Friday, October 06, 2006

Afghanistan -- What's going on?


I thought we had turned the corner in Afghanistan, that US foreign policy might have got it right for once. Reports have been that the Taliban has been overcome, it's dispicable domination of ordinary people has been undermined, Afghan economy and politics are on the way to entering the twenty-first century and the country is on the mend.

But the daily news is once again reporting that the situation in Afghanistan is not as secure as we have been led to believe. What's an ordinary guy to believe? Wasn't there a war there about five years ago? Didn't American military people get killed and wounded? Before the Iraq adventure got underway, did we or did we not move ahead with smug assurance that in Afghanistan, at least, we might have got it right? Those of us who never like any kind of war at all had to be quiet and respectful of what our government was doing because all the indications were that the State Department and all the rest of the president's men (and women) were going about God's work, cleaning out a nest of vipers terrorizing a population, blowing up historic statues and behaving like a herd of bulls in a china shop trying to become modern.

Reports out of Afghanistan are no longer bright. It seems that opium production is at an all-time high and the Taliban is having a resurgence. These two reports alone are enough to be confused about, since the ultra-religious zealots who make up the Taliban are probably as opposed to drugs as they are against sodomy. It's all too confusing.

Homework time again.

When I heard Kandahar mentioned again I remember that when it was first in the news I was working with a young Pakistani assistant manager who was in the unhappy position of having to work with me. This was about seven years ago. I have this habit of going on line to keep up with current events, and often I come across information that is either not widely known or directly contradicts popular opinion. (A woman from Sarajevo who worked briefly with me was surprised when I asked her specific questions about her home country. This was during the time that Yugoslavia was coming apart and Serbs in Belgrade wore bulls-eye teeshirts in one of the most impressive public demonstrations of our lifetime. I had just finished one of Misha Glenny's books and was able to sketch an outline map of what was soon to be referred to as the former Yugoslavia.)

So this poor guy was just as naive about his own country as most Americans are about the USA. When I asked him hard questions about why so much of the country remained backward in the Twentiety Century he replied with canned excuses about their "Third World' status and how hard it is to change attitudes. He was partially correct, of course, but also blindingly ignorant about everyday realities that foreign reporters were discovering almost daily.

For example, as a good Muslim he could not imagine that the practice of sodomy was anything but a rarely-encountered terible sin, certainly not the everyday social phenomenon that was being reported from Afghanistan. Google "birds fly over Kandahar" and see what comes up. It was harsh of me to chide him, a young Pakistani, for the foibles of Pashtun tribesmen in Afghanistan, but as an educated young man with a bright future, it would have been unfair to let him remain ignorant of realities that the rest of the world was learning.

I still recall how delicately the crash of Egypt Air Flight 990 was treated because Islamic society could not come to terms with the notion of any good Muslim's committing suicide. The idea seemed so alien at the time, even among Muslims but we have we come a long way since then. That was before the WTC attack. People tend to forget how quickly attitudes and opinions can change.

I think part of the answer lies in the very different nature of society in that part of the world compared to what we take for granted. Tribalism is a term about which most Americans have no understanding. I know I don't. When I hear the word I think of Tarzan movies and documentaries about South America or remote areas of Indonesia. I don't think of the Middle East or South Asia as much, although the term "tribal" has been applied in reports of those regions since before the Vietnam Conflict. Sometimes we just ignore some words and imagine that we understand what they mean when in fact we have no idea.

Segmentary lineage is a term that I came across this morning. It explains the dynamics of tribalism in simple language. This is from Wikipedia.

A segmentary lineage society is characterized by the organization of the society into segments.A simple, non-anthropologist's explanation is that the close family is the smallest and closest segment, and will generally stand with each other. That family is also a part of a larger segment of more distant cousins, who will stand with each other when attacked by outsiders. They are then part of larger segments with the same characteristics. Basically, brothers will fight against cousins, unless outsiders come, and then they will join together. An old Arab saying expresses this idea: "Me against my brothers, me and my brothers against my cousins, me and my cousins against the world."

The ancient Hebrew nation (the Israelites) is one of the more well-known examples, with 12 tribes originating from one common ancestor (Abraham). The largest segmentary lineage society today is the Pashtuns.

Woo-hoo! Pashtuns!

See this. ["...without involving the Pashtuns, a Pakistani security analyst told him, having a stable government in Afghanistan "would be simply impossible." (The Taliban is made up mostly of Pashtuns.)"] This is old news, by the way.

This morning I heard that they were the group behind the current "insurgency" in (no, not Iraq) Afghanistan. The report said they were furnishing the Afghan Taliban with both arms and manpower, that there were millions of Pashtuns in a vast popultion of potential recruits...

I find it all very confusing. I'm sure there are people in high places who would be glad to explain it to me in a manner that would make me feel all better about opening the Afghan wound yet again, but I don't think I would find those explanations convincing. Too many credibility issues, I'm afraid.

I'm not an isolationist by any means. But I am also not the kind of interventionist that thinks a big stick is always the answer. From where I am looking we have been there and done that and it hasn't worked. I don't know all the answers but I do know a few questions I would like to ask, starting with the biggest national cognitive dissonance in US policy, both foreign and domestic: How and when will we come to terms with the realities of drugs in the world?

Time to link back to a post I put together a few weeks back. Michael Yon, whose credibility remains intact in my view, raises some on point questions and proposes something other than military remedies. Meantime, I am left to recall that here in the Deep South, right at the buckle of the Bible Belt, we still have a lot of jurisdictions that are called "dry."

Q: Dry, you say? And what's that?

A: "Dry" what we call a city or county that doesn't allow alcohol consumption in one form or another. Sometimes it's okay to sell it by the drink but not by the bottle. Sometimes it's illegal altogether. Depends on where you are. Never mind that all you have to do is cross the county line and enjoy all you want. Never mind that big investments might avoid joining your tax base because they want nothing to do with your provincial local ordinances.

Q: So how come "dry" jurisdictions still exist in these modern times?

A: Easy. There are two forces that work together to keep such laws on the books. Churches and bootleggers. For very different reasons, neither wants drinking to be legal. You heard of politics making strange bedfellows? Do you need any plainer example?

I don't want to oversimplify a complicated situation, but I have an idea that what is going on in Afghanistan is not very different from the illustration above. Try plugging in "global pharmaceuticals" and Eisenhower's "military-industrial complex" instead of churches and bootleggers, and see what you think.

I didn't see this from CFR until October 7.
Really looks like a muddle.

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