“Nation Building” on the Moon? Smarter than the U.S. in Afghanistan?

Tom Friedman, longtime NYTimes columnist, treats us to some snippets of diary entries from his first trip to Afghanistan, in early 2002, with then Senator Joe Biden. Friedman opens the piece in the posture of sadder-but-wiser sage:

“I was not surprised that Joe Biden decided to finally pull the plug on the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. Back in 2002 it was reasonable to hope that our invasion there to topple Osama bin Laden and his Taliban allies could be extended to help make that country a more stable, tolerant and decent place for its citizens — and less likely to host jihadist groups.”

Was that really a “reasonable idea? In what is justly called the “graveyard of empires”, or more properly the graveyards of too many loyal troops sacrificed on the altars of hubris erected by heedless, foolish imperial “statesmen”?

Friedman insists he had doubts even then:

But it was also reasonable to fear from the start that trying to graft a Western political culture onto such a deeply tribalized, male-dominated and Islamic fundamentalist culture like Afghanistan’s was a fool’s errand, especially when you factored in how much neighboring Pakistan never wanted us to succeed because it could wrench Afghanistan from Pakistan’s cultural and geopolitical orbit. . . .”

Yes, such fears were more than reasonable, it turned out. Especially when you add in the lack of doubts about the U. S. Imperium’s right and capacity to run such a bloody “experiment,” or, it turned out, any need to heed the very visible grounds for the doubts.

Another diary entry began:

“We flew to Islamabad and then grabbed a U.N. relief flight into Bagram Air Base, 50 miles from Kabul. Joe stayed at the newly reopened U.S. Embassy, with no flush toilets or running water, and I stayed at the house being rented by The New York Times, which had only slightly better plumbing but a friendly group of Afghan drivers and cooks who kept the fireplace roaring and the raisin pilaf and warm Afghan bread on the table. My first impression of Kabul? It was Ground Zero East.”

That last is an interesting metaphor. Did George W. Bush send fighters and drones and special forces commandos in to bounce the rubble at “Ground Zero West” in New York City?

Even Bush was not that dense: after all, the villains of the September 11 attacks were not there. Nor, beyond the small band of Osama Bin Laden’s deadly disciples, were they in Afghanistan. When they finally caught Bin Laden, he was in Pakistan.

Perhaps the most famous victory of the Afghan war — the killing of Osama Bin Ladin — happened in Pakistan.

To be sure, the Afghans were hardly pastoral pacifists living in harmony with nature. But two decades’ experience has since reinforced the conclusion, obvious at the start, that they were more interested in and prepared to slaughter each other’s tribes there and in Pakistan than mount technically sophisticated terror attacks half a world away. (That sort of thing required bundles of money and skills found in places like Saudi Arabia — oh, but please don’t mention that name out loud.)

On the  other hand, if the infidel Americans came onto their turf, then it was “Game on,” and the tribes had formidable advantages, it being their land and culture. . . .

“We might as well be doing nation-building on the moon,” [Friedman] wrote in the column [he] published that week [in 2002]. “You see sad and bizarre scenes here: a white donkey galloping down the main street right behind our car; a man with one leg pedaling a bicycle; people washing a car with water from a port-a-potty. . . .”

Back to his diary:

“One morning Biden and I went over to the old Soviet Embassy, where thousands of refugees were packed into a beehive of makeshift one-room apartments, heated only by wood stoves and sheltered from the wet cold by plastic sheets. Everyone seemed to be shuffling around in sandals, with blankets for overcoats. Open sewers and mud were their front yards; hollow cheeks and wide eyes marked their faces. … “

And on it goes. Nevertheless, Friedman says

“My heart told me to write that America must remain here, for however long it takes, with however many troops it takes, to repair this country, and provide a minimum level of security so it can get on its feet again. It was the least we owed the place, having already abandoned it once after the Soviet withdrawal. We didn’t have to make it Switzerland, just a little better, a little freer, and a little more stable than it was under the Taliban.”

However long, and however many. (How quaint that he omitted  “however many trillions” — expropriated from our children’s future.) Also notable is the lack of question whether the almighty Yankees had any business trying to do that, or even could do it: customize our invasion/occupation, fine-tune the bombing and drone raids, paying off all those we did not have to kill, just so. Surgical skill, even for what sounded in Friedman’s imaginings like no more than getting a bit of work done, merely “a minimum level,” of cultural cosmetic surgery.

Friedman adds:

“But while my heart kept pulling me in one direction, my head, and my eyes, kept encountering things that were deeply troubling. . . .
[Soon] I wondered to myself: ‘When were the good old days for government in Afghanistan? Before Genghis Khan? Before gunpowder?’”

I don’t think Friedman ever found an answer to his rhetorical question about days. Nor did the long parade of rising U. S. in-country commanders, who lined up to punch their careerist tickets & snag their next star by cranking out (along with filled body bags) reports that assured Washington the fabled Land of A Little Better Afghanistan (not Switzerland, of course, but . . .) was just around the corner.

I read a chunk of one such report, and very much suspect they all followed the same template. Paraphrasing from memory:  Today the Afghan situation is truly dire, our war there nearly lost. But with my new plan, the battlescape can be transformed, the tide turned, and victory all but assured. it should be all wrapped up about six months after my tour ends, with a promotion and rotation back home.

Bollocks. All bollocks.

Biden too was part of the folly, until, finally, he wasn’t.

As for those Afghans unwise enough to have thrown in with the invaders, as well as many others there, especially women, the inevitable and overdue U.S. departure will very likely mean the return of the Bad Old Days, which, from our “civilized” perspective, were very many.

I repeat the call for departing U.S. forces and their commanders to help as many as possible escape the bloodstained blades of reprisal that await them after our troops are gone.

Trillions later, the U.S. part of this long catastrophe may soon be over.

Let’s hope so. Much of the aftermath will probably be hellish. Many innocent Afghans may reap what American hubris and folly has sown for so long.

And next time the nation-building fever strikes, let’s send some columnists and war-merchants to try it on the moon. It’s just about as reasonable an idea.

2 thoughts on ““Nation Building” on the Moon? Smarter than the U.S. in Afghanistan?”

  1. This is of course very painful to read and bet it was painful to write. There is nothing in this essay that I didn’t know to some extent but it is very helpful for me to have it put in a order succinctly like this. That said, I wonder if it just isn’t time for true despair and withdrawal, my Trumpian Friends simply will not read this and the machine that makes money off it will simply laugh. I think it may be time to admit defeat. Our message on the subject has been received and rejected. Time to move on to more productive pursuits?

  2. Btw. Wasn’t this nice little war gonna pay for itself? According to some kind of monster who now has had the Hearts of two young people grafted into his chest. Still honored here. Still in power through his daughter here. Does the light of God shine in Dick Cheney. Or is it our darkness not to have somehow ended him? Trillions of dollars, trillions. Young lives wasted and lost. I am going to find some sack cloth and ashes. Will modern Burlap do? The ashes I can make from my own sadness.

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