Old choices in Modern Times

George Washington and the Taliban


You may be wondering, “what could George Washington and the Taliban have in common?” They existed centuries apart. Well, I will add one more, that of ancient Rome and General Fabius. What is common among them is that all three were tasked with defending their nation against a foreign invader. 

There are two keys of understanding the Fabian strategy. First, never assemble a large show of force whereby if you lost the battle you could in effect lose the war. This is the heart of the genius. You could lose every battle but still win the war by exhausting the enemy. Washington did not adopt fabianism until after suffering a few catastrophic losses. Had he continued fighting the British like the British, the colonies would have surely lost. Fortunately, he was able to learn from his mistakes, and he adjusted his strategy accordingly. 

The second key of the strategy was to use a militia.  There are in effect two defensive armies, the regular army which is organized, trained and supplied, and the militia which comes out of the local volunteers that can be called upon in a minute to provide support and intelligence, can distract the enemy and interrupt supply lines, and, in total, prevent the enemy from enjoying or solidifying any success. As the American Revolution progressed, both the militia and Washington’s use of them improved. As the defender grows stronger, the invader grows weaker.

With a Fabian strategy, the invading force has no one to battle, but are in a constant state of danger and threat. Whatever gains made are instantly lost the moment they move past, and there is no way to secure everywhere simultaneously. The domestic militia will always know where the invading force is weakest and attack there, and as the invading force moves to defend its weakness, it simply creates a new weak point. This vicious cycle can continue endlessly, as the people of Afghanistan know all too well. The exhausted invader will eventually retreat and withdraw. This is what Russia experienced in Afghanistan, and what we experienced in Vietnam. No empire can conquer the free will of strangers. It is ideas that rule the world, not men. We must choose to be friend or foe.

Because the situation on the ground is perpetually hot and fluid, and differences of opinion preceded the outbreak of hostilities, the citizens are unsure of what to do. When the British occupied Philadelphia, they had the help of a great many locals. But, when the British withdrew, all the tories were exposed and undefended. When the invader betrays their local supporters by abandoning them, they will have a much harder time garnering support if and when they return. We have seen the same thing occur in Afghanistan. Every time America seeks to withdraw, our previous allies are exposed and undefended. Worse, under Trump, they were even denied safe passage out of the country. In the local populace, a leader will often rise to rally the people to one side or another, and even to take no side. The Mullahs filled that role in Afghanistan and Iraq, which has the effect of blunting what could be an even worse civil war, but the society now is a total mess, with seemingly no way out. While the invading army expected a singular enemy, their presence is creating a society of warlordism, which makes everything more difficult for everyone, including the warlord. 

It is clear to me that the war in Afghanistan is lost, and was lost from the outset. On the eve of the invasion, a reporter asked President George W. Bush why it wouldn’t turn into Vietnam, and then drew some sharp analogies in framing the question. Bush responded that it was a good question, and being unable, declined to answer it. We should have known better than to invade Afghanistan. Not only had the same thing happened to us in Vietnam, and to the Russians in Afghanistan, but also in our own colonial history. What the hell is being taught at our military schools?!!! 

Likewise, if someone were to invade America today, they would have a very difficult time. But, if their goal was only to destroy America, and not to conquer it, now would be a perfect time. We could easily descend into a “sh*thole country.” Trump, the GOP and QAnon and all the various conspiracy theories have made America very weak. Like other societies, we are incapable of solving problems, and the spiritual death that Eisenhower warned about in his farewell address has come to pass in his own party. State rights propaganda is only an interim step into a decline into warlordism, which has long been germinating in our culture and racist justice system. The attempt to disenfranchise and gerrymander the electorate is not wholly different than the Taliban’s attempt to stop elections and the education of women. The cry to not wear masks is just as loud as jihadist command to wear a burka. Claiming the flag and the military were defiled by failing to stand for the National Anthem are just as untethered from reality as some responses to cartoons, books and alleged disrespect of the Koran. God and country have a way of getting twisted beyond recognition to God or country. Self-righteousness is often wed to a merciless and hypocritical dogma.

Despite the promises of science fiction, we have no way to travel through time to fix the past or avoid the unexpected consequences of a willfully started war. The choice today is if we can find the wisdom, humility and courage to think different, try different things, and work faithfully towards a peaceful solution. There are many things that we failed to grasp in the aftermath of 9/11, both about ourselves and our attacker. The world is in a state of perpetual PTSD. Covid has given us a common enemy and an awareness to the fragility of our global co-dependence. Can we at last have the intellectual fortitude to separate the wheat from the chaff? Assuming these desires are in place, how would we make peace in Afghanistan? How do we make al Qaeda obsolete? How do we heal our own internal divides? If we can make peace in and with Afghanistan, then we can probably make peace amongst ourselves as a byproduct. It’s time to think outside the box.

My suggestion in simple: We should purchase the entire opium crop of Afghanistan. 

War has always followed trading routes. The war on drugs has made all the drug producing nations into enemies and introduced corruption and cronyism. Warlords are simple economic units, whether producing drugs or actuary tables in a Manhattan high-rise. By purchasing the entire crop, we can do multiple things simultaneously. By controlling the flow we can help drug addicts wean themselves away from destructive behaviors. We do this by making drugs free, but under clinical settings. This will collapse all the criminal enterprises associated with drugs, but they can then migrate to life-enhancing activities. With the influx of cash, Afghanistan will have a favorable balance of trade so they can purchase whatever they want to build their nation. They need not be in debt or need aid.  Poppy growers can slowly migrate to growing food instead. Our purchase would be in the form of a Universal Basic Income. Americans need the same security, but it needs to start outside of America and in the nations that the war on drugs has harmed. This same approach would work with cocaine in South and Central America, too. The rise of gangs and crime that drives migration into America is wholly unnecessary. Every part of the world should be enjoying peace and prosperity. We should be producing and trading and sharing, not running and hiding and killing and destroying. We have gone from gated borders, to gated neighborhoods, to a gated Capitol. We are prisoners of fear.

The World Trade Organization is doing its job as poorly today as the Lords of Trade were doing it in the 18th century. Finance is ruling and ruining the world. To be sure, a lot more reforms need to follow, but the first best step is to stop the war in Afghanistan. China and Britain had two wars over opium and the rights to trade in the 19th century. Similarly, America insisted upon open trade with Japan and eighty years later was attacked at Pearl Harbor. Purchasing the entire opium crop is the most direct first step on a path to peace, prosperity and coexistence. It will be a difficult and confusing negotiation because, as has become abundantly clear, money isn’t real. It’s just an intellectual agreement that has created generations of desperation. We need to find a way to peace, civility and respect. We have all the tools we need to create a better society, but we need to let go of our weapons and habits before we can build a lasting peace. If we can buy peace in Afghanistan, then we should try. We can begin by offering them two simple words: Mea Culpa.