Think Twice, It’s Not All Right


anna-swadlingIn a few days the voting citizenry of the United States will make a far-reaching decision that will strongly impact developments throughout the world in general and for Afghanistan in particular over the next four years, and very probably for the next eight. 

The US presidential election of 2016 may not be, as is generally claimed virtually every four years, “the most crucial ever”, but it is highly significant in at least one aspect:  never have there been two candidates for the presidency so enormously unpopular as are Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Mr. Trump, who has never held public office and whose fame, other than having a playboy persona, rests more on public perceptions of business success than the reality merits, has made a virtue of flogging the principles of Political Correctness, effectively drawing on deep wells of discontent in the American body politic, all too ready to blame The Other for ills plaguing the country.  Mrs. Clinton, on the other hand, is overly identified with an establishment that has led the state of the nation to ever greater depths of discontent, with the American Dream appearing to grow ever more elusive for increasing numbers of the dispossessed, fuelled by a growing economic divide between the loftiest strata and the bulk of the populace, coupled as it is with a seemingly inexorable erosion of opportunity and freedoms.

In the 1960s a Columbia University political science professor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, propounded the idea that the world’s two great adversarial powers were on an ineluctable course of convergence—that the Soviet Union would become more and more like the United States, while the US would, to a somewhat lesser degree, become more like the Soviet Union.  It is ironic that Mr. Brzezinski, first in his capacity as a foreign policy advisor to several US presidents, beginning with John F. Kennedy, then as President Carter’s National Security Adviser, helped to shape that very convergence.  It was he who first saw the potential for undermining the Soviet presence in Afghanistan by employing CIA funds (matched with Saudi petrodollars) to incubate determined adversaries of communism in the madrasas of Pakistan through inculcating a fundamentalist Islamic ideology in receptive Afghan refugees, then training and arming them with the assistance of the ISI so that they might employ violent means to eradicate Soviet influence in Afghanistan.  Every action taken was legitimised according to an ethic of “ends justifying the means” when the outcome of the Cold War was perceived to be at stake.  As Brzezinski famously stated in a 1998 retrospective, “What is more important in world history? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some agitated Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?”[1] For the former National Security Advisor, a native of Poland, the question was rhetorical.  For the people of Afghanistan—and most of the world, post 9/11–it was hardly that.

Against this background, where many of the ideals and principles of the Founding Fathers of the United States seem to be becoming blurred or are in danger of largely disappearing, the election of 2016 is taking place.  Donald Trump has assumed the mantle of the outsider bent on shaking the political establishment to its core and has vowed to “drain the swamp” of special interests and well-heeled lobbyists in Washington, D.C., who have bent the nation’s lawmakers in directions suitable to their interest-group and corporate sponsors.  For example, he has excoriated the leaders of the country for having facilitated a massive loss of manufacturing capacity over the past several decades, blaming the decline on unfavourable trade agreements designed to foster the free flow of goods and services across borders.  NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), passed during the administration of President Bill Clinton, his opponent’s husband, comes in for particular criticism. Trump’s promise to build an insurmountable wall to keep out illegal immigrants from south of the border plays upon this as well—not only will renegotiating trade agreements lead to stopping the exodus of jobs, it will prevent lower-priced labor from crossing the border to usurp jobs that should rightfully belong to Americans.  China, too, comes in for criticism as the bulk of US manufacturing capacity has been exported to that country with a concomitant loss of work across the industrial heartland.  In this respect, a recent item in the news is both relevant and noteworthy, reporting that the US Department of Agriculture has just approved a plan to have chickens slaughtered in America, sent across the Pacific to China to be processed, and then shipped back across the ocean to be sold to consumers, avoiding any kind of testing or inspection and regardless of any negative effects on the environment.[2]  On the face of it, it’s ludicrous.  To think that the American government would permit a corporation intent on cutting costs by a small margin and enable it to deprive low-skilled workers in America of decent employment, while doing immeasurable harm both to the environment and to the quality of the food supply, would be laughable if it weren’t so painful—especially to the people whose livelihoods are lost, but also anyone concerned about the enormous trade deficits the US suffers on an annual basis.  It is the overwhelming trend of stories just like this one, courtesy of the political establishment, that have provided Trump a substantial part of his mass appeal.

Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, is as quintessential an insider (First Lady for 8 years, US Senator for another 8, Secretary of State for 4) as has ever run for the nation’s highest office.  Her vote for the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, her arguing for the overthrow of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, and her advocacy for taking a more muscular approach in attempts to dislodge Syria’s Bashar al-Assad all underline the perception of Mrs. Clinton as a hawk who believes that serial “regime change” benefits US interests.[3]  Trump has utilised the public association of Clinton with the status quo to castigate her in the debates, as though she were personally responsible for whatever ails the nation, albeit she has never been in a position to single-handedly exercise such power on the course of political events.  And yet Mrs. Clinton has grown increasingly unpopular over the course of the election campaign, and really has no one to blame other than herself.   That the contest of 2016 should be characterised by mud slinging did not come as a surprise, of course, for the candidates were able to garner their respective party nominations despite the public’s having historically high negative feelings about them.  The continuous trickle of revelations implying that Mrs. Clinton was susceptible to trading influence for contributions to her family’s eponymous foundation and for very hefty speaking fees for herself and her husband, ex-President Bill Clinton, have definitely hurt; a letter sent in the closing days of the campaign to Congressional committee chairmen by the head of the FBI indicating there is the potential for more Clintonian e-mail misdemeanours to surface has thrown more dirt onto the hole in which Mrs. Clinton has increasingly found herself.

Donald Trump, for his part, has managed to alienate huge swaths of the voting public.  Hispanics are leaning to the Democratic candidate in record numbers as a consequence of Trump’s loose talk about sordid elements from south of the border enjoying lives of crime in the United States and his repeated vow to build a rather fantastic, impenetrable wall to keep them out.  Muslims have been singled out as threatening to the safety of Americans, leading to promises that under a Trump administration, potential Muslim immigrants will have to endure singularly stringent vetting, while immigrants from countries where “Islamic terrorists” are active may be excluded altogether. Taped evidence of more loose talk about his objectification of women, albeit a few years old, has been used to stir up serious questions about Trump’s fitness for the highest office in the land, where the ability to wield moral authority comprises one of the most powerful tools for effective governance.  Trump’s detractors are able to point to a number of his policy formulations to argue that he is not in close touch with reality.  His promises to cut taxes drastically on corporations and the wealthy do not easily square with pledges to embark on major construction, spend more on the military, and reduce the deficit.  His pledges to bring lost jobs back to America will hardly be effected by renegotiating trade agreements either; on the one hand, retaliation by trading partners is never taken into consideration, for example, nor is the fact that such measures are tantamount to closing the barn door after all the horses have left.

A recent Washington Post opinion piece may have hit the nail on the head with telling imagery:

It is extraordinary how, in the last stage of this dismal campaign, both major-party candidates are revealed as the most exaggerated and grotesque forms of their stereotypes. The cartoon versions of Donald Trump andHillary Clinton are, in fact, photorealism.[4]

In the same issue, the paper reported that Clinton had just tied Trump in unpopularity; while 59% had an “unfavorable” impression of both, nearly half of all registered voters, 47% had “strongly unfavorable” views of the candidates.[5]

Amidst all the noise of the chatter, the allegations and counter-allegations of misbehaviour and moral unfitness for office, substantive issues have been largely drowned out.  And of those issues, foreign affairs barely make a dent.  While a September Gallup poll found that 14% of voters were primarily concerned with the state of the US economy and 11% felt dissatisfaction with the government in general to be their paramount concern, only 1% rated the most pressing foreign issue, the “situation in Iraq/Isis” as an important consideration. [6]  Any discussion of American commitments to Afghanistan has been notable largely by its absence.  

What, then, can Afghanistan expect from a new administration in Washington, and will there be significant differences should the President of 2017-2021 be Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump?  In large part, the course taken in the last few years of Mr. Obama’s presidency is likely to be maintained, at least for the first year or two of a new administration—that is, until a new, hopefully more comprehensive strategy can be formulated.  Barack Obama has campaigned hard for Mrs. Clinton, for he clearly believes that how his legacy in office will be viewed in the future rests heavily on the policies of his successor.[7]  As Secretary of State, Hillary backed the vision of Generals McChrystal and Petraeus, who argued forcibly for substantially increased troop levels over an extended period of time to fight a widespread counterinsurgency in Afghanistan rather than a more limited operation in which military commitments would focus on efforts to combat terrorism.  Thus it might be inferred that a President Clinton would even step up US military involvement in the Afghan theatre, and yet it should be noted that recent leaks to the press have indicated that Vice President Joe Biden will be Mrs. Clinton’s first choice for the position of Secretary of State, and it was Mr. Biden who argued most forcefully against the generals, allying with Richard Holbrooke as an advocate for a policy of “counterterrorism plus”, while paying more attention to Pakistan’s dark efforts to destabilise its conflicted neighbour.  As for Donald Trump, while his pugnaciousness has focused on ISIS, there can be little doubt he would consider the Taliban to be close kin.  Likewise, it is noteworthy that Mr. Trump, who considers himself a “winner”, would be highly unlikely to willingly assume the mantle of a “loser” as head of an administration that forsook an ally, along the lines of the U.S. departure from Vietnam.  Calls by Mr. Trump to “bring the troops home” should be considered applicable to force levels in more stable nations such as Germany, South Korea, and Japan, and it should also be kept in mind that Mr. Trump, in making such statements, may simply be setting the stage for renegotiating American military commitments with an eye to getting well-heeled allies to pay larger sums for U.S. troop maintenance.

An ongoing commitment to maintaining the NUG of Afghanistan and keeping the Taliban from any semblance of victory would almost undoubtedly, then, figure into the thinking of the next inhabitant of the White House.

What can be safely presumed, regardless of who wins the election next Tuesday (and there are indications we may not know immediately, but have to suffer a drawn-out controversy such as characterised the 2000 conundrum between Bush and Gore), is that there will be no positive resolution forged by either Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Trump to an issue that has formed the heart of militant Islamic opposition to American policies in the Near East, to wit, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  The most honest assessment of that unfortunate situation must inevitably lead to the conclusion that the possibilities for a two-state solution, an Israel and a Palestine, living side by side in peaceful co-existence, if not considerate harmony, are frankly not just dying, but finally and completely dead.  There is no real prospect of an Israeli government, even if it wanted to allow an independent Palestine to emerge, to be able to avoid a full-scale civil war should it attempt to remove the hundreds of thousands of settlers who are dedicated to making the West Bank a permanent part of greater Israel.  But Israel does not have such a government, and with the country’s electorate slowly but inexorably moving rightwards in the direction of less tolerance and less flexibility, there is little hope that it will anytime soon, and it is already virtually too late.  Hillary cannot be expected to be a forceful advocate for a two-state solution, for the fact is that she has made it very clear she will be a closer friend to “Israel” (meaning not Israel per se but rather the ruling Likud party) than President Obama has been.  Her prospective Secretary of State, VP Joe Biden, has voiced even stronger support for “Israel” than Hillary.  It must be noted that, for those hoping for a pro-Palestinian voice in the new administration, that Mrs. Clinton’s top five financial backers are all Jewish, according to a recent disclosure in Israel’s Haaretz.[8]  As for Mr. Trump, Sheldon Adelson, like the candidate a gambling casino magnate (but far wealthier), who solemnly vowed to fund the Donald’s “path to victory,” has poured tens of millions of dollars into the Trump campaign.[9]  For the reader unacquainted with Mr. Adelson, he has been making major efforts in recent elections to purchase influence with Republican candidates for the Presidency by huge donations.  He is also a very strong supporter of Benjamin Netanyahu and his hostility towards any semblance of Palestinian statehood; in fact, Mr. Adelson, as the owner of Israel’s largest daily newspaper, Israel Hayom, which is handed out for free, may be largely responsible for Netanyahu’s tenure in office, so much so that the Likud’s opponents in the Knesset have endeavoured to pass a bill that would prevent the free distribution of newspapers in Israel in an effort to curb the efficacy of Mr. Adelson’s support.  No matter the winner on Tuesday, then, expect the new administration to attend even more closely to the desires of Benjamin Netanyahu.  The only remaining hope for any significant American contribution to achieving a lasting peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must rest on President Obama’s taking a forceful hand in support of UN sanctions over the remaining days of his tenure in office once the election is over.

In a Washington Post opinion piece entitled “This election, a vote for bad could defeat dreadful”, Michael Gerson presents a case, weak though it may admittedly be, for Hillary Clinton—in line with the editorial board of the newspaper, perhaps Clinton’s most ardent supporter in the mainstream American media.  And yet, he opines, “It does not help to point out that there has been a massive failure of the presidential nomination process in both parties; one candidate stale and tainted, the other vapid and vile.”  He adds, “Who can now deny that the inhabitants of Clinton-world are so accustomed to corruption that they can’t even see it anymore?” He notes that what we have learned of Hillary “reveals a leader who seems to value loyalty above integrity; who surrounds herself with yes-persons; who responded to a lifetime of controversy by growing a thick shell of Nixonian paranoia; who seems to regard her own considerable public contributions as permission for profiteering.”[10]  Nevertheless, and even in light of the dramatically closer polling in the last few days, the mathematics of the electoral college are tilted in favor of a Clinton victory, even should she fail to win the popular vote.  It is entirely possible, of course, for Mr. Trump to prevail, but no matter who may be declared the winner, America does not face a very hopeful near-term future.  The letter of the FBI director, James Comey, to Congressional leaders indicating Hillary Clinton’s e-mail “oversights” may yet yield an indictment and has given a very late, unexpected lift to the Trump campaign—a classic “October Surprise.”  Should Trump win now, Democrats will consider it illegitimate, convinced that the FBI altered the outcome.  Should he lose, Comey’s allegations will only add credence to Trump’s notion that Hillary belongs in jail rather than in the White House, while fuelling efforts to contest the election on the grounds the results were rigged, as he’s threatened to do.  In either case, prospects for cooperation between the two parties in Congress after the electoral results come into play and a new session begins in 2017 are even dimmer than the severely polarised legislative deadlock of the recent past would indicate.  Whether Clinton wins or Trump does, Americans for the most part do not expect things to get any better.  It is highly probable they’ll only get worse.

There is a lesson in all this for Afghanistan, as difficult as it may be for some to admit.  Should Trump lose and contest the election, possibly in a number of critical states and in court (for he’s notoriously prone to sue when he doesn’t get his way), America is in for divisiveness so radically polarised as to be new to the country.  In the contested election of 2000, when Florida was still in play, the Supreme Court in a 5-4 vote, reflecting the partisan identification of the jurists, ruled that the counting was over and that George Bush had won.  Despite the flimsiness of the Republican claim to electoral victory, and the fact that Gore won the popular vote, the former vice president conceded the election to George W. Bush.  It was an act that is at the core of the American veneration for its constitutional heritage—you abide by the rules of the game, even if you have good reason to believe they’re not fair.  And on that basis rests much of the strength of the stability of the American system of governance.  The Afghan election of 2014 had no such long and venerated history of accepting the legitimacy of its constitution, and the pre-agreed processes were not found to be acceptable in the wake of the election results.  The National Unity Government was cobbled together as an expediency to resolve a seemingly deadlocked process, at the instigation of an American Secretary of State who, incidentally, had lost his campaign for the U.S. presidency largely as a result of having been victimized by spurious allegations (the Swift Boat affair), and yet John Kerry accepted the electoral verdict without question.  The experiment has not been much of a success, for Afghanistan has found itself ensnared in its own deadlock between the adherents of both leading candidates, much to the ongoing detriment of the country.  And yet how fortunate Afghanistan seems in at least one respect to an observer from the American shore, for were we able to boast of a candidate who embodies the intellectual capacity coupled with the genuine love for his country and the moral character of an Ashraf Ghani, we would, at this point, count ourselves fortunate indeed.  We did have one such candidate, Bernie Sanders, but he never really had much of a chance, faced with the enormous wealth and organisation Hillary Clinton had been able to assemble over her years of controlling influence, according to the American party system.  In Afghanistan, on the other hand, voters were able to select not just from two candidates, each selected by a minority of the population, but from a long list of alternative choices and a runoff between the best two.  Afghans should be proud that they have one of the finest leaders in the international arena to head their country.  If he is not the perfect leader, be advised no such person ever existed, but he is not only worthy of your support, especially in order to tackle the single most intractable problem Afghanistan faces, corruption, but the welfare of your nation and your future truly requires it to forge through the troubled waters that threaten you continuously.  Be thankful that you do not face the choice confronting America on the 8th of November.

Bob Dylan wrote a song in 1963 entitled “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.”  Recently, upon the announcement that Mr. Dylan had been awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, the world waited to hear what his response would be.  There came, instead of a grateful recipient voicing his acceptance of the honor, and to the consternation of many bemused observers, a prolonged silence.  Rash judgments were made, castigating Dylan for his arrogant aloofness, but the truth was somewhat otherwise, for in confidential conversations the famous lyricist confessed to friends that he was torn about accepting the honour inasmuch as he was afraid he really didn’t deserve it, not having made the production of literature, but rather song, his primary and controlling concern.  It was actually an unsuspected humility, not arrogance, which kept the world waiting for weeks for his acknowledgement of the award and his public acceptance.   Mr. Dylan was thinking twice, thinking that maybe it was not all right.   Back in the 1960s, in more carefree days, we could perhaps afford the luxury of not thinking things through–that everything would turn out “all right” anyway.  We cannot afford such luxuries today; the world is less carefree, and we have to be very thoughtful, making ourselves prepared to see things in an entirely new light, in order to make the best of the dilemmas that confront us.


[1] David N. Gibbs, “Afghanistan: The Soviet Invasion in Retrospect,” International Politics 37, no. 2, 2000, pp. 241-242.


[3] On learning of Col. Gaddafi’s death, Mrs. Clinton, paraphrasing Julius Caesar,  famously remarked with a laugh, “We came, we saw, he died.”

[4] The Washington Post, Oct. 31, 2016, “This election, a vote for bad could defeat dreadful”, by Michael Gerson.

[5] The Washington Post, Oct. 31, 2016, “Clinton loses popularity edge in tight race with Trump, new Post-ABC Tracking Poll finds.”

[6] The Guardian, Oct. 17, 2016,  “How will new fighting in Iraq affect Trump vs. Clinton?  Probably not much.”

[7] A Trump presidency, for example, would almost undoubtedly go busily about undoing The Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare.

[8] Haaretz, Oct. 17, 2016,  “Top Five Clinton Donors are Jewish, Campaign Tally Shows.”

[9] The Jerusalem Post, Nov. 3, 2016, “Last minute, Adelson flushes Trump campaign with cash.”

[10] The Washington Post, Oct. 31, 2016, “This election, a vote for bad could defeat dreadful”, by Michael Gerson.


Anna is a scion of an Anglo-Saxon family that cultivated a tradition of Alumni Oxonienses in divinity, fine art, and diplomacy.  Raised in Australia, the Far East, and England, her father, a Spitfire Ace, taught her to put a Tiger Moth through its paces at the age of nine.  She was raised by Anglican nuns, then tutored by Sir Robert Helpmann in ballet and by a samurai in the martial arts.  She has liaised sub rosa between the Warsaw Pact countries, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, engaging in diplomatic, security, and political analyses for the United States.  Now she is a Research Fellow at the Strategic Center for International Relations and a member of the Editorial Board of its quarterly publication.


The Afghan Tribune | Anna Swadling | Published: November 04, 2016, 11:49 AM

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