The meaning of Afghanistan

"The thing it is doing is by no means the thing we want to have done."

How’s it going, America? On the day of the fall of Afghanistan, what is the state of the USG? We can do no better than Carlyle, in 1850:

The State, left to shape itself by dim pedantries and traditions, without distinctness of conviction, or purpose beyond that of helping itself over the difficulty of the hour, has become, instead of a luminous vitality permeating with its light all provinces of our affairs, a most monstrous agglomerate of inanities, as little adapted for the actual wants of a modern community as the worst citizen need wish. The thing it is doing is by no means the thing we want to have done.

One such inanity was… spending trillions of dollars, and of course thousands of lives, on Afghanistan—an enterprise devoid of reason from bottom to top. Westernizing Afghanistan was not a reasonable goal for the USG, nor was this project conducted in a reasonable way.

Why did this happen? Very simply: because no one is in charge of the government.

Indeed President Biden is far more in charge of it than President Trump—which is not much at all—and personally (I think) overrode the decision points that would have kept US forces in Afghanistan. Credit to the old man—credit where credit is due. But it’s the exception that proves the rule.

Carlyle ascribes his “monstrous agglomerate of inanities” to a dysfunctional republic whose elected “leaders” are only trying to grab and keep their illustrious jobs:

A mighty question indeed! Who shall be Premier, and take in hand the “rudder of government,” otherwise called the “spigot of taxation;” shall it be the Honorable Felix Parvulus, or the Right Honorable Felicissimus Zero?

By our electioneerings and Hansard Debatings, and ever-enduring tempest of jargon that goes on everywhere, we manage to settle that; to have it declared, with no bloodshed except insignificant blood from the nose in hustings-time, but with immense beershed and inkshed and explosion of nonsense, which darkens all the air, that the Right Honorable Zero is to be the man.

That we firmly settle; Zero, all shivering with rapture and with terror, mounts into the high saddle; cramps himself on, with knees, heels, hands and feet; and the horse gallops—whither it lists. That the Right Honorable Zero should attempt controlling the horse—Alas, alas, he, sticking on with beak and claws, is too happy if the horse will only gallop any-whither, and not throw him.

Measure, polity, plan or scheme of public good or evil, is not in the head of Felicissimus; except, if he could but devise it, some measure that would please his horse for the moment, and encourage him to go with softer paces, godward or devilward as it might be, and save Felicissimus's leather, which is fast wearing. This is what we call a Government in England, for nearly two centuries now.

This horse, by second-nature, religiously respects all fences; gallops, if never so madly, on the highways alone;—seems to me, of late, like a desperate Sleswick thunder-horse who had lost his way, galloping in the labyrinthic lanes of a woody flat country; passionate to reach his goal; unable to reach it, because in the flat leafy lanes there is no outlook whatever, and in the bridle there is no guidance whatever. So he gallops stormfully along, thinking it is forward and forward; and alas, it is only round and round, out of one old lane into the other;—nay (according to some) "he mistakes his own footprints, which of course grow ever more numerous, for the sign of a more and more frequented road;" and his despair is hourly increasing.

In Afghanistan, USG’s 75-year-old “national-security establishment,” a mighty thunder-horse indeed, just spent 20 years mistaking its own footprints for a road to the future. Woops. “And his despair is hourly increasing.” Let me offer some cold hope.

“National security” is a euphemism for “world domination,” the belief being that our nation cannot be secured against Nazis, al-Qaeda, etc, except by dominating the world. Or rather, “providing global leadership.” If any spot on the map be left unled, it seems, Nazis and al-Qaeda may concentrate there—plotting, breeding, etc.

75 years ago this made… a certain amount of sense? And it’s always great to embed an assumption in a label—though this is why, when we realized that America’s enemies could just get tourist visas and invade us by United, we realized we needed another word—which is how we wound up with “homeland security”—or, in the original German, Heimatsicherheit. The whole establishment is—a tragic, hilarious and shambolic mess.

Because of course it is! Because no one is in charge of it. Because anything that no one is in charge of is a mess.

But what would it mean to clean up this mess? Carlyle again:

“Reform” in that Downing-Street department of affairs is precisely the reform which were worth all others; that those administrative establishments in Downing Street are really the Government of this huge ungoverned Empire; that to clean out the dead pedantries, unveracities, indolent somnolent impotences, and accumulated dung-mountains there, is the beginning of all practical good whatsoever.

Yes, get down once again to the actual pavement of that; ascertain what the thing is, and was before dung accumulated in it; and what it should and may, and must, for the life’s sake of this Empire, henceforth become: here clearly lies the heart of the whole matter. 

And how might we do that, Mr. Carlyle?

The practical question puts itself with ever-increasing stringency to all English minds: Can we, by no industry, energy, utmost expenditure of human ingenuity, and passionate invocation of the Heavens and Earth, get to attain some twelve or ten or six men to manage the affairs of this nation in Downing Street and the chief posts elsewhere, who are abler for the work than those we have been used to, this long while?

For it is really a heroic work, and cannot be done by actors, and dexterous talkers having the honor to be: it is a heavy and appalling work; and, at the starting of it especially, will require Herculean men; such mountains of pedant exuviae and obscene owl-droppings have accumulated in those regions, long the habitation of doleful creatures; the old pavements, the natural facts and real essential functions of those establishments, have not been seen by eyes for these two hundred years last past!

Of course, collective management sucks. Twelve managers may be better than nothing; but six are better than twelve, and one is better than six. (Carlyle would not disagree—he is referring to England’s system of cabinet government, which at the time worked more like a C-suite.)

In the American context, the lesson is clear. The straightforward way to put someone in charge of the government is to elect a “constitutional President” with a mandate to be a national CEO, who recaptures unconditional authority over the executive branch (which is currently micromanaged by the legislative branch).

But what might this new national CEO do?

Afghanistan offers a clue—because it hints that, if the “natural facts and real essential functions” of US foreign policy were scrubbed clear of owl-droppings, it might appear not only that US forces could be withdrawn from Afghanistan—but also, Germany and Japan. It might appear not only that the US has no need to dominate Afghanistan—but also that it has no need to dominate anywhere else in the world. How strange!

The President is not in charge of the executive branch unless he has unconditional power to restructure it. Assuming that power, how would he restructure the national-security establishment? What would he do with State and Defense?

This is even the wrong question. For it is not just the policies of these institutions that have been judged and found wanting—it is not just their structures, or even personnel—it is their purpose. Even if they worked well, they would be doing the wrong thing.

Does the United States, in some sense, need a foreign policy? Does it need a military? Sure. Would a reformed military use the equipment, many of the personnel, even some of the structures, of the old military? Sure. Would a reformed diplomacy use anything from the old diplomacy? Surely not—even embassies are dinosaurs in the Internet age. Carlyle has some more things to say:

No:—Britain has in fact certain cottons, hardwares and such like to sell in foreign parts, and certain wines, Portugal oranges, Baltic tar and other products to buy; and does need, I suppose, some kind of Consul, or accredited agent, accessible to British voyagers, here and there, in the chief cities of the Continent: through which functionary, or through the penny-post, if she had any specific message to foreign courts, it would be easy and proper to transmit the same. Special message-carriers, to be still called Ambassadors, if the name gratified them, could be sent when occasion great enough demanded; not sent when it did not.

But for all purposes of a resident ambassador, I hear persons extensively and well acquainted among our foreign embassies at this date declare, That a well-selected Times reporter or “own correspondent” ordered to reside in foreign capitals, and keep his eyes open, and (though sparingly) his pen going, would in reality be much more effective;—and surely we see well, he would come a good deal cheaper! Considerably cheaper in expense of money; and in expense of falsity and grimacing hypocrisy (of which no human arithmetic can count the ultimate cost) incalculably cheaper!

If this is the fact, why not treat it as such? If this is so in any measure, we had better in that measure admit it to be so! The time, I believe, has come for asking with considerable severity, How far is it so?

Nay there are men now current in political society, men of weight though also of wit, who have been heard to say, “That there was but one reform for the Foreign Office,—to set a live coal under it,” and with, of course, a fire-brigade which could prevent the undue spread of the devouring element into neighboring houses, let that reform it!

“Or through the penny-post.” A President who was really the nation’s chief executive, a new FDR or an American Atatürk, would not even bother with these dinosaur agencies. He would adopt Carlyle’s reform—also that of Hercules.

And where comparable state functions were needed, he would build agencies from scratch. new agencies, solving problems now left to fester—

And what is in those neighboring houses, anyway? Un-due spread, we must prevent. But birds of a feather flock together…