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Afghanistan’s Arrow and the Cycle of Imperial Hubris

October 9, 2009

In Aztec cosmology, Venus was associated with the god Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli (Nahuatl for “Lord of the Dawn”). In the mythic tale Legend of the Suns, Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli attempted to shoot the sun with an arrow, but he missed and shot himself instead. The Aztecs had a sophisticated science of astronomy that focused on the movements of Venus and were among the first in the world to calculate that Earth’s nearest neighbor orbited the Sun thirteen times every eight years.
Thirteen Venus cycles ago, then-President Bush shot his own arrow in the form of his Afghanistan invasion and it has now become clear that, just like the Aztec deity, we are the ones who will end up getting hit. Eight years ago this week, while the nation was still in shock over the attacks of September 11th, 2001, “Operation Infinite Justice” was declared. However, the plan was quickly renamed “Operation Enduring Freedom” once it was learned that Muslims view “infinite justice” as something only Allah can provide. This was the first of many misguided moves in a war that still has no end in sight.

While US politicians and the public at large were nearly unanimous in their approval for the invasion, there were important voices that offered a warning (albeit one that went largely unheeded). For example, Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA 9th) voted against the resolution to grant Presidential war powers and became the lone voice of dissent in both houses of Congress. As she explained to her constituents in the San Francisco Chronicle:

It was a blank check to the president to attack anyone involved in the Sept. 11 events — anywhere, in any country, without regard to our nation’s long- term foreign policy, economic and national security interests, and without time limit. In granting these overly broad powers, the Congress failed its responsibility to understand the dimensions of its declaration. I could not support such a grant of war-making authority to the president; I believe it would put more innocent lives at risk.

While few sources in the mainstream media offered any coverage of those who opposed this plan, across the pond in Britain such views had some limited consideration. A powerful example was that of Booker Prize-winning author Arundhati Roy’s essay “The Algebra of Infinite Justice” that appeared in The Guardian newspaper (one of England’s major dailies):

Here’s the rub: America is at war against people it doesn’t know, because they don’t appear much on TV. Before it has properly identified or even begun to comprehend the nature of its enemy, the US government has, in a rush of publicity and embarrassing rhetoric, cobbled together an “international coalition against terror”, mobilized its army, its air force, its navy and its media, and committed them to battle.
The trouble is that once America goes off to war, it can’t very well return without having fought one. If it doesn’t find its enemy, for the sake of the enraged folks back home, it will have to manufacture one. Once war begins, it will develop a momentum, a logic and a justification of its own, and we’ll lose sight of why it’s being fought in the first place.

However, while a few quiet voices could be heard, they were almost entirely drowned out by the war drums. It became the internet and the rising format of social media that was the most prominent platform for alternative views on the invasion. Along with the two essays just cited, one of the most widely circulated pieces came from Jacob Levich writing for the online magazine Common Dreams in his essay “Bush’s Orwellian Address: Happy New Year. It’s 1984.”

Seventeen years later than expected, 1984 has arrived. In his address to Congress Thursday, George Bush effectively declared permanent war — war without temporal or geographic limits; war without clear goals; war against a vaguely defined and constantly shifting enemy. Today it’s Al-Qaida; tomorrow it may be Afghanistan; next year, it could be Iraq…

The fact that such a prescient statement fell on deaf ears says a great deal about American media culture. It has now been eight years, thirteen orbits of Venus, and the gods continue to fire wayward arrows into the sun without any memory of what came before.
Afghanistan has long been the imperialist’s worst nightmare. Many would-be conquerors from Alexander the Great to the British Empire to the Soviet Union have tried and failed. The fact that the Bush (and now Obama) administration thought otherwise demonstrates what a bloated and clumsy military giant our nation has become.
As 22-year veteran of the CIA Michael Scheuer wrote in his book Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror (p. 31) we are going to have to learn our lessons the hard way:

[D]etailed studies of the Soviets’ disastrous Afghan experience are readily available at local libraries and the nearest Borders…[One] study details what the Soviet armed forces did in Afghanistan–save for atrocities–and assesses which political and military policies and actions succeeded or failed. Generally, the study depicts the frustrations of an arrogant superpower trying to cope with a people and a country it did not understand, as well as an enemy all but invulnerable to conventional military operations and more than able to deal with special forces (Spetsnaz). The study’s conclusions were condensed by a senior Russian official when he met senior CIA officials in mid-September 2001. “With regret,” the Russian said, “I have to say that you are going to get the hell kicked out of you.” One of the Americans responded in words that will someday be found in a U.S. military study of its failed Afghan war. “We’re going to kill them,” the U.S. official asserted. “We’re going to put their heads on sticks. We’re going to rock their world.” The occasional substitution of bravado for thought is truly an eternal attribute of senior intelligence and military officers.

After eight years there’s still no recognition that the arrow we’ve shot is coming right back at us. Eight years is a long time. At average foot speeds a person could walk to the Moon, if you’re assuming the impossible or possess a childlike imagination. But then, assuming the impossible is what got us into this mess in the first place. Did you know that in eight years time a child’s brain has undergone the majority of its plasticity and has established its long-term neural connections? To a large extent, their personality and behavior are fully formed. The window closes down substantially after that and such childlike imaginings, like walking to the Moon, start making more contact with reality. Perhaps the same is true for our war policy in Afghanistan.
I fear that, after eight years, we’ve already established our behavior towards the region, our options for change are limited, and that our inertia will carry us off a cliff. We’ll face the reality after it’s already too late. Like Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli, we’ll discover that our hubris has been the seed of our own destruction. As the story goes, once the god was hit he became transformed into Itzlacoliuhqui-Ixquimilli, the god of cold, stone and castigation. Like past Empires whose over-sized ambition made a collision course with reality, a similar fate may befall us as well. Only time will tell if the Obama administration is able to dodge the arrow Bush shot out eight years ago. But the way things are going, the cycle of imperial hubris seems to be following the same pattern it always has.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Pierce R. Butler permalink
    October 10, 2009 6:41 am

    The US first involved itself in Afghanistan when Zbigniew Brzezinski and Jimmy Carter decided to use it as a sacrificial pawn against the USSR. Since then we’ve cycled through Republican, Democratic, Republican and now Democratic administrations, all playing the clumsy imperialist giant and putting the Afghan people through generations of hell – and with no gain to the American people except those in the military-industrial complex.
    One unavoidable quibble with your post: Many would-be conquerors from Alexander the Great to the British Empire to the Soviet Union have tried and failed.
    People keep saying that – but Alexander, despite some rough patches (and those were north of what he called the Oxus River), succeeded in Afghanistan. So did Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, and so did the Iranians, intermittently.
    The trick, militarily, seems to have something to do with a convincing message that, “we’re here to stay”. Oddly, that’s something the US still can’t say with feeling after 31 years of entanglement and not even a pretense of an exit strategy.

  2. trog69 permalink
    October 10, 2009 6:41 am

    Good morning, Mr. Johnson.
    We should also remember that the US was in discussions with the Taliban leadership, well before 9/11, proposing to pay for their protection and agreement to building gas/oil pipelines through Afghanistan, knowing even then that Al Qaeda was given safe passage and harbor in Afghanistan and Pakistan by those they(we)were asking to partner with.

  3. John Heinrichs permalink
    October 10, 2009 7:05 am

    Mr. Johnson has wonderful insight. This post should be required reading for every high school and college student and also the recently installed White house administration.

  4. T_U_T permalink
    October 10, 2009 9:07 am

    If this post were about iraq, you would be more or less correct. But Afghanistan ? AFAIK, Afghanistan attacked first. So what were the options ? Doing nothing and waiting for more extreme attacks by terrorists encouraged by their success. Massive punitive strike w/o occupation, kill say 5% of afghan population, destroy what is left of the infrastructure and leave it at that. Earn more scorn, international isolation, and face infuriated terrorists whose ranks swell by relatives of the people you killed.
    Or go there and kick the Taliban in their islamist asses.

  5. David Marjanović permalink
    October 11, 2009 5:50 am

    AFAIK, Afghanistan attacked first.

    Al Qaida is not the country of Afghanistan. Please! Bush should have hired the Mossad to go in and bring OBL out.

  6. October 11, 2009 12:05 pm

    What a beautiful article. I really enjoyed reading that, and though I’m not American, I find your dilemma interesting.
    In my life, in smaller situations, of course, I’ve found that more often than not, NOT resorting to violence or anger when that is the expected reaction works better toward a solution in the long run. Assuming T_U_T is correct and America was attacked first, I disagree that launching into a war was the correct reaction. Terrorists make up a miniscule part of any given population. War affects the entire population, and increases the percentage who gather enough hatred for their attacker to join the ranks of the terrorists.

  7. Finnegan permalink
    October 11, 2009 6:33 pm

    Right now I hear gunshots in my street. Drug traffickers are probably imposing their ruthless rule over their turf. It is not a very stable rule, though – the overall lifespan of a ringleader is short and unless he manages the game, easily done with excessive violence, someone else will topple him. That’s raw human politics, gentlemen.
    The situation the United States of America – who pretentiously call itself the only, true ‘America’ – got itself in is turf protection – very much like the one happening outside my window – brought into large scale. Apparently, one of your joints went a lil’ rogue. Things there went bad but as they weren’t very important mere scolding was enough. Suddenly, however, one known crazy fellow decides to go a bit too ambitious and put fire in one of your luxury houses, and it seems this guy was held and sometimes lost by that stupid, worthless joint. Oh the horror, many of your gang brothers were burnt to death during a party! What a bloodbath, what a massacre! They will desire never to be born! And then, ladies and gentlemen, a huge army of thugs head towards the rebel fortress, which wasn’t much more than a small shantytown, kill ten times or more people than were killed in our party and pick some local supporter and let him rule under your strict vigilance. Here, the analogy ends. It ends because thugs don’t need to justify the use of violence: they are criminals. They don’t build false pretenses based on bad ideology, or even attempt to repair their public image. Also, they are interested in results and not in shows: the spice must keep flowing.
    America, the haughty Empire, fails in its foreign policy because it cannot assume fully the consequences of its acts. It won’t truly expose its Sith Emperor face – after all, Public Opinion has an effect on his self-image. But by hiding beneath a black veil won’t truly cut if you keep shocking people with your dreaded powers. The pretense of sobriety, morality and good are quickly dismissed even by the most foolish peasant. The Emperor could be feared, alright, but his game of images makes him mocked. His wish to be what he is not leads to muddled actions and confused policy. His reliance on civil servants, themselves embodiments of the Public Opinion, is disastrous – being a self-conscious entities inside a humongous body, they seek only to grow and impact. The combination of uncertain leadership and a self-propelled body creates this lumbering and confused giant who steps into villages, then realizes he should probably be helping them in some way, just to crush a few more houses in the process. Then he apologizes, says he changed his mind and now is set to drink their whole lake of water. Nothing he does make any sense.
    The situation in Iraq and Afghanistan are mere symptoms of this disoriented giant syndrome – unable to truly rule the region because of its built pretenses, the US of A waste time and energy dealing with unnecessary things such as democracy. Democracy and stability do not mix in war-ravaged societies. Essentially, there can be no Western Gold-standard democracy in these regions, every attempt will be a sham and will be seen as a sham. One way to circumvent these obvious problems would be to rule both countries directly. Make them officially colonies, not protectorates or silly self-ruling provinces. Control the population ruthlessly, kill dissenters and invest in infrastructure. Make those countries profitable. Exterminate rebels. Reward those who help you. Do so, and after a few years you will have a prosperous, stable and somewhat happy country. People truly do not care about the right to self-rule, unless they feel they are not being ruled properly. Make sure you have enough puissance to dissuade those who think otherwise.
    Anything else, any other palliative action, such as the ones being actually made, will meet only ruin. The actual Afghanistan war is winnable, if the Empire decides to act as an Empire. If it keeps second guessing, if it keeps under the thralls of the Public Opinion, it will be lost for good.

  8. Lycosid permalink
    October 12, 2009 9:16 am

    The colonial treatment you described is possible, but I believe China will be the one to deal it out. Al-Qaeda’s recent urging of Chinese Uighurs to engage in armed struggle with the government there might just awaken the nasty junkyard dog in Al-Qaeda’s backyard.

  9. Kagehi permalink
    November 1, 2009 11:35 am

    The problem with the idea that Al-Qaeda was not Afghanistan is that the Taliban where no better, and now, its not Al-Qaeda operatives we are dealing with, but Taliban, which, when given an option, decided to join up with AQ, rather than any new government. Their thinking is the same, based on the same ideas, and promotes the same vision of the future. We where idiots, even prior to 9/11, to deal with them at all, just as we would be a complete idiot to ask, say.. remnants of the KKK in this country to *help* solve some sort of problem with Neo-Nazis in the area. For all practical purposes, the only difference between them would likely be which one was the more militant, and which one “owned” the property, and secretly funding the other one.
    We have acted stupidly, as someone else pointed out, since when we decided to play a dick showing contest with the USSR in the area, when there was no military, or other reason for it, just political, then told everyone there, “Sorry, got to go. Good luck picking up the rubble we left!” Bush sidetracking us didn’t help, and our basic refusal to find some sort of “effective” way to work with moderates in adjacent states, especially Pakistan, even if its just to provide them with lower tech, but effective, tools to render the contested border a no mans land (or, terrorist land, since the people contesting it are AQ, the Taliban and its Pakistani allies), isn’t helping either. We can’t do it alone, but our strategy is one of paranoid non-cooperation and secret missions, all designed to, on one hand, try to work with the locals, while on the other hand, ignoring them, in favor of taking out what we believe are valid targets. This is a damn stupid way to do things, and it only takes one high profile disaster to screw the whole situation, worse than it is already.
    In short, its fine and dandy to be trying to help Afghanistan stabilize and defend itself, but it doesn’t do a damn bit of good if that doesn’t include both a) the ability to patrol its own mountainous border, b) cooperation with Pakistan to do so, or c) the same provision of “usable” methods to handle that border on the “other side” of the damn mountain. You can’t stop an enemy, if you can’t secure the land they are using the fight from. Duh!!

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