Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Life's tough when you're the standard bearer for the American Empire. But Gen. David Petraeus is up to the job – even when he has to deal with the likes of Hamid Karzai. This is a guy who redefines the meaning of “unwilling allies” -- not only does he seem determined to thwart all of our best efforts in his flea-bitten country, but he's starting to get more, and more publicly, friendly with his supposed enemies – and ours, needless to say – namely the Taliban. The latest outrage (as far as Petraeus is concerned) is criticizing U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, and putting Petraeus in what is termed an “untenable” position. Well, sure – when your allies debate, criticize, and quibble with your every move, how are you supposed to defend them from their enemies? I mean from our enemies. I mean from themselves. Whatever. And when they show signs of wanting to make nice with said enemies, well... does this make _them_ our enemies as well? It's all so confusing...

What has Petraeus expressing “astonishment and disappointment” (strong words coming from a stoic military type) is that Karzai is now calling for the U.S. to “reduce military operations” -- you know, the ones that kill more Afghan civilians than enemy “fighters” and “terrorists” -- and to “end U.S. Special Operations raids in southern Afghanistan”. More specifically, the Afghan leader (if there can even be such a thing) is objecting to night raids – you know, those operations where you can't tell the enemy from the natives -- not that it isn't impossible enough in broad daylight. In fact, there are even rumors that Petraeus is becoming petulant and threatening to resign. But hey, he's a good soldier, and good soldiers cheerfully ride into the valley of Death – or at least send someone else to do the riding. And as Tennyson so succinctly put it:

Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldier knew
Someone had blunder'd:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.

This is, of course, true of all wars, and none more than our current folly in southern Asia. Clearly someone has blundered, and many of the soldiers know it. But at least the Light Brigade had identifiable enemies who wore uniforms and carried flags! Who are we fighting? “Cowardly” insurgents, dressed in burlap and smelling of rancid butter. And as Tennyson put it, “All the world wondered” -- but this was not even an anti-war poem! He saw honor in their folly. The marvel is that, to people of that era, there was glory even in defeat – and even in disasters that stemmed from futile attempts to build empires. These days we are not so romantic. What would the war in Vietnam have been, after all, if it were not for “body counts” and souvenir ears lifted from the enemy dead as proof of victory? (And sure enough, we now have soldiers being court-martialed for having made off with various and sundry insurgent body parts.)

The problem is that, whenever we make war on foreigners on foreign soil, we quickly acquire their cultural habits, no matter how unsavory. We become, in other words, what we behold. In fact, it can almost be said that if we don't, defeat is assured. Well... defeat may be assured anyway, and that may be what has Gen. Petraeus acting so thin-skinned. He's smart enough to know a lost cause when he sees one, even if that goes against all of his military training. The Afghan government has become like a house of mirrors – who is for real, and who isn't? Who is on our side? And even worse, who doesn't care one way or the other? Because Karzai and his cronies (friends and family) are very busy these days situating themselves, and adopting a stance that will insure their survival, no matter who wins. I believe it's called “triangulation”, and it's a perfectly understandable – traditional, even – strategy in that part of the world. You do as “third world” people have always done – collaborate when collaboration is in your best interests, and then turn around and make friends with the other guys when they seem to be gaining the upper hand. This is the response of people to empires, and to empire-builders. It worked for the far-flung colonies of the Roman Empire... it worked against the Crusaders... against the British... against the Nazis... against the Soviets... and now it's working against us. But Gen. Petraeus is upset, because it's not _nice_. It's not sportsmanlike. And it defies the ideational basis for our involvement over there. Don't these people believe in democracy? In “freedom”? Well, the answer, of course, is a resounding “no”. What they believe in is family, friends, tribe, and creed... and mostly in saving their own skin. And it has not escaped them what happens to collaborators once we leave. All they have to do is study the Vietnam situation to confirm that. If we can't, or won't, finish the job, then the job gets finished by someone else – and they're finished as well. The Vietnamese generals and politicians who were on our side, and who managed to escape the clutches of the Viet Cong, wound up running delicatessens and restaurants in Arlington, Virginia. Those who didn't manage to escape got “due diligence” from the communists. 'Twas ever thus. No one likes a traitor, and whoever winds up on the losing side in a civil war is, by definition, a traitor – seek no further than our own Civil War for evidence of this. And the only suitable punishment for traitors is death – not Lincoln's bland assurances of “malice toward none” and “charity for all”. It didn't happen back then, and it's not going to happen this time either. Among the many strengths of third-world people are long memories and a zeal for vengeance. (We, on the other hand, are ambivalent on the vengeance issue and have no memory at all.)

And what, pray tell, does Gen. Petraeus feel most thwarted about? According to an article in yesterday's paper, the success of his counterinsurgency strategy is “key to his hopes of being able to show significant progress when the White House reviews the situation in Afghanistan next month”. In other words, it's about officer efficiency ratings! Again, not all that unusual if you're talking about the modern military. After all, the battleground is littered with top-ranking generals who have been relieved of duty for having “failed” in places like Afghanistan – places where success is, basically, impossible. So yes, the military is a scapegoat for the follies of politicians – as always. And no general wants to be known as the guy who was benched, like a star quarterback who doesn't live up to his potential (or salary). You may retire to that palatial home on a golf course, but that black cloud of defeat will always be hanging overhead.

But let's get back to Karzai & Co. for a moment. I've already commented that there is no word for “corruption” in places like Afghanistan – it's simply the way things are done, and always have been. They consider us hopelessly naïve and foolish to believe things can, or ought to be, done any other way. But at the same time they take advantage of our naivete and our willingness to pour our own resources into their dry, thirsty sands – and into their sweaty hands. They will use us until they tire of us, at which point they'll turn up the heat and hope we respond by leaving. But this may be where Karzai has miscalculated. He's assuming that the day will dawn when we will leave his country voluntarily – after all, hasn't Obama promised as much? But the reality is that we have now adopted a policy of perpetual war, which requires no rationale except itself. When we run out of reasons for being somewhere, and fighting, we fall back on excuses based on inertia, “sunk costs”, and “not cutting and running”. In other words, it becomes a matter of pride, and nothing else. Except that there _is_ something else, and that is the pressure of all the groups, entities, and people who want us to stay over there for reasons of their own – and it is that combined pressure that keeps us from doing the sensible and rational thing.

Now, I suppose, in the long run Karzai doesn't care whether we leave voluntarily or are thrown out by his “friendly enemies” in the ranks of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. His preparations will remain the same in any case – to subtly converge with those elements until, when the last American has left those shores, no one can tell the difference. It happened in Cambodia, for example – the “good guys” wound up standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the Khmer Rouge, because, after all, they did have one thing in common, which was hatred for foreigners and a perverted kind of national pride. Didn't we work with the Italian Mafia in order to defeat Mussolini? And didn't we rehabilitate plenty of ex-Nazis the minute the Cold War started, in order to defend our interests in Germany? So you see, there really is no such thing as an eternal enemy; even we believe that – or at least act as if we do. And yet when we see the same attitude developing in a place like Afghanistan, we get upset. All that's happening now is that Karzai is becoming less secretive about his long-term plans. He believes that, sooner or later, we will have to leave... and, being a patient and inscrutable semi-Oriental, it matters not whether that day is a year away, or ten years, or a hundred. The main thing is that some day there will be an un-occupied Afghanistan, and he wants to be ready to defend his interests and those of his inner circle.

What Karzai most assuredly doesn't care about is what was referred to as an upcoming NATO “summit... that will begin to set a timetable for transition.” The key words here are “summit”, “begin”, “set”, “timetable”, and “transition”. Add them up and they spell, basically, nothing – a heap of conditionals, in other words. And if any one of those conditionals is violated or not met, well, the whole deal is off and we're staying, damn it! And we dare those jellyfish in NATO to do anything about it. I mean – we're already talking about 2014 rather than 2011. In fact, with every year that passes, we up the ante by at least two years – which, mathematically, is a good operational definition of infinity. But NATO has to get together and engage in what Churchill called “jaw jaw”, because, after all, that's their job (and the only one they have left, since the Cold War ended). And of course Karzai will attend because, hey, that's where the Afghan GNP comes from – that and heroin. And he will smile and shake plenty of infidel hands, because that's just what one does in those situations. And then he'll go back to Kabul and have a good laugh with his buddies around hookah pipes, the way Stalin threw parties after Yalta. The Yankees have, once again, been snookered.

The article concludes thusly: “'I think it's (Karzai's) directness that really sticks in the craw,' another NATO official said. 'He is standing 180 degrees to what is a central tenet of our current campaign plan.'” Well, yeah – his ways are most certainly not our ways. After all, we are the occupiers and he has to live there. We are fighting our war our way, for our purposes, on his soil. But again, people in that part of the world are patient and long-suffering. And they can see that the bottom is gradually falling out of the American Empire. There is not enough money in the world to keep it going for as long as our politicians and generals would like. Sooner or later there will have to be a day of reckoning. Karzai is just trying to make sure that it is a day of reckoning for us, and not for him.

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