Obama's Amnesia: Afghanistan and the Cold War 1

Lessons not learned from Russia.

The Spanish-born US philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952) is recorded as the originator of many famous quotes.  There are two that are particularly relevant today.  First:

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. [emphasis added] [The Life of Reason, volume 1, 1905]

Future Stress

As of the first quarter of 2009, it is pretty clear that there is no consensus on the direction of the world economy, or on the prospects of a recovery to prosperity, though Obama's steps to stimulate the economy in the US have their analogues across the Western world. The former republics of the USSR that became independent and adopted measures of free-market reform are probably suffering much more than Western Europe, insofar as reforms were incomplete, a sizable amount of corruption existed and to a considerable extent, their economies have relied on energy supplies from Russia.

The new Russia has wasted little time in learning how to use their natural gas and petroleum resources for economic leverage. After humiliating Georgia by annexing South Ossetia in fairly brazen fashion last year, it was the turn of Ukraine, Poland and other Western countries to face rising prices for energy and fuels. Being a net exporter of energy, Russia pursued the path of raising prices, which in turn caused economic hardship for governments and peoples alike and also raised the specter of being held hostage by Moscow.

I do not profess to be an economist or soothsayer but the situation is fraught with danger for all concerned.  Although American thinking that the West lost Russia is too simplistic, we should all be concerned that a reasonable working relationship with the new Russian regime has yet to emerge, at least at the public level.

For the past six months at least, the eyes of most nations turned to the US and the presidential campaign which, as everyone knows, came down to a rather unequal contest between Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama. To the jubilation of many and the chagrin of quite a number, Mr. Obama triumphed last November.

Since then, as the popular press has noted, his hair has started to turn gray.  If true, the stress of high office has been felt early.  It's instructive to look at photographs of US Presidents at the beginning of their terms compared to the end.

The awesome responsibility of being President of the United States and Leader of the Free World (although that is a term not used very often these days) soon catches up with the fittest of men.  In the case of US Presidents, it could be said that premature aging is an occupational hazard.

New presidents invariably enjoy a political honeymoon, but recent reports suggest that President Obama's approval ratings have fallen to around 60% less than two months after his inauguration; a quick glance at the Internet shows that he has no shortage of enemies at home.

For example, many websites claim that he was ineligible to be President in the first place.  Some of the more rabid have asserted that he is an Arab, a Muslim, a socialist and furthermore, he is hell-bent on gun control attempting to overturn the rights of citizens to bear arms under the Constitution.

The paradox is that the left appears to be disenchanted already by what they see as retention of the "war party" (survivors of the Bush team, especially Defense Secretary Gates); and although Mr. Obama is committed to withdrawing US forces from Iraq, he has also endorsed an extended use of armed forces in Afghanistan, a country with a long and bloody history. Questions are already being asked about his distinction between "moderate" and "extreme" elements of the Taliban.

The question is, where this contradiction in terms originate?  It is all too reminiscent of Russian disinformation or in the Arab world, taqiyya.

Enemies Friendly and Unfriendly

While my career has centered on intelligence work, the injunctions of Santayana and especially the second quote above has always resonated deeply.  I fear that my successors have somehow lost the plot, along with the records and the experience.  In the feedback to my first article, I was asked whether I considered Russia to be more dangerous than militant Islam.  I will repeat my reply in part:

No, I do not think Russia poses as big a threat as militant jihadism, or Islamofascism (or any other of the politically correct or non-PC advisory terms "suggested" by the US State Department last year, although that is a different argument). Not being a native of the US, I did not feel bound by the rules or suggestions made by State and will continue to call a shovel a shovel and not a manual digging implement.

The current Islamic threat comes in several forms.  While the mullahs and ayatollahs inflame captive audiences with sixth century ideas attributed to Mohammed, my own particular heresy is that I believe, like Santayana, that in not remembering the past, we are condemned to repeat it.  That is where drawing parallels with the great ideological struggle of the 20th century comes into sharp focus.

Like espionage, terrorism has been with us since time immemorial.  Some writers like to dress up their comments with an Old Testament quote about Joshua sending out spies to reconnoiter hostile forces. My old friends in the UK like to claim a history of successful espionage going back to the days of Sir Francis Walsingham, spymaster-in-chief for Queen Elizabeth I of England.

He attended the University of Cambridge which was sound in those days; Philby, Burgess, MacLean, and a coterie of KGB spies came later. It is said that Sir Francis hated the Spanish and Mary, Queen of Scots.

England was a great nation in those bygone days.  Today, the fall has been so dramatic that the CIA now finds it necessary to conduct clandestine intelligence gathering in the United Kingdom.

Most of us in the trade look askance at spying on one's friends, but America is faced with an unusual situation: the UK has an immense problem with Islamic fundamentalists and particularly members of Lashkar-e-Toiba, a Pakistani terror group linked to al-Qaeda believed to be behind the recent Mumbai terror attacks and the recent attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore. It's hard not to find the position of the Director of Central Intelligence to be literally between a rock and a hard place. The effectiveness of his service is increasingly questioned and a target for criticism, but to sit on his hands and leave it to the UK authorities in "Londonistan" can only be seen as only be courting danger.

The British authorities may be taking their homegrown terrorism problem as seriously as they can, but it's telling that when British Home Secretary Jacqui Smith revealed in an interview that "this year there will not be a single day in the United Kingdom without a terrorist trial on the timetable", she did so to the German publication Der Spiegel, not a local paper.

It is generally accepted that the West won World War III or the Cold War.  Unfortunately, the "peace dividend" levied on intelligence services around the world following that victory led to the loss of a great deal of experience.

To make matters worse, our victory created a most dangerous enemy, one who is unpredictable and dispersed: the global jihad movement of terrorist Islam.  Whereas many Soviet intelligence officers paid mere lip service to communism and Marx while carrying out their missions effectively, Islamic fundamentalists are serious about Islam and are quite prepared to die as martyrs.  It is self-evident that militant jihadists constitute a clear and present danger even if the media choose to ignore the threat.

When we confronted the communists, the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) worked.  Reagan and Gorbachev found common cause in a mutual desire for their grandchildren not to be incinerated in a nuclear holocaust.

Alas, one leading figure in the Taliban or al Qaeda is alleged to have stated that each jihadist was an atomic bomb.  There is probably more than a scintilla of truth in that statement: the Russian Spetznaz special forces, as effective as they could be, tried to avoid suicide missions, whereas Muslim terrorists famously seek them out.  How do you deter an enemy who wants to die?

America is not the first superpower to confront this problem.  Within living memory of many of our leaders, the Soviet Union stepped into the bear-trap of Islamic fundamentalism, receiving devastating punishment it has yet to recover from.  Barack Obama surely knows this, as do his advisers; will they learn the lessons of the steep price paid by others?

The beginning of the end was in sight for Soviet communism long before the fall of the Berlin wall.  Reagan's massive expansion and upgrading of the US Armed Forces could not be matched by the Kremlin and its satellites because of the economic flaws which are inherent in communism.

The Russian army mobilized in 1980 when disruption occurred in Poland.  I have seen an analysis of the effectiveness of the mobilization.  However, rather than invading, Russia had to fall back on the services of the great Polish "patriot" General Wojciech Jaruzelski in December 1981 to restore order by military rule and crush Solidarity, albeit for only a short time. Why?

The Soviet armed forces were already thoroughly enmeshed in Afghanistan at the time.  Having seen a series of pro-Soviet leaders attempt to rule that unhappy country with a conspicuous lack of success, the USSR took a conscious policy decision to intervene and installed their own tyrant to run the Afghan government.  Despite having overwhelming air superiority, Soviet forces were no better at asymmetrical warfare than Western armies have been.  Thereby hangs the following tale.

The Fall of the British Empire and the Rise of the Ungovernable

After winning World War II, it is believed that Britain voluntarily relinquished its Empire.  In actual fact, Britain was exhausted from World War II and had no real choice in the matter.  The United States insisted on a policy of de-colonization and independence for nations in Africa, Asia and the countries that I have no hesitation in describing as an "arc of instability": alphabetically, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.  This description is creeping into general use.

I had long ago concluded that the postwar situation in the subcontinent, as it was known, was a mess waiting to happen.  British cartographers, surveyors, traders, and governors knew that a few areas had natural boundaries but that others did not.  As in Africa, the final decisions were made in Whitehall by bureaucrats who drew relatively straight lines on maps and ignored the demographics of the "countries" concerned.  Having proclaimed independence, they retired back to their cubicles to watch the show.

India achieved independence in 1947 but soon split with the Muslim majority in East and West Pakistan.  Not unsurprisingly, Hindu facing Muslim was a combustible mix.  The two nations have now fought three major wars, one minor war, and numerous armed skirmishes over the (still) disputed region of Kashmir.

During the Cold War, India forged ties with the USSR and Pakistan with China.  Bangladesh emerged as a separate entity from the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971.  East Pakistan had suffered from geographic isolation along with linguistic and economic problems posed by being separated from West Pakistan by the formidable bulk of India.  With independence it became the People's Republic of Bangladesh, an impoverished nation from inception and economically marginally viable today, despite fertile soil and much foreign aid.

The British bureaucrats also drew lines that were called "borders" in another area of great contention - the Middle East - by the migration of Jewish people and the establishment of Israel.  The conflict between Israel and its neighbors has culminated in many bloody wars and remains a given.  Israel is the only democracy in the area and is a strategic ally of the US.

In many respects, Israel was built on shame and guilt for the lack of allied interest in liberating concentration camps in Germany before Hitler's final collapse.  Of the many people on the face of the earth, the Israelis or the Jewish nation are perhaps the most justified in using the words: "never again."  This does not make them particularly easy allies with whom to work.  They are surrounded by countries whose sworn aim is to destroy the state of Israel and eliminate the Jewish people.

The Muslim goal of Israel's final destruction is quite clear despite the usual run of double-talk and taqiyya - the Islamist analog of disinformation, deception and dissimulation familiar to some of us as active measures of disinformation which proved so effective for Russia during the Cold War.

The specter of revolutionary Iran under the rule of the mullahs and a devout president whose beliefs are indisputably apocalyptic must be of concern everywhere.  Russian-North Korean-Iranian cooperation on nuclear power and the almost certain outcome of a nuclear-armed Iran only makes the future look grimmer.

Politics in Israel are in a state of flux at present but the news that Benjamin Netanyahu is to be the next prime minister sends an icy shiver up various spines because of his notions of a greater Israel.  The collision between these two forces appears inevitable, and with nuclear arms on both sides, defies the imagination.

The only people deriving any pleasure at all in the situation are those believers in the last days mentioned in the Bible; some extreme Christian Zionists in America appear to revel in the possibility of a final conflict in the Middle East.  For the moment, we can take relations between Israel and its neighbors as a hot spot that is unlikely to be cooled by Ms. Hillary Clinton or by any other Western statesman.

So how does this unhappy part of the world relate to the fall of the old USSR and Obama's wilful blindness?  In the next article, we'll explore the history and results of the last-but-one superpower invasion of Afghanistan to find the lessons Obama does not want to learn.

Christopher Marlowe is a retired intelligence operative from a major NATO nation.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Christopher Marlowe or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
Reader Comments
Mr. Marlowe (is that, by the way, a nome-de-plume?), thank you indeed for your incisive and refreshingly un-tainted articles. I am an avid reader of Scragged and consider the addition of your contributions to be invaluable to this rich resource.
April 6, 2009 11:54 AM
First we had "axis of evil" and now we have "arc of instability". Someone needs to create a web interactive that overlays all these countries, regions and terms.
April 6, 2009 12:07 PM
Looked it up. Silly question about the nome-de-plume. I had been unaware of Marlowe's supposed service to Sir Francis Walsingham. Nice pseudonym!
April 6, 2009 12:38 PM
Good history here and some excellent lessons we can take note of now. History has a way of doing that. Obama and his friends, as you said, do not WANT to learn these lessons. Given their political agendas, are they ABLE to learn them?
April 6, 2009 12:50 PM
When will anyone in the administration have time to learn anything? They got St. Vistus' Dance - fixing health care, Detroit car makers, financial regulation, education, the overall economy, entitlements, and, last but not least on the domestic front, social security, PLUS internationally the Middle East and what they've been calling AfPak, Korea, Iran going nuclear, Russia resurgent, Mexico and Columbia drug cartels challenging their governments. I'm reminded of a song whose chorus went, "Oh, when will they ever learn, when will they ever learn."

IMO, never.
April 6, 2009 1:09 PM
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