Thursday, October 20, 2011

Obama surpasses Bush in Afghanistan

A rather terrible milestone has recently come -- and gone. The counter in the right blog margin now shows that U.S. deaths in the Afghanistan war are more numerous under President Obama than under President Bush. And, I would contend, neither President has ever been able to say what these soldiers were fighting for, once the initial overthrow of the Taliban was accomplished in 2001.

Maybe successive U.S. leaders would have been able to make more sense of their Afghanistan engagement if anthropologist Thomas Barfield had published his Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History a decade ago.

Barfield clearly thinks knowing more about the target country would have been a good idea. Sometimes he seems downright irritated by his Western audience's inability or disinclination to understand that other people with different histories and economies might have genuinely different cultures and values. Our incomprehension drives him to find explanatory analogies; the result is interesting and amusing. Here's a snippet describing historic Afghan accommodation with a succession of foreign rulers in terms we can easily grasp:

For most of history despised "foreign" rule was not only legitimate, it was the norm. There are few societies in Eurasia today that did not have a long experience of being ruled by people different from themselves. Because it was relatively easy to turn raw physical coercion into legitimate authority, all foreign rulers and their successors needed to achieve was the restoration of public order, and perhaps put down a rebellion or two. They could then count on religious institutions, economic power brokers, and other states to recognize them as legitimate rulers so as to minimize the disruption that would ensue by resisting such claims. The greatest asset for achieving long-term acceptance, however, was sheer inertia... For example, Afghanistan's half century of peace from 1929 to 1978 under the Musahiban dynasty owed far more to this tradition of acquiescence than to its ability to project coercive power.

...We do ... have a present-day analogy that captures both the dynamic of this earlier age: corporate mergers and acquisitions. As factory workers and paper pushers continue their normal production of widgets and patterns of work, rival teams of mercenary bankers and corporate lawyers wielding proxy votes engage in furious battle to gain majority control of the target corporation's stock. On victory, the winning side purges the losing executive board members and appoints its own. The new CEO dismisses most of the high-ranking staff (though often compensating them with golden parachutes to ease their pain), keeps on those they think can provide key local knowledge, and then installs their own loyalists who have no previous ties to this company. The new owners and managers may even be from different countries. Nothing changes on the factory floor during this process, and workers are not expected to take part in the struggle.

Barfield surveys Afghan history and culture with a view to understanding how the current U.S. and NATO occupation could have gotten so lost. He's no fan of the "graveyard of empires" theory that Afghanistan is simply unconquerable. In fact, he explains that Afghanistan has been rendered close to a failed state because of the successful imposition of foreign conflicts subsequent to the Soviet invasion of 1979.

The PDPA [Afghan Communists holding the state apparatus] received its military and economic support from the Soviet Union, but the [U.S.-backed] mujahideen would not have been competitive without access to similarly large sums of money and arms, which were supplied by the United States and Saudi Arabia. This meant that the Afghan resistance was as dependent on international aid as its Soviet-supported rival was. As a result, the Afghan mujahideen found themselves sucked into two larger conflicts: the ongoing cold war struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union, and a new struggle by Saudi Salafis to make the war in Afghanistan the vanguard of a transnational jihad that they hoped would bring about Islamic revolutions in the Sunni Arab world and beyond.

Eventually Afghans achieved their objective -- to throw out the Soviet foreigners. But they had drunk foreign poisons that made them ripe for civil war.

Historically, Afghanistan got rid of foreign occupiers by making the country so ungovernable that they wanted to leave. This strategy, perfected during the decade-long struggle to expel the Soviets, now came to haunt the Afghans themselves. ... No faction was able to establish either political legitimacy or military hegemony, but none was willing to compromise with its rivals either. It was as if the country had developed an autoimmune disorder; powerful antibodies fatal to foreigners were now directed at the Afghan body politic itself. This made the country vulnerable to opportunistic attacks by groups and ideologies that under other circumstances, would never have gained a following or been easily suppressed. The Taliban arose and spread in such a context.

Into this context the United States came stumbling seeking revenge for 9/11. Barfield believes that foreign eruption was cautiously welcomed.

During interviews in 2002, when I expressed surprise that there had not been more opposition to the United States, a United Front commander explained that it was a case of using one set of foreigners to drive out another; not a desirable situation perhaps, but a resolution to a problem beyond Afghans' capacity to solve. And although they may not have been aware of it, the Americans held an advantage in Afghan eyes because they came from a distant land that did not border their country.

... The belief that nation-states and ethnic groups were naturally coterminous may have inspired Western ethnonationalists, but this idea never had the same force in central or south Asia. There, multiethnic states and empires were the norm, and not a historic injustice that demanded redress. The issues subject to contestation was who would be politically dominant in such a multiethnic system and how power would be shared.

The constitutional system the Western powers have sponsored for the Afghans has not enabled them to work through that contest. We from the West usually take the view that if there has been an election, governing legitimacy automatically follows. The Afghans, not so much so.

An Afghan friend explained the difference in cultural perceptions to me this way: "You Americans pray before the meal; we Afghans pray only after we have eaten it." [President Hamid] Karzai needed to prove that he could live up to the role he now filled and provide the people with what they expected: security, economic improvement, and a functioning government. An electoral victory would mean nothing if he failed to do so.

At this point, Karzai has failed and continued U.S. military presence has also failed in the sense that there is still no plausible vision of what a stable, viable Afghanistan for the Afghans would look like. Sooner or later, these ancient peoples will work that out for themselves. The United States is not going to keep pouring lives and treasure down this bottomless sink hole forever, regardless of the proclamations of politicians. We can't afford to.

Barfield certainly believes Afghans will sort out their national future themselves. He ends on an upbeat note.

... pride in the past is no bar to change in the future. Perhaps the best recent example of this was the Pashtun leader, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, in the NWFP. Inspired by Mohandas Gandhi, he founded the nonviolent Khudai Khitmatgar ("Servants of God"). After taking an oath to foreswear violence, retaliation, and revenge, its eighty thousand members divided into trained regiments, and devoted themselves to village improvement, education, and reform. They also led the resistance to British rule in the region in which hundreds of their members lost their lives in nonviolent protests in the 1930s.

When the British left India, Ghaffar Khan remained a gadfly. He was jailed by the Pakistani government in the 1960s when he protested against military dictators there. That such a nonviolent movement could emerge and thrive in a culture that had raised revenge to a holy principle should caution anyone against believing that people or cultures are forever prisoners of the past. It also stands as a challenge to the Afghans themselves to take the lead in breaking the cycle of violence that has generated so much suffering for so little benefit for far too long.

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