I was about to write that there can be no military solution to the war in Afghanistan, only a political one. But I almost fainted with boredom and had to stop. Who, as President Obama lengthily ponders his decisions regarding the war, wants to repeat a point that’s been made 11,000 times before? Is there anyone on earth who doesn’t know by now that you can’t win a guerrilla war without winning the “hearts and minds” of the people? The American public has known this since the American defeat in Vietnam. The formerly colonized peoples of the Third World, whose hearts and minds were the ones contested, know it. American officialdom knows it. (In a recent New Yorker profile by George Packer of Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s envoy to the so-called Af-Pak region, Leslie Gelb, who worked in the Pentagon in the 1960s, recalled, “Changing hearts and minds–all the smart young men thought that.”) Today, even the general in charge in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, now asking for 40,000 or more troops, knows it. He can read all about it in the new Army counterinsurgency manual produced by his boss, Centcom commander Gen. David Petraeus. There he can learn that “political factors have primacy in COIN [counterinsurgency]” and that “arguably, the decisive battle is for the people’s minds.”
But if one has repeated this point anyway (as I have, by a backdoor route), then one must go on to make the rather newer point that there is no political solution that serves the foreign invader either. The problem is structural and fundamental. Like the imperial powers of the past, the United States wants to impose its will on other countries. Yet it is different from those previous powers in at least one respect: it does not aim to rule the countries it invades indefinitely. Conscious that the American public will not support war without end, it means to leave one day. Therefore the art of victory has to be to try to set up a government that can both survive US withdrawal and serve US interests. The circle to be squared is getting the people of a whole country to want what Washington wants. The trouble is that, left to their own devices, other peoples are likely to want what they want, not what we want.
One problem flowing from this dilemma is that the more the United States does to set up such a government, the more the “Afghans themselves” (or the Vietnamese themselves or the Iraqis themselves or the whoevers themselves) are tainted by the association. If the paradox of military engagement in such a conflict is that the more you fight the more you lose, then the paradox of political engagement is that the more you rule the weaker the native component of the government becomes, and the more likely it is to collapse when you leave, as the South Vietnamese government did in 1975. That is scarcely a new point, either. For instance, as far back as 1964, Senator Richard Russell said in a phone conversation with President Lyndon Johnson, “It appears that our position is deteriorating, and it looks like the more we try to do for them, the less they’re willing to do for themselves.” (Holbrooke reprised the point to Packer when he commented on the Afghan government, “The more help they need, the more dependent they get…. In Vietnam, that’s exactly what happened.”)