Corey: What Afghanistan (Should) Mean to Us

Scott Corey writes a guest op-ed for IC:

The Afghanistan debate is mired in the very shortcomings that have kept us from doing well there up to now. We need a qualitative shift of policy, but we dither about metrics and troop levels. We ask ourselves if we should “get out” as if there is somewhere to go that is out of range. Meanwhile, our enemies control the political meaning of everything we do. We need to take that control away from them, and that requires us to know our world, our enemy, and this struggle.

Today, power is so diffuse that empire and isolation are equally dead. Control of information, money, natural resources, and ideological persuasiveness all move parts of the political world. Still, all of it hangs on a framework of formal authority residing in a collection of states that wield force, legitimacy, representation, and diplomacy.

Terrorism prospers in the complexity of this political world. Political identity is no longer simple and fixed, so friend and enemy are hard to know. If I hit you, we fight, because the enmity is clear. If I coerce you with weapons, you might be intimidated or you might defy me, but the choice is clear. However, if I kill someone else in a spectacular manner, you need to know why before you can react. My cause might be just. My enemy might be your enemy. Or I might be coming for you and yours if you take the wrong path.

So “terrorist” is not just a dirty word for your enemy. Terrorism exists and has character that can be understood and fought. Using violence to raise uncertainty in an audience is terrorism. It earns the terrorist the authority to relieve that uncertainty about who will be killed and why. Making “war” on terrorism is usually just an attempt to build authoritarian power on the back of someone else’s atrocities. If the terrorist is demonic, the pretended savior can claim to justify methods drawn from “the dark side.”

Terrorism is strong because it is indirect. It appears to attack one group in order to persuade a different group. On the other hand, terrorism is weak because it is so often hypocritical. In the French Revolution, the vast majority of guillotine victims were commoners executed as “aristocrats.” In the Algerian Revolution, the bombings mostly killed Arab Muslims in the name of evicting French colonialism. The audience really is the victim, but does not see that truth.

Thus, terrorism (from above or from below) is different from ordinary coercion because it depends less upon credible threats than viable lies. It gets away with these lies because the terrorist establishes control over what people think the violence means. This control can be so strong that it dominates the thinking of friend and foe alike. It took 200 years of research to reveal that the French Revolution was not a class war.

This is where we are in Afghanistan and the struggle with Muslim radicalism generally. Muslim terrorists are seeking a level of authority over Islam that no one has exercised since the Prophet Muhammad. Muslims die from Muslim radical violence in vastly greater numbers than do Americans. All the ramblings about destroying the West or creating a global caliphate are just background noise. The biggest debate al Qaeda ever had was whether to attack the US at all.

That attack on America transformed a band of fewer than 400 militants into global rebels because the US embraced the imperial role al Qaeda cut out for us. Yet there is no serious, ongoing attempt to overthrow the West. The true goal of the radicals is shown in the brutal rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Swat region of Pakistan. It showed itself in parts of Iraq controlled by the al Qaeda affiliate there.

No movement of US troops (or drones) into or out of Central Asia will help in this struggle as long as the radicals control what our coming and going means to the Islamic world. If we stay we are imperialist, if we leave we are defeated. To succeed, we must take control of the meaning of the struggle.

The only viable posture is a self-limited commitment. This is a struggle within Islam. We are useful victims, and we have a right to hit back. But we are neither the political audience, nor the group that will most suffer under the rule of Muslim radicalism if it wins. Our military power can only be effective if it is explicitly expeditionary, not imperial. We must say that, and prove it, at every opportunity.

Promise Afghanistan two years of major combat support. Proud local rebels who only want us out need only wait – no point in being killed over the inevitable. If the radicals want to come after us without a recruiting pool in the Afghan villages, they are welcome to take the unreplaced casualties. The Afghan government has two years to be viable, or it will be thrown to the wolves, and Afghanistan will revert to the status of international shooting gallery. In the meantime, the better it does, the better we do.

Such a posture is credible. We were deeply involved in Afghanistan against the Soviets, and we left then, and we are leaving Iraq now. It is sustainable, because it matches how the American public sees our legitimate use of force in the world. It makes our point about who we are and what the terrorists really want, no matter how well Kabul fares down the road. It puts our allies on notice – we can give many forms of ongoing help, but when it comes to military force our help comes tailored to a sink or swim world of independent states, and we are not afraid to invade a place twice if we need to do so.

There will be fighting, but this is not a war. It is a violent argument and it is a race. The argument is about whether the US is an imperial foe, or a tough friend, of the Islamic world. The race is to get Kabul to rebuild its power on its own people, not our might. If we lose the race, Afghans suffer. If we try to make this an open-ended war, we lose the argument. Should that happen, the next generation of Muslims may justly curse us for abetting the oppressive radical movement that prospered when we were strong, but not wise.

Scott Corey

Scott Corey has a PhD in Political Science from UC Berkeley, and did his dissertation on political violence. He now works at a small non-profit crisis center in the Sierra Nevada.

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12 Responses

  1. The problem is that the US is an empire, disdainful and contemptuous of its subjects, even of its willing vassals. And who can act contrary to his nature? If people could learn to act contrary to what they are, then would they be going back to Vietnam in Afghanistan like a dog returning to his vomit?

    With nations as with individuals, change happens only when we face up to what we really are and really do, just like in Alcoholics Anonymous. And the US is nowhere near looking at itself in the mirror of how others see us, or of how we would act if others did to us what we feel entitled to do to them.

  2. This is really, really excellent. It appears to me that since 2001, the US has lost its vision. Suddenly, the neo-cons took over, expanded the footprint of military bases world-wide and hijacked what most Americans, I believe, think their country should be. Imperium was not it. Yet after eight years of war in Afghanistan, the fretting over whether the US is losing its dominance over everyone is the topic of both right and left.

    Before the elections of 2000, the dominance everyone discussed was economic. The Imperium promoted and supported by the Bush/Cheney clique not only destroyed the economic strength of the country, but its standing and even military strength.

    If you asked the American people whether they really want to be an empire with legions guarding the walls as depicted on(2001 or 2002 I think) the Economist cover, I suspect the answer would be "no".

    This type of discussion is exactly what should be happening now, but doesn't seem to be unless within the White House.

  3. Muslim terrorists are seeking a level of authority over Islam that no one has exercised since the Prophet Muhammad.

    You have the problem of this article right there. The base is simple Orientalism: presenting the Muslim enemy as a monolithic autocratic power. Quite a wrong interpretation of al-Qa'ida.

    And who is Scott Corey anyway? Why does he merit a space?

  4. .
    Reading Scott Corey's piece, I think to myself: that's obvious.

    I think it is a sign of his brilliance as a writer, and as a thinker, that I feel I could have reached the same conclusions, if only I'd done the same research.
    .

  5. I agree with one point Scott makes. We are being manipulated and we need to set the terms. However, I disagree with his solution. As long as the terms remain 'war' and the solution is violence on our part, they are setting the terms and defining the solution. It doesn't matter whether our commitment in Afghanistan is bounded or indefinite when we are already moving on to Pakistan.

    It is clear that our presence increases the level of civilian casualties, social disruption and destruction of infrastructure. So, why stay 2 years to support a corrupt puppet government if we are only going to drop them off the edge at the end of 2 years. It might be different if that corrupt puppet government was capable of defending itself like the one in Egypt, different for us if not the Afghan people. But it isn't. Predictions are that it won't be capable of self defense in 2 years either.

    We can't set the terms because we haven't been able to decide what we want for Afghanistan, much less determine how to achieve it. What we want is a safe place for an oil pipeline that their government will pick our pipeline rather than the one the SCO (think Russia and China) is planning. Because our strategy is as self centered as our goal, I don't think it can hope to succeed without an indefinite commitment of force.

    If we want to create a stable government in a peaceful country where the people can make decisions for themselves, what we need to do is get serious about winning hearts and minds with construction and social projects. Sure, the Taliban will attack them. Now there's a use for our military. Defend the builders and the children going to school. Start in a small area and expand the perimeter. Persevere with this for 10 or 15 years and the children will grow up and join the civilized world rather than the Taliban. That's the only way to achieve a sustainable victory.

    Of course, after all that, who knows whose oil pipeline they will choose to support. But at least we won't have to worry about them coming over to bomb us. And maybe, if we could behave in a civilized manner ourselves, it wouldn't matter by then who controls the pipe. Call me a Utopian, but if we don't learn to think this way, we are in for a very rough ride.

  6. What a lot of rubbish. The US is there for its own wants and for that only. If you weren't there the locals would sort out its own problems and the natural balance of power would ensure a natural pace of development and progress. But because you are there and have no idea what you are really doing you create chaos, anxiety and death. Only your exit will help these people.

  7. Beautifully written, Mr. Corey. But quite frankly, imho, quite strange recommendations ref : “The only viable posture is a self-limited commitment. This is a struggle within Islam. We are useful victims. [!] fwiw Our problem is that any policy of "commitment" interpreted as having a military presence means US being as if "occupiers," thus; and they are not existential ‘insurgents’, coming out of nowhere, connected to nothing ~ they are fighting a counter-occupation guerrilla war ~ Their struggle with self-loathing Fundamentalism -vs- constructive, humanist Islam, notwithstanding. Though I, too share your view that the greatest mistake George W. Bush made after 9/11 was to give al Qaeda the narrative of "Global War" that Osama bin Laden so dearly wanted, right now our greatest challenge is not their WAR but figuring out how to unwind our WAR ECONOMY derivative of the Bush/Cheney Administration's catastrophic blunder. And in my opinion spending $7.5 billion USD on "self-limited commitment" = a programme to train Afghan people to kill and incarcerate other Afghan people (pour quoi? so that we don't have to ‘occupy’ them in greater number?) is not a solution to anyone's problem, Over Here or Over There.

  8. Marshall McLuhan with an army, playing stern parent with Afghanistan in the name of U.S. imperialism – ah, excuse me, "expedition." That's what Scott Corey's bombastic, intermittently comprehendable piece amounts to. Add to this, recent fads in Me Generation revisionist history: the French Revolution wasn't really a class war, and the Algerian Revolution was really a war against the masses of Algerians.

    What suprises me is that Juan Cole, after almost daily emphasizing the need to differentiate forces in the region, in particular the various tribes and Taliban factions from al Qaeda, opens his page to someone who shows no evidence of understanding such distinctions, at most treating them as irrelevant to the posture he thinks the U.S. government and military should take.

  9. This is wise, especially on the nature of power in the contemporary era (late modernity, post-modernity, call it what you want — it's characterized by diffusion, fracture, hyper-flows of information, dendritically-tangled social networks). I do wonder about this two year commitment, though; on the one hand, I understand a certain need to avoid falling into the propagandistic rhetorical trap Al Qaeda has forced the West into; on the other hand, is it really in the national interest, when we are almost broke, to expend two more years of blood and treasure in the Hindu Kush (!), as opposed to buying off whom we can, leaving some special ops guys with air power behind, but essentially withdrawing in a conventional sense? I guess my question is — what is the calculus of prestige that will give us its equivalent "worth" in American (and Canadian and British and German and Dutch and French etc.) lives? Isn't this question not a little obscene?
    I believe Mr. Corey's analysis, as I said above, is deeply insightful. I'm less confident in his prescription. Having young Americans bleed and die in pursuit of something as ephemeral as the appearance of not being defeated seems like a misuse of the national resources. Is not Obama a better speaker than bin Laden or Zawahiri? Perhaps he and Hillary and Bill could hammer home this point in speeches around the world, emphasizing the importance of fundamental human decency as embodied in the UN Charter and the community of nations? Meanwhile, we continue to hunt for the several hundred terrorists.
    This is a bit confused and rambling, I know, but our situation is not a clear one. I just keep thinking: was it necessary for tens of thousands of Americans (and many more Vietnamese) to die because Nixon decided to end the war in 1973 rather than 1968? What did these deaths change? For what cause did these people die?

  10. I am grateful to everyone who made the effort to comment on my essay. I will try to respond briefly.

    On "who" I am: I don't have to "be someone" (implying, someone special) to have and offer ideas.

    On the worthiness of the Afghan regime: It suffers from that peculiar corruption bred by the belief that an outside patron cannot afford to cut them off from our military might. So we cut them off, with sufficient warning to allow serious change.

    On US self-interest keeping it from leaving the locals alone: We left them alone too fast once before, but others have not – Pakistani intelligence, Chechnyan exiles, Arab financiers, European drug pushers. Perhaps Afghans deserve a chance to build their capacity to handle some of the meddlers on their own.

    On the refutation of class war being merely trendy: The "cultural" school overthrew structuralist views on the French Revolution in 1989. The "reform" school ascended on the English Revolution, but went too far, I think. On Algeria, see Martha Crenshaw's work. On Central America, Jeff Godwin. This is established scholarship.

    On human decency: I'm for it, but would like more than rhetorical action.

    On "Orientalism": A key premise of the essay is precisely that monolithic authoritarianism is a project of the radicals, not a reality of Islam as it exists. The US cannot ignore being attacked but, if we can get our self-importance in check, we might help push the radical threat out into the light of day by denying them the chance to hide under the shadow of US imperialism.

    On US imperialism: This is also an agenda promoted by a radical few, abetted by the easy arrogance of might. But the US will not finally be an empire while any American who understands what America means can still draw breath.

  11. I agree with Mr. Corey that there is a struggle to define the meaning of violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But the plain fact is that car bombs and drone attacks kill people regardless of whether someone calls it "War on terror" or "insurgency" or "expeditionary force." Were this carnage occurring in Mr. Corey's neighborhood, what would he call it?

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