I’d actually never heard of the Pentagon’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations in Afghanistan, but it was the heart and soul of Neocon philosophy. It was the office that was in charge of changing Afghanistan into a modern, democratic nation. The idea was simple enough: given enough investment, one could kickstart a free enterprise economy, free of government regulation and control, out of which would come a natural stability and the formation of a democratic system. It was almost a magic trick, taking an economy and society that had not changed appreciably in centuries and with a few hundred million dollars turning it into a market for computers and cars and hamburgers and western concepts of democratic government. But unregulated commerce and democracy went hand in hand in their thinking. The power of the free market. Regime change just naturally followed economic change. It seemed so clear to them and so absurd to us. We, of course, were right, this eight hundred million (and the goats) disappeared into thin air and Afghanistan’s ancient ways are still there.
I suppose we should feel lucky they spent only $800 million, since the Neocons spent vastly more trying to kickstart the Iraqi economy after the US conquest. According to The Guardian, “in the year after the invasion of Iraq in 2003 nearly 281 million notes, weighing 363 tonnes, were sent from New York to Baghdad for disbursement to Iraqi ministries and US contractors. Using C-130 planes, the deliveries took place once or twice a month with the biggest of $2,401,600,000 on June 22 2004….” This cash was driven into town and dispensed by the tens of millions and disappeared almost immediately. Without a trace, an official told the BBC. Twelve billion US dollars gone in a flash. “Our top priority was to get the economy moving again” potentate Paul Bremer* explained to a Congressional committee. “The first step was to get money into the hands of the Iraqi people as quickly as possible.” So they almost literally threw money at people–bosses, bureaucrats, officials, whomever. What they did with the money it no one seems to know. It was unauditable. “The numbers are so large that it doesn’t seem possible that they’re true,” said congressman Henry Waxman, “Who in their right mind would send 363 tons of cash into a war zone?” Apparently Neocons would.
The Iraqi economy did not kickstart. So they tried billions more in investment, in capital, in construction, in whatever it is that creates economies where defeat was overwhelming and the government destroyed and chaos reigned. Twelve billion dollars worth in a year’s time, also unauditable. A Neoconservative Marshall Plan, though more pure, as if we’d dropped money from B-17s onto a ruined Europe. Money and copies of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, translated. I wonder if the Neocons distributed copies of The Wealth of Nations in Arabic and Pashto?
Whatever, we know the result. The Neocons were wrong. Wrong in Iraq, and wrong in Afghanistan, just as the Soviets had been wrong with their centrally controlled socialist Afghan state a couple decades before. They left a mess, as did we. I’m not saying we haven’t done good things. There are schools there now, and there are rights for women. But the Russians built schools too, and gave rights to women. When they left the economy and society returned to its old ways, as it always does, amid the wreckage of unfinished Five Year Plans and unread copies of Das Kapital. And now traditional Afghan society is coming down from the mountains again, overwhelming our schools and our sophisticated ideas about market economies.
And in Iraq, no matter how much money we spent, we only made Saddam’s half-assed Stalinist state infinitely worse. The people there survived and even, some of them, thrived under his brutal tyranny as they’d survived and sometimes thrived under tyrannies since civilization began. In exchange we gave them anarchy. The Neocons celebrated it. “Freedom’s untidy,” Donald Rumsfeld said, “and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things.” But there was the Neoconservative upside. “They’re also free to live their lives and do wonderful things” he said, “and that’s what’s going to happen here.” It didn’t. Instead of freedom, Baghdad was subjected to looting, murder, kidnapping, rape, destruction and massacre on a scale unseen since the day Tamerlane’s Mongol Golden Horde broke though the walls in 1401. Tamerlane killed 20,000 in one day. Violence during the eight years of US occupation killed several times that. The killing continued after we left. It continues still. (Baghdad is regularly listed among the top ten most violent cities in the world.) That is the sad legacy of the Neoconservative philosophy in Iraq, apparently, people doing bad things. When they write the histories of Baghdad several centuries hence the American occupation will be seen as one of its darkest periods. Ideologies that look so dreamy and elegant in Power Point can be ugly and messy in the real world. Bright and shining lies. Inconceivable ramifications. Karl Marx could never have imagined the killing fields of Cambodia. Nor Leo Strauss the bombings and death squads and squalid corruption of a neoconservative Baghdad. Sure, there’s a difference in scale. The Cambodian genocide was Mao meets Hitler, while American occupied Iraq was just another colonial disaster, not quite Viet Nam but certainly more than the Philippine Insurrection. The scale drifts out of previous American experience, but France’s disaster in Algeria comes to mind. But there’s a common principle, I think, that threads through all of them. Perhaps you can’t just drop western political philosophies onto foreign lands and expect them to unroll like they do in textbooks. Fundamental change doesn’t come from invasions and bombs and re-education. Well, it can, if you repress people enough, at least for a while. But if you want real, permanent change, change not born of repression but acceptance, not by the sword but by logic–which is what the Neocons wanted from the Afghans and Iraqis, the logical acceptance that their ideas were right–then perhaps that change has to come from within.
It did in Europe, but it took two hundred years, three waves of revolution, several civil wars, innumerable massacres, fascism, Stalinism, industrial level genocide, two world wars and the sudden collapse of communism to get there. I think the people who look at the Arab Spring and shake their heads have forgotten that. Europe seems so peaceful now. So social democratic. So enlightened. And they see Egypt and call the Revolution a failure. They look at Syria and see nothing but violence and refugees. They look at ISIS and are justifiably terrified. But change takes time. Civilizations don’t progress instantly. The Arab Spring could be where Europe was in 1789 at the dawn of the French Revolution. Or it could be where Europe was when revolution swept it stem to stern before being crushed in 1848. The Neocons and their Task Force for Business and Stability Operations could be just another costly and ridiculous misstep on the way to something better. Change, that is truly profound change, will take longer than any of our lifetimes. These are matters of generations. None of us today will see how this will all turn out in the long run, not even if you are twenty years old and live to be a hundred. But we can look at Tunisia and hope.
* Paul Bremer, the diplomat granted virtual dictatorial powers in Iraq by President Bush, held a position comparable to General Douglas MacArthur in post-war Japan, if MacArthur had been a complete fuck up.