Friday, July 2, 2010

“A semi-colonial policing operation”?

Say what you will about Mark Steyn’s apocalyptic conservatism, but he has a way of getting to the heart of things. Consider his rant yesterday about Afghanistan (my emphasis):
“The toppling of the Taliban was an operation conducted with extraordinary improvised ingenuity and a very light U.S. footprint. Special forces on horseback rode with the Northern Alliance and used GPS to call in air strikes: they’ll be teaching it in staff colleges for decades to come. But then the Taliban scuttled out of town, and a daring victory settled into a thankless semi-colonial policing operation, and then corroded further under the pressure of the usual transnational poseurs.”
In what respect are our exertions in Afghanistan a “semi-colonial policing operation”?

It’s not a matter of our having a colonialist’s motives. Traditional imperialists thought they were not only permitted, but entitled, to exploit people they regarded as less civilized than themselves. They may have persuaded themselves that, by taking up the “white man’s burden,” they were conferring benefits on colonized people by civilizing them. But any benefits thereby conferred were an incidental byproduct of the process of extracting value from the colonies. Imperialists were more than willing to pay the price in blood and treasure of mounting expeditionary forces not out of humanitarian zeal, but because colonial policing was an ordinary cost of doing business as an imperialist power. When once-sturdy colonialists started thinking after World War II that the cost was exorbitant, that signaled that they were getting out of the imperialism racket.

Our prosecuting the Afghanistan war may be stupid, but it’s not exploitative in the manner of colonialism. Our COIN strategy is premised on the assumption that we can only achieve our own national security objective of denying terrorists sanctuary in Afghanistan by conferring permanent benefits on the Afghans that will cost us dearly in blood and treasure. Maybe we’re shooting ourselves in the foot without doing the Afghan people any favors, but that’s the plan.

When Steyn calls the war a “semi-colonial policing operation” he’s making a point not about our motives but about our will. He’s arguing that, whatever strategy you adopt, the willingness to prosecute the War on Terror in Afghanistan and elsewhere has become an ordinary cost of doing business as a super power. So if we decide that we’re unwilling to bear the costs in blood and treasure, that’s a sign that were getting out of the super power racket.

Steyn’s way of putting things doesn’t tell you whether being a super power is worth the trouble. But it’s not a bad way of describing the menu of options we’re confronting.

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