Monday, November 15, 2010

'In the Graveyard of Empires'

Poor Seth G. Jones. He's got to feel like he's got the worst timing on the planet. He began researching In the Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan when the conflict was mostly absent from the American consciousness, the ugly older warchild from a failed first marriage of terror and overreaction.

By the time his book was published in 2009, however, the 2008 American election and overconfidence in the Iraqi "surge" had returned Afghanistan to the forefront of military and anti-terror debate. Instead of having the established book that armchair policy wonks would rush to buy to sound credible when joining the conversation, his text seemed like another voice suddenly added to an existing conversation.

Worse still, his thesis for correcting American errors in Afghanistan relies heavily on current counterinsurgency theory, which not only met sharp criticism prior to and during "the surge," but which increasingly fell out of favor even with conservative pundits like George Will. Not only had he lost the chance to be speaking out about an overlooked war, he was now addressing it in terms of strategic policy that was losing the initiative against domestic opposition.

As if a final insult, in 2010, with a paperback edition and an expanded afterword, Jones and other Afghanistan experts were blindsided by the Wikileaks Afghan data, 92,000 documents that would necessarily call into question the conclusions of every "Afghan War" history preceding their release. To put this in perspective, the Pentagon Papers irrevocably changed the historiography of the Vietnam war with only 7,000 pages of information. The Wikileaks papers comprise 85,000 more documents, to say nothing of individual page counts.

Seth G. Jones's book is a lot like the nation it's about: progressively and relentlessly fucked. Although, to be fair, he has brought some of it on himself.

Things are not all bad. Newshounds may not find new policy elucidated within its pages, but the majority of readers aren't military and policy nuts and have not already joined an Afghanistan debate armed with ten years of history, facts and figures. For them, Graveyard makes a very helpful companion volume for discussion. It provides an economical synthesis of American action in the country since 2001, tracing the military and policy successes that toppled the Taliban, the draw-down of troops and transfer of key personnel to the Iraq theater in 2003, the Taliban resurgence and finally America's renewed commitment to the country in 2008.

While catching you up on ten years of history, Jones offers some historical context, from Alexander the Great and the British empire, to Maoist revolution and Soviet counter-insurgency tactics. The brief glosses inserted within the larger narrative ensure at least a cocktail party-level knowledge of the topics, sufficient to understand how they nominally relate to Afghanistan but probably not enough to safely bluff a stranger for more than a minute. (Unless you're really attractive; then they won't care.)

Oddly, it's in this entirely voluntary respect that Jones' book first falters. Take the title, for instance. While it's very possible that an editor insisted on it over Jones' objections, it's also clear that the author lacked much interest in exploring the larger historical context of "a graveyard of empires." The preface flirts with Alexander and the Raj before devoting slightly more attention to the Soviet occupation. However, the first chapter of the book merely recapitulates the preface's information without elaborating on it. The reader gets a repeated blast of the same essentially disinterested data. Jones can't wait to get to America and 2001; thus he diminishes a significant historical foundation, leaving mostly unexplored spooky prologue.

His intense focus on 2001-8 would instantly excuse the above, but it also feels as if the material gets an offhanded stylistical treatment, thrown together with the expectation that the reader's attention will hold or that he can connect the dots. He frequently repeats information or jumps back or forward in time, fragmenting the flow of events for a lay reader. Because he largely covers familiar ground addressed in the newspaper or the pages of The Atlantic, Harper's and the New Yorker, it would be wiser if he had chosen a more linear approach and a more accessible and personable tone. Instead, Jones, who is an analyst for the RAND Corporation, exhibits every sign of writing like a military and policy analyst — which is to say, "Not like people."

He uses acronyms as soon as possible, and seemingly no military noun with a slash mark in the title goes unemployed. He also enjoys military euphemism, briefing-speak, etc. At times it begins to feel as if the real intended audience for this book is soldiers who are about to be deployed to the theater. In almost every germane structural, syntactical and entertainment respect, it resembles a military policy proposal, which is not particularly fun to read and which is a field of study not many history students pursue anymore for that reason.*

* — They also don't pursue it because a lot of military history and policy is written at the expense — or with the presumption of the marginal significance — of social, economic and political histories. Except at the highest level of talent and erudition, it tends to be a willfully myopic field. It's also a reflexively myopic one, in that those who love military history appear to write it for those who love military history, until it becomes this cliquish thing — insider patter for the same 250 people who see each other at the symposia every year, or valor porn for dads.

At its worst, military history concedes that surrounding events are mere movements leading to the ultimate necessity: having combat personnel do combat. Tribal rivalries and conflicts over resources become important because you can go to war over them; the ability to employ the solution (force) is the only determinant of value in the evaluation of the problem. It reads like world events taught via composing a mystery backward. We begin with the murder; then we ask ourselves who deserved to commit it and how cool it would be to get away with it, then backtrack until we eventually figure out where the fuck they might have come from (if it matters). It's the Transformers 2 theory of historicity: the sex and fight scenes are the golden bits, and everything else is the extraneous word slag that connects them. Jones' work is not nearly so fixated (he's far more mindful of sectarian and social issues); nevertheless military concerns are his primary focus.

That said, he has the idiom down pat. Military historians also seem to really love using cliquish terms and technical expressions. They like to know troop levels, food stores, gallons of gasoline, and abbreviations and acronyms are better than the real words that they're likely thinking of: strength, health, endurance. If this sounds a lot like people conducting a campaign in a role-playing game, it should. A lot of the guys in your college's RPG club who didn't plan to become computer engineers probably became military history students before realizing there were only 250 openings in that field and getting a job as a computer engineer anyway.

I apologize for the digression, but I bring this up because after a while, I started hearing certain phrases from Jones' book in the voice of this sweet but really wonky kid from my history undergrad courses. He was the only person in the entire department studying military history, and he would always use as much military history idiom as possible, even when wholly inapplicable to the discussion. At one point I'm pretty sure he argued that LBJ should have forced a vote "hell bent for leather" through the senate. I haven't seen him in years, but if you told me that yesterday he'd found a way to hack his car's GPS to give him audible commands like, "TURN LEFT AT MILL ST. AND GO HELL BENT FOR LEATHER SIX MILES," I would totally believe you.

That said, the book's greatest shortcoming is its lack of context. Because the histories of Alexander, Britain and the USSR in Afghanistan receive such short shrift, the concept of a graveyard of empires merely exists. It's there, mostly weightless, a dramatic trope invoked without asking what it means. In a way, this explains American policy in Afghanistan better than much of the book, because it exemplifies it without any self-awareness. Afghanistan is a graveyard of empires, well, sort of because; and we're in Afghanistan, well, sort of because. Whether the importance of one should impress itself with crushing reality doesn't really matter, because both facts exist simultaneously and without any necessary relationship to each other because both merely are.

Perhaps this last effect is engendered by an unwillingness on Jones' part to bite the hand that funds him. When he outlines Soviet failures in Afghanistan, he notes how the Soviet general staff failed because they focused on holding three major cities and conceding control of the southern part of the country to tribal warlords. He then describes American policy as virtually identical without underlining how doomed and shortsighted it is. When historical context casts negative light on American conduct, the reader is mostly left to infer it when it's not soft-pedaled.

Nothing illustrates this more than his quick gloss on Maoist revolution, a strategy which focused primarily on the peasant-controlled countryside and conceded the cities to foreign(-funded) forces. That American policymakers were willing to ship their best Afghanistan experts to Iraq — when not ignoring them outright — echoes our willingness to blind ourselves in China when experts in the State Department persistently viewed the country as it was, in contravention of how Time's Henry Luce saw it.

The great thing about making sure that the people in charge of interpreting a country know little about it is that they are unencumbered by the notion that they are wrong. A salient observation like this dies in the middle of Jones' text. (And you can forget about Vietnam, which appears to be the ultimate bad word for the book — listed in the index as few times as can be counted on by fingers — a conflicted exacerbated by post-Mao Republican purges of the State Department, one which remains the most pertinent comparative lesson for today). Implying that we might be repeating the Soviet Union's errors toes the line enough; explicitly acknowledging that we've repeated our own seems almost dangerous. Ideology and empiricism make bad sexual partners. Even in a historical analysis, the past shouldn't be allowed to impinge on the given proposition that we are in Afghanistan because we should be, all foreboding book titles aside.

The triune problems of technical writing, bad timing and an absence of context come together in Jones' overall roadmap for Afghanistan. After spending a large part of the book explaining how these programs were obstructed from 2001-8, he lays out a thoughtful doubling down on programs for suppressing corruption, establishing a national police force, promoting inter-tribal cooperation and making sure local Afghan government prevents the Taliban from occupying power vacuums by providing essential services and protections to citizens, while coordinating with the national government and foreign forces.

Apart from being a little dry and acronym-heavy, it sounds great. The only problem is that it's a prescription for a fantasyland. Supposedly the obstructions that prevented these things from happening before can be overcome because we'll have more money and troops this time, and we'll also care harder at the problems. But this ignores that:
a. Washington policy types have grown increasingly dubious of the reliability of "surge"-like counterinsurgency theory, because
b. for it to work outside a few cities or — I don't know, pick a term — strategic hamlets requires a ton of money.
Ultimately, that's money we don't have. Maybe in 2001, with a sudden and intense deployment of hundreds of thousands of troops and with our insistence on concomitant deployments from committed allies, an effective national counterinsurgency strategy could have been employed from the start and not as a stop-gap response. But years of dicking around with Donald Rumsfeld's "small footprint" plans, over a trillion dollars siphoned to Iraq and then five years of indifference to Afghanistan have racked up quite a bill that the previous administration had no interest in figuring out how to pay and that America still doesn't want to hear about now.

The above shortcomings are a pity. Seth G. Jones' book is far from stupid. He obviously has a firm grasp on American military actions, attempts at international solutions and our unilateral and collective foreign policy objectives. He also has a strong appreciation for national rebuilding in cooperation with tribal groups rather than empty centralized fiat. Anyone reading the book will develop an informed appreciation for the ebb and flow of American power and its military fortunes since 2001, as well as our failures to coordinate with our allies and appreciate the need for standardized national Afghan institutions. But unfortunately they will learn this via an under-contextualized analysis leading to a decontextualized future program.

Despite his noble aspirations for this country and Afghanistan, Jones' prescriptions address a kind of non-place. The America that can enact them doesn't exist either economically or from a public-opinion standpoint. Moreover, the America that he wants to make these assessments and sacrifices is one he himself is not willing to look at as a whole. Cursory mentions of China and Vietnam and our commitment to them are inconsistent with a realistic appraisal of how much we are willing to understand a place like Afghanistan and our ability to shape it on terms it can agree with, no matter how noxious to neoconservative plans for utopia.

Jones' choice of title illuminates his ambitions as an analyst as well as how he doesn't fully succeed in meeting them. How Afghanistan is a graveyard of empires merits mention but lacks a fuller historical context. The term justifies itself. Our commitment to Afghanistan and our ultimate ability to prevail do the same. By not asking what the term signifies, Jones avoids asking the hard questions about what the American presence does there as well. The reality of one is as immutable and inexorable as another. Without the tempering force of context, the easier it is to accept both conditions on faith.

Rating: 3.5
I really can't stress enough how much one's impression of the book will likely differ based on familiarity with the broad strokes of the Afghanistan war. Those who've read a lot of news or periodicals will inevitably focus more on writing style, historical context and interpretations/conclusions, essentially the historiography of the text. Those reading to discover "what happened," will surely find the book more enjoyable and a pleasantly reliable reference work, if drily written and with a tendency to hop around. Military history "dad" types should also have much more fun with the book. Those who consider themselves amateur policy wonks might want to give it a shot from the library only. Meanwhile, keeping up with Harper's, the New Yorker and the British papers will be of more help, especially as the US and UK reevaluate their commitments and also their appraisals of the value of the current de rigueur counterinsurgency policies.

Also, this definitely isn't the place to get into it, but for a single volume on Afghanistan, I still recommend the historically detailed and far more engagingly written Ghost Wars by Steve Coll.