January 8, 2008
Was Success in Iraq and Afghanistan a Fantasy?
Two of the most instructive books about Iraq and Afghanistan, and about the shoals on which American actions in the two countries have foundered, are not by policy experts. In fact, they are not really about policy at all.
That our enterprise in Iraq and Afghanistan has indeed foundered seems beyond cavil, regardless of the benefits of the troop surge in Iraq. Everybody hopes that the increased security in Iraq turns out to be durable, and that it provides a space in which some kind of civil stability can take root. Everybody hopes that the reverses that the government of Afghanistan has suffered can themselves be reversed.
But let nobody label as a success a course of action that was begun in misapprehension, pursued through a series of dead ends and re-routings, until it finally lurched away from disaster instead of into it. Even the most asking-for-directions-averse male would not recommend charting a course by taking every exit off the interstate until you chance on the right one. Nor would investment advisors applaud a strategy based on investing your monthly pay check in the lottery even if your number finally came up.
The two books in question, The Prince of the Marshes and The Places In Between, both available in paperback, were written by Rory Stewart, a thirtyish Scottish diplomat and adventurer. The Places In Between chronicles his year-long walk across Afghanistan, which he undertook, he says, mainly because he had already walked across the adjoining countries but had been prevented from crossing Afghanistan because the Taliban were in charge. The Prince of the Marshes is about his stint, after crossing Afghanistan and writing Places, as a sort of proconsul of a middling Iraqi province under the American-led occupation.
The value of the two Stewart books lies, in fact, in their just-the-facts non-tendentiousness and their avoidance of serious policy analysis or prescription.
If I had to capture in a sentence the implication of the insights Stewart provides in The Prince of the Marshes and The Places In Between it would be that we have—and could have—no idea of what we are doing in either place.
This would seem to be the message, for example, of the central event Stewart recounts in The Prince of the Marshes: that a military and civil coalition headed by the world’s mightiest superpower, and abetted by its closest and most powerful ally, would install in provincial power, in a strategically and politically critical theatre, a young man with scant knowledge of the region and scant experience at colonial administration. It is part of Stewart’s value that he does not assert otherwise. He reminds us often of how little prepared he was for the role he played in Iraq, and to what a great extent he was making it up as he went along, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, and how disconnected his superiors in Baghdad were with what he was doing.
In the end, however—the end being early 2006, when an epilog to the paperback edition was written—Stewart does not attribute what happened in Iraq principally to mistaken policy judgments he or his superiors made. “Our errors were many,” he says. We probably should have stopped the looting, not abolished the army or the Baath party, or held elections much sooner. But even if we had gotten these things right, the situation would not have been much better.”
The real problem, he suggests, is that dismantling and reconstituting a country, especially a country radically different from our own, is so difficult, so complex, and so subject to forces not only beyond our control but beyond our imagination, that the wisest and most effective administrators, backed with unlimited budgets and possessed of almost unlimited power, would still be likely to fail. “Invasions are intrinsically chaotic, bloody, and uncertain,” says Stewart, and “it is almost impossible to predict the consequences of toppling a leader and turning society on its head.”
Stewart provides a detail, as they say in art, of why this is so in The Places In Between. For about a year, he walked, dressed in native garb, from village to village, almost all of them teetering on the edge of subsistence, and from tribal jurisdiction to tribal jurisdiction. Sometimes he was welcomed, sometimes tolerated, sometimes sent brusquely on his way, sometimes threatened. Sometimes the letters of introduction he carries from contacts in Kabul were useful, often not. To many of the people he encountered and the places he passed through—the places in between of the title—the central government in Kabul seemed irrelevant; to some people and in some places, the central authority was all but unknown.
It was not—is not—fertile soil for the establishment of a politically and economically integrated nation, connected by well-built and well-maintained infrastructure, much less the kind of proto-democracy the west has tried to install. The determination of the Taliban to retake control from the west as it retook control from the Soviet Union hasn’t helped. Neither has the diversion of American attention and assets to the war in Iraq. Against such a backdrop, the idea that our military power and political wisdom could transform Afghanistan into a democracy, or even a stable, centrally-governed nation, seems dubious.
Events since Stewart’s time in Afghanistan and Iraq have borne out the implications of his experience. In Iraq, even in the current surge-inspired optimism, most people’s sights are set no higher than to keep their fingers crossed that the current moment of decreased violence will hold as US troop levels are lowered. In Afghanistan, the Washington Post reported as 2007 ended, “U.S. military deaths, suicide bombings and opium production hit record highs in 2007. Taliban militants killed more than 925 Afghan police, and large swaths of the country remain outside government control.”
One would have thought that what Stewart observed in Afghanistan in 2002 and Iraq in 2004 would be conventional wisdom by 2008. But the belief in our ability to remake other countries in our own image, like those antibiotic-resistant strains of TB, seems to have developed an immunity to facts that by rights should be fatal. A former Bush administration National Security Council official, for example, Kenneth Pollack, writing at the end of the year in The New Republic, is still optimistic about our ability to perform precision surgery on Iraq.
The United States and its allies [writes Pollack] should try at least three different approaches: lean on [the Iraqi] government to make the compromises it won’t, replace it with one that will, or make it largely irrelevant…by decentralizing power…If such pressure fails, then the United States should work with the international community to replace the central government…by advancing the date for elections…
Remember Jurassic Park? Wasn’t its message that while our grasp of science and technology might be up to resurrecting a long-extinct species, and creating an environment in which the species might survive or even thrive, even the best and the brightest of us were incapable of predicting, much less managing, the consequences that would flow from the forces we set in motion?
At what point do we, like the surviving protagonists of Jurassic Park, acknowledge that we cannot control the situation we created and hop the supply ship back to our own environment—hoping that we have not brought back any velociraptors with us?