Monday, 29 April 2019

Book review
Vortex Of Conflict: US Policy Toward Afghanistan, Pakistan And Iraq, By D. Caldwell, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2011 (First South Asian Edition 2012), in The Book Review, XXXVI (9), Sept 2012
Caldwell, D. (2011), Vortex of Conflict: US Policy Toward Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, New Delhi: Cambridge University Press India Ltd, First South Asian Edition 2012, pp. 389, Rs. 995/-, ISBN 978-81-7596-927-8.

Dan Caldwell is Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Pepperdine University, California, characterised in its website as ‘a Christian university’. Why this seemingly innocuous detail finds mention here is that the Professor in dealing with the interminable war launched by the US with its coalition allies in tow in South Asia and South West Asia has been less than even handed. While acknowledging that he has dwelt on American policy, warts and all, his has been an American democrat’s critique. While critical of the war in term of its strategic aim and conduct, the Professor is unable to get himself to pronounce unambiguously on its illegality in first place and the illegitimacy of several actions taken in the name of freedom and democracy in second place. It is no wonder then that the book is dedicated to American servicemen and their families, a dedication explicated by the author in his preface as owing to his book being inspired by a chance meeting on a beach by two marines in prostheses. Therefore, to this reviewer, the book is yet another one to help Americans feel better about themselves and the war.

To begin with, the book is inappropriately titled. It deals largely with Iraq, with Afghanistan and Pakistan thrown in to form the backdrop since the Afghanistan war preceded the one in Iraq. In case the Afghanistan war was also on the author’s beat, then developments there over the Obama presidency needed to have figured in greater detail in the narrative once the scene had shifted away from Iraq with the departure of George ‘Dubya’ Bush from the White House. The author’s skipping over how the US lost sight of the ball in play in South Asia, by wandering off to Iraq is suggestive of a blind spot. Even though the author mentions ‘Oil’, it is one made in passing as one of at least four reasons why the US went to war. That US attention wandered on to Iraq, even before Al Qaeda was eliminated and Afghanistan stabilised, bespeaks of the real strategic intent behind the war. Therefore not to say it out loud is to obfuscate.

This needs spelling out at the very outset to undercut the author’s case that the war getting messed up can be attributed to an inattentive president and a few ambitious neocons and hypernationalists. To him the war was an understandable reaction to a terror attack on US soil; if only it could have been waged a little better!His take is that the unfounded assumptions of the neocons, based on ideological predispositions and the false input from Iraqi expatriates, led to a myopic policy that overlooked the post war reconstruction phase by focussing instead on the prior ‘kinetic’ phase alone. It is clear from the denouement in Afghanistan that there has been little consideration of this even now despite the war there becoming the longest war in American history.

Instead, responsibility for the war and the eminently avoidable hurt and grief sustained by its victims needs to be laid at the door of the navel-gazing American public. They allowed their democracy to be hijacked by an incompetent president. Their inability to bring their lawmakers to balance the executive, despite the million-strong march against the war - missed entirely by the author - speaks of a terrible drawback in their otherwise much applauded democratic system. Having witnessed the havoc this can cause on other societies, a case can easily be made that keeping Americans democratic, free and in plenty is proving much too costly for the world.

It needs reminding that the US had not stayed on for reconstruction of Afghanistan after its terrible proxy war against the Soviets. On the contrary, it had tried to prop up the Taliban so as to bring about stability in Afghanistan to enable pipelines for access to Central Asia then opening up. On the Iraq front it had continued the Iraq War I through sanctions that reportedly resulted in six hundred thousand dead children. The deaths were openly acknowledged by Madeline Albright as a price the US was willing to pay. For the author to dwell appreciatively on the overrunning of such an Iraq by the American military in Iraq War II is to miss out on the extensive ‘preparation of the battlefield’ that had been going on even during the preceding Democrat administration of two terms.

Given this immediate history of US engagement with the region and its support to authoritarian regimes, which the US was taken on in an asymmetric struggle was unsurprising. To castigate even nationalist impulses within the opposition as terrorism, the consistent refrain post 9/11, must be exposed as an attempt at discourse dominance. Though the author does mention Abu Gharaib, military contractors, bureaucratic infighting, Bush’s religious predilections etc., these merely help him try and explain how and why things went wrong. There is little deliberation over the nature of the American footprint in terms of the efficacy of drone attacks; the numbers of civilian dead in both wars; the sectarian and ethnic furrows that have irredeemably opened up; the opportunity costs;  effects on global strategic culture of militarisation; the economic price; the home front scene of security legitimised growth of the new American ‘garrison’ state etc. It neglects pertinent issues as the military-industrial complex and its influence on American politics, even though the author covers the role of the vice president, Dick Cheney, who straddled both worlds. It tells of the forging of the document purportedly from Niger that was used to make the case for war on Iraq on grounds of eliminating weapons of mass destruction. However, the author, a political science professor, should really have taken the point further to see as to why American public has allowed itself to be lied to.

The book, though published in 2011, seems caught in a time wrap with its conclusion carrying twenty six strategic level lessons for the US. Typically, these,by highlighting how not to have fought this war, show how to fight the next one. In other words, the book only serves to whet the continuing American appetite for war. The manner the ‘end game’ is playing out in Afghanistan suggests that Americans have learnt little from the war. With books such as this one to inform their thinking, it is unlikely they ever will either. This perhaps explains why Pakistan figures in the title of the book. With the author having listed as one among his twenty six ‘lessons and legacies’: ‘Pay attention to Pakistan’; it would not surprise this reviewer if the theatre of war next moves to Pakistan.

That said, the book is a useful one for beginners as introduction to the central international event of last decade and its main players. It carries a fairly comprehensive bibliography and notes. The book is therefore at best one best suited for undergraduate students at his university. However, being American centric, the book is clearly not the last word. In fact, until the Arab and Afghan side of the story gets told, history will not be complete. For this, the US will first have to be stopped from war: better done by its own people exercising their much wonted democratic credentials.