It’s another Monday, and another day just flat out made for a slash-and-burn romp through the newspapers. Today’s papers once again evoked in me that old graveyard laugh. I’m not becoming a curmudgeon, I promise. It’s just that my ruminations have begun to float free of my conscious control. In other words, I just can’t help it.Let’s start with the big story in today’s New York Times—that means above the fold on the right of the front page. There we see the article by Neil MacFarquhar and Hwaida Saad under the title: “Jihadists Taking a Growing Role in Syrian Revolt.” If you did not get that straight, the first subtitle spells it out for you:” Radical Forces in Fray.” And if you still didn’t get the idea, the second subtitle provides details: “Fighters Adopt Islamist Agenda that Attracts Foreign Financing.”At this point you really don’t have to read the article if you’ve been paying attention at all to what’s been happening during the past year. I have, but I read it anyway. It basically says that what has happened is what I predicted many, many months ago: the longer something like this goes on, the more radical elements tend to get control of it on all sides.This is perhaps not common “common sense” for most people, but it is for historians and historically tutored observers of political affairs. It simply reflects the undeniable truth that in episodes of political violence, whether full-scale civil wars or something short of that, liberals and moderates don’t get very far. Reasonable people get marginalized in situations like that, if they don’t get shot. This is reasonably common as common sense goes, and so I certainly don’t claim that I was the only one to make this observation many months ago. A lot of people did, and a lot of people have been proven right.At the time, I recall one commentator arguing that the Syrian opposition was radical from the very start. This is simply not true, unless by radical this commenter meant anyone who happens to be a Muslim; unfortunately, there are many Americans who conflate all sorts of things that are far more wisely distinguished from one another. No, it was not true then, but it is increasingly true now. Time always has a price, whether in diplomacy or in most anything else. It’s not good to be impulsive, of course, but the passage of time is not always one’s friend. In Syria, the passage of time has narrowed American options even as it has raised the stakes of any bold policy initiative.Several articles in the paper also demonstrate how the crisis in Syria is spreading, and with what effects. Just a few days ago the New York Times ran a piece on Syrian refugees in Jordan. It came accompanied by a photograph of a six-year-old killed by a Syrian bullet, about to be buried in his grave. The gist of the story was that Jordanian authorities are rigidly controlling the activities of Syrian refugees in the country. They are not allowing these refugees to organize in any way so as to project influence back into Syria. And they’re trying to keep Palestinians out. The same day, or just a day before or after, a very similar article appeared describing the limits that the Turkish government has placed on Syrian refugees in that country. And now today we get to articles that sort of round out the geography. In today’s New York Times is an article called “Syrian Refugees Are Stung by Hostile Reception in Iraq: Held Under Guard and Unable to Leave.” Not to be outdone, the Washington Post has “Lebanon Concerned Syrian Conflict Will Spark Internal Strife” (this was the print title). If there were Syrian refugees in Israel (there aren’t), there would be an article about that, too.Again, it’s hard to compile a longer list of blinding flashes of the obvious, and yes, again, though I hate to say it, all this has been presaged in my commentary over the months. Of course the Jordanian and Turkish governments are not going to let refugees from Syria use their territory as a staging ground for anti-regime activities, even if they sympathize with the ultimate goal of getting rid of Assad and his thugs and murderers. This is because Middle Eastern governments don’t like freelancers. They don’t want to be dragged into conflicts they are not prepared for and have not willed themselves, and they don’t want to commit to an outcome that might not come out as hoped for. There is nothing particularly Middle Eastern about this. As far as I know, no responsible government would act much differently. If there is a certain accent of brutality involved here from time to time, well, that is par for the course in this region.Of course, the situation in Iraq is not the same as it is in Jordan and Turkey. The Iraqi government is dominated by Shi‘a these days, and it has sympathized all along, not necessarily with Bashar al-Assad himself, but with the non-Sunni elements running the country. The reason is simple: The rise of a Sunni-dominated government in Damascus could very well touch off newly energetic Sunni opposition to Prime Minister Maliki’s little Shi‘a sandbox. The more Islamist in nature that government might be, the worse for the current rulers in Baghdad. There is nothing like a little religious fanaticism to create a really noisome opposition.As the Times article suggested, there may be foreign money as well as foreign fighters involved in all this. That Saudi princes finance Wahabbi-like Sunni fanaticism in and beyond the region is well known, and the government looks the other way most of the time. What is not so well known is what the Qatari government and some of its tag-along princes are up to.The Qatari government has for some years now played the role of Peck’s bad boy in the region. It shoves bamboo shoots under assorted fingernails—sometimes, it seems, just for the entertainment value, especially if it happens to annoy the Saudis. It also plays both arsonist and fireman from time to time, as can be seen by the regime’s sponsorship of Al Jazeera. In the case of Libya, the Qataris were very active in funding revolutionary mayhem against the Qaddafi regime. No one should be surprised to learn that they are partly behind what is going on in Syria, helping the most radical elements as best they can. Why do they do this? In part, just because they can. Qatar is really a teeny little country. It has the collective equivalent of a Napoleon complex. But the motive is also in part a recognition that to play one must pay. If the Qataris want a say in their discussions with other Gulf states, they need to demonstrate that they have a dog in the fight. So they buy one.We have a tolerable working relationship with the Qatari regime elite. After all, we have lots of military stuff on the ground in their country, so it pays us to pay attention to them and talk them up. One can therefore only wonder what gets said in private when the Qataris do bad things like this, as I am assuming they are. I know what some of these things used to be that got said, because I used to have access to the cable traffic. And the answer is, very generally speaking, not a lot. We look the other way most of the time, and when we don’t look the other way the Qataris make all sorts of noises and then essentially ignore us, because they know we need them as much or more than they need us. So it goes.***I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a subject that both the New York Times and the Washington Post take up, and that is of course the report of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the agency charged with documenting how American reconstruction funds are being used. This, and not anything about jihadists in Syria, is above the fold on the right, front page, in today’s Washington Post. The report says that basically all the highly touted infrastructure projects we promised the Afghans are way behind schedule, and will never be finished by the time the vast bulk of American combat soldiers leave at the end of 2014, if not sooner. It goes further, arguing that the gap between expectations raised and results unfulfilled could actually prove counterproductive.Of course, the Pentagon doesn’t like to hear things like this, and so it’s pretty mad at the folks who put together this report and then made it public. That’s understandable. When you work in the government at any level, it is your job to make the policy work, and so you naturally tend to get pissed off when somebody rains on your parade—especially if it’s another government operation or agency. But there’s no question that the Special Inspector General is correct, unless of course he is essentially irrelevant.I mean by “irrelevant” that the prospective failure of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan— and by mission I mean the misnamed nation-building mission (it’s really a state-building mission)—has got to be one of the most over-determined realities of my lifetime. It is frankly disgusting to me that our political leaders, now of both major parties, have sacrificed so much blood and treasure over this idiotic escapade.Let me make the basics as clear as I can possibly make them. The Afghan National Army will never be able to substitute for American arms in fighting off the Taliban, not because they don’t know how to shoot a gun—the whole idea training Afghans to use weapons was hilarious from the very start, on the order of teaching a snake to suck eggs—but because most of them have little to no loyalty to the Afghan regime. And why should they? It is not because the regime is corrupt, but because it is a highly over-centralized artifact, devised by outsiders, that does not fit with the social and historical realities of the country. It is corrupt because it is a bad fit for the country, not the other way around.As for building a democratic Afghanistan, this was a wilder fantasy still. In order to have a democracy as we understand it you first have to have at least the semblance of a modern state, more or less as Max Weber defined it. Afghanistan has never had such a state, it does not have such a state now, and one is nowhere in prospect. The country has not moved beyond the patrimonial and decentralized tribal system of its forebears. That system has been savaged by war and occupation, but nothing has replaced it, and that is the tragedy, really, of Afghan reality. It cannot go back readily to what stabilized its governance before, but it cannot go forward either because the remnants of the old ways prevent it.The infrastructure improvement program was designed to complement a reformed, if not a really democratic, government and a capable Afghan army and police force. The government cannot be reformed within the current structural framework of government; any government that would replace the present one would end up being more or less as corrupt and incompetent as the one we have now. And the army and police force cannot be capable in the sense of supporting that government. So the failure of the infrastructure program is in most respects beside the point.But I simply have to note another rather obvious matter: The U.S. Federal government cannot arrange itself to effectively build infrastructure properly in the United States, so how the hell did it ever expect to do so in Afghanistan?We have spent something on the order of $90 billion dollars over the past decade on reconstruction projects in Afghanistan. Since 2008 we’ve become sort of jaded by large numbers, so that $90 billion doesn’t seem so large anymore. But trust me: It’s a very large number. Yet I would pony up three times that much if by doing so I could redeem the lives of those American and allied soldiers lost and maimed; of course we can’t redeem a single one of them.In the end I fear we will have bought approximately nothing with our money. It’s not worth my time to get into a discussion as to whether our efforts have been counterproductive or just plain futile. After all, what really is the difference at this point? The simple truth is that we got ourselves committed to a project we could not pull off in a place we don’t understand and have never really tried to understand. (Does this sound familiar? Does Afghanistan rhyme at least a little with Vietnam?) Everything else is a detail, including the Special Inspector’s report, today’s front-page news.
This is your free article this month. A quality publication is not cheap to produce.
Subscribe today and support The American Interest—only $2.99/month! Already a subscriber? Log in to make this banner go away.
Subscribe today and support The American Interest—only $2.99/month! Already a subscriber? Log in to make this banner go away.
Published on: July 30, 2012Syria (and Afghanistan) in Detail