Chasing Ghosts

The American strategist and military historian Edward Luttwak just published a book that is attracting some attention in US policy-making circles. Even as The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire is dense with detail – from early Christian theology to the equestrian genius of the Huns –Luttwak contends that the general shape of Byzantine policy in war and peace might well serve as a useful model for the Americans.

For instance: “Strive to end wars successfully,” writes Luttwak, “by recruiting allies to change the balance of power.” Sound advice, but counsel to which American reality is impervious. Recall that one of the reasons US forces are fighting in Afghanistan is to secure the Pakistani government and its nuclear program against hostile members of Islamabad’s own security services. In other words, the Americans are fighting the Taliban in order to simultaneously deter and support an ally that cannot sustain the balance of power within its own borders. There is no pattern for such a scenario in the Byzantine playbook because they could not have imagined a great power so incapable of matching means to ends.

Middle Easterners, like those who reside within the one-time borders of the Byzantine Empire, find it difficult to believe that the Americans are not as clever as their power would seem to warrant. But it’s true – with Washington, what you see is what you get. Still, it’s hard for many Arabs, and their Israeli neighbors, to understand why an Iranian nuclear program that stands to affect US regional interests now seems less important to Washington than Afghanistan, a landlocked country without oil.

So why does Afghanistan figure so prominently in the American debate right now? Never mind the fact that some of President Obama’s opponents see Afghanistan as a chance to score points off of a man who called this the good war (and Iraq the bad one) and now can’t decide what to do about it. In addition to the convoluted rationale for securing Pakistan noted above, there are two main reasons.

The first, as the influential American counterinsurgency strategist Jon Nagl writes, is “[p]reventing Afghanistan from again serving as a sanctuary for terrorists.” That is, the Americans believe that failed states are incubators for terrorism committed by non-state actors. Of course the reality is that terror is less the upshot of failed states than it is the manufacture of functional regimes determined to export terror. 

Consider, for example, that there are no failed states on Iraq’s borders, but only hard security regimes; so who could possibly be responsible for terrorism in Baghdad? To put it another way: what will keep Iraqis safe – a stable government in a faraway place like Afghanistan, or, deterring their neighbors by sending a car bomb to, say, Damascus in exchange for every explosive detonated in the Iraqi capital? Unfortunately for the Iraqis, the latter option will become available to them only after the Americans leave.

And that brings us to the troubled heart of American strategic thinking. The Americans are leaving Iraq because they say they have won. However, many of those same policymakers, analysts and journalists argue that we must stay in Afghanistan lest withdrawal encourages America’s enemies. So, who are America’s adversaries? The American consensus, left and right, believes the US’ strategic enemy is not the states and their regional assets that have waged war against the US in Iraq, among other places, but is rather what we have come to call “radical Islam.” Despite the fact that the bulk of the Iraqi insurgency has been borne by Baathists of the Iraqi and the Syrian variety – that is, secular Arab nationalists – the Americans are worried about an amorphous and abstract entity that is as likely to strike them in Fallujah and Kabul as it is in Fort Hood, Texas. Therefore, they fear that withdrawing from Afghanistan will give a boost to “radical Islam.”

And so perhaps the most important reason why Afghanistan is important to the Americans is to show that the US does not cut and run.

Osama Bin Laden, it will be recalled, contended the US was a paper tiger and pointed to numerous examples to make his case. Let’s look at one in particular, Lebanon. After the Marine barracks bombing in 1983, President Reagan withdrew the remaining US peacekeeping forces from Beirut, an exit that Bin Laden and others count as an American defeat.

The most obvious lesson that the Americans should have drawn from the experience is that by signaling neutrality (i.e., sending peace-keepers), you are declaring that you have no vital interests at stake, and hence targeting your troops will easily dissuade you from pursuing interests that are not vital in any case, or else you would not be neutral. The Americans did not learn this lesson or else they would have taken clear sides in both Iraq and Afghanistan, but instead they signaled neutrality in their decision to do nation building. Why? Because they fear the specter of failed states and the sanctuary it gives to “radical Islam.”

It was in Lebanon that the Americans habituated themselves to ignoring the role of states in supporting terror. It was one thing to leave Beirut after Hezbollah killed 241 Marines, but it was quite another in the wake of the withdrawal for Washington to contract Lebanon policy out to Syria, or one of Hezbollah’s sponsors, for twenty years. Because the US has chosen to ignore the role of states, the one lesson they learned in Lebanon is absolutely disastrous for American strategy. That is, if you believe that you must never withdraw when under fire by a group of non-state actors – Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, the Taliban, etc. – then you are letting your adversaries define your war aims. 

Think of it like this: if the Americans are obliged to stay and fight in Afghanistan because if they don’t Osama Bin Laden will call them cowards, then where else will America’s enemies draw the battle lines? Yemen? Somalia? Venezuela? Instead of focusing its energies on strategically important venues, like Iran for instance, the US will spread its forces thin and get dragged into battles of someone else’s design.

If all of the US’s enemies were to join together and plot for a year they could not dictate a disinformation campaign as destructive as the one the Americans have forced upon themselves: your enemy is not the Middle Eastern regimes and their regional assets that war against you openly, but is rather bearded men in dark caves who embody “radical Islam.” Keep chasing ghosts, you infidel dogs, while we fight for real strategic interests, like oil, ports and states.

The Byzantines wouldn’t know what to make of the Americans; nor is there any need to consult them for the kind of sobriety that ought to determine American strategy.