[Marxism] Obama, Afghanistan and William Shirer

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Nov 19 07:31:33 MST 2009

History Promises Disaster in Afghanistan for Blind America

By John R. MacArthur

John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper’s Magazine and author of 
the book You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to 
Democracy in America. This column originally appeared in the 
November 18, 2009 Providence Journal.

If President Obama has ever heard of William L. Shirer, chances 
are it’s in connection with Nazi Germany. Nowadays, you can’t make 
assumptions about what people under 50 know and don’t know, but 
it’s a safe bet Obama recalls Shirer’s most famous book, The Rise 
and Fall of the Third Reich, even if he hasn’t read it.

For most people, Shirer’s chronicle of Hitler’s ascent to power 
reinforces the argument that mad dictators must never be appeased. 
Whether this is universally true, you can’t read Shirer’s or any 
other standard account of Germany between the wars without 
concluding that, given stronger French and British political will, 
Hitler could have been stopped (and maybe even overthrown by an 
internal coup), either in March 1936, when he remilitarized the 
Rhineland in violation of the Treaty of Versailles, or at some 
other point before the Munich agreement in September 1938.

However, the other night I stumbled across a part of Shirer’s 
outstanding reporting career that provided a different, urgently 
pertinent lesson and might convince Obama of another argument 
against appeasement— in this case, appeasement of mad Army 
generals, mad neo-colonialist State Department officers, and mad 
neo-conservatives, all of whom think that Afghan tribesmen can be 
brought to heel by an American military occupation employing the 
latest counterinsurgency techniques.

I hadn’t known that Shirer visited Afghanistan in 1930 until I 
happened to pick up the second volume of his memoirs (The 
Nightmare Years, published in 1984) and started reading the first 
chapter. I’m lucky I did because I’ve never seen the stupidity of 
America’s current Afghan policy so clearly laid out.

But first let’s restate the burning question: Why are we in 
Afghanistan? To start, we can dismiss the preposterous argument 
advanced by Obama’s most aggressive advisers about defending our 
country against “terrorism” in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda is nothing if 
not decentralized, and its adherents are still perfectly capable 
of attacking the United States from Canada, Boston, Hamburg, or 
Fort Hood. Anyway, terrorism, as Timothy McVeigh demonstrated in 
Oklahoma City, can originate with the nice young white man next 
door who shops at the gun store around the corner. “Fighting 
terrorism” in Afghanistan “to prevent another 9/11” simply isn’t a 
serious argument, and I suspect that even the deluded Gen. Stanley 
McChrystal understands that his men are shooting at indigenous 
Afghan rebels, not Osama bin Laden or his followers.

No, the more likely reason for killing all those people and 
wasting nearly $3.4 billion a month is an ugly mixture of vanity, 
misplaced pride, crass politics, and liberal self-righteousness. 
The Army still wants to prove it can defeat a guerrilla army and 
erase the shame of Vietnam. The politicians, Obama included, want 
to look warlike and tough, so they can’t be accused of being “soft 
on terror” in 2010. And then there are the civil servants and 
think-tank denizens known as “humanitarian interventionists”— now 
led by Hillary Clinton, who think that America’s “civilizing” 
mission in the world includes not only establishing “democracy” 
but also “freeing” Afghan women from being required to wear the burqa.

All these foolish partisans of drone bombing and “human terrain 
teams” should read Shirer’s account of slipping into war-ravaged 
Afghanistan from India as part of the entourage of Crown Prince 
Mohammed Zahir Khan, who was on his way to Kabul to rejoin his 
father, the newly proclaimed king known as Nadir Shah. The highly 
sophisticated son, only 16, “already missed” Paris, his exile 
home, and was grateful to be able to speak French with Shirer.

The British didn’t like Shirer’s reporting for the Chicago Tribune 
on Gandhi’s civil-disobedience campaign in India, so they did 
their best to keep him from getting through the Khyber Pass. 
Moreover, “they did not intend now to allow me to poke my nose 
into a country where they, like the Russians, were conniving for 

The British, of course, had notably failed to control the Afghan 
tribes, most recently in 1919, when Nadir Shah (then known as 
Nadir Khan) had commanded the Afghan forces against the colonial 
occupier. This survivor of Western realpolitik then ousted his 
latest Afghan rival from the throne, a Robin Hood figure named 
Bacha-i-Saqao. But in classic Afghan fashion, treachery took 
precedence over principle — “after promising to spare 
[Bacha-i-Saqao’s] life, [Nadir Khan] had him executed in a rather 
Afghan manner— by degrees: first stoning, then shooting, and 
finally hanging.” (Does this sound like an incubator for 
democracy?) To make matters even more sinister, it seemed that his 
majesty’s government had (in a rather British manner) secretly 
backed the power grab of its old enemy Nadir Khan in the hope of 
reasserting its influence by removing Bacha, who was Moscow’s 

In our day, such cynical, great-power maneuvering sounds absurd 
and, ultimately, pointless. These are fantastic tales of the 
distant colonial past, when intriguing European foreign offices 
played games within games to enlarge their spheres of influence — 
bureaucratically at home and territorially abroad. America, we 
flatter ourselves, is mostly immune to this sort of nonsense. 
Indeed, Nadir Shah, like Ho Chi Minh 15 years later, naïvely 
believed in the United States as a potential honest broker with a 
less acquisitive interest in countries like his.

As Shirer wrote: “Shyly, he suggested that when I returned home I 
might call the attention of Washington to his nation’s existence, 
the opportunities for American development of Afghanistan’s vast, 
untouched natural resources and the desirability of diplomatic 
recognition. ‘You are the one great country in the world which has 
no political interests in Afghanistan. If we can establish 
commercial relations with you, why not diplomatic relations?’ ”

Shirer disabused the new king of his faith in American good will 
and logic by noting that Washington, in its “peculiar blindness,” 
still had not recognized the Soviet government fully 13 years 
after the Bolshevik revolution. But even worldly-wise Shirer, 
writing more than 50 years later, did not imagine Washington 
imposing itself on a “tribal society, primitive, savage, living 
off its flocks and barren fields . . . fighting off or attacking 
hostile tribes and government tax collectors, fearless of death in 
a way I envied, illiterate, uncivilized to a Westerner, but 
conscious of a long and continuous history handed down by word of 
mouth from generation to generation.”

Only the Soviets and the British could be that self-defeating, right?

At the end of his first chapter, Shirer takes stock of the Soviet 
invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 with nearly 100,000 troops. The 
Red Army, he wrote, was “reported to be meeting the usual 
reception which Afghans gave foreign invaders…. To the surprise of 
no one who knew the land, the Russian troops apparently were 
having a more difficult time than Moscow had envisaged.”

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