A tale of two cities: Baghdad and Kabul

by Michael Brenner

Operation New Dawn! How disarming it would be were this a sign that a bit of dry wit had penetrated the mental fastness that is the American defense establishment. Alas, the truth is that the Pentagon’s public relations machine is still grinding away. This administration’s dedication to continuing the tradition of dishonest public communication bequeathed it by the Bush bunch is of cardinal importance. For its implications for how we conduct the nation’s affairs are deeper and more enduring than this ridiculous try at casting the mantle of success over our gory, corrupt and inept escapade in Iraq. First a few thoughts on the dimensions of our failure there.

The primary features of what Iraq is becoming are marked out by recent developments. Three stand out. The Maliki government used the military police to force the demission of elected officials in Ninevah province who were political opponents of the current regime. That is one. The shadowy Accountability and Justice Commission that vets candidates for the upcoming elections has succeeded in removing from the lists leading Sunni figures along with a potpouri of secularists and dissident Shi’a. That is two. The mastermind of this operation has been Ahmed Chalabi, erstwhile paladin of the neo-conservative schemers who instigated the entire tragic affair. That is three. Chalabi has had intimate ties with Iranian leaders, especially in the powerful security services, from the outset. He always was Tehran’s man insofar as he placed his largest bets for gaining personal power on his Iranian co-conspirators. His key role in passing to them information that compromised American secret codes back in 2005 led to his being blacklisted by American officers in Baghdad – for awhile. Nonetheless, he has remained a powerful behind the scenes figure. Now, General Odierno pronounces himself shocked by the discovery that Chalabi and his protégé, Mr. Lami, are the sharp edge of mounting Iranian influence in Iraqi politics. The good general acts as one who had just made the stunning discovery that people in Las Vegas play roulette. Or, perhaps, it’s the losing part that leaves him shocked.

The unpalatable truths for the promoters of the ‘New Dawn’ over the Tigris are that Iranian influence has eclipsed that of the United States, a fact of life regardless of whether we have 130,000 troops on the ground or 13; that Iraq is slipping perceptibly into an autocracy in the mode of other states in the region; that simmering sectarian rivalries will bedevil Iraqi politics for the foreseeable future. We have dared the impossible in Iraq and we have failed abjectly – that is the long and short of it. Moreover, we have been obtuse in ignoring the writing on the wall even though it has been there in bright neon for years. After all, when Maliki is repeatedly pictured walking hand-in-hand with Mr. Ahmedinejad in Baghdad as well as Tehran they are doing more than observing courtesies.

Yet, too many have too much at stake to let the truth speak for itself, much less to learn its lessons. The authors of our Mesopotamian misadventure have their reputations and current influence at stake. David Petraeus and his cohort have their personal stake in the myth of a modern day Lawrence on a white Arabian steed with a counter-insurgency manual in one hand and a sword in the other. The Obama people have their own interests in downplaying the Iraq debacle, for the White House has embarked on its own quixotic adventure in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The ambitions there are as grand, the obstacles as formidable, success as improbable, and the justification only somewhat less fanciful. The key assumptions are the same. Hence, the refusal to highlight the outcome in Iraq that contradicts them. They are: the United States can produce the transformation of an entire culture out of the barrel of a gun; the natives eventually will put their trust in well-intentioned Americans no matter what; it is imperative to dominate militarily the region forevermore; the nation’s essential well-being is directly affected by what is going on in these alien places; and, finally, that the audacious goal of reducing to zero the terrorist and pseudo-terrorist threats is realistic.

To face honestly the Iraq fiasco is to undermine support for the escalated commitment in AfPak, since the earlier experience largely invalidates those assumptions. Therefore, their disproval was ignored or studiously misrepresented. That made it easier for the basic questions of ‘why’ and ‘how’ in Afpak to be sloughed over. If not put on the table, there is no need to give answers. Accordingly, General Eikenberry, the skeptical nay-sayer who did raise them, was kept on the sidelines of the endless, meandering discussions whose outcome was predetermined.

This is not the way for a great nation to engage matters of high consequence. Bandying around slogans like “Operation New Dawn” is symptomatic of a process that is dishonest and irresponsible at its core. There are limits to how much dishonestly even a resilient country like ours can take, a limit to the costs that it can bear. Instead, our political class should be leading us in a soul-searching as to what we as a people want and what is achievable. The lives of Americans and the integrity of their public institutions are factors in the equation whether our masters admit it or not. In the present depressed economic circumstances, ones likely to remain with us indefinitely, the trade-offs are momentous. Inescapably, we risk the well-being and health of our citizens by strutting on a field of twisted dreams in Islamic Asia fixated on the chimera of eliminating the last would-be terrorist from the face of the earth.

What we have to look forward to is a Cold Dawn – if not a cold twilight.

Michael Brenner is a professor of International Affairs at The University of Pittsburgh. He can be reached at mbren@pitt.edu.

3 replies »

  1. Thank you, Michael. That was very nicely done. I especially liked your point that the last terrorist cannot be eliminated. The threat will never be reduced to zero, even at a cost that bankrupts the country. Trying to do so is … insane.

    As for changing cultures at the barrel of a gun (or point of a spear, historically) it has been done, of course, even as late as the 20th century. I think most would agree that German and Japanese cultures changed dramatically after WWII, but only after near annihilation of their infrastructures that brought on severe hardship and personal suffering. It’s true that the US cannot change cultures at the point of a gun, but only because it has become unacceptable in the international zeitgeist to obliterate an enemy in pursuit of a goal. So, it’s possible to do it, but not morally acceptable. I wonder if the common US perception that war can change cultures is still rooted in the WWII example, even though it is no longer a viable alternative.

    I had someone who has spent a fair amount of time in Afghanistan among the Hazara, Tajiks, and Pushtuns tell me that one thing Americans just don’t get is that the Pushtuns, in particular, have no desire to live anything like the way we do. They don’t want protection. They have their own guns, thank you, and they can do that themselves. They don’t want more wealth if it means working for someone else in a large organization, since that sort of “servitude” is shameful. They don’t want a more stable society based on the observance of law if it means any restrictions, whatsoever, outside their own, self-imposed restrictions embodied in pushtunwali that are enforced with family and clan violence. I think it’s fair to say that it’s impossible to change a culture to be more like our own if they don’t WANT anything we have to offer.

    As a question for you, if you are hanging around, would you have attacked the Taliban government of Afghanistan after 9/11 had you been president? If not, what other course or courses of action would you have taken?

    Thanks again for your input on this forum.

  2. There are limits to how much dishonesty even a resilient country like ours can take

    Maybe, but most of it has exhibited little interest in the truth. Thank you for this thoughtful piece, Professor. Hope to see your work at Scholars & Rogues again soon.

  3. JS: Excellent point about changing people who don’t want what we have to offer. That, i think, starts with an assumption that we have the best way of life; with that assumption it is almost impossible to deal with your point. It’s out of the range of mental possibilities. But your point is still valid and if the local population doesn’t want what we’re offering we’ll invariably fail.

    I can’t speak for the author, but i would not have invaded Afghanistan after 9/11…at least not in the way which we did it. An intervention should have been a very broad international effort. A long buildup would have been fine, since the buildup would send a message to the Taliban. If the Taliban didn’t give up bin Laden (and looking at some history and some new writing, they might well have), the first step of the intervention would have been disarming the population. They might not like, and they’d probably rearm eventually. But there can’t be a political solution with so many armed factions.

    And the next step would be to facilitate development as decided by Afghans. Sustainable agriculture, political institutions that fit the Afghan situation and traditions. Etc. Afghans are perfectly capable of figuring out what they need/want.

    And thank you for the fine essay, Professor.