In the review, I use the metaphor of a “big, dumb machine” to explain the war in Afghanistan, but I think it applies to American foreign policy more generally.
It is common to chalk up America's failures in Afghanistan to incompetence, ignorance, or stupidity. Yet The Afghanistan Papers, by The Washington Post's Craig Whitlock, shows an American government that, although it had no idea what it was doing when it came to building a democracy in Afghanistan, did an excellent job manipulating the public, avoiding any consequences for its failures, and protecting its bureaucratic and financial interests. The problem was a broken system, not a generalized incompetence…
The bureaucracy beneath the president comes across as a big dumb machine that was unclear about what it ultimately wanted, and whose different limbs sometimes worked at cross purposes. Many parts of that machine were extremely aware of how hopeless the mission was. As Gen. McNeil said, “There was no campaign plan. It just wasn't there.” The British general who headed NATO forces in the country from 2006 to 2007 similarly remarked that “there was no coherent long-term strategy.” American military personnel would be sent to Afghanistan on more than one occasion over the two decades of conflict and, in Whitlock's words, “the war made less sense each time they went back".”…
Each part of the American war machine had its own mission, and was going to do what it did regardless of the facts on the ground. The DEA wanted to destroy opium, the human rights bureaucracy pushed women's rights, and the military wanted to keep the war going. Nobody was there to force these disparate parts to work towards a common goal in a way that made sense. Theoretically, the president should have done so, but the American system clearly rewards political competence more than it does the ability to build stable democracies on the other side of the world. Often extremely self-aware, American officials were not as stupid or incompetent as they were self-interested cogs in a system filled with misaligned incentives.
This is why the justifications for the war could change at the drop of a hat.
The transition from Barack Obama to Donald Trump shows how flexible the Pentagon could be to keep the war going. When working for the former law professor, the generals used more rhetoric about human rights and became experts at manipulating statistics to show how they supposedly were making people’s lives better. Under Trump, they realized that they could maintain his support for the war by talking of victory and killing bad guys. In both cases, the generals successfully resisted a president who was skeptical about their mission. The military seemed relatively indifferent to whether it was spending its time building girls’ schools or undertaking a more expansive bombing campaign, as long as it could keep the war going.
I include lots of good stories demonstrating the absurdity of the whole thing. The US fought a war on drugs while legitimizing druglords as statesmen; paid militia leaders and also tried to get them out of the country; pushed for economic growth but made war on the most successful Afghan industry; sought to win hearts and minds but tried to create a revolution in gender relations; fought corruption but bought votes in parliament and flooded Afghanistan with more money than it could keep track of.
People discussing whether the US was trying to accomplish X or Y in Afghanistan are missing the point, even though they can always find evidence for a particular theory because policy was so inconsistent. Understand the American government as a big, dumb machine – where the individual parts are rational but the entire system is not – and things start to make a lot more sense.
The reason this is of more than historical interest at this point is that the system that gave us Afghanistan and Iraq is the same one determining American foreign policy in Eastern Europe and the Asia Pacific. Just because the same people involved in the post-9/11 wars haven’t sleepwalked us into a major disaster in those regions yet is no reason to become complacent, but to make sure they don’t get their way on other debates.
Read the whole thing here.