Deconstructing Afghanistan

What would Jacques do?

After more than a decade of nation-building in Afghanistan, with at best mixed results, perhaps it is time to take an opposite tack: "deconstructing" that sad land. This would entail some very bold policy shifts, beginning with a willingness to see our very "structures of thought come undone," as Jacques Derrida, the great philosopher of deconstruction, once described the first step in the process. In practical terms, this would mean challenging the guiding notion of democratization that has, thus far, cost us and our allies several thousand casualties and about a trillion dollars -- to little effect.

The key to deconstruction is to search out the inherent contradiction that lies at the heart of virtually every strong belief. As another leading theorist of deconstruction, Paul de Man, once put the matter, the central task is to "undo assertions...by means of their very own elements." For example, Derrida thought deeply about Ernest Hemingway's conclusion, in his Death in the Afternoon, that bullfighting is the ultimate sport. Derrida then formulated a key question, "How often does the bull win?" He concluded that any sport in which one side lost almost every time -- for centuries -- was no sport at all.

It doesn't take too much reflection to see that beliefs about Afghanistan fit the deconstructionist pattern of being "undone by their very own elements." Starting from the beginning, there is the belief that Afghanistan is an isolated land filled with xenophobic people. Yet from ancient times, this "land of the high flags," as Zoroaster labeled it, was a crossroads of rich commerce, its peoples drawn from an admixture of Aryans, Chinese, Indians, and Mongols -- among others.

Another long-held belief, that Afghanistan is the "graveyard of empires," has been misleading from the beginning. Alexander the Great conquered Afghanistan with a relative handful of troops, and the Greeks stayed for a few centuries. Indeed, "Kandahar" is but a variant of "Alexander." And for many centuries after the adventurous Greeks, outsiders often ruled for long periods. The remarkable work of Boston University anthropologist Thomas Barfield makes quite clear that difficulty in exerting external control over Afghanistan is, in historical terms, a quite recent phenomenon.

Taking the deconstruction process up to the current situation, the single most telling contradiction lies at the heart of the Western "democracy project" in Afghanistan. If I may channel Derrida briefly -- he passed away in 2004 -- I think he would observe our efforts and ask: "If you are trying to nurture democracy, why is it that you regularly embrace the results of fraudulent elections? If your goal is the emergence of a civic culture, why, after all your efforts, is Afghanistan rated the most corrupt country in the world?"

There are other long-held assertions that seem to come undone by their very own elements as well. One is the idea that peace and security will come to the country from the center in Kabul and spread outward. This belief flies in the face of a long history of decentralized governance, with power widely distributed outward, toward the edges of the society. Even Alexander found it useful to cultivate and develop alliances with local tribes.

Another problem confronts the faith of those who believe staunchly in the "Afghanization" of the military effort to secure the country that has been underway for several years now. A deconstructionist view of this effort would point to the 31 battalions created thus far, and note that only one of them is capable of independent action. So-called insider attacks on allied forces training them would raise deconstructionist eyebrows as well. The overall conclusion Derrida or de Man might reach would be that the whole process is turning Afghans, some of the world's best natural warriors, into some of the world's worst soldiers.

There are inherent contradictions in the development process as well. Take, for example, the routine "flipping" of construction contracts -- i.e., the winning bidder on a particular project sometimes simply takes a cut off the top and passes on what's left to a party willing to do the job for less. There are known cases of several flips on a single contract, leading to the paving of roads that wash away with the first hard rain. And when projects are completed and things actually do work, as with electrification efforts and improved cell phone connectivity, the dams and towers that provide these social goods are often held hostage and "taxed" by the Taliban. "Pay up or we'll blow them up."

Deconstructing Afghanistan in this fashion performs the kind of service that Derrida sought to provide with his concept: it improves the clarity of vision and deepens understanding of the daunting challenges that bedevil almost all meaningful endeavors. In this instance, the deconstruction process should lead to a willingness to question and debate the strategy to be pursued as the Afghan endgame unfolds.

Just how might strategy change? Recognition that the democracy project in Afghanistan has fallen prey to cronyism and corruption might lead to an extra effort to ensure the integrity of elections in 2014 -- and to abide by their honestly derived results. Understanding that centralized power will be resisted might lead to a willingness to rely more heavily upon provincial actors around the country to provide security -- much as was the case during the peaceful 40-year "rule" of Zahir Shah, Afghanistan's revered last king. Indeed, his fall ushered in the current 40 years of political strife and war that have been visited upon Afghanistan. At the great jirga of 2002, after the Taliban were driven from power, leaders from around the country called for the return of Zahir Shah -- but we insisted on democracy, not monarchy.

In terms of the final strategic military question the West faces -- how many troops, if any, to leave behind after 2014 -- deconstructionist thought would almost certainly embrace the point that "surges" of soldiers have done little to improve the situation. Paradoxically, a small military presence, closely linked to Afghan tribal forces operating from the edges, will likely do far better than the big battalions.

Were Jacques Derrida still with us, he would no doubt find Afghanistan a fertile vineyard in which deconstructionists could toil. For those of us who see the value of analyzing matters using his methods, there is even more: a chance to correct costly errors and avert a looming debacle. But this will only happen with the emergence of a willingness to see the many fatal contradictions in our core beliefs about Afghanistan -- and about the Western role there as well.


National Security

For Defense, Less Beef, More Chuck

Why Hagel's critics need to turn down the heat.

War is not a numbers game. Yet critics of former Sen. Chuck Hagel's nomination to be the next secretary of defense are utterly driven by three numerically defined matters. First, Hagel's opposition to the "surge" in Iraq six years ago is seen as a tremendous liability. Conservative commentator Ross Douthat has judged Hagel "dead wrong" on this issue, given the real improvements in Iraq that followed in the wake of the surge. Next, Hagel has made supportive noises about drawing down American forces swiftly in Afghanistan -- over and against the many cautionary voices of senior military leaders. Last, he has bluntly stated that the Pentagon budget is "bloated," something that everybody knows but few will ever admit.

By the numbers, then, it appears that Hagel will be in deep trouble should Republicans choose to mount sustained opposition to his nomination -- a seeming surety. But this could be just the sort of confirmation fight that is needed to raise the level of public discourse about military and security affairs. These matters were hardly discussed, much less debated, in the nearly substance-free presidential campaign last fall. It is high time that we should shift our gaze back to the Iraq war once again, that we should parse its key lessons for Afghanistan, and that we should think very hard about whether to keep the Pentagon spending spigot wide open.

Perhaps the most important question to ask about Iraq is, "What caused the collapse of the insurgency in 2007?" Some 30,000 additional troops were indeed sent during this period, but there was also a dramatic shift in the concept of operations employed. This change took the form of building a physical network of small (i.e., platoon-sized) outposts all over Anbar province and engaging in "outreach" toward the very insurgents who were opposing coalition forces. These were the developments that energized the "awakening" in Iraq, defeated al Qaeda there, and gave hope for peace.

All thoughtful military analysts agree that something more than just numbers brought about the change in Iraq, but most believe that increased troop levels were necessary in order to pursue what I call the "outpost and outreach" strategy. The problem with making the argument that a surge in numbers was a necessary first step is that, even at its height, the campaign in 2007 saw less than 10 percent of the soldiers in-country deployed to the outposts. There were always enough troops in Iraq to sprinkle some about in outposts, but from 2003 through 2006, most operated from just a handful of massive forward operating bases (FOBs, whence the term "Fobbits" originates). The shift to a large number of small outposts could have been made earlier. And the outreach to the insurgents/terrorists themselves could have begun some years before as well. Indeed, this was a point I was pushing as far back as 2004.

If there is room for -- actually a need for -- debate about the effects of increased troop levels in the complex case of Iraq, the Afghanistan war seems to be a conflict that argues clearly against the primacy of numbers. We were at our very best toppling the Taliban and al Qaeda late in 2001, when just 11 Special Forces A-teams, fewer than 200 soldiers, were there on the ground. As our numbers grew over the years, so did our problems. And when President Barack Obama acceded to the Pentagon's request for a surge -- of about the same number of troops that had been requested in Iraq -- our casualties rose ever higher while Taliban influence around the country grew.

Why? Because the concept of operations employed had not yet shifted to outpost-and-outreach mode. But this is a change that has been getting under way in the form of "village stability operations" (VSO) in which small numbers of Americans man outposts and fight alongside friendly Afghans. Everywhere these have been established, Taliban influence has been undermined. Ironically, President Hamid Karzai made a request during his visit last week that we begin to close down our small outposts. This would be a big mistake.

Keeping small numbers of U.S. and U.S. allies' forces deployed around the country, building indigenous defense capabilities where they are most needed -- all enabled and protected by U.S. air supremacy -- is the way to defeat the Taliban even as our overall numbers of troops deployed to Afghanistan are drawn down to quite low levels. For the long term, the "zero option" being bruited about is a bad idea -- e.g., see Iraq, where we are now completely gone and al Qaeda has returned. But a "nonzero option," with somewhere around 10,000 stay-behind troops, should work just fine.

And if there is a way to salvage the endgame in Afghanistan with small numbers of soldiers employing the methods honed in Anbar province six years ago, there is a larger lesson as well: We can remain active and engaged in the world using the Obama Doctrine of economy of force, rather than the "overwhelming force" called for by the Powell Doctrine. Colin Powell's vision, honed by his experiences in Vietnam, is both too costly and, increasingly, ineffective for dealing with the insurgent networks that have bedeviled so much of the world since 9/11. It is interesting that Hagel's formative experience was in Vietnam too. But it seems he took a different lesson from that war. It was a conflict characterized by repeated "surges" that eventually brought troop levels up above 500,000 -- all to no avail, as the enemy quickly learned to slip the heavy punches thrown by the Americans in their "big-unit" war.

So, whether the issue is the surge in Iraq, the looming drawdown in Afghanistan, or the size of the defense budget, Hagel's views offer insights that all should hear -- and should spark useful, long-overdue debate about military and security affairs. His clear agreement with what I see to be an emergent Obama Doctrine makes it possible to pursue a consistent, quite innovative strategic path in this age of irregular wars.

As to those in the Senate who will point to the possibility of larger conflicts that might come, demanding ever greater defense expenditures, let me just close by reminding that history is replete with examples of small forces that regularly defeated much larger ones in major wars. From the Greeks at Salamis in 490 B.C. to the Israelis in the Six-Day War of 1967 and beyond, outnumbered forces have often prevailed. The outcomes of wars are determined far less by how much you have and far more by how you fight. It is a lesson well worth heeding in this age of perpetual conflict. A lesson that Chuck Hagel learned over 40 years ago, and which clearly still informs and guides him today.