When it comes to Afghanistan, what separates President Barack Obama and Gen. Stanley McChrystal?
Not much. Neither wants to destroy the Taliban -- just tamp it down to the point where an as-yet non-existent Afghan state can function. Which is why -- prediction time -- McChrystal won't quit when Obama gives him fewer forces than McChrystal is asking for.
McChrystal's assessment frankly states that what the general calls his "new strategy" -- an intensification of "population protection" at the expense of "force protection" -- is his top priority, not increased troop levels. But this strategy is ignored in the debate, and certainly by most conservatives, who only emphasize the need to "give the general the forces he needs to win." What it is that McChrystal actually wants to win -- namely, the support of the Afghan people -- is rarely mentioned.
And how to win that Afghan support? The man has a plan. It amounts to a taxpayer-funded, military-implemented bribery scheme. As the New York Times' Dexter Filkins recently put it: "McChrystal's plan is a blueprint for an extensive American commitment to build a modern state in Afghanistan, where one has never existed. ... Even under the best of circumstances, this effort would most likely last many more years, cost hundreds of billions of dollars and entail the deaths of many more American women and men. And that's if it succeeds. "
In other words, the Afghan "surge" under consideration is for "nation-building," not war-making. But guess what? The United States of America already tried building a modern state in Afghanistan -- or, at least, building a state of modernity in Afghanistan -- and it just didn't stick. And this was no fly-by-night operation. University of Indiana professor Nick Cullather describes the 30-plus years of sustained U.S. development in Afghanistan as "an `integrated' development scheme, with education, industry, agriculture, medicine, and marketing under a single controlling authority" -- a massive dam project known as the Helmand Valley Authority. As historian Arnold Toynbee observed in 1960: "The domain of the Helmand Valley Authority has become a piece of America inserted into the Afghan landscape." And from the project's beginning in 1946 -- designed by Morrison Knudson, builder of Hoover Dam, the Golden Gate Bridge and Cape Canaveral -- to 1979 when it ended, there was no Taliban "insurgency" complicating the social work of nation-building.
But this crucial episode of U.S.-Afghan history has been erased from national consciousness, pricked only by the odd remember-when news story. Of course, these historic U.S. efforts in Helmand Province -- the Taliban-spawning, opium region into which 4,000 U.S. Marines "surged" this summer -- have themselves been erased from Afghanistan, which may explain the amnesia.
Still, for nation-building utopians such as Gen. McChrystal, those from Left to Right who see different peoples and cultures as interchangeable markers on a game board, reality never tempers the fanaticism. A blind faith empowers believers both to see their utopian visions and to block out the reasons they can never materialize -- in this case, the specifically Islamic reasons (Sharia) Afghanistan can neither serve nor fulfill Western ends.
A similar blindness afflicted the Soviets in the USSR's war on Afghan "insurgents." Christopher Andrew, citing KGB archives smuggled out of the USSR by Vasili Mitrokhin in "The World Was Going Our Way," writes: "Islam became the unifying bond of opposition to the (Afghan Communist Party) and its Soviet backers. Afghan resistance to the regime was thus transformed into a jihad in defense of Islam whose significance was grossly underestimated by the KGB. None of the reports noted by Mitrokhin even mention the threat of jihad..." -- a point I have made about the McChrystal assessment, among all too many other U.S. policy documents.
Once again, here lies the fatal flaw in our strategy. Like the doomed Soviets, the United States and its Western allies ignore the threat of jihad, a threat now on a global level unimagined in 1979 when Soviet tanks rolled into Kabul. "We miniaturize the challenge," writes Andrew C. McCarthy at National Review Online. "Thus, the war is said only to be in Afghanistan. The 'challenge' is framed as isolating a relative handful (of extremists) rather than confronting the fact that tens of millions of Muslims despise the West." And even worse, the fact that tens of millions of Muslims work to assuage their feelings by following and imposing Islamic law across the West.
In other word, nation-building in the Islamic world is a distraction from nation-saving in the Western one.