Each morning when I turn on my computer, I go first to the Times and their opinion section. There I read maybe one essay and mark in my head the others I will want to read later.
Today, amid the usual “Afghanistan Biden Disaster” opinions, I found a remarkably fine, encompassing analysis from the Times’ long-time reporter, Adam Nossiter, now the bureau chief in Kabul.
Maybe my chief irritation with the screeching opinions on our departure from Afghanistan is the narrow, sudden focus, a focus on one instant, one anecdote more often rumor than verified fact, followed by global sweeping predictions, most of which are further filtered through a lifetime of rigid political bent.
But not from Adam Nossiter. Instead, the sweep in his news analysis is recent history, not absurd dire predictions: “America’s Afghan War: A Defeat Foretold? Recent history suggests that it is foolish for Western powers to fight wars in other people’s lands and that the U.S. intervention was almost certainly doomed from the start.”
Among the great gifts of this essay are the chilling photographs of Damon Winters, the Times extraordinary wartime photographer. I looked at them and thought, “This is what it all came to.”
There were a number of Nossiter’s paragraphs that made me take deep breaths. Here are some of them:
The war the Americans thought they were fighting against the Taliban was not the war their Afghan allies were fighting. That made the American war, like other such neocolonialist adventures, most likely doomed from the start.
When it comes to guerrilla war, Mao once described the relationship that should exist between a people and troops. “The former may be likened to water,” he wrote, “the latter to the fish who inhabit it.”
And when it came to Afghanistan, the Americans were a fish out of water. Just as the Russians had been in the 1980s. Just as the Americans were in Vietnam in the 1960s. And as the French were in Algeria in the 1950s. And the Portuguese during their futile attempts to keep their African colonies in the ’60s and ’70s. And the Israelis during their occupation of southern Lebanon in the ’80s.
“In the long run all colonial wars are lost,” the historian of Portugal’s misadventures in Africa, Patrick Chabal, wrote 20 years ago, just as the Americans were becoming fatally embroiled in Afghanistan.
The dominant [lesson learned by Vietnam] was enunciated by the former majority leader of the Senate, Mike Mansfield, in the late 1970s: “The cost was 55,000 dead, 303,000 wounded, $150 billion…It was unnecessary, uncalled-for, it wasn’t tied to our security or a vital interest. It was just a misadventure in a part of the world which we should have kept our nose out of.”
“I predict that you will sink step by step into a bottomless military and political quagmire, however much you spend in men and money,” [Charles] de Gaulle, the French president, later recalled telling [Jack] Kennedy.
…In words that foreshadowed both the Vietnam and Afghan debacles, de Gaulle warned Kennedy: “Even if you find local leaders who in their own interests are prepared to obey you, the people will not agree to it, and indeed do not want you.”
Nossiter follows this by describing De Gaulle’s situation and decision to get out of Algeria, despite massive pressure from his generals and the pieds noirs, the French who lived in Algeria. And then I remembered a movie I never want to see again, Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers. It may have been fiction, but Pontecorvo shot it as if it were a documentary, and it burned my insides out.
The United States thought it was helping Afghans fight an avatar of evil, the Taliban, the running mate of international terrorism. That was the American optic and the American war.
But the Afghans, many of them, were not fighting that war. The Taliban are from their towns and villages. Afghanistan, particularly in its urban centers, may have changed over 20 years of American occupation. But the laws the Taliban promoted — repressive policies toward women — were not so different, if they differed at all, from immemorial customs in many of these rural villages, particularly in the Pashtun south.
Nossiter ends with this:
For [Carter] Malkasian, [a] historian who was himself a former adviser to America’s top commander in Afghanistan, there is a lesson from the experience, but it is not necessarily that America should have stayed away.
“If you have to go in, go in with the understanding that you can’t wholly succeed,” he said in an interview. “Don’t go in thinking, you’re going to solve it, or fix it.”
The lesson I’ve learned is not to listen to advisors to generals, or the generals themselves. There was no having “to go in.” We did not have to.
The next time a provocation hits the headlines, before they declare war our elected leaders should listen to historians — and not military historians. How about real historians who know the history and ethos of a region and its people?
Note: I’ve just spent a half hour trying to find the time when Donald Trump trashed Adam Nossiter, but can’t dig up the reference. However, I’ll stick with my memory here and mention it.