Premier US Establishment Newspaper
Allows Discussion of the Folly of Imperialist War
Joe Lauria / Consortium News
(August 21, 2021) — An extraordinary news analysis in The New York Times on Saturday called the US war in Afghanistan a “neocolonialist adventure.”
The admission is startling for the establishment newspaper, which is usually in the business of covering up or justifying US military interventions around the world.
The piece, by Times reporter Adam Nossiter, said:
“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. Recent history shows it is foolish for Western powers to fight wars in other people’s lands, despite the temptations.” [You can read the complete article below — EAW]
The piece even quotes Mao Tse-Tung, and not only identifies the US’s two-decade intervention in Afghanistan as a lost cause “doomed to fail” from the start, but goes on to criticize imperialist war in general:
“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.”
That a Times reporter might privately harbor these thoughts is not out of the ordinary. But that the paper would allow him to print such a thing is.
Notably, the piece was labelled a news analysis, and not an opinion piece, putting the Times news department behind it.
French troops march with local soldiers before leaving Vietnam.
De Gaulle’s Warning
The piece notes that French President Charles de Gaulle tried to convince President John Kennedy not to get the US involved in Vietnam, after France’s failed colonialist war there:
“Long before, at the very beginning of the ‘misadventure,’ in 1961, President John F. Kennedy had been warned off Vietnam by no less an authority than Charles de Gaulle. ‘I predict that you will sink step by step into a bottomless military and political quagmire, however much you spend in men and money,’ de Gaulle, the French president, later recalled telling Kennedy.
The American ignored him. 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.’”
That is the lesson learned by de Gaulle in Vietnam and Algeria that the US did not understandand led them foolishly to believe that spending $83 billion to train and equip a 330,000-Afghan army would hold off the Taliban.
The Times analysis said the US “defeat” in Afghanistan was all the more surprising because “the decades preceding the millennium had been suffused with talk of the supposed ‘lessons’ of Vietnam.”
It quotes the late Senator Mike Mansfield in the late 1970s who told a radio interviewer about Vietnam: “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.”
April 18,1991: Demolished vehicles line the “Highway of Death.”
The defeat in Vietnam, the Watergate scandal and the revelations about US intelligence misdeeds and corruption in the Church Committee and other congressional investigations in the 1970s put American militarists on their heels.
It would not be until 1991, 16 years after defeat in Southeast Asia, that the US was confident enough to launch a large-scale invasion of a foreign nation. At the time of the First Gulf War President George H.W. Bush declared that the “Vietnam syndrome” was defeated.
He said: “The specter of Vietnam has been buried forever in the desert sands of the Arabian Peninsula…. By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.” The “syndrome” was the crisis among American rulers of their imperial project derailed by defeat in Vietnam.
Given that most of corporate media is decrying the latest US defeat, it is way too early, based on this one Times article, to say the newspaper channeling America’s ruling class interests is turning against US imperial adventures. That it acknowledges Afghanistan was indeed an imperial adventure, and not a justified war to bring democracy, is significant.
One might hope that though the “lessons of Vietnam” were ignored, the “lessons of Afghanistan” will be learned and an Afghan Syndrome might last longer. At the very least, those notions are being allowed to be discussed.
Joe Lauria is editor-in-chief of Consortium News and a former UN correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, and numerous other newspapers. He was an investigative reporter for the Sunday Times of London and began his professional work as a stringer for The New York Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @unjoe
An Afghan security forces outpost on the edge of Kunduz in July.Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times
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 US intervention was doomed from the start
Adam Nossiter / The New York Times
(August 21, 2021) — It was 8 a.m. and the sleepy Afghan sergeant stood at what he called the front line, one month before the city of Kunduz fell to the Taliban. An unspoken agreement protected both sides. There would be no shooting.
That was the nature of the strange war the Afghans just fought, and lost, with the Taliban.
President Biden and his advisers say the Afghan military’s total collapse proved its unworthiness, vindicating the American pullout. But the extraordinary melting away of government and army, and the bloodless transition in most places so far, point to something more fundamental.
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.
Recent history shows it is foolish for Western powers to fight wars in other people’s lands, despite the temptations. Homegrown insurgencies, though seemingly outmatched in money, technology, arms, air power and the rest, are often better motivated, have a constant stream of new recruits, and often draw sustenance from just over the border.
Outside powers are fighting one war as visitors — occupiers — and their erstwhile allies who actually live there, something entirely different. In Afghanistan, it was not good versus evil, as the Americans saw it, but neighbor against neighbor.
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.
Each time the intervening power in all these places announced that the homegrown insurgency had been definitively beaten, or that a corner had been turned, smoldering embers led to new conflagrations.
Afghan children play on the remains of an old Soviet tank.
The Americans thought they had defeated the Taliban by the end of 2001. They were no longer a concern. But the result was actually far more ambiguous.
“Most had essentially melted away, and we weren’t sure where they’d gone,” wrote Brig. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, as quoted by the historian Carter Malkasian in a new book, “The American War in Afghanistan.”
In fact, the Taliban were never actually beaten. Many had been killed by the Americans, but the rest simply faded into the mountains and villages, or across the border into Pakistan, which has succored the movement since its inception.
By 2006, they had reconstituted sufficiently to launch a major offensive. The end of the story played out in the grim and foreordained American humiliation that unfolded over the past week — the consecration of the US military loss.
“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 superpower’s two-decade entanglement and ultimate defeat was all the more surprising in that the America of the decades preceding the millennium had been suffused with talk of the supposed “lessons” of Vietnam.
The dominant one 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,” Mansfield told a radio interviewer. “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.”
Long before, at the very beginning of the “misadventure,” in 1961, President John F. Kennedy had been warned off Vietnam by no less an authority than Charles de Gaulle. “I predict that you will sink step by step into a bottomless military and political quagmire, however much you spend in men and money,” de Gaulle, the French president, later recalled telling Kennedy.
Six Harrier jets were destroyed and two damaged in Taliban attack.
The American ignored him. 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.”
By 1968, American generals were arguing that the North Vietnamese had been “whipped,” as one put it. The problem was, the enemy refused to recognize that it had been defeated, and went right on fighting, as the foreign policy analysts James Chace and David Fromkin observed in the mid-1980s. The Americans’ South Vietnamese ally, meanwhile, was corrupt and had little popular support.
The same unholy trinity of realities — boastful generals, an unbowed enemy, a feeble ally — could have been observed at all points during the US engagement in Afghanistan.
Kennedy should have listened to de Gaulle. The French president, unlike his American counterparts then and later, distrusted the generals and would not listen to their blandishments, despite being France’s premier military hero.
He was at that moment extricating France from a brutal eight-year colonial war in Algeria, against the fervent wishes of his top officers and the European settlers there who wanted to maintain the more than century-old colonial rule. His generals argued, rightly, that the interior Algerian guerrilla resistance had been largely smashed.
But de Gaulle had the wisdom to see that the fight was not over.
Massed at Algeria’s borders was what the insurgents called the “army of the frontiers,” later the Army of National Liberation, or A.L.N., which became today’s A.N.P., or National People’s Army, still the dominant element in Algerian political life.
“What motivated de Gaulle was they still had an army on the frontiers,” said Benjamin Stora, the leading historian of the Franco-Algerian relationship. “So the situation was frozen, militarily. De Gaulle’s reasoning was, if we maintain the status quo, we lose a lot.” He pulled the French out in a decision that still torments them.
A soldier burdened with gear in Afghanistan.
The A.L.N. chief, later Algeria’s most important post-independence leader, Houari Boumediène, incarnated strains in the Algerian revolution — dominating strains — that will be familiar to Taliban watchers: religion and nationalism. The Islamists later turned against him over socialism. But the mass outpouring of popular grief at Boumediène’s funeral in 1978 was genuine.
Boumediène’s hold on the people emanated from his own humble origins and his tenacity against the hated French occupier. Those elements help explain the Taliban’s virtually seamless infiltration across Afghan territory in the weeks and months preceding this week’s final victory.
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.
“There is resistance to girls’ education in many rural communities in Afghanistan,” a Human Rights Watch report noted soberly last year. And outside provincial capitals, even in the north, it is rare to see women not wearing the burqa.
This is why for years the Taliban have been dispensing justice, often brutally, in the areas they have controlled, with the acquiescence — even the acceptance — of the local populations. Disputes over property and cases of petty crime are adjudicated expeditiously, sometimes by religious scholars — and these courts have a reputation for “incorruptibility” compared with the former government’s rotten system, Human Rights Watch wrote.
American soldiers boarding a helicopter in Afghanistan
It is a system focused on punishment, often harsh. And despite the Taliban’s protestations this week of forgiveness for those who served the now defunct Afghan administration, they have not shown anything like tolerance in the past. The group’s system of clandestine prisons, housing large numbers of soldiers and government workers, inspired fear in local populations all over Afghanistan.
The Taliban leader, Mullah Abdul Gani Baradar, was reported to have received an enthusiastic welcome when he returned this week to the southern city of Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban. That should be another element of reflection for the superpower which, 20 years ago, felt it had no choice but to respond with its military to the crimes of Sept. 11.
For Mr. Malkasian, the 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.”
Related: Understand the Taliban Takeover
Who are the Taliban? The Taliban arose in 1994 amid the turmoil that came after the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including floggings, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more on their origin story and their record as rulers.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.