Afghanistan: The Salad Days

Posted by Cutler on September 07, 2006
Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Right Arabists, Right Zionists

It will be tempting for critics of the Bush administration to read news of a new peace treaty between Taliban forces and the Pakistani government as one more way to criticize the war in Iraq.

“See?… We were supposed to be fighting the actual war on terror. But we didn’t. Instead we were distracted by a cabal of Neoconservatives into fighting the wrong war in Iraq. Now, our real enemies are on the rise again in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

(Has somebody already said all this? Probably. The “quote” above is hypothetical, but I would welcome any links).

There are both dangers and errors in this tempting line of criticism.

Danger, Will Robinson…

The danger, for the Left, is in trying to hit the Bush administration from its Right.

File this under “Careful What you Wish” (CWW for the IM crowd?).

Do you really want to be more hawkish than this administration? Or is this simply about demonstrating Bush administration hypocrisy?

Do you really prefer a consistent Bush administration that actually stays the course in its Global War on Terror?

Some may very well answer, Yes. Such hawks should not hide behind the softer charge of hypocrisy so they can “hang” with the groovy anti-war crowd.

For those who answer, No, it might make more sense to understand why the Bush administration has let Afghanistan slip.

Remembering Factionalism: The Salad Days

With the upcoming anniversary of 9/11, let’s take a stroll down memory lane back to the early days of the War on Terror.

There is a tendency to think of Afghanistan as the “consensus” war and Iraq as the source of discord. Not so within the Bush administration.

Factionalism after 9/11 did not start because some in the administration wanted to talk about Iraq. It started with Afghanistan.

Recall, for example, a Willliam Kristol Washington Post Op-Ed entitled “Bush vs. Powell,” archived on the website of the Project for a New American Century.

It is a great opening salvo in the factional war between Right Zionists like Kristol and Right Arabists like Secretary of State Colin Powell.

The president devoted a good chunk of his speech to an indictment of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan: “In Afghanistan we see al Qaeda’s vision for the world. Afghanistan’s people have been brutalized . . . we condemn the Taliban regime.” Further: “By aiding and abetting murder the Taliban regime is committing murder.”…

On Sunday, by contrast, the secretary of state drew a distinction between al Qaeda and the Taliban, and more or less dismissed concerns about the Taliban: “With respect to the nature of the regime in Afghanistan, that is not uppermost in our minds right now. . . . I’m not going to say that it has become one of the objectives of the United States government to either remove or put in place a different regime.”

At the time, it might have seemed like Powell was simply playing the anti-war dove. Maybe. But there were also regional strategic issues involved.

The Taliban was a product of the Pakistanis. The Pakistanis were closely aligned with the Saudis. Right Arabists were not prepared to break any of these ties.

By contrast the “Northern Alliance” (remember them?) were aligned with Iran and India. And India was closely aligned with Israel. And Iran was once Israel’s best friend in the region. Right Zionists wanted to topple the Taliban as the first step in a regional re-alignment that would ultimately break the alliance between the US and the Saudis.

Kristol (with Robert Kagan) wrote a follow-up on the factional battle over Afghanistan in a November 26, 2001 Weekly Standard article entitled “A Winning Strategy.”

The original strategy, promoted especially by State Department officials under Secretary of State Colin Powell, in cooperation with the CIA, was unenthusiastic about too rapid a military advance by the Northern Alliance against Taliban positions in the north and around Kabul, and was therefore not designed to aid such an advance.

From the very outset, even before the bombing began on October 7, there was a fundamental disagreement between the Pentagon and the State Department over how to manage the situation in Afghanistan. On September 26, the Washington Post reported an “ongoing debate” between the State Department and the Pentagon over the objective. Pentagon officials wanted to “ensure that the campaign ends with the ouster of the Taliban.” But State Department officials argued the administration should “be cautious and focus on bin Laden and his al Qaeda network.” Secretary Powell was reluctant to make the overthrow of the Taliban the stated objective of the war.

The State Department’s position reflected concern for the sensitivities of the Pakistani government and its nervous president, General Pervez Musharraf. Pakistan had long supported the Taliban, and the government wanted a guarantee that some Taliban elements would have a share in any postwar government. The Pakistanis were also acutely hostile to the Northern Alliance and wanted to make sure that it would be kept out of a new government or would have at most a minimal role…

[T]he State Department pursued what became known as the “southern strategy.” State Department and CIA officials worked arduously to put together a Pashtun coalition acceptable to Pakistan. In the process, attempting to sweeten the pot, the State Department made a significant compromise regarding the future role of the Taliban. Secretary Powell, meeting with President Musharraf in the second week of October, agreed with the Pakistani president that “moderate” Taliban members might be able “to participate in developing a new Afghanistan.”

This is the background story of factionalism that led us to the current moment in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Those who want to use the fact of a resurgent Taliban to whip the neocons for their war in Iraq should be very clear: you are playing on their home turf.

The Right Zionists would be the first–indeed, they were the first–to criticize Right Arabist compromises with Musharraf and the Taliban.

2 Comments to Afghanistan: The Salad Days

  • I was listening to Michael Parenti and Stephen Schwartz of the Center for Islamic Pluralism debate the term “Islamofascism” last night (Schwartz, apparently, helped coin the term) and Parenti had swung to other side, critiquing the Bush administration for its lack of policy in Afghanistan. He may as well have been reading from the Times recent article ( or,as Cutler discusses, the neocon agenda.

    Parenti has been my least favorite leftist ever since I watched him get trounced in a debate on Iraq by a clearly intoxicated Christopher Hitchens. The amazing thing about that debate was that Parenti came out attacking the history of US complicity with dictatorships and quoted members of elder Bush’s administration to attack the war. Hitchens was able to put down his Vodka from the mini-bar long enough to deftly parry the attack: that was exactly why he supported the war and the realists opposed it–it was a break with realpolitik in favor of a hard-edged idealism that disregarded the oppressive stability that US realism supported. Hitchens was making the ideological leap that Thomas Friedman made several years ago (until the war went south, now he’s critical again) and the Scoop Jackson Democrats and other leftists made during the Cold War. Parenti could never quite figure out if he was with the realists because they opposed the war or with the neocons because they opposed the status quo of US foreign policy. Hitchens, the realists and the neocons all had their positions staked out but, despite his sobriety, Parenti seemed unable to do anything but stumble between them.

  • d,

    couldn’t agree more. hitchens ripped parenti to shreads. but leave it to an ex-trotskyite to know where it hurts when it comes to critiquing the left. i’ve read about a debate between hitchens and tariq ali, former best buds, which i’m sure must’ve been much more equitable. though i like him a hell of a lot more than parenti, michael berube was another one who i was shocked by when he came out in support of the invasion of afghanistan. as jonathan’s post notes, the left must be wary about hitting the foreign policy establishment from the right. in other words, though i’m kind of conflating lefty academics who in my opinion slipped up in either their political support for or the critique of the “census” invasion, why the drive from the left for a more authentic(read: consistent) and robust war on terror? CWW is right, Jonathan.

    On a separate but related note, I saw our favorite person David Horowitz on BookTV in a pre-recorded talk he gave at Duke University promoting his damn “Dangerous Professors” book. Though most of it was bashing Michael Hardt and Wahneema Lubiano, when it came to talking about support for the War on Terror, Berube and Todd Gitlin get a pass! He says he acknowledges in his book that they, two people Horowitz absolutely loves to hate, were right (double entendre intended here) about Afghanistan. I wonder how they feel about such a pass they get, because, though they would never admit it, it must feel odd to get any kind of a pass from Horowitz and may, or at least should, ruffle their lefty feathers.

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