GELFAND'S WORLD - There is an old cult movie called Red Dawn. The United States wakes up to find that it has been taken over by the Russian army.
A small group of high school kids comes together to wage their own guerilla war against the usurpers. Nobody in the movie has to explain why it is natural to resist foreign occupation. It's obvious. None of us would want to be ruled by an occupying foreign army.
The United States has is own foundational myth (The term "myth" doesn't necessarily mean that anything is untrue, just that the story is accepted as beyond question.) You know, the British king and Parliament ruled over the American colonies without giving us representation and kept their own troops on American soil even though the colonies could not send their own representatives to the British Parliament.
We have a lot of details in our foundational story, but the slogan "no taxation without representation" is a fundamental element of the American grade school educational experience.
We even have a series of amendments to our Constitution that prohibit acts that the occupying Brits engaged in, not the least being their propensity to take over private homes for the use of their soldiers. "Quartering troops in time of peace" was the subject of what we now call the Third Amendment. The right to a trial by jury is another.
Pretty much any country you can think of has a foundational myth that includes resistance against foreign occupiers. Our English one-time rulers? They have the story of Alfred the Great, who fought against Viking invasions, therefore preserving the independence of the island's governments. France? Their foundational story involving the 1789 revolution includes their resistance against numerous foreign powers who sought to reinstate monarchy against a people's revolution.
In his seminal work Weapons and Hope, Freeman Dyson explained why Russia had plenty of reason to fear foreign invasion, considering how many times (going back a thousand years) it had been invaded.
In brief, people don't like being invaded by foreign armies and they don't like being occupied by a foreign army. It is a central observation in foreign affairs. It's curious that the subject never seems to have been brought up by George W Bush and his advisers. One of them even claimed that the people of Iraq would welcome the American army with open arms. Perhaps, in spite of all their pious posturing, they forgot that the foundational story in the Old Testament is about relief from tyranny by a foreign ruler.
But somehow, this is a principle that doesn't seem to be recognized by American strategists and politicians. American occupation was the Red Dawn for Viet Nam, for Iraq, and lately for Afghanistan. People who disliked their own governments intensely hated the idea of endless foreign occupation even more. I think we have abundant evidence that a fraction of the Afghan population fears and hates the Taliban. But at the same time, a larger fraction (and probably much more represented in the men) dislikes foreign occupation even more.
At some level, it really is that simple.
Here is a region that was invaded and occupied by Alexander, by Tamerlane, by the British, by the Russians (remember the Olympics we didn't go to?) and more recently by NATO forces. Resistance to foreign occupation is built into the Afghan culture, going back longer than the invasions of Britain that were fought by Alfred the Great.
Self-delusion at an enormous scale
For some reason, the conservative wing in this country managed to convince itself that other countries would relish being occupied by American armed forces. The fantasy seemed to be that we would gradually bring their governments around to mirror our own system. Afghanistan and Viet Nam and Iraq would -- bit by bit -- be recreated in our own image, with competent, democratic, honest central governments. Apparently, the way to do this was to ship crates full of U.S. currency and expect that it would be spent wisely, not to mention fully for the benefit of the common people. It's hard to imagine that level of naivety, but there you are.
Of course, there is another level of naivety in play within this scenario. It is the idea that people will appreciate it when a brutal dictatorship becomes a little less brutal. Interestingly, a book called The True Believer by a longshoreman turned author pointed out that violent revolutions were more likely to happen exactly when governmental repression started to relax. Perhaps Bush and Rumsfeld didn't get that memo.
Observations on the immediate circumstances
Kevin Drum and Andrew Sullivan make some serious points about the events of the past week. They both agree that it was long since time that the United States exited from the occupation. They both point out that an initial period of chaos is inevitable. Sullivan's article is a worthy read for his eloquent style, even if you don't agree with every point.
Kevin Drum hit the nail on the head several days ago when he blamed the debacle on America's military leadership.
"But make no mistake: Civilian policymakers made plenty of mistakes in Afghanistan, but it was the US military that was behind all these failures. They provided bad advice. They failed in their mission. They were never able to understand the country they were occupying. This is the story that needs to be written."
Here is Kevin's take on the fairly obvious fact that Joe Biden did not have a lot of maneuvering room if he really wanted to end the American occupation: Any attempt to start evacuating our Afghan associates would be a signal that we were leaving, and would provoke the immediate fall of the government.
"Here's the reality: Initially, Biden had no choice except to express confidence in the Afghan government and its military. Anything else really would have been a profound betrayal. But the moment he started a panicked evacuation of American and Afghan personnel, the jig was up. That would be an unmistakable signal not just that we were serious about withdrawing, but that we no longer had any confidence in the ability of Ghani and the Afghan military to hold off the Taliban. The collapse of the country would have followed within a day or two, no matter when Biden started the evacuation."
It was all wishful thinking
It's curious that the United States thought that it could go into countries that have lived under monarchies and dictatorships (even if we called them warlords) for a thousand years, and that somehow we would bring them around to becoming liberal democracies. Not only that, but we expected the people of those countries to trust that their newly remade democratic leadership would be acting in good faith. The army took this as their newly defined task, gave it various terms -- hearts and minds, asymmetric warfare -- and promised our political leaders that they would get right on it. They just needed more troops and more money and more time. Joe Biden, and Donald Trump both decided that they had had time enough.
(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected])