How the “Global War on Terror” Failed in Afghanistan

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You can’t say that you haven’t been warned. In January 2002, at the start of the American intervention in Afghanistan, British historian and former soldier Sir Michael Howard published a test in Foreign Affairs titled “What’s in a Name?” How to fight terrorism. In it, he warned that defining the US response to 9/11 as a “global war on terror” (GWOT) would shape US policies in profoundly negative ways. As he wrote,

[T]o Using, or rather abusing, the term “war” is not simply a question of legality or pedantic semantics. It has deeper and more dangerous consequences. To declare that one is at war is to immediately create a war psychosis which can be totally counterproductive for the desired objective.

Like others, Howard pointed out the risk that declaring war on an enemy as nebulous as “terror” would make this war endless; that war would only push people to support terrorists and create an attitude “with us or against us” that would make it impossible to conquer people on the other side; and that the more wars continued, the stronger these trends would become.

Rather, he advocated the use of intelligence action, diplomatic pressure and limited force (the kind that ultimately killed Osama bin Laden and persuaded Pakistani intelligence services to help capture d ‘other Al Qaeda leaders). The wisdom of Howard’s words has been amply demonstrated by the disastrous results of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Today, Howard’s remarks about GWOT should also be placed in a larger context of US foreign and security policy in the past and the future: the creation of “meta-narratives,” Global frameworks of thought and analysis in which a wide range of quite different problems are posed. These narratives focus on a supposedly monolithic, universal and extremely powerful enemy, who must be confronted everywhere. They are nurtured by American exceptionalist nationalism, with its conviction of America’s duty to lead the world to the inevitable triumph of democracy.

This enemy is presented not only as a military and ideological adversary, but as a force of evil, with the United States of America representing not only freedom and democracy, but good itself. This is how most Americans understood the Cold War; and in the midst of the rain of condemnation that befalls President Joe Biden over Afghanistan, it is essential to remember that not only the disaster in Iraq, but also the disaster in Afghanistan, were created originates from the way in which the George W. Bush administration transformed the pursuit of the small terrorist group really responsible for 9/11 into a global struggle for freedom and against “evil”.

In the case of Afghanistan, this led to the refusal to negotiate with the Taliban “terrorists” before or after their initial defeat, and to the United States’ commitment to democratic nation-building in the country. one of the most inhospitable countries on the planet for such an effort. The GWOT was, however, a bipartisan illusion. A Democratic senator told me in 2002 that the United States should “make Afghanistan a bridgehead of democracy and progress in the Muslim world.” It goes without saying that his knowledge of the terrain of this beachhead was precisely zero.

key passages of Bush’s speech in Congress on September 20, 2001, reads as follows:

… they or they [the Islamist extremists] follow the path of fascism, nazism and totalitarianism … how are we going to fight and win this war? We will direct all resources at our disposal – all diplomatic means, all intelligence tools, all law enforcement instruments, all financial influences and all necessary weapons of war – to disruption and defeat of the global terrorist network. … Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists. From that day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be viewed by the United States as a hostile regime.

…[I]n our grief and anger, we have found our mission and our moment. Freedom and fear are at war. The advancement of human freedom – the great achievement of our time and the great hope of each time – now depends on us. … We will rally the world to this cause by our efforts, by our courage. We won’t tire, we won’t falter, and we won’t fail.

The GWOT failed; but failure, they say, is a better teacher than success, and if the United States can learn from this failure and the way it was generated, it may be able to avert more disaster at the to come up. For the US strategy towards China is also beginning to be described in Washington, by both parties, as an apocalyptic global struggle between good and evil, with consequences that could eclipse those of GWOT.

EVERY MAJOR country in the world has its own variant of Foreign Settlement and Security (or “Blob” in Ben Rhodes’ colloquialism); and these establishments operate under certain informal but strict doctrines. These are deeply rooted in the geographic location, in the specific nationalisms, and in the histories and cultures of the nations concerned. They are largely impervious to evidence and argument, and unless there is defeat in war or revolutionary upheaval within, they change only very slowly.

The Chinese, Indians, Russians, British and Germans all have their own variations. These doctrines are sometimes defined by the identification of a particular enemy. Thus, the Polish establishment believes that Russia is Poland’s eternal and relentless enemy, and this belief is the most important element that shapes Polish politics.

The doctrine of the current American establishment stands out in some key respects. The first is the breadth of its ambition: the conviction that the United States must seek primacy all over the face of the globe. The second is its ideological content: the conviction that the United States has a mission to spread democracy and “freedom” around the world. American religious traditions in turn help make this mission a crusade for good against evil.

There is, however, an additional and paradoxical feature of American foreign policy doctrine: namely the deep and justified doubts of the American establishment as to the extent to which it is really shared by the American population as a whole. Living on what is in fact a giant island, protected by the oceans and with friendly or weak states to the north and south, American citizens are subject to periodic doubts as to whether outside forces are really that dangerous to them. and, therefore, whether the spending of American blood and treasures to defeat them is truly justified. American meta-narratives are therefore also heavily fashioned to terrify ordinary Americans.

THE American meta-narrative of the Cold War, like the GWOT, began in response to a real threat: that Stalinist communism, backed by the Red Army, would take over Western Europe and leave the United States isolated. as the only great democrat and capitalist state on Earth. In the 1960s, however, Soviet communism in Europe (the critical area of ​​contestation) was on the ideological defensive. In the United States, of course, there had never been the slightest chance of Communist success.

Much of the disastrous aspect of the American Cold War meta-narrative was that it was based too closely on Senator Arthur Vandenberg’s famous advice to Dean Acheson that Congress and the American public accepted the pledges. and the sacrifices necessary to resist Communism, the Truman administration needed to “scare the American people”. Acheson later commented that in order to do this he had helped create a “clearer-than-the-truth” portrayal of the Soviet threat to the United States.

The growth of the Cold War meta-narrative can be clearly seen in the shift between George Kennan’s “Long Telegram” and “Mr. X” essay from 1946-1947, and the National Security Council Paper 68 (NSC-68) of 1950, written primarily by Paul Nitze. Kennan’s documents, which laid the foundations for the American strategy of “containment” of the USSR, underline the hostility of Soviet communism to all capitalist and democratic systems as well as to the American national interests, and say that the United States must contain Soviet ambitions through military readiness as well as economic and political means.However, at no point does Kennan say that the USSR poses a direct threat to them. The United States itself, nor does it call for a dramatic increase in US military spending.

Kennan warns against “threats, bluster and superfluous external harshness” by the United States and to avoid threatening Soviet prestige in a way that could trap the Soviet leadership in a dangerous response. He emphasizes Soviet fears and ambitions, and observes with great prescience the underlying fragility and weakness of Soviet society; which means that in the long run, the communist system would probably collapse on its own.

NSC-68 is very different. He speaks of a “deadly threat” from the Soviet system against the United States itself and calls for massive military escalation in response. The NSC-68 can therefore be considered as the birth certificate of the military-industrial complex. The document speaks repeatedly of America’s global ideological mission, how world leadership has been “imposed” on the United States, and how the USSR is a threat all over the world. America must meet everywhere. Kennan himself sharply criticized the NSC-68 and viewed it in retrospect as helping to lay the groundwork for the paranoid and militarized tendencies that helped drag the United States into the Vietnam War.


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