America in Afghanistan: Looking Back From 2050

… the iconic image is the woman weeping, the left side of her face blistered from the fireball, in front of the toppled Jinnah monument. The stereoimage was taken on Dog Day 2 (May 23, 2018), and is now seen as the symbol of The Wrong Turn. … However, even most historians forget that the Dog Days led initially to an outpouring of fear, record-breaking mass demonstrations, and public demands for action. There was a moment of hope, and a brief halt before the collapse. The IR2F2 (International Relief and Recovery Force-and-Fund), emergency relief measures established in the panicked atmosphere of the Mombasa Summit, seemed to be working by the Winter of 2018-19. Commenters and politicians at the time genuinely believed that the disaster was now over. But the “Irty-Firty” period was a bitterly brief Indian Summer for the Pre-WT world. Rat Day (June 1, 2020) put an end to those illusory hopes, and ushered in the TT Era (variously Time of Troubles or Terrible Twenties).
… It is impossible to ever know the total number of lives lost, but world population certainly fell by over two billion by 2029. … The stereoimage of the first Chinese Pope, John Paul IV, embracing Zeng Hongzhang, Chairman of the New Righteousness United Evangelical Churches of China, both barefoot and clad in a plain brown robes, at the convening of the Pilgrimage Out of Darkness in New Beijing (November 2029), is the popular symbol of the beginning of the New Sanity Era. …
… With the universal re-accession of all American States, Territories, Free Zones, Free Cities and New Hansa Zones to the Restored Old Constitution, all are now signatories to the Anglosphere Network Commonwealth Heritage Association Pact of 2041. ANCHA brought an end to the unpopular legal prohibition of all positive depiction of the American military. The roaring public demand for TI (total immersion) products based on US military history continues unabated … .
… Despite being a footnote in terms of substantive historical impact, any American history covering the Dog Days will necessarily cover the heroic ordeal of the American military withdrawal from Afghanistan. Most students will have made a fictionalized version of this journey themselves via the popular Total-Immersion Epic Himalayan Anabasis. Despite having “personally” made this fighting retreat, most students other than Expert Level History certificate applicants will have no idea what the 22,000 American and Allied troops were trying to accomplish there in the first place … .

… It is now estimated that World GDP reached pre-WT levels in the first quarter of 2037, which few would have believed possible as late as 2029 … .

from the TI Learning/Study BookStereoVid-Set, A History of the United States of America: Rise, Greatness, Dissolution and Rebirth (Teachers Guide) (2051)

Deep currents in history are real. Those of us who care about such things try to be aware of them. We can try to discern the deep patterns at work in our own era, to help us to understand what the darkened room of the future might contain. If that is all there were to life and history and the fate of men and nations and the world, we could crunch it all into numbers, and even taking chaos into account, have some idea about what might happen next. But we also know that human will, human agency, contingency, luck, all have their role. The world is different from what it might have been because of Caesar, Mohammad, Newton, Washington, Napoleon. Clio, the Goddess of history, can never be reduced to a mere set of numbers, and she will take offense if she is treated so high-handedly. She has her whims, her cruel jokes at our expense, but also her undeserved and unexpected graces, granted for reasons only she knows. And sometimes she seems to yield her scepter entirely to her capricious sister Fortuna, and we all can only hope the dice will roll our way.

Looking back at the American enterprise in Afghanistan from 2050, I want to set the stage by looking at some deep trends, punctuated by key turning points.

Let’s look at the world from the period roughly 1800-2050.

A quarter-millennium is nice round figure, and will disclose some patterns.

Circa 1800, the major turning point in all of world history was occurring. The Industrial Revolution was getting under way in Britain. Unleashing these energies has been the foundation of everything we know and the basis of the lives we all now live, all of which we usually take for granted. This steam revolution led in turn to a second Industrial Revolution, and ultimately to a computing revolution, exemplified by Moore’s Law. This is a trend that has been under way and I think will continue unabated through thick and thin, at an accelerating rate. We may not reach a Singularity, but we are not turning back, either.

Another key event, in 1805, was the destruction of the French and Spanish navies by the Britishat Trafalgar. The Anglosphere has commanded the oceans, and all the global commons, to this day. This allowed the North American continent, as well as Australia and New Zealand to be conquered and settled and turned into vast countries organized on English constitutional and economic principles. These countries in turn have dominated the world and imposed a liberal economic order, which served them well, and incidentally conferred various benefits and costs on others. The Germans, Japanese and Russians in turn each strove to wrest the trident from the grasp of Britain, then America, and failed. The creation of the Anglosphere, and its securing of a global commons for trade has been the second foundation of the world we know, in a feedback loop with the technological-industrial revolution. A serious Chinese naval challenge may or may not emerge some day. China has a lot on its plate. In any case the existence of a global commons and global trade and the general existence of what we call globalization is likely to continue, though with ups and down. However, I note that the maritime powers have not usually had long term success at imposing their will on the interior of the Eurasian land-mass, or not for long, or at tolerable cost. Afghanistan is no exception.

Another pattern discernible since circa 1800 is the conflict, defeat, and reassertion of the other civilizations by the Europeans, but mostly by the British and Americans.

In 1792 Lord Mcartney visited Peking and famously refused to Kowtow. This led to almost two centuries conflict and violence in which China was repeatedly devastated both by foreigners and by its own warlords and rulers. It is a cliché, yet an accurate one, that the story of our current era is the reappearance of China in a role more fitting for its size and importance. Yet China’s government and economy may be more brittle than they appear to many observers. The prospect of a disruptive or violent end to the rule of the Communist Party cannot be ruled out. China may yet endure hard times before it regains its proper status, and finds its role in a globalized order.

Similarly, in 1803, Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington, defeated the Marathas at Assaye. This battle sealed the fate of India as part of the British Empire for a century and a half. India suffered as an imperial subject, but paradoxically, less than China did as a nominally independent empire. India is a country that by all rational criteria ought to fly into pieces. Yet it muddles through. It may, hopefully, continue to do so. Like China, India is asserting itself and must find its niche. This pattern will also likely continue.

These two great civilizations will, over the period 250, follow a u-shaped curve of dissolution and conquest followed by reassertion and revival.

A third great civilization is following a different course.

In 1798 Bonaparte defeated the Mamelukes at the Battle of the Pyramids. This shocking defeat may be taken as emblematic of the conflict between the West and the Islamic world. The destruction of the Ottoman Empire and the abolition of the Caliphate in 1923 marked a sharp downward bend in the curve of decline. The ensuing century has seen many halting and unsuccessful, and often violent, efforts to restore respect and power to this civilizational zone, so far not successfully. It has been mainly a story of decline and defeat and humiliation for the Islamic world. I believe this trend will continue as well up to and through 2050.

The second critical discontinuity, after the Industrial Revolution itself, is the appearance of nuclear weapons. The decline of great power warfare and the nuclear peace are a further foundational element in the globalized world order. By 2050 we may look back on Franklin Delano Roosevelt as primarily the father of the Manhattan Project, and see his other achievements as secondary. The nuclear peace is one of the best things that has ever happened to humanity. So far deterrence has held, and thanks be to God for that. Perhaps the single most important question, looking back from 2050, is whether the nuclear peace will hold, will give way episodically, or fail systemically. I hope it will hold, and if not, that it will not give way all together.

Speaking of God, which I do, reverently, there is a critical and under-appreciated trend which I predict will become more apparent. Religion is not dying out in the world. To the contrary. As the poor parts of the world become richer, their people will seek spiritual order and direction and solace. Christianity may be fading out in its old heartland of Europe, but it is alive and thriving everywhere else. I speculate that by 2050 we will see this more clearly, particularly in China. By then I also speculate that the centuries-long duel between Islam and Christianity will still be ongoing, but that Islam’s ultimate defeat will be discernible, though it will take centuries more to play out. This sense of impending defeat will lead to increasingly desperate “Ghost Dance” and death-cult phenomena in the Muslim world. Nonetheless, despite this ongoing conflict the centrality of religion, specifically Christianity, to the peace and order of the world will be increasingly apparent by 2050.

What of America? The United States is, at bottom a robust and dynamic society. However, it is currently at the beginning of a prolonged period of institutional turmoil. The New Deal order no longer works. We have a basic regime crisis about every three generations (1776-87, 1860-68, 1932-38) and are overdue for another major reconfiguration. The current system is literally bankrupt. The underlying civilization of the United States will endure, but it may take on new institutional form, enabled by new technology, over the next 40 years. My hope is that we will see a radical decentralization and reaffirmation of our cultural roots. In fact, I think this is inevitable. The question is whether we will have to suffer the resisting, struggling collapse of the existing legacy systems of the twentieth century, and rebuild on the wreckage, or put the old order into an orderly bankruptcy and wind up its affairs with the least possible pain and suffering all around. I am not making bets. One thing seems likely: America’s military footprint will diminish, and the waning of Leviathan will lead to more insecurity and violence around the world, not less, at least for a while. Hopefully this process will not be enough to disrupt the global commons and the global economic order too badly or for too long.

Now to get a little bit more granular. The place where the nuclear peace is weakest and the relative immiseration of the Islamic world is most poignant, is Pakistan. It is a country that probably should never have been created in the first place, thrown together on the fly by the British in their rush for the exit in 1947, the most disgraceful single episode in their imperial legacy. Pakistan has never worked. It has more people than Russia, but half are illiterate and live on a dollar a day. It’s raison d’etre is to define itself in opposition to India, and its repeated wars are its only tangible accomplishments. People in responsible positions in Pakistan all too frequently say insane things about nuclear weapons. It is a haven for terrorism. It’s government is an incoherent cluster of conflicting factions, some of whom are complicit in killing American soldiers in Afghanistan, despite being a nominal ally.

One simple axiom is that if something can’t go on forever, it won’t. Pakistan cannot keep on like this forever. Like the Ottoman Empire of old, it continues out of momentum, and because its neighbors rightly fear that it is unreformable and that any big change will entail a horrible and destructive mess on their doorsteps. They are right. So the can keeps getting kicked down the road. I hope Pakistan can reform itself peacefully. I fear it cannot.

Meanwhile, the USA is engaged in a costly, well-intentioned but ultimately incoherent effort in Afghanistan. Our initial impetus in entering the country made sense, to hunt down the people responsible for 9/11. From that point on, the rationale for our presence there has not fully congealed into anything I can understand, and I am paying attention and trying to understand it. I see Generals Petraeus and Mattis, and I think, if anyone can extract something of value out of this effort, they can. The military under their command is as good as any commanders could ask for. If there is a strategy that will work, whatever “work” may mean, the courage, skill and willpower are there to carry it out. I pray for them.

Let us assume that some time in the next few years, Afghanistan mercifully reaches some level of stability, with a reduction of the US presence to something that is much smaller. This seems to me to be a best case scenario. Long term, this would be coupled with the integration of Afghanistan into the world economy, other than the opium trade, mostly by India and China.

Nonetheless, The larger trends of the relative and absolute decline of the Muslim world, and the rickety nature of Pakistan, are going to lead to some sort of crisis. The sick man cannot stagger on forever.

I predict that there will be severe system disruptions from the crisis provoked by Pakistan’s collapse, however and whenever that plays itself out. But, I think the major trends will emerge intact from the smoke and dust of its collapse. Technology will continue to advance, and be life-affirming and life-improving. The globalized world economy will go through setbacks but persevere, to the benefit of many billions of people, even if we suffer through a painful detour.

In my speculation above, I imagine repeated and devastating employment of nuclear weapons. This is frankly a catastrophe scenario, and it is more of a thought experiment than a prediction. But even then, I also imagine that certain heroic and inspiring deeds will take place, that people will struggle in all earnestness to deal with the disasters that inevitably come, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, that human ingenuity will rise to even the most fearsome occasions. And I imagine that amidst much evil and waste and ruin, men and women of heroic goodness will appear, as they sometimes do, and by the grace of God, help lead the way to better things.

UPDATE: One point I did not make: The Taliban are a force for evil. They are fanatics, barbarians, murderers. Fighting them is morally just. I have zero doubt about that. If it is possible to defeat them, I hope we do so. Whether or not anything liks such a clear-cut victory is within our grasp, I pray that some good comes out of the effort and sacrifices that the American and allied warriors are making and that the people in Afghanistan will have a better life, and that some peace and order will come to their long-suffering country. That may yet happen. I hope so.

6 thoughts on “America in Afghanistan: Looking Back From 2050”

  1. The US would like to see stability emerge in Afghanistan so that it can pull out. Some sort of functioning economy is necessary to create that, but the region is poorly prepared for economical improvement. The people practice subsistence agriculture and minor commerce. The production and export of heroin is the single most lucrative sector of the economy.

    The US is not in a position to wean the Afghan economy off opium production. In the desire for stability, the US military has not destroyed poppy fields because policymakers reason that the angry farmers are a threat to security. This accommodation cannot be a successful long-term approach, if for no other reason than the moral degradation to the soldiers who are instructed to protect the narcotics industry. A soldier who goes home after serving in Afghanistan must ask him/herself what purpose they served there: was it to protect the heroin industry status quo?

    The solution to rebuilding Afghanistan’s economy could be based around the exploitation of raw materials. However, mining metals and minerals will only spread wealth among a limited number of people, which is nothing to promote political stability.

    Real improvements in life in Afghanistan require education, but a successful secular educational system requires casting out the religious classes. The education of women is a point of confrontation still unsolved.

    If the US withdraws from Afghanistan without having solved any of the problems outlined above, what legacy would that create? Why would Islamic civilization shrivel up if it were victorious? The failure of Pakistan to maintain itself a nation state would presumably only give succor to the religious radicals.

    Is it still relevant to see the world in terms of three great civilizations (the Anglo-American, Islamic and East Asian)?

  2. I have believed for some time, since reading “Imperial Grunts” to be exact, that we should simply buy the opium crop every year from Afghanistan. Some of it is useful; it is the feed stock for medical opiates for the world. The rest we simply destroy. It would be cheaper than the war.

  3. “three great civilizations”

    Islam is in decline and I don’t think it will get back up. Japan is in decline, no longer great, but still important. Russia is in decline, no longer great, headed for mid-power status after centuries as a great power. Europe, or Germany, or some conglomeration of European entities, may or may not continue as important actors. Africa and Latin America are not in the game.

    Han, Hind and Atlantis, as Neal Stephenson called them (India, China, Anglosphere), are the future.

    So it appears in mid-2010.

  4. A very strong opener to this series! Do you feel any semblance of optimism about the path for certain Muslim nations that are embracing market economics, rule of law and some degree of cultural “peace” in Turkey, Senegal, Indonesia, Malaysia, and within India? I hate to write off an entire 1.5 billion people as useless in our pursuit of connectivity, stability, and growth.

    Two other things came to mind when you mentioned the underlying story of Christianity’s incredible spread around the world in the past, present and foreseeable future. As populations age considerably and fertility drops around much of the world (including South Asia, Latin America, and East Asia), I gather Christianity’s message will become more popular and more appealing to those looking for security and community.

    And in the context of time and the enduring optimism about the Angolsphere, India,and China, do we not have the possibility now and in the near future to make enormous strides in developing a much stronger relationship between the first two as the latter is increasingly insular in its focus with its population and social problems?

    Oh and a minor quibble… could we not add Brazil to this prospective list? Consider that they are more than ever before an economically dynamic, entrepreneurial society (enlivened increasingly by the competition between Protestants encroaching on Catholic turf, as well as boasting the vital long-term stabilizer of enjoying increased participation of the poor classes in the broader society via education, business and politics, and a government that is sensible about promoting development, encouraging scientific research and becoming a regional power.

  5. I am curious how one can see an India ascendant and a Pakistani collapse coupled with nuclear exchange. Are not the two predictions in contradiction?

  6. I have to agree that the catastrophic use of nuclear and non-nuclear (MOAB type) weapons may be justified by the continued conflict. As the world and political spheres continue to polarize the radicalization of populations (including the United States) makes political justification of population centric attacks possible. We’ve seen this principle in Rwanda and other smaller countries. We are only 70 years past the World War 2 holocausts. PolPot though not on the collective conscience of the American still is not that far behind at only 40 years.

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