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December 02, 2009

Tomasky, Moore, and Afghanistan

Micahel Tomasky accuses Michael Moore of being a fatuous blowhard for criticizing the war in Afghanistan as a doomed imperial adventure. Now, Moore can be a fatuous blowhard, but Tomasky doesn't make the charge stick this time. 

In his open letter to President Obama, Moore warns that Afghanistan has been nicknamed "the graveyard of empires."

Tomasky sneers:

I really don't see what America's mission in Afghanistan has to do with what the British did or what the Soviets did. People love lazy historical parallels, and have a tendency to have over-learned the famous Santayana maxim and believe that invoking it makes them sound smart. But every historical situation is different. Why wouldn't someone with Moore's lefty politics be righteous in the conviction that we owe it to the Afghan people to try to help them establish a proper nation-state for the first time in their history?

Moore doesn't spell out the historical analogy, but the common threads seem obvious to me: The Afghan people have historically been implacably opposed to foreign occupation of any kind and they've been very good at resisting it. It's not just a matter of tradition or national pride, Afghanistan is full of seasoned guerrilla fighters who cut their teeth opposing the Soviets. They're pros. Also, time is on their side. We can leave any time, but they live there. They don't have to drive us out, they can just harass us until we get bored and leave.

Furthermore, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, a lot of people in the Muslim world saw it as struggle of Christendom vs. Islam vs. occupying infidels. As a result, Afghanistan became a destination for would-be jihadists from all over the world. That's how Osama bin Laden got his start. If our goal is ultimately to marginalize Islamic extremists, we should be wary about escalating the kind of fight that galvanized them in the first place.

Moore also touches on longstanding cultural barriers to imperialist Pygmalion projects in Afghanistan. Maybe Moore and I are wrong about how much Afghans want to become a modern industrial nation state, but it seems like there are any number of powerful interests opposed and not a lot of countervailing enthusiasm for the project.

Historical analogies are always inexact. Maybe there are reasons to be more optimistic about the current occupation. But at this point, we're not just speculating about how things might turn out. We've been occupying Afghanistan for the better part of a decade and it doesn't seem to be working.

Tomasky accuses Moore of letting his "knee jerk" anti-imperialism overshadow his liberal values.

"Why wouldn't someone with Moore's lefty politics be righteous in the conviction that we owe it to the Afghan people to try to help them establish a proper nation-state for the first time in their history?" Tomasky wants to know.

I am so sick of hearing this straw man argument from liberals. They point to a desirable goal and accuse us of rejecting it, even though nobody actually objects to the war because they hate women's liberation and clean drinking water. The point of contention is not whether a stable and democratic Afghanistan would be desirable, but whether military occupation is a good means to that end. 

It's like saying, "You'd think a lefty would want to put out this fire." Well, yes, we lefties like firefighting, but the question is whether it's a good idea to try to put out this blaze with gasoline.

Comments

I find the middle eastern ideas of a Xian/Muslim conflict to be particularly interesting. It belies some cultural assumptions on both sides of the conflict. It's easy to understand and even agree with such a belief with today's conflict, which was initiated by an unabashed evangelical. The Soviet Union, however, was officially atheist, essentially outlawing religion of all stripes. The perception of a Xian/Muslim conflict perpetuated despite this.

more than one historian has noticed the strange parallel of our campaign in afghanistan with that of alexander the great.

alexander also first tried overwhelming force ("shock and awe" if you will. to the bactrian, sogdinian, and other ancient afghani tribes, the macedonian phalanx would be both shocking and awe inspiring). then he tried "hunter/killer" ops with smaller, more agile units. he tried setting one tribe against the other. he tried hiring one tribe has mercenaries to fight the other tribes. he tried bribery, intermarriage, and finally, genocide, wiping out whole cities and groups of people.

it took alexander, who conquered persia in less than a year and a half, three years to simply cross afghanistan. it broke his army's spirit, and will.

he also had a big problem with his troops getting strung out on opium and hashish. (they called it pank and nazz.)

like we said in california "those who do not remember the past are doomed to keep voting republican."

You're right that the Soviet invasion had an even flimsier religious tie. But it was still perceived as an attempt for a non-Muslim country to dominate a Muslim country, and therefore as a legitimate target for would-be jihadis shopping around for a crusade. Steve Coll talks a lot about this dynamic in his book "Ghost Wars." Afghanistan essentially became a dumping ground where oil rich but unstable dictatorships in the Middle East could divert all their young religious fanatics, lest they turn that religious zeal on the elites at home.

Today, we've given even more ammunition to those who want to think of this as a Christian vs. Muslim conflict.

Suppose that Obama had said, instead of "30,000 additional soldiers", "30,000 additional humanitarian aid workers etc". It seems to me that between this post and your previous one, you're saying that that, too, would be a form of "gasoline". Am I correct?
In other words: you say that the point isn't the desirability of a stable and democratic Afghanistan (which I read as your saying, that would be a GOOD thing!). But then you also express skepticism that such a thing, which presumes a relatively unified nation-state with a relatively strong central government, could ever happen in Afghanistan -- which seems to result in a position where ANY form of in-person "involvement" in Afghanistan, military AND non-military, is a fool's errand. Again, am I correct, or just totally misunderstanding you, or some of each?

I'm not saying Afghanistan could never become a stable and democratic state. I'm saying that foreign powers pumping military and humanitarian resources into Afghanistan is unlikely to accomplish that goal. It might even be counterproductive.

For one thing, if the occupying power wants unity and democracy, a lot of people will be mistrust the endeavor on general principle. For example, there's a big difference between supporting democracy and supporting an election underwritten by your occupying power. If I were an Afghan, the political system simply wouldn't seem legitimate to me because it would be obvious that Karzai was a U.S. puppet. From the outside, it seems to me that the US-backed Karzai regime is probably significantly better than what might otherwise be there, but only because I'm looking at this as an American with some minimal faith in the good intentions of he U.S. If you don't start from that basis of trust, it all looks like a sellout.

It seems to me that we have a lot of hubris in feeling that we have the right to force the people of Afghanistan to become like us.

If we are to force them to support a government like ours, wouldn't we also have to force them to change their culture? And if they were like us, and invaded other nations to force their culture and government on the people they are oppressing, would we then be at odds with them again?

What you said at the top, Linsay, exactly. I completely agree as per my comment for "Questions about Afghanistan." The only thing even close to stability that Afghanistan has had in the past 20 years has been the Taliban. Sad for the people, women especially, but we are doing the people there no favors with our involvement. Another lobbing of shoes in probably in order for last night's disingenuous explanation for our escalation.

more than one historian has noticed the strange parallel of our campaign in afghanistan with that of alexander the great.

Alexander the Great gets a lot of undeserved abuse for the invasion of Afghanistan when, in truth, the result was a Greek-speaking kingdom IN AFGHANISTAN that lasted for 150 years.

Even the heydays of British and Russian 19th-century imperialism were never able to impose a their own ethnic ruling class on Afghanistan and full-scale colonization.

If we are to force them to support a government like ours, wouldn't we also have to force them to change their culture?

No, why? Botswana and India have had Western-style democracies from independence, without changing their cultures. Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan all democratized without adopting Western values, even Western values that have to do with governance and civil rights.

Invading other countries isn't a Western value - it's a great power value.

Alon Levy, I think you're arguing that all cultures are compatible with a strong centralized government. Or at least arguing that the culture in Afghanistan promotes a strong centralized government.

And your list is a bit self selected isn't it? Didn't most of those nations already have a strong centralized government before they adopted a Western Style Democracy? Didn't they have history of Kings or at least a strong feudal hierarchy, that had united the lands for centuries?

Afghanistan, though characterized often enough as feudal, has resisted centralization for centuries. No King or Emperor has ruled the land for any meaningful period.

"imperialist Pygmalion projects"

Best. Clause. Ever.

And your list is a bit self selected isn't it? Didn't most of those nations already have a strong centralized government before they adopted a Western Style Democracy? Didn't they have history of Kings or at least a strong feudal hierarchy, that had united the lands for centuries?

What are you talking about? Botswana was a tribal society; Seretse Khama had to fight to gain national legitimacy. Even in the 1970s there were pockets of the country populated by hunter-gatherers who didn't know what money was. India had never been a nation-state at independence; at the time of British colonialism, it consisted of multiple princely states, many of which maintained nominal sovereignty until the middle of the 19th century. At the time of independence, India also had massive sectarian violence, which tore the country apart, separating it into what is now India and what are now Pakistan and Bangladesh.

India and Botswana had a more remote history of national government to look to than Afghanistan does: Afghanistan was a monarchy until the Soviet invasion.

As for feudalism, most people who write about civilizations argue that Western-style feudalism was a form of weak government, comparing it with the strong central governments of Asia. Even in the Renaissance, Machiavelli compared the feudal form of government in Europe, which made it easier to overthrow the government with the help of independently powerful barons, with the sultanates of Egypt and Turkey, which made it harder, because the local rulers were all centrally appointed functionaries.

It's not what the Afghan culture promotes, but honestly I'm skeptical of cultural explanations for national development - they always seem post hoc to me.

"Furthermore, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, a lot of people in the Muslim world saw it as struggle of Christendom vs. Islam"

Eh, not so much. They were seen as 'Godless' Communists which is even worse in their eyes. Which is why they were not averse to receiving aid from a 'Christian' country like the United States. In fact 'Godliness' was used as a glue of commonality between the Afghans and rabid anti-Communists like Joanne Herring

I can't help but think the current occupation of Afghanistan has more to do with creating a northern point of access into Pakistan should it become necessary than it does bringing Afghanis into the modern world.

And what the **** is the US military going to do 'entering' Pakistan - which I guess is what you mean? 150 MILLION pissed-off Muslims to add to the 60 million in Iran, etc etc.... I thought conspiracy theories were supposed to assume a guiding intelligence...

Well said. I think this disdain shown to Moore dates directly back to the conservative's ballistic response to "Farenheit 911". It's now considered "conventional wisdom" that Moore is a kook, regardless of the validity of his point.

Beyerstein:

"Afghanistan essentially became a dumping ground where oil rich but unstable dictatorships in the Middle East could divert all their young religious fanatics, lest they turn that religious zeal on the elites at home."

This is a good point. The problem is Saudi Arabia and the Pakistani military/intelligence (who are armed with nukes).

But as bad as the Saudis are, at least they don't talk about wiping Israel off the map on a daily basis, as those in Iran do. And at least Pakistan's military got in gear and kicked the Taliban out of Swat and went into Waziristan.

I basically agree with Tomasky against Moore, although perhaps Tomasky should adopt a more moderate tone.

There will always be disagreement within the liberal-left on whether military force is ever justified.

What I see happening is sanctions against Iran, a mistake seeing how a decade of sanctions destroyed Iraq. But at least we won't bomb and invade.

Obama will withrdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan most likely, although it's not a sure thing. Al Qaeda or some terrorist group will nuke a Western city and things will get really ugly. We'll nuke Mecca and invade the whole of the Middle East. Michael Moore will blame the nuking on George W. Bush for pissing off Muslims. Good times!

"Bad as the Saudis are, at least they don't talk about wiping Israel off the map on a daily basis ..."

BFD. Seriously. We talk about wiping Iran off the map. We call Iran the Axis of Evil. We talk about wiping all sorts of people off the map. And we actually do it. Who has Iran attacked recently? What country has Iran invaded recently?

Alon, I like this qualifier, 'at the time of British colonialism'.

But of course, this follows the British overthrow of the monarchies in the region now known as India...

As to Botswana, are you suggesting that we follow that example and start moving American settlers to Afghanistan to rule over it, and in a few generations, start allowing the people of Afghanistan to have a voice in the government?

I liked how you brought up Botswana as the example that disproves the 'most' clause of my argument. If I said that most dogs have four legs, you might say, "You are wrong, I have a dog with three legs."

You're playing good tricks with careful wording and logical misdirection. I commend you.

B.C. Yes in a world where almost everyone is insane, the sane man is the crazy one.

What people are trained to believe, is more important than the truth. This is why the Church and the Italian Government fought so hard against Galileo. The idea that the Sun did not revolve around the Earth, changed our fundamental view of the universe and ourselves. Everyone 'knew' that man was the center of creation. Now some kook comes along and pretends to prove that the Earth revolves around the sun?! What nonsense!

"Bad as the Saudis are, at least they don't talk about wiping Israel off the map on a daily basis ..."

They did play a major role in financing the 9/11 attacks.

Iran hasn't actually attacked Israel, but Saudi Arabia did attack the USA.

I do recognize that in the USA, we place more emphasis on what people say, than what they do. That's why we keep voting in crappy leadership. And why we're hot to go after Iran because their president has a big mouth, but ignore Saudi Arabia that actually played a material role in taking down the Twin Towers.

"BFD. Seriously. We talk about wiping Iran off the map. We call Iran the Axis of Evil. We talk about wiping all sorts of people off the map. And we actually do it. Who has Iran attacked recently? What country has Iran invaded recently?"

Who is this "we"? Bellicose Republicans? Granted McCain joked about Ba-ba-bombing Iran, but it was joke. And he's not the mainstream. He lost the Presidential election if you'll remember.

Iran sponsors Hamas and Hezbollah and groups in Iraq killing Sunnis and American soldiers. So they're not above meddling and it will be interesting to see what they do once they get nukes.

My point was that as bad as they are, the Saudis > Iran, because the Saudis don't talk about wiping Israel off the map on a daily basis, while Iran's leader does. In fact the Saudi peace plan is pretty fair.

But of course, this follows the British overthrow of the monarchies in the region now known as India...

And the Afghan situation follows the Soviet overthrow of the monarchy in Afghanistan...

As to Botswana, are you suggesting that we follow that example and start moving American settlers to Afghanistan to rule over it, and in a few generations, start allowing the people of Afghanistan to have a voice in the government?

Are you confusing Botswana with South Africa? While Britain tried to move settlers into many southern African colonies, Botswana was never a settler colony in the same sense as South Africa or even Rhodesia. Britain's rule in Botswana, as in most other colonies, relied on locals to fill most government posts.

The Botswana situation isn't really something the US can try to engineer. Most other countries in the same situation have imploded; Botswana is unique in having managed to turn natural resources into wealth. But once you pile up the examples of countries that managed to produce stable democracies, across different cultures, Afghanistan's odds don't seem so bad.

I'd like to think that the people of Afghanistan may eventually see an end to their uninterrupted streak of misery ever since the Soviets rolled in in '78 or '79 or whenever it was. I hope it will all work out and Afghanistan will become a happy Shangri-La, or at least a place on a par with say, Bolivia, but I'm not holding my breath.

We could have treated 9/11 as a criminal matter, captured Mr. bin Laden and his pals, put them on trial, and have been done with Afghanistan years ago. But, when we actually had bin Laden cornered in Tora Bora, the Bushies naturally had bigger ideas. Oh well.

Those of us who expressed reservations about potential quagmires back when all this shit started were dismissed as naive hippies. Can't say we didn't warn you. Good luck with the war guys.

Alon, I thought you were arguing foreign armies created those democracies.

I thought you were arguing that the US Army can build a stable Aghanistan Democratic Government.

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