issues, including ethnic, historical, and religious tensions in the region. The article hedges towards the same view as the Afghan interviewed in accusing the US policy in Afghanistan of being too superficial and transient.

2. In Defense of Cursive – A note about the decline of penmanship. Of course, it focuses mostly on the Declaration of Independence, rather than offering any actual suggestions. I like the idea (although my cursive is rather weak), but a rather superficial plea to keep cursive alive in this age where getting people to write anything by hand is a chore in and of itself is naive (at best).

3. Jackie and the Girls – An article in The Atlantic about John F. Kennedy and the contradiction that is the idolization of him. It approaches Kennedy through Jackie and some of the mistresses, and how Kennedy still managed to play the role of a doting husband and father. It is a fascinating piece, although it is also a little disappointing in that it begins with an account of Jackie Kennedy, claiming that she was a capable woman who “was never playing a short game,” but ends up talking about some other issues and only obliquely returns to this original premise. Fair warning, it does contain quite lurid details.

4. These 600-Year Old World Heritage Sites Might be Rubble by August – An extremist group (Ansar Dine) has seized Timbuktu, banned tourism because it fosters debauchery, and has begun destroying ancient shrines there.

5.Timbuktu tomb attack is an attack is an attack on our humanity – A CNN op-ed about the attacks made on world culture by extremist groups.

6. The Real Reason the U.S. Should Consider Cutting Military Aid to Egypt – An op-ed talking about why the US should (but won’t) cut military aid to Egypt.

7. The Truth About Harvard – A fascinating discussion of the core of the Liberal Arts at Harvard, and by extension, the rest of the academic world. The author argues that most history/English/philosophy professors lack confidence that their work or classes have any relevance to the real world, while those fields that provide practical application have no such issues. The author also suggests that this lack of confidence leads to an increased weakness toward grade inflation. In one of the anecdotes presented, the professor told the class that they would receive two grades: a private grade that is indicative of actual performance, and public “ironic” grade given to the registrar. I will probably have some further comments on this piece later.

8. The Grounded Campus – A suggestion on the Chronicle of Higher Education that suggests that traditional campuses can keep their place in education by focusing on the physical ground upon which they sit.

9. Confessions from the Professorial Side of the Desk – Some thoughts and advice from a professor about student enthusiasm.

10. Knights: The Agincourt Gambit – An excellent comic that combines Chess and History.

Lest We Forget

Obituary of Osama bin Laden

My long silence is broken (albeit temporarily, since I must resume writing my thesis for another month) by the breaking news that Osama bin Laden has been killed by a US raid on a building in Pakistan. So tonight, eight years after George W. Bush declared “mission accomplished,” another president took another podium and announced to the American people a success in the war. He told us that he made killing Osama bin Laden a top priority and reminded us that bin Laden was the mastermind behind the worst attack ever upon the American people. He told us that “justice has been done.” He told us that bin Laden was a terrorist and was not a Muslim leader, but a mass murderer of Muslims. And there was much rejoicing; from the crowds outside the White House, to the fireworks I can hear going off outside in Columbia, Missouri.

The events of 9/11 were of the sort that those who saw them will never forget. The smoke from the Pentagon, one tower smoking while the second plane lazily came in to the second tower, then both towers coming down. The backlash afterward and the vastly changed tenor of the dialogue. Since that day the United States has entered into two different wars, ostensibly to kill one man. Yes, al-Qaeda is a large organization, and the parameters of the war have always been rather hazy, but bin Laden has, for the most part, always been the target. We targeted the Taliban in Afghanistan because they harbored terrorists. We attacked Iraq because they might have had weapons of mass destruction and/or al-Qaeda ties, despite evidence to the contrary. In those two conflicts at least 919,967 men, women and children have died as of August 10, 2010 according to the lowest credible estimates.1 And just today a twelve year old suicide bomber killed four people and wounded another dozen. So, in all probability, in excess of a million people have died in a conflict ostensibly to kill one man.

Moreover, the changes that have happened, have happened. As many have pointed out, the Patriot Act (among other limitations to civil liberties) is not likely to go away, and the troops deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq are not likely to come home any sooner. It is also entirely conceivable that this incident, coming on the heels of a bombing attack that killed Saif Gaddafi will only encourage aerial involvement around the world. In any case, justice seems like a stretch and if this is justice, I’d almost rather live with the injustice.

That is an exaggeration, but not by much. Part of the problem is that after 9/11 people wanted blood. Well, we have it now. The blood we wanted and a million times more.

Another thing to recall is that the United States as part of Cold War Policy supported radical Muslim fighters in Afghanistan at a time when Osama bin Laden was fighting in Afghanistan. It is unclear whether or not bin Laden received direct CIA aid and training, but it is certainly far from impossible. Later he was actively involved in radical terrorist attacks around the world, including the 1993 bombing on the World Trade Center. The 9/11 attacks were the largest and most awful among the attacks, but I can’t help thinking that 9/11 was simply a clarion call that shocked Americans into global awareness in the most terrible way possible. As a side effect everything became radicalized.

And now there there has been justice, but tomorrow is Monday morning. We will wake up and nothing will have changed.

ADDENDUM: There is another thing I have been dwelling upon, and since another friend noted this as well, I thought I’d add it. Millions of people are celebrating tonight because we killed on person. Nobody I know likes or is even sympathetic to this man, however he is still a person and we are still celebrating the bloodshed, not the fact that he is no longer able to attack anyone else. It is possible to say that in fact we are celebrating his death in order to celebrate that he cannot directly cause any more attacks, but that seems to be more of a rationalization and an explanation in hindsight than truth. To quote a friend, “the blind glee and fanatical patriotism that such deaths incur in objectively rational, liberal people absolutely horrifies me.”


1 Unknown News Casualties

The Costs of War

This week ran an interesting article on the cost of the Iraq and Afghan Wars. To my mind, the most important observation made in the article is that the wars have been notable removed from the American population, with a small percentage of the population actually involved and a small part of the American GDP spent. Unlike World War 2, where over a third of the GDP went to the war and far more soldiers were committed. Vietnam had a comparable financial cost, but a draft brought the war home to a far greater degree.

It is an interesting note, especially in regard to how often America is at war and the danger that ‘limited’ wars could become more common as the costs are not directly related to the American people. As one historian cited in the article noted: “the army is at war, but the country is not.”

NATO

The world we live in is very much the product of the world our parents grew up in. Sure, fashion, music, media, technology and the like have advanced or regressed, dependent upon your taste, but the groupings that the nation-states of the world are in are a product of the Cold War. NATO, the UN, and the EU are perhaps the most obvious examples of this, especially without the Warsaw Pact, but there is also SEATO, the African Union and the OAS, to name a few.

There is some argument that NATO, ostensibly a mutual defense pact against the Soviets has outlived its usefulness, but there are others that disagree. NATO was the driving force behind the interventions in Kosovo, Bosnia, and Afghanistan. Another indicator that perhaps this is untrue is that France, a country that had pulled out of full membership in 1966 under President De Gaulle, returned two weeks ago to reintegrate its military function with the organization.

The move was immediately criticized as it would “bring France further under the American thumb,” so to speak, and there is some truth to this since the overall commander of NATO forces (SACEUR – Supreme Allied Commander, Europe) is always an American, although his deputy is always a European. From a participatory sense this makes sense as the United States provides far and away the most manpower and equipment, yet it also breeds resentment (though NATO actions must be approved unanimously and any “no” prevents action from being taken).

President Sarkozy offered his position up for a confidence vote as a result, which is took place today. My personal take is that this is an overreaction, but one that is typical of the French who want to preserve their position in the world. Of course this is best done by them holding the United States at arm’s length while fostering the strength of the European Union, of which they are a driving member. As unhelpful as this is, France and the United States are operating and have been operating in very similar ways; both want to be leaders, and both want their military to operate solely under their guidance.

I don’t know how to resolve this issue and there will always be jostling for predominance, but the world has also been becoming more closely knit over the past 50 years. Countries from around the world are less and less isolationist and certain parity is required in interactions. No country wants to give up their sovereignty and yet all must do so at some level if organizations such as the UN are to work.

The conclusion of the story is that Sarkozy survived the vote, winning approximately 60% of the vote. This fact suggests both that a slim majority believe that NATO is still the predominant western military alliance in the world and that France should have more input into the operations of it, and that a large minority believe that if France did not need NATO for the past 40 years and should never surrender military command into this outdated system. Both groups likely support the EU as the most important vehicle for French foreign policy, one simply believes that the wider military alliance has a place in the world for the foreseeable future–to the extent that France should rejoin fully.

Edit: I lied. This very well could be that most French do not want the reintegration, but that this one policy issue is not enough to drive the President from office.