Good Reads: on Afghan wars, German spies, and the 'American Spring'

This week's best stories look at lessons we should have learned from a decade of war in Afghanistan, from intelligence failures, and from press accounts of the American Revolution.

Afghanistan, the land of forever wars

In March 2001, I took my first trip into Afghanistan. The Taliban were firmly in power then, or so it seemed to me, but they seemed incapable of finishing off their main enemies, the Northern Alliance led by Ahmad Shah Massoud.  

Last March, I went back to Afghanistan after having been away for six years. President Hamid Karzai was still jokingly called the “mayor of Kabul,” because that was about as far as his influence stretched. And the combination of NATO troops and the Afghan National Army seemed incapable of finishing off their main enemies, the Taliban. The story I wrote then found important signs of progress, but worrying signs that much of this progress could be undone if Afghan leaders don’t start getting serious about the challenges they face in security, ethnic reconciliation, and corruption.

Historians and pundits like to describe Afghanistan as the “graveyard of colonial empires,” but the reality is that Afghanistan is a really hard place to rule, for foreigners and Afghan rulers alike. When Mr. Karzai steps down, as the current Constitution says he must at the end of this term in May 2014, his successor will face the same Sisyphean task of pushing for incremental improvements, and then watching gravity bring it all back to the same old chaos.

In this week’s New Yorker, Dexter Filkins brings his own long-view perspective to the question of Afghanistan’s future. The prevailing view is not, despite the best efforts of Osama bin Laden and his band of merry men, a hatred of America built on Islamist values, but rather, a profound disappointment at a wasted opportunity for Afghanistan. The Americans, with all their military and economic might, should have achieved more during their decade-long presence.

“The Americans have failed to build a single sustainable institution here,” Filkins quotes TV journalist Abdul Nasir as saying. “All they have done is make a small group of people very rich. And now they are getting ready to go.”

The drone blowback 'fallacy'

It has become conventional wisdom that America’s newest military weapons, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or drones, have become so controversial in the societies where they are used that they actually end up aiding the opposition. In Pakistan’s borderlands, in Afghanistan, and increasingly in Yemen as well, drone strikes – no matter how precise – inevitably kill civilians as well as enemy combatants, a fact that diminishes the US’s military gains because it causes more people to join the anti-American cause.

Christopher Swift, in the latest edition of Foreign Affairs, visits Yemen’s conflict-ridden tribal areas and concludes that the “blowback” effect of America’s drone war is a bit overstated.

Al Qaeda exploits US errors, to be sure. As the Yemen scholar Gregory Johnsen correctly observes, the death of some 40 civilians in the December 2009 cruise missile strike on Majala infuriated ordinary Yemenis and gave AQAP [Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] an unexpected propaganda coup. But the fury produced by such tragedies is not systemic, not sustained, and, ultimately, not sufficient. As much as al Qaeda might play up civilian casualties and U.S. intervention in its recruiting videos, the Yemeni tribal leaders I spoke to reported that the factors driving young men into the insurgency are overwhelmingly economic.

Problems at German spy agency

The resignation of Heinz Fromm, the president of Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, has given a quick peek into the spooky world of intelligence gathering. Mr. Fromm stepped down because of his agency’s inability to keep tabs on Germany’s growing and increasingly violent neo-Nazi movement. (Even a casual viewer of “Hogan’s Heroes” can see why that might be a problem.)

According to this week’s Der Spiegel, Germany’s intelligence agencies suffer from many of the same problems that American spy agencies do, specifically “regional fragmentation, complex chains of command and an excessively bureaucratic system.” The parallels go beyond those structural flaws, of course. Just as American political leaders often failed to grasp the worrisome intelligence reports about Al Qaeda in the early months of the Bush administration, so too did German politicians fail to pay attention to Fromm’s own warnings of the growing far-right menace in Germany.

How Britain’s press covered the American Revolution

Remember that moment a year and a half ago, in the early days of the Arab Spring, when it didn’t seem clear which side the Americans were on? Some elements of the Obama administration voiced support for the pro-democratic demands of Egyptian and Tunisian street protesters, while others, notably Vice President Joe Biden, voiced support for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as a key ally in the region.

In a fascinating story in Foreign Policy, Eliga H. Gould writes about how the British press covered the American Revolution, 236 years ago, and finds parallels to the American reactions to the Arab Spring, both among the news media and the political class.

As with the Arab Spring today, the British felt threatened by the American Revolution in part because their own country had done so well under the order that the revolution sought to topple. Writing in 1776, the author of an English pamphlet warned that the loss of America would dismember Britain's empire by "inclosing [sic] us within the confined seas of England, Ireland, and Scotland." Mindful that Congress was seeking allies in Europe, others worried that Britain's rivals, especially France and Spain, would use the Revolutionary War to expand their empires at Britain's expense, and there were fears that George III's colonies in Canada and the West Indies might someday follow the Americans' example. Whether America's bid for independence succeeded or failed, Britain stood to lose a great deal from the attempt.

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