In the front-page story those two reporters produced, you could practically slice with a dull knife American military frustration over a war going terribly wrong, over an enemy (shades of Vietnam!) with "sanctuaries" for rest, recuperation, and rearming just over an ill-marked, half-existent border. You could practically taste the chagrin of the military that their war against... well you name it: terrorists, guerrillas, former Islamic fundamentalist allies, Afghan and Pakistani nationalists, and god knows who else... wasn't proceeding exactly swimmingly. You could practically reach out and be seared by their anger at the Pakistanis for continuing to take American bucks by the billions while playing their own game, rather than an American one, in the region.
If you were of a certain age, you could practically feel (shades of Vietnam again!) that eerily hopeful sense that the next step in spreading the war, the next escalation, could be the decisive one. Admittedly, these days no one talks (as they did in the Vietnam and Iraq years) about turning "corners" or reaching "tipping points," but you can practically hear those phrases anyway, or at least the mingled hope and desperation that always lurked behind them.
Take this sentence, for instance: "Even with the risks, military commanders say that using American Special Operations troops could bring an intelligence windfall, if militants were captured, brought back across the border into Afghanistan and interrogated." Can't you catch the familiar conviction that, when things are going badly, the answer is never "less," always "more," that just another decisive step or two and you'll be around that fateful corner?
In this single New York Times piece (and other hints about cross-border operations), you can sense just how addictive war is for the war planners. Once you begin down the path of invasion and occupation, turning back is as difficult as an addict going cold turkey. With all the sober talk about year-end reviews in Afghanistan, about planning and "progress" (a word used nine times in the relatively brief, vetted "overview" of that review recently released by the White House), about future dates for drawdowns and present tactics, it's easy to forget that war is a drug. When you're high on it, your decisions undoubtedly look as rational, even practical, as the public language you tend to use to describe them. But don't believe it for a second.
Once you've shot up this drug, your thinking is impaired. Through its dream-haze, unpleasant history becomes bunk; what others couldn't do, you fantasize that you can. Forget the fact that crossing similar borders to get similar information and wipe out similar sanctuaries in Cambodia and Laos in the Vietnam War years led to catastrophe for American planners and the peoples of the region. It only widened that war into what in Cambodia would become auto-genocide. Forget the fact that, no matter whom American raiders might capture, they have no hope of capturing the feeling of nationalism (or the tribal equivalent) that, in the face of foreign invaders or a foreign occupation, keeps the under-armed resilient against the mightiest of forces.
Think of the American urge to surge as a manifestation of the war drug's effect in the world. In what the Bush administration used to call "the Greater Middle East," Washington is now in its third and grimmest surge iteration. The first took place in the 1980s during the Reagan administration's anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan and proved the highest of highs; the second got rolling as the last century was ending and culminated in the first years of the twenty-first century amid what can only be described as delusions of grandeur, or even imperial megalomania. It focused on a global Pax Americana and the wars that extend it into the distant future. The third started in 2006 in Iraq and is still playing itself out in Afghanistan as 2011 commences.
In Central and South Asia, we could now be heading for the end of the age of American surges, which in practical terms have manifested themselves as the urge to destabilize. Geopolitically, little could be uglier or riskier on our planet at the moment than destabilizing Pakistan—or the United States. Three decades after the American urge to surge in Afghanistan helped destabilize one imperial superpower, the Soviet Union, the present plans, whatever they may turn out to be, could belatedly destabilize the other superpower of the Cold War era. And what our preeminent group of surgers welcomed as an "unprecedented strategic opportunity" as this century dawned may, in its later stages, be seen as an unprecedented act of strategic desperation.
That, of course, is what drugs, taken over decades, do to you: they give you delusions of grandeur and then leave you on the street, strung out, and without much to call your own. Perhaps it's fitting that Afghanistan, the country we helped turn into the planet's leading narco-state, has given us a 30-year high from hell.
So, as the New Year begins, strap yourself into that time machine and travel with me back into the 1980s, so that we can peer into a future we know and see the pattern that lies both behind and ahead of us.
Getting High in Afghanistan
As 2011 begins, what could be eerier than reading secret Soviet documents from the USSR's Afghan debacle of the 1980s? It gives you chills to run across Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev at a Politburo meeting in October 1985, almost six years after Soviet troops first flooded into Afghanistan, reading letters aloud to his colleagues from embittered Soviet citizens ("The Politburo had made a mistake and must correct it as soon as possible—every day precious lives are lost."); or, in November 1986, insisting to those same colleagues that the Afghan war must be ended in a year, "at maximum, two." Yet, with the gut-wrenching sureness history offers, you can't help but know that, even two years later, even with a strong desire to leave (which has yet to surface among the Washington elite a decade into our own Afghan adventure), imperial pride and fear of loss of "credibility" would keep the Soviets fighting on to 1989.
Or what about Marshal Sergei Akhromeev offering that same Politburo meeting an assessment that any honest American military commander might offer a quarter century later about our own Afghan adventure: "There is no single piece of land in this country that has not been occupied by a Soviet soldier. Nevertheless, the majority of the territory remains in the hands of the rebels." Or General Boris Gromov, the last commander of the Soviet 40th Army in Afghanistan, boasting "on his last day in the country that ‘[n]o Soviet garrison or major outpost was ever overrun.'"
Or Andrei Gromyko, Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, emphasizing in 1986 the strategic pleasure of their not-so-secret foe, that other great imperial power of the moment: "Concerning the Americans, they are not interested in the settlement of the situation in Afghanistan. On the contrary, it is to their advantage for the war to drag out." (The same might today be said of a far less impressive foe, al-Qaeda.)
Or in 1988, with the war still dragging on, to read a "closed" letter the Communist Party distributed to its members explaining how the Afghan fiasco happened (again, the sort of thing that any honest American leader could say of our Afghan war): "In addition, [we] completely disregarded the most important national and historical factors, above all the fact that the appearance of armed foreigners in Afghanistan was always met with arms in the hands [of the population]... One should not disregard the economic factor either. If the enemy in Afghanistan received weapons and ammunition for hundreds of millions and later even billions of dollars, the Soviet-Afghan side also had to shoulder adequate expenditures. The war in Afghanistan costs us 5 billion rubles a year."
Or finally the pathetic letter the Soviet Military Command delivered to the head of the UN mission in Afghanistan on February 14, 1989, arguing (just as the American military high command would do of our war effort) that it was "not only unfair but even absurd to draw... parallels" between the Soviet Afghan disaster and the American war in Vietnam. That was, of course, the day the last of 100,000 Soviet soldiers—just about the number of American soldiers there today—left Afghan soil heading home to a sclerotic country bled dry by war, its infrastructure aging, its economy crumbling. Riddled by drugs and thoroughly demoralized, the Red Army limped home to a society riddled by drugs and thoroughly demoralized led by a Communist Party significantly delegitimized by its disastrous Afghan adventure, its Islamic territories from Chechnya to Central Asia in increasing turmoil. In November of that same year, the Berlin Wall would be torn down and not long after the Soviet Union would disappear from the face of the Earth.
Reading those documents, you can almost imagine CIA director William Webster and "his euphoric ‘Afghan Team'" toasting the success of the Agency's 10-year effort, its largest paramilitary operation since the Vietnam War. The Reagan administration surge in Pakistan and Afghanistan had been profligate, involving billions of dollars and a massive propaganda campaign, as well as alliances with the Saudis and a Pakistani dictator and his intelligence service to fund and arm the most extreme of the anti-Soviet jihadists of that moment—"freedom fighters" as they were then commonly called in Washington.
It's easy to imagine the triumphalist mood of celebration in Washington among those who had intended to give the Soviet Union a full blast of the Vietnam effect. They had used the "war" part of the Cold War to purposely bleed the less powerful, less wealthy of the two superpowers dry. As President Reagan would later write in his memoirs: "The great dynamic of capitalism had given us a powerful weapon in our battle against Communism—money. The Russians could never win the arms race; we could outspend them forever."
By 1990, the urge to surge seemed a success beyond imagining. Forget that it had left more than a million Afghans dead (and more dying), that one-third of that impoverished country's population had been turned into refugees, or that the most extreme of jihadists, including a group that called itself al-Qaeda, had been brought together, funded, and empowered through the Afghan War. More important, the urge to surge in the region was now in the American bloodstream. And who could ever imagine that, in a new century, "our" freedom fighters would become our sworn enemies, or that the Afghans, that backward people in a poor land, could ever be the sort of impediment to American power that they had been to the Soviets?
The Cold War was over. The surge had it. We were supreme. And what better high could there be than that?
Fever Dreams of Military Might
Of course, with the Soviet Union gone, there was no military on the planet that could come close to challenging the American one, nor was there a nascent rival great power on the horizon. Still, a question remained: After centuries of great power rivalry, what did it mean to have a "sole superpower" on planet Earth, and what path should that triumphant power head down? It took a few years, including passing talk about a possible "peace dividend"—that is, the investment of monies that would have gone into the Cold War, the Pentagon, and the military in infrastructural and other domestic projects—for this question to be settled, but settled it was, definitively, on September 12, 2001.
And for all the unknown paths that might have been taken in this unique situation, the one chosen was familiar. It was, of course, the very one that had helped lead the Soviet Union to implosion, the investment of national treasure in military power above all else. However, to those high on the urge to surge and now eager to surge globally, when it came to an American future, the fate of the Soviet Union seemed no more relevant than what the Afghans had done to the Red Army. In those glory years, analogies between the greatest power the planet had ever seen and a defeated foe seemed absurd to those who believed themselves the smartest, clearest-headed guys in the room.
Previously, the "arms race," like any race, had involved at least two, and sometimes more, great powers. Now, it seemed, there would be something new under the sun, an arms race of one, as the US prepared itself for utter dominance into a distant, highly militarized future. The military-industrial complex would, in these years, be further embedded in the warp and woof of American life; the military expanded and privatized (which meant being firmly embraced by crony corporations and hire-a-gun outfits of every sort); and the American "global presence"—from military bases to aircraft-carrier task forces—enhanced until, however briefly, the United States became a military presence unique in the annals of history.