“The GWOT is dead, long live the COFKATGWOT,” Walter Russell Mead likes to joke. It’s spot-on damning, really—a hamfisted rebranding could not change the essence of two wars well underway as President Obama took the reins of power. It was an early PR mistake by an Administration eager to distance itself from its predecessor, a mistake which seemed to indicate that the chief problem the United States faced in successfully prosecuting these wars was one of better messaging.
That said, a year and a half later I can’t say I was sad to see the old GWOT go. As with all simplifying concepts, the GWOT obscured more than it clarified. Yes, it’s important to remind ourselves that we are in fact at war. A professional all-volunteer army makes national sacrifice a matter of choice rather than a duty for every citizen, and having the gravity of what we’re asking these brave young people do for us in the forefront of our minds is critical. “Overseas Contingency Operation,” the replacement euphemism, sounds downright Newspeak.
But who or what are we at war with? Terror? Terrorists? Islamic terrorists? Islamic extremism? Islam itself? Writers of all political persuasions took pen to paper (or perhaps more accurately finger to keyboard) to try to elucidate this murky indeterminacy in President Bush’s formulation. The bien pensant consensus of the mid-to-late aughties was that Islam itself was not the culprit; we had beef only with the violent ideological “Islamist” movement which sought to mobilize the otherwise peaceful world religion for illiberal political ends. But this consensus never felt wholly satisfying, or coherent for that matter. And it took the demise of the GWOT paradigm to highlight the contradictions in this somewhat naïve worldview.
The war in Iraq is in many ways still too complicated to come to terms with. The initial and ongoing justifications for our involvement there are numerous and disparate: Saddam’s nuclear weapons; his chemical weapons; his known terror sponsorship; Iraq as a terrorist haven; the importance of oil and our energy security; human rights of the Kurds and Arab Shi’a; a foothold for Arab democracy; the potential power vacuum which would provoke a schismatic religious war in the Middle East; our moral responsibility to rebuild the country after it nearly fell apart… Though the decision to invade will be viewed as a spectacular mistake when the definitive history books are finally written, any fair analysis of the entire campaign will deal with each of these motivating factors on its own terms, as well as in aggregate. Given this wealth of justifications, then, shedding talk of GWOT when thinking about Iraq doesn’t really make us any poorer—we can understand our involvement there, misguided as it is, by other means.
Afghanistan is a different matter. There was a single justification for invading which is not at all contested: Afghanistan was a safe haven for the man and the organization that planned and carried out the beastly outrages of 9/11. Bin Laden and Al Qaeda certainly fit the Islamist mold, as did the Taliban regime that sheltered them. Indeed, the Taliban’s Afghanistan was the model for what Al Qaeda hoped to achieve across the Ummah: a theocracy adhering to a strict, medieval interpretation of sharia law, with all the attendant strictures on personal freedom, especially for women. It made sense, therefore, to not only dismantle Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, but to completely remove their sponsors too. What the Taliban achieved in Afghanistan was, after all, exactly the kind of intolerant, monolithic Islamist state that we were avowedly fighting against. The fact that we had been unable to defeat the Taliban and its ideological Islam after seven years was interpreted by then-President-Elect Obama and the Democrats as lack of sufficient focus on the war by an Iraq-obsessed Bush Administration. This sounded sort of plausible within the confines of the GWOT. But freed of the paradigm, the logic starts to look kind of shaky.
What if it happened to be that, instead of Islamism being some sort of alien cancer on the body politic of Afghanistan, it was an important constituent glue that helped shape Afghan national identity through the centuries? What if in places like rural Afghanistan, the distinction between the ideology of Islamism and the religion of Islam is a completely empty one, given that life in a subsistence-oriented village, from the personal to the political, has always been completely circumscribed by Islam? What if the Mujahideen and later the Taliban were not simply the manifestations of an imported Wahhabi ideology used to fight the godless Communists, but were echoes of the Khost rebellion of 1924, a religious rural uprising against the modernizing programs of King Amanullah? And what if the broad discontent with Taliban rule had less to do with its theocratic nature and more to do with tribal resentments and a longstanding Afghan tendency to distrust a central authority? (For more of this kind of stuff, I cannot more highly recommend Thomas Barfield’s Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History. An AI review is forthcoming.)
If the above sketch is true, you begin to see with a growing sense of horror just what we’ve gotten ourselves into in Afghanistan using the GWOT as a guideline. We’re not fighting totalitarian Islamists as much as we’re fighting against the popular rural Afghan understanding of Islam. This is less a struggle against “terror” however you choose to define it, and more us taking sides in the latest phase of a long-festering war over Afghan modernization that has its roots in reforms started well before World War II.
It’s not that our concerns over future terrorist safe havens are misguided—they’re emphatically not. Nor is it to say that we oughtn’t be “for” modernity in Afghanistan, or that we ought to turn a blind eye to the terrible wages of fundamentalist Islam. It’s that the GWOT paradigm has both oversimplified and distorted the scale of the challenges we face. If we want to make sure that people like Bin Laden cannot feel welcome in Afghanistan, we’re not talking about eliminating some bad guys, training some good guys, and going home. We’re talking about transforming and secularizing an impoverished resource-scarce society which hasn’t been successfully ruled from Kabul since the police state of Iron Amir Abdur Rahman massacred many thousands of its own people at the end of the 19th century.
I’ll hazard some guesses as to how we may want to alter course in Afghanistan in a future post. I’ll end here by pointing out that many of these insights were available to those with the right kind of eyes for quite some time now. For example, in 2006, Anna Simons of the Naval Postgraduate School at Monterey wrote a massive two-part critique of the GWOT mindset (1, 2) for The American Interest which was remarkably prescient and bears a careful rereading today. It’s one of those essays that subtly but irrevocably ends up changing the way you approach these issues.