No jewels, no crowns.

James Vega’s urgent case for rejecting counterinsurgency in Afghanistan—and the imperial mission that the counterinsurgency model, surprisingly, requires.

Over at The Democratic Strategist, James Vega has an outstanding  new strategy memo out on what we should be aiming at in Afghanistan (in two parts in .html, here and here, or one .pdf file here).

Vega argues, and makes a disturbingly good case, that the counterinsurgency model embraced by General McChrystal is far more ambitious than it sounds.  It commits us to providing such a high level of so many public services for so long that we’d essentially have to rule the country as an imperial power—sending hundreds of thousands of troops to stay in Afghanistan, and more or less to run the place, for decades.  He shows how some neoconservatives think this is just fine: they openly endorse the British imperial model.  He judges, wryly, that few Americans will find this thrilling.

The memo is particularly good on how the counterinsurgency model locks us in to an objective of total victory. It defines all insurgents essentially as terrorists, leaves no room for the category “civil war,” can imagine no U.S. role in negotiating settlements short of annihilating all bad guys, and rules out crucial distinctions between the people we really do have an interest in fighting fiercely (Al Qaeda) and those we can perfectly well cut deals with (“the Taliban,” broadly understood). Wesley Clark’s peacekeeping model, on the other hand, would let us set big but limited goals and stop fighting when we reach them.  Vega points out that the deals that General Petraeus cut with the Sunni Awakening  in Iraq were, though we deny it linguistically, inconsistent with counterinsurgency doctrine, and much closer to peacekeeping.

Vega closes by pleading that we not let neoconservative appeals to manliness or courage lure us into this victory-or-death way of defining our objectives.

The truth is that there is nothing weak or inferior about the role our soldiers are playing in Afghanistan today. Throughout military history – from the borders of the Roman Empire to the walls of Constantinople, at the gates of Vienna and on the Hungarian plains, soldiers have stood on ramparts and watchtowers to guard their homes and countries against attack by foreign invaders – Goths, Huns, Mongols and Ottoman Turks. Standing guard to defend one’s home and country against attack is as heroic and honorable a task as any in military life.

The covert imperial ambitions of the Neoconservatives — ambitions that lead them to disparage anything except the total domination of another country and complete “victory” over any indigenous groups who refuse to submit to U.S. rule — do a profound disservice to America.

Let us say it clearly. A sensible and limited military mission is not the same as a surrender and a second attempt to expend American lives and resources in an arrogant attempt to transform a complex Muslim country into a pro-American utopia is not heroic, manly, brave or strategically wise.

I hope the President is listening.

Author: Andrew Sabl

I'm a political theorist and Visiting Professor (through 2017) in the Program on Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale. My interests include the history of political thought, toleration, democratic theory, political ethics, problems of coordination and convention, the realist movement in political theory, and the thought of David Hume. My first book, Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics (Princeton, 2002) covered many of these topics, with a special focus on the varieties of democratic politics and the disparate qualities of mind and character appropriate to those who practice each of them. My second book Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England was published in 2012; I am currently finishing a book on toleration, with the working title The Virtues of Hypocrisy, under contract with Harvard University Press. A Los Angeles native, I got my B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. Before coming to Yale I taught at Vanderbilt and at UCLA, where I was an Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor; and held visiting positions at Williams, Harvard, and Princeton. I am married to Miriam Laugesen, who teaches health policy and the politics of health care at the Mailman School of public health at Columbia, and we have a twelve-year-old son.

One thought on “No jewels, no crowns.”

  1. If I read McChrystal's memo correctly, his proposal is not for the United States and NATO to govern Afghanistan; it's for the existing Afghan government to do a better job of governing Afghanistan.

    The problem is that McChrystal doesn't provide any reason to believe that the Afghan government will do a better job. In his Oct. 13 column, Thomas Friedman wrote:

    "Talking to Afghanistan experts in Kabul, Washington and Berlin, a picture is emerging: The Karzai government has a lot in common with a Mafia family. Where a “normal” government raises revenues from the people — in the form of taxes — and then disperses them to its local and regional institutions in the form of budgetary allocations or patronage, this Afghan government operates in the reverse. The money flows upward from the countryside in the form of payments for offices purchased or “gifts” from cronies.

    "What flows from Kabul, the experts say, is permission for unfettered extraction, protection in case of prosecution and punishment in case the official opposes the system or gets out of line. In “Karzai World,” it appears, slots are either sold (to people who buy them in order to make a profit) or granted to cronies, or are given away to buy off rivals."

    McChrystal writes that, "in the end, ISAF's competency will prove less decisive than GIRoA's." (GIRoA is the government of Afghanistan.) McChrystal could improve his proposal by wishing that everybody in Afghanistan would get a free pony as well as a competent government.

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