In waging its war in Afghanistan, the Obama administration faces a big problem, and his name is Hamid Karzai. This fashion plate, whose name has become synonymous with corruption, claims to be the president of Afghanistan, but this is a double fiction. In reality, he is, at most, the mayor of Kabul, never having managed to secure control of the rest of the country in all his years in office. Moreover, his legitimacy is also called into question on account of his having stolen a million-plus votes in the recent Afghan election.
Forced into a runoff anyway with his closest competitor, Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai is understandably miffed. After all, he is no doubt familiar with Chicago-style politics and probably expected the administration to go along with his electoral grand larceny. However, the resignation of a prominent U.S. official involved with the election process over the blatant, U.S.-enabled fraud made this politically impossible for Obama, so Karzai must go through the motions once more. Understandably resentful of his patrons’ unwillingness to give him cover – honor among thieves, and all that – Karzai has lately taken to attacking the Americans as fickle and flighty. In a recent interview with CNN, he asked:
"Is the United States a reliable partner with Afghanistan? Is the West a reliable partner with Afghanistan? Have we received the commitments that we were given? Have we been treated like a partner?"
If we Americans are so unreliable, then why doesn’t Karzai find new patrons? Maybe the Russians will be amenable to coming back into the country, given the right deal. Then again, maybe not. In any case, there are plenty of other possible candidates for the role of Afghan sugar daddy: what about the Chinese? They’re rolling in cash, and they don’t seem to be the types that would be sticklers for the integrity of the democratic process.
Failing that, I suggest Karzai abandon the fiction that Afghanistan is an actual country, and go the corporate route: he can file papers in, say, Delaware, issue stock, appoint a board of directors packed with the politically powerful, and then lobby for a bailout from the Obama administration. They can argue Afghanistan, Inc., is "too big to fail." That should garner sufficient sympathy in Washington, especially when Karzai points out how many American jobs are on the line if his government/company goes down. What will all those U.S. exporters, including mercenary outfits like Dyncorp and war profiteers like Dianne Feinstein’s husband, do if Karzai & Co. goes the way of Lehman Brothers?
Faced with this farcical tragicomedy, no wonder Matthew Hoh walked out of his job as the top U.S. civilian official in Zabul province. Hoh, a former Marine officer, is a veteran of the Iraq war, where he served from 2004-07. He signed on to the Foreign Service and was sent to Afghanistan, where he was the senior political officer in his region. In a letter to his superiors that has been posted online, Hoh wrote that he decided to step down because
"I have lost understanding of and confidence in the strategic purposes of the United States’ presence in Afghanistan. I have doubts and reservations about our current strategy and planned future strategy, but my resignation is based not upon how we are pursuing this war, but why and to what end. To put [it] simply: I fail to see the value or worth in continued U.S. casualties or expenditures of resources in support of the Afghan government in what is, truly, a 35-year old civil war."
This is significant because Hoh is challenging the fundamental premise on which our policy is based: the idea that there is anything in Afghanistan worth fighting and dying for. It isn’t a matter of how to win, but whether "victory" is possible, definable, or even desirable. This is a qualitatively different critique from that of Democrats in Congress and the vice president’s office who want to carry out a "counterterrorism" strategy, as opposed to launching a full-fledged counterinsurgency campaign. For the first time in this war, someone in a position to know what we are doing over there is condemning the policy root and branch.
Hoh notes we are fast approaching the ninth anniversary of our attempted occupation of Afghanistan – the same length of time the Soviets’ Red Army managed to stay. The parallels are truly ominous, because we know what happened to them. Hoh is implicitly asking whether the U.S. is prepared to suffer the same fate.
We are, he writes, just "a supporting actor" in a drama that is centuries old. Like the Soviets, the U.S./NATO alliance has intervened on behalf of the urban, educated northern elite in their ongoing struggle with the illiterate and deeply religious Pashtun majority in the southern part of the country – an internecine battle that has been going on, in its modern phase, since at least the end of the Afghan monarchy.
The Afghan insurgents aren’t fighting under "the white banner of the Taliban," avers Hoh, "but rather against the presence of foreign soldiers and taxes imposed by an unrepresentative government in Kabul." They are, in short, Afghan Tea Partiers, the Middle Eastern, modern-day version of the rebels at Lexington and Concord who rose against taxation without representation.
Well, then, why are we fighting them? For the same reason King George III and his redcoats fought George Washington and the Continental Army: because that’s what empires do – put down native rebellions.
I suspect I’m projecting a bit too much of my Western mindset onto the Afghan insurgents – and Hoh’s evaluation of them – but the main point here is that the insurgents are not the dreaded Taliban. We have heard much about the supposed separateness of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, but the reality is that neither group is really running the Afghan insurgency – which, as Hoh puts it, is "composed of multiple, seemingly infinite, local groups."
Against the Afghan Tea Partiers are arrayed not only our own forces, but also the Afghan government, whose failings, says Hoh, "appear legion and metastatic." Karzai’s advisers are described as "drug lords and war crime villains" who "mock our rule of law" and efforts to stem the drug trade and engage in "unabashed" graft and corruption. As for local officials, they are nothing more than "opportunists and strongmen allied to the United States solely on account of … our USAID and CERP contracts" and have no real interest in reconciliation of opposing factions.
Hoh takes on President Obama’s contention that we are fighting to deprive al-Qaeda of "safe havens." Why invade just Afghanistan on account of al-Qaeda’s alleged presence, he asks – why not also invade and occupy Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, and all the other countries where Osama bin Laden’s followers have carved out a niche? And if we’re so concerned about Pakistan and its nukes falling into the hands of our enemies – an oft-stated rationale, now being touted as the "real" reason we’re occupying neighboring Afghanistan – then why not just march into Islamabad and be done with it?
I particularly enjoyed Hoh’s refutation of the "failed state" argument, which says we must not allow a power vacuum to develop where the bad guys can come in unopposed: on that basis, then, we must "increase our commitment to and involvement in Mexico." Yeah, that’s the ticket: take Mexico City – and remember the Alamo!
Our troops, Hoh writes, have waged a heroic – and "Sisyphean" – fight on behalf of what is, ultimately, "a Pollyanna-ish misadventure." Sisyphus, you’ll recall, was an ancient Greek whose wrongdoing was punished by the gods in a most unusual manner: he was made to push a stone up a hill, only to have it roll back down – forever. A more apt description of our task in Afghanistan can hardly be imagined.
Similarly, he writes, U.S. civilians on the front lines, of which he was one, are charged with carrying out an ill-conceived policy "shaped more by the political climate in Washington, D.C., than in Afghan cities, villages, mountains, and valleys." This illustrates a point I have made quite often of late in this space. Our foreign policy is made not to advance U.S. interests, rationally and objectively understood, but to propitiate the gods of Washington: the lobbyists, the foreign governments, the economic and political interests that stand to profit – or lose – depending on which way the policy winds blow. American politics, far from stopping at the water’s edge, as the bromide would have it, reaches all the way to Kabul.
This is a near-perfect dramatization of the libertarian theory of the state: that our rulers, including government officials and the power-brokers who stand behind them, act only in order to ensure and expand their own power and advance the interests and prestige of their supporters. This is one very good reason why the power of the U.S. government needs to be reined in and strictly limited – and not just on the home front, but overseas as well.
Concluding his letter, Hoh apologizes for his "ill-tempered" prose and asks us to understand the depths of his passion: he, after all, has been there, unlike our laptop bombardiers who write endless newspaper columns urging us onward to "victory." He has seen good men and women sacrificed on the altar of the ever hungry god of American hubris, and he can no longer assure the families and loved ones of the fallen that "their dead have been sacrificed for a purpose worthy of futures lost, love vanished, and promised dreams unkept."
In his letter, Hoh cites an unnamed commander who greets visitors with the news that "we are spending ourselves into oblivion." Well, it’s good to know some in our military have a clear view of the problem, even if the administration’s favored economists don’t. "We are," writes Hoh, "mortgaging our nation’s economy on a war which, even with increased commitment, will remain a draw for years to come." The timeline he projects is not in years, but in decades – in a generation or so, we may achieve "victory," whatever that may mean. Or we may not. In the meantime, the nation – our nation – is bleeding and losing its vital sustenance at a pace that is frightening and ominous.
Is anybody in Washington awake? Are any of the "progressives" listening? Do we have to crash on the rocks of yet another foreign joyride and arise one day to find that we’ve squandered the country’s wealth – and murdered the cream of our youth – in the cause of corruption?
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
My review of Jennifer Burns’ recently published biography of Ayn Rand – Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right – has been put online by the publisher, Young Americans for Liberty. The essay appears in the latest issue of their journal, Young American Revolution. Go check it out. And if you’re a student, consider joining YAL, the premier libertarian youth group and the up-and-coming campus activist group of the decade.
Also, I’m writing a regular column for Chronicles magazine, which deals often – but not exclusively – with foreign affairs. If you want to read it, however, I suggest you subscribe to the magazine. You can order a subscription by phone: 800-877-5459.