Guards and driver Wahid and I outside IMF guesthouse in Kabul
“Damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” says my friend Bob Gregorio with reference to the NATO bombing near Kunduz of two hijacked fuel tankers that may have killed 120
people including maybe two dozen civilians (the numbers keep changing). This
observation contains a profound lesson for those contemplating foreign wars and
no place more so than here in Afghanistan.
An Afghan friend here in Kabul gave me two videos to watch
and then spent over an hour downloading all the viewers and right CODEXes to
make sure I could watch it on my laptop. So I felt obligated to watch all two
hours of “The Road to Guantanamo” about three British Pakistani boys who flew
from London to Karachi to get married, traveled into Afghanistan to see if they
could help their Taliban “brothers” in November 2001, were captured by the
Northern Alliance forces (largely Tajik Afghans fighting Pashtun Taliban) in
December 2001 (a few weeks before I arrived in Kabul), were turned over to
American forces and spent the next four years in Guantanamo before being
released with no charges every having been made against them. If that didn’t
leave me sickened, the other, thankfully shorter, video certainly did. In it a
female journalist travels with a U.S. Army unit (I forgot its name) north of
Kandahar through remote villages looking for Taliban. Working with local
village chiefs they do their best. The journalist then returns on her own to
the same villages for further interviews. While I do not find the claims of the
villagers that American solders abused them credible (demanding that men strip,
face the wall, and then groped them), just seeing the American invasions of
their homes from the eyes of humiliated, poor Afghanis, even if used for
propaganda purposes, tells us a lot about the futility and foolishness of
bringing democracy to foreign lands by force. How can our 19, 20 year old
solders, with their human strengths and weaknesses, possibly succeed (at what?)
in such environments. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t, indeed.
I really cringe when I hear well-meaning Americans praising
our brave boys overseas. How dare we send them into such bewildering and
foolish danger? These fellow American’s have no idea what they are asking. If
they did, they wouldn’t do it. President Bush, for all of his faults, at least
had a clear purpose in attacking Afghanistan—to kill Ben Laden. Too bad he
failed so miserably as a result of the disastrous Iraqi diversion. My respected
friend Robert Schadler (a senior official in the Reagan administration’s now
defunct United States Information Agency) makes some important observations
about such situations in response to my earlier note on this bombing:
My sense, without ever having traveled there, is that our notion of “who they are” is
very different than their own.
We say: “Saddam viciously committed genocide on his own people.” He says, “They
were Kurds and Shi’a. None were from Tikrit. They were not “my people”; they were my enemies.”
Similarly, the Afghans who are pleased with the bombings [in Kunduz] probably don’t view those who were killed as “fellow Afghans” but some barbarous tribe who happen to also live in a place called Afghanistan.
That’s only one layer. Western analysts are trained, by Aristotle, Anselm and others, to avoid obvious contradictions in thinking and feeling. As a counter, I recall a story that
baffled and amused my mother for most of her life. She had lived in Turkey during the last days of Ataturk. A rather sophisticated neighbor of hers, a Turk, was very proud of the fact that Turkey had such a strong leader — not like the weak-kneed European leaders at the time. Yet, minutes later, she said she expected Allah to strike down Ataturk for his vicious efforts to rid Turkey of various traditional Islamic practices — Arabic script, Friday holidays, forbidding the fez, etc.
Another layer yet is telling the powerful — and Westerners are often deemed powerful and the conquerors — what they want to hear or, more accurately, what they think the Westerners want to hear.
As for the policy shift in Afghanistan: the US had about half a million “boots on the
ground” to push Saddam out of Kuwait — a very small country. Figuring out who was who and where Kuwait ended and Iraq began did not require a lot of sophisticated intelligence and cultural awareness.
Protecting Afghans — from all mean, vicious and armed thugs or just the Taliban-inspired ones — means at lot more than another 20K or 30K troops. Training the
Afghans to police themselves …. Training them is the minor problem. Getting them to view members of other tribes and themselves as Afghans first and foremost is the tough challenge. And it’s one I’m dubious our Marines, however fine they may be, is something they signed up to do and have been properly trained to accomplish.
The political problem at home is only somewhat related. The original mission in Afghanistan was to kill or capture bin Laden. This mission was an utter failure. It needed to be done quickly, in any case, to send the message that attacks such as 9/11 have dire
consequences. The message now received is that these attacks can be carried out and, with a little cleverness and close loyalties, can escape punishment. There was virtually no dissent over the goal of killing or capturing bin Laden. Had the Taliban government “given him up” the US would not have gone into Afghanistan.
Today, the mission cannot be clearly stated. I heard Gen. Zinni last week (at the New
America Foundation). While he was against going into Iraq, he is against pulling out of Afghanistan — for reasons of credibility. He agreed al Qaeda is no longer in Afghanistan. “Protecting the Afghan people” is hardly a policy — given the dozens of the 192 countries have populations that need “protection.” “Keeping Karzai in power” or “Keeping the Taliban out of power” would be palatable only if it could be connected to some larger, important, America-centric purpose. And if the costs were plausible vs other uses of those resources.
Bush was famously inarticulate, but “bin Laden dead or alive” was vivid, clear and
arguably worthwhile. Obama, famously articulate, has said, “Afghanistan is a war of necessity” and the “important war”. But it is doubtful he’ll make his reasoning plausible. For that reason, it is deemed he was saying these things simply because he wanted to avoid being a “weak on security, McGovernite Democrat”. And that mission was
accomplished — at least during the pre- election period.
I believe in the value and virtues of “nation building.” That is why I am here and why I worked in such places as Iraq, Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, Zimbabwe, to name a few. By “nation building” I mean sharing the accumulated wisdom of successful, productive, and human societies with those not yet as successful for their people. It only works as a long slow process of education and persuasion within the context of the existing social
and political structures, even when the goal is to change them. Our solders don’t help. We should keep them home and spend the money and lives saved on keeping our economy and society strong (the source and basis of our military strength). How best to withdraw from the messes we have created and are now in is another and more complicated matter. It will involve a lot of Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. And damned those who seem to like sending our youth on fools’ errands with little understanding or regard for the lives disrupted or destroyed around the world, all with good intention, of course.
It has not escaped my attention that I am leaving
Afghanistan on 9/11.