The big picture behind the Wikileaks Afghan War Diary

by: Paul Rosenberg

Tue Jul 27, 2010 at 10:31


On July 5, Robert Cruikshank, aka "Robert in Monterey" aka "eugene", wrote a diary at Dkos, "We Were Right", about the folly of Afghanistan War.  It began thus:

Nearly 9 years ago, on a late September afternoon in 2001, I joined maybe 150 other people at Westlake Center in Seattle to protest the looming war in Afghanistan.

It felt like screaming into the wind. Most passersby looked at us as if we had two heads. Others shouted at us, calling us traitors or terrorist-lovers. A few times a pickup truck with a big American flag on a pole mounted in the bed drove by and shouted at us. And this was in a city that, just a year and a half later, saw over 100,000 people march against the Iraq War.

The protest accomplished nothing. We didn't stop the invasion from happening or change many minds at all about the Afghanistan conflict. But as the war grinds on after 9 years, and as it becomes clear that it has been a failure, it's worth re-examining why we were right to protest it....

It was obvious to me that an invasion of Afghanistan would lead to a long-term occupation that would resemble the ill-fated Soviet invasion and occupation of the late 1970s and 1980s, and would needlessly kill Americans and Afghans alike.

Further, it seemed that an invasion of Afghanistan, as opposed to a surgical strike designed to capture bin Laden, would solidify a militaristic response to terrorism and open the door to future military adventures. Even I didn't imagine that Bush really would seek to invade Iraq, not in September 2001, even though it was already being planned - but that was how it played out, with the apparently "successful" invasion of Afghanistan softening the public to the big enchilada, the Iraq War.

Everything Robert wrote was true. But there was more.  And the Wikileaks "Afghan War Diary" helps us understand the big picture, not so much by providing radically new information, but simply by documenting what was clearly inevitable at the time to those knowledgeable about the region.

To a very large extent, the most important thing about the diary is that it serves to underscore some basic truths, the denial of which have been central to our entire mindset and strategic framework of assumptions since 9/11. Three things in particular are significant:

Paul Rosenberg :: The big picture behind the Wikileaks Afghan War Diary
(1) Southwest Asian politics are incredibly complex, and have very little to do with American interests. Our so-called "friends" are often working against us, and our "enemies" often hate each other far more than they even think about us. 9/11 provided only a very limited window of opportunity to cut through this tangle of interests--which we utterly squandered almost immediately.  In particular:
  • The Pakistani ISI has long-standing ties to the Taliban, based on hostility to India, and the perceived need to secure Afghanistan in case of an attempted Indian invasion.  Consequently, they could be enlisted in an effort to crush al Qaeda.  They could not be reliably enlisted in an effort to crush the Taliban.

  • Al Qaeda and the Taliban are two distinct groups.  The former is nomadic and transnational, and could have been targetted and taken out.  The later is indigenous, and like almost all such indigenous forces it is replenished by "counterinsurgent" neo-colonial warfare that kills significant numbers of innocent civilians.

  • Iraq had nothing to do with any of this, and was, in fact, deeply hostile to al Qaeda as well as Iran.

(2) "Patriotic" news coverage actually hides the complex reality of both war and politics in the region, making it utterly impossible for us to conduct a reality-based foreign policy.  The greatest strength of democracy is that it forces us to think things through, thus avoiding the sorts of folly are endemic with authoritarian regimes.  By defeating our own democracy, we defeat ourselves.  The dramatic disjuncture between the Wikileaks diary and standard reporting on Afghanistan is indicative of how profoundly so-called "patriotic" news coverage leads us astray.

(3) The top-down war system does not work.  Aside from our own misguided intentions, the biggest impediment to justice for 9/11 was the web of regional interests and tensions, particularly those between rivals such India/Pakistan, Iran/Iraq, and Israel/Palestine.  All of these tensions were exacerbated and exploited by us during the Cold War.  Our top-down logic excused all this, because they were considered as minor side-issues, compared to the One True Battle against the "Evil Empire", which we all to often imagined was behind all of the evil in the world.  (A very popular theory among 1980s conservatives was that the Soviet Union was behind virtually all of the terrorism in the world.)

As I've written about a number of times before, there were two establishment models for how we could have responded to the Soviet threat.  Here's a succinct account from my November 2007 diay, "Where's Obama? Questioning v Reinforcing [Foreign Policy] CW #3 (Political Duality of Rep v Dem 6c)":

The Two Cold Wars: Kenan's and Nitze's

In a remarkable paper, "Kennan's Long Telegram and NSC-68: A Comparative Analysis," East European Quarterly, Vol. 31, no. 4, January 1998, Efstathios T. Fakiolas analyzed two key documents from the formative days of the Cold War.  Kennan's Long Telegram, which first formulated a comprehensive picture of the Soviet threat, and laid the foundations for the doctrine of containment, and NSC-68, the national security directive primarily authored by Paul Nitze, which formed the blueprint for how the US fought the Cold War throughout most of its duration.

Fakiolas used the framework of foreign policy realism for his analysis, but he determined that the two documents employed significantly different models within that tradition.  Although they seemed to many people to be kindred documents, Fakiolas uncovers striking differences.  I'm going to do a separate diary delving deeper into his argument, but the bottom line for us now is this:  Kennan's Long Telegram and Nitze's NSC-68 appear similar, they depend on different models of international relations within the same realist tradition.

Kennan relied on the "tectonic plates" model, in which there many other non-state actors, the world is not "zero-sum," and there is often opportunity for mutual cooperation.  Nitze relied on the billiard ball model, which sees the international system as "composed solely of egoistic sovereign states interested in maximizing their relative power capabilities at the expense of others," and sees "world politics is a 'zero-sum' game in which national security conceived of in military and territorial terms is the one and only states' national objective."

As a result, Kennan favored a strategy of containment that emphasized strengthening the West socially, economically and culturally, addressing its flaws which the Soviets exposed.  In contrast, Nitze ignored issues of the Wests internal flaws, and focused almost exclusively on military force to combat the Soviet Union.

It's my own observation, based on this analysis, that we fought Nitze's Cold War, but we won Kennan's.  It was not, in the end, our military strength that defeated the Soviet Union, it was the appeal of our culture of openness and freedom.  The history of Eastern European resistance movements, especially in Checkoslavakia and Poland, makes this abundantly clear.  Through their influence on dissident culture, Frank Zappa and Lou Reed did more to win the Cold War than any division of tanks ever did-or even a wing of nuclear armed B-52 bombers.

Kennan's model "strengthening the West socially, economically and culturally, addressing its flaws which the Soviets exposed" would have strongly emphasized a truly collaborative approach toward all of the conflicting parties in the region.  By serving as an exemplar in our own conduct, as well as a pragmatic problem-solver with respect to the most challenging foreign relations problems they faced, we could have firmly aligned all the nations in the region with us and against the Soviets, while strengthening their domestic institutions, either preventing the emergence of terrorism in the first place, or failing that, making it far easier for us to respond to 9/11 by effectively targetting those directly responsible, without getting bogged down in wide-ranging regional conflicts and political tensions.

These are, in my estimate, the three most significant big picture lessons to be learned from the Wikileaks "Afghan War Diary".   They are not the only lessons, of course.  But if we could only learn these three lessons, that would go an enormously long way toward finally putting us on a pathway to long-term success in dealing with the ever-more complicated world we live in.


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Excellent diary (0.00 / 0)
Yes, if we could just have a grown-up reality-based foreign policy instead of a foreign policy based on the elementary-school-bully or evil-empire "reality" that seems to underlie neo-con thinking. Just because the neo-cons are psychopaths does not mean that everyone else in the world is too. Most people in the world are just trying to lead their lives, not trying to figure out how to dominate the world and kill anyone who gets in their way.

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