Thursday, June 24, 2010

Why We Can’t Leave Afghanistan

Gen Stanley McChrystal's recent misadventures have been dissected quite enough, I'd say, by people intelligent and well-read enough to make my voice comparatively unnecessary. Excellent write-ups regarding the perilous nature of the Afghan mission and the are available here and here. As I see it, there is simply no way of building a modern liberal democracy in a place like Afghanistan, short of eliminating the local population and colonizing the country with American settlers. The goal of denying a safe haven to Al-Qaeda has already failed. What other justification could possibly exist for continuing this endless war?

While I agree with the general sentiment expressed in the above linked articles, I am, in the spirit of debate for debate's sake, going to present an unpopular argument, beginning with an unusual assertion: the United States of America is an empire. It is an empire in every conceivable definition of the term. This is not a pleasant reality to recognize, if for no other reason than the implied consent that passive recognition seems to entail. Our cultural history is certainly inhospitable to the idea of “empire”. Haven’t we risen above that primal stage of civilization? We like to think that the principles of liberal democracy are antithetical to “empire”. After all, we have a President and a Congress and a Judiciary. No Emperor strolls these marble halls.

Stop lying to yourself. You are a citizen of the grandest and most impressive empire ever to exist in human history. You should be proud. Besides, this isn’t a new phenomenon. We’ve been an empire for a very long time now. We’ve even had colonial holdings: in the Philippines, in Panama, in Cuba, among countless hundreds of insignificant islands scattered across the South Pacific. The westward expansion of the American citizenry in the 19th century and the dislocation of native peoples that it entailed is the very definition of Imperial expansion. The time for the American people to come to terms with the fact of its empire has long since passed.

It is only logical, then, that in order to develop a working understanding of America’s current military misadventures we must view them through the lens of empire, as imperial projects designed by conquerors with hegemonic intentions. Empires are net consumers of resources; as such, they must exist in a state on constant geographical expansion. An empire that fails to conquer will implode on itself. This is what Machiavelli says in his Discourse on Livy, which is good book that you should read.

All that expansion requires an enforcement mechanism: a standing army. Here’s the rub: that standing army actually causes the wars it fights. When a man is isolated from society, his spirit and body broken down and built back up, when he is becomes willing to kill at command and feels no moral reservations to doing so, that man has been imbued with the expectation that he will kill. He expects to be used for the purpose for which he was created. Champion thoroughbred racehorses aren’t kept locked in barns. As Madeline Albright put it, what’s the point of having this excellent military of ours if we don’t get to use it? A large standing army turns simple ideological fantasies (damn those commies in Panama, we ought to bomb them!) into feasible reality (Operation Just Cause).

I will now make another unusual assertion, also vital to understanding Iraq and Afghanistan: the United States military is the single largest social welfare program on the planet. It employs a massive number of the least educated and least employable segment of our population-people who would otherwise join the ranks of the un- or underemployed. It provides those individuals with job skills training. It provides the basic necessities for survival, and when it is finished with them they enter the general workforce as well trained, hardworking, disciplined, and highly respected individuals. That is not to say that every grunt in the Army is a dim-witted high school flunky, quite the contrary, a great many American servicemen are incredibly intelligent individuals who turned down other career fields to serve their country. That noble fact does not change the reality that a great many people in the military would have trouble finding comparable employment in the private sector. Likewise, American military spending provides employment to hundreds of thousands of defense industry workers, people who (like those in the military) would be out of jobs if not for our collective insistence upon a global military presence.

Here’s where it all comes together. American freedom is mobility: it is the freedom to buy whatever we want in whatever quantity we want for as low a price as possible. That is the freedom our empire delivers us. Our economic stability is not hampered by our military strength, rather, it is very much a product of that strength, and quite possibly unsustainable (in its current form) without it. The simple fact is that we’re in these wars because the American people demand a minimum living standard that cannot be achieved without the force projection and economic safeguards the wars provide. Afghanistan itself is ungovernable. It shouldn't be a single political entity, and our attempting to create a centrally governed nation-state out of what is essentially a cartographic accident of the previous century's imperial ambitions only serves to create resentment among local populations that know the Taliban will be in Afghanistan long after the United States is forced out. COIN has failed. But that's beside the point. Afghanistan's internal stability is not nearly as important to the United States as having an outlet by which to showcase its military capabilities to potential rivals.

The next time you think about going to an antiwar rally remember one thing: the lifestyle you demand, the lifestyle you flaunt with such blissful mindlessness, is the product of a geopolitical order that is fundamentally imperial in nature and relies on American military force projection for its continuation.

You, average Joe American, make this war necessary through your insistence upon empire and all the benefits that empire confers onto its citizens. You, who do not fight, yet have a clear and defined personal stake in its outcome, through your passivity and your apathy and your unwillingness to adjust your own lifestyle in response to clear revelations of its unsustainability, make this war necessary.

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