In my last post, I mentioned the latest report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). Nobody who’s been reading his reports for the past dozen or so years could ever have had any doubt about the folly of American policy in Afghanistan. But one can give the Americans credit for something: their political system not only allows, but actually employs someone who has the specific mandate to spend his time revealing all his employer’s follies.
This doesn’t mean that anybody will be held account for their mistakes , but at least the American system provides for a certain degree of transparency, without which learning lessons from past errors is impossible. Unfortunately, we’re not nearly as transparent here in Canada, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be. Overall, all the countries involved in the Afghan fiasco need to engage in some serious reflection, which in turn requires a fair degree of openness and a willingness to listen to unpleasant truths.
So, let’s think about what now needs to be done but, of course, almost certainly won’t be.
The first thing that is needed is that serious reflection I mentioned. A failure on the magnitude of the American/NATO mission in Afghanistan requires a major effort to discover what went wrong and learn appropriate lessons. This might seem to be blindingly obvious, but it needs reiterating. For too often, in the face of disaster, the response of our leaders takes the form of what one might call “let’s move on-ism.” As Tony Blair said after the Iraq war had gone horribly wrong: “I know a large part of the public want to move on. … I share that view.” Rather than reflect on the past and draw appropriate lessons, the tendency is to pretend that it was all a bad dream and that nothing happened. It’s not surprising that we keep repeating the same mistakes.
Reflection alone, however, is not enough. One has to reflect on the right things. The danger is that people will insist on learning not just the wrong lessons but the wrong type of lessons – in other words, they will seek tactical and operational lessons, but strategic ones; they’ll try to learn how to do things better, not consider whether they ought to be doing them at all.
This is a particular issue for military people, as they are by nature ‘how’ people not ‘why’ people. Give them a problem and their natural reaction is to ask ‘how do I do this?’ not ‘why am I doing this?’ or even ‘Should I be doing this in the first place?’ But it’s not just a military problem. In his book The Origins of the Third World War, American sociologist C. Wright Mills pointed a finger of blame at what he called “crackpot realism.” This, he said, was the prevailing mode of thinking of the “power elite”, who are in essence technocratic incrementalists. That’s to say that they are very good at fiddling with existing systems in an effort to improve them; but they never stop to consider the system as a whole.
As I think I’ve said before, crackpot realism is like the inverse of a Monet painting: that’s to say that whereas a Monet painting makes no sense close up but perfect sense from a distance, crackpot realism is utterly logical close up, but crazy when viewed from afar. It’s like Mutual Assured Destruction – theories of strategic nuclear war were perfectly logical, with each step following logically from the last; but when you stood back and looked at it as a whole, it was, quite literally, MAD.
So, we need to avoid crackpot realism, that is to say avoid thinking about fiddling with the system rather than tackling the system itself. When considering “lessons learned” from Afghanistan, we shouldn’t therefore be thinking in terms of how one should conduct such interventions better. We should be considering the fundamental assumptions that lie behind such interventions. Do we have the power to change the world in accordance with our desires? Does intervention makes things better or worse? Should we base our foreign policy on ideology, human rights and all the rest of it? In short, should be we even be doing this stuff? And beyond that, we need to ask questions such as whether a “liberal” international order is an objective that we should be pursuing.
Such questioning will inevitably meet fierce resistance. To face it, we need accountability, which in turn, as I said above, requires openness. Every country involved in the Afghan debacle should do a thorough investigation with the aim of answering key questions. These include: Why did the government get involved? Who gave ministers what advice? Who, in other words, suggested to them that this could work? Who were the journalists, think tankers, and pundits who backed the war in the pages of the press and on TV? Were ministers, generals, political advisors, aid workers, journalists, and others honest with the public? Or did they cover up the true situation in order to win public support for the mission?
In an article in today’s Ottawa Citizen, defence correspondent David Pugliese notes that the Canadian government was repeatedly warned, from an early date, that the mission in Afghanistan was likely to end in disaster. But our political and military leaders chose to ignore the warnings. Pugliese reports how when Liberal Senator Colin Kenny said that, “We are hurtling toward a Vietnam ending,” then Brigadier General (later Chief of the Defence Staff) Jonathan Vance rebuked him for his “uninformed” opinion. Senior officials and generals lined up to say that the Taliban “were on the verge of defeat”. Pugliese notes:
“Over the course of the war, the Canadian public, as well as citizens of other countries, were subjected to one of the most intense government propaganda campaigns since the Second World War. The message pushed the claim that Afghanistan was a success story. … Embedded journalists produced thousands of positive articles. Editorials supported the war effort. A few … raised questions about the mission. They were called traitors.”
Pugliese points our attention to an important fact. A fiasco like Afghanistan doesn’t just happen. It’s made possible by a host of facilitators who fashion public support for it. And that brings us to the final thing we need to do: question how this is possible. How is it that in supposedly democratic societies, with a “free press”, governments can manipulate the media in such a fashion?
These questions force us to consider the makeup of the media, its independence, and its diversity. And here we need to face a harsh reality. In the current climate of fear generated by talk of “disinformation,” “fake news,” and foreign “influence operations,” we are being led to believe that more must be done to clamp down on independent voices. But the problem we face is not that there are too many people out there challenging the “truth” but rather that there are far too few. Critics often scoff at RT’s motto “Question More”, seeing it as encouraging cranks to muddy the waters and create a “post-truth” world. But, we do need to “question more”, and to do it we need more diversity in our media, not less.
To summarize, the Afghan debacle requires us:
- To reflect.
- To reflect about strategy not tactics, about fundamentals not superficialities.
- To expose the truth
- To hold those responsible to account; and finally:
- To reform our media landscape.
What’s the chance that we’ll do any of that?
What’s the chance that I’ll win the lottery?
I think you know the answers.