I’m adding this final point as a final cap on the whole bin Laden killing theme because it is slightly more personal and looks toward the future. I also hope it’ll go to some length in describing why I was fascinated by the story line beyond the multiple angles that it could be approached from.
First of all, my interest had very little to do with Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda and terrorism per se. I do have a strong and growing interest in religious-inspired fanaticism regardless of the sect or the manner in which it manifests itself, and I do plan on continuing on with this theme. However, my primary interest in the story relates to Afghanistan.
As a kid I had a strange fascination with Afghanistan. I remember waking up in the morning to watch cartoons by myself and then joining my mother in the kitchen for cold coffee, cereal and the Sunday newspaper. Partially out of a desire to be like my mom, and partly out of curiosity as to what she was interested in I would read each section of the newspaper after she was finished (saving the most time for the comics of course!). In the late 80s the winding down of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan was a major story, and as a simple 8 year old I bought into the Manichean presentation of the conflict that was infused in the Reagan-era narratives pedaled by the media. I was really moved by the simplistic story about the “brave” mujahadeen and took a general interest in learning about their exploits each Sunday morning.
As I grew I continued to follow the stories and became more an more familiar with the grey area occupied by the “honorable freedom fighters” as the media became less enamored of the mujahadeen and Afghanistan descended into civil war.
For me, Afghanistan moved back into the forefront of my mind and assumed an important place in the now daily consumption of news with the rapid success of the fundamentalist Taliban in 1994. The Taliban did not get a poor reception at first. They were roundly criticized for their terrible human rights record, but I recall them being presented as a stable alternative to the more than 15 years of fighting that had killed millions of Afghans and left millions more refugees.
I didn’t quite buy that argument.
I remember being physically ill the first (and second and third) time I saw a woman forced to wear the burqa. Maybe my feelings represented the misplaced idealism of a privileged 15 year old WASP, but I saw the Taliban’s victory in 1996 and the West’s not quite reluctant, not quite enthusiastic reception of the group as being wildly misplaced. I did not anticipate that there’d be a direct war with the Taliban, nor did I imagine they’d play host to a group that would engage in hostilities with the West. They simply came off as fanatics confined to their small slice of this planet. I cared about the people that inhabited that piece of earth, but never imagined it would affect me in any tangible way – and to date it hasn’t in any way that could be properly accounted for or appreciated (tax dollars were spent on occupying Afghanistan rather than health care etc.).
With the attacks of September 11 I saw the pitfalls inherent with invading and occupying Afghanistan and did not see that as the best course of action (taking it as a given that it was justified). When a prolonged occupation appeared inevitable I did see it as an opportunity to end the decades of collective misery experienced by Afghans. Whether it is morally permissible and/or efficacious for that matter to build a nation through force of arms is debatable, however, Afghanistan provided perhaps the most ideal testing ground in terms of need even if it presented exceedingly difficult challenges in terms of variables.
And the war appeared to be a tremendous success at first as the Taliban were quickly routed and Afghanistan came under the interim rule of the seemingly cosmopolitan and socially progressive Hamid Karzai. However, after nearly 10 years of mismanagement (most of which came from the detached stance of the either overconfident or bored Bush administration), Afghanistan’s future is looking increasingly bleak.
Consider the following:
1. The country is run by a regime that has proven itself to be fundamentally corrupt. A regime whose palms are greased through the drug trade, extortion and stealing the fruits of development aid from their own people and depositing it into foreign bank accounts, sometimes by the hundreds of millions.2. So long as the Taliban have safe haven across the border in Pakistan it will not be possible to defeat them militarily. Anyone who says so is lying or stupid. The madrassas in Pakistan offer a near endless supply of recruits for the Taliban, young men raised in religious fanatacism who are eager to surrender their lives to the machinations of evil leaders. The Taliban may be too weak to assert control over large sections of the country for any length of time but so long as they survive in Pakistan they will present a serious security threat to Afghanistan.
3. The commitment of the West to Afghanistan appears to be waning as NATO countries end or reduce their commitment. With the death of Osama bin Laden the argument to remain in Afghanistan will appear less salient to many Americans, and Obama has already scheduled a withdrawal to begin this summer, though at an undefined pace.
Given the above, it wouldn’t be difficult to argue that very little progress has been made. The counter-insurgency campaign waged by the West and their Afghan allies has failed in its most fundamental tasks. At the most basic level we have failed to provide Afghans security through a responsible (if not representative) government. At a more strategic level we do not appear to have made any headway in creating some sense of national consciousness among Afghans – the basic sense of collective responsibility that was destroyed within the country through 20, now 30 years of civil war and being subjected to a series of leaders more interested in pilfering the state for the benefit of their small clique rather than ruling it for the benefit of all.
That is the most damning outcome of all.
On the surface loyalties among Afghans appear to remain firstly, tribal or clan based and secondly, ethnicity based. It is impossible to build an Afghan state when their is no sense of collective identity as an Afghan Nation. Maybe this concern is, as renowned anti-colonial writer Frantz Fanon states “the result of intellectual laziness” and “the profoundly cosmopolitan mould” that my middle class mind is set in. More dangerous is possibly the implicit paternalistic vision inherent within such a design, an impression that may be found in the latent echoes of the colonial era – maybe “Afghanistan” is merely a legal construct that poses an unnecessary burden on lasting peace and prosperity? Being conscious of this “drivelling paternalism” and, more specifically to Afghanistan, the Orientalist perspective that is infused within it is as difficult as it is necessary when being exposed to relatively insular perspectives.
But an outright fear of unconsciously holding such a view should not limit a discussion of the applicability and desirability of a greater Afghan national consciousness. Such self-flagellation and self-censorship stymies the debate before it even starts. Avenues need to be explored before accepting as established fact that the individual is “fundamentally racist”, as Fanon writes, on account of his or her station in life. George W. Bush’s administration may be culpable of holding a paternalistic or even racist attitude towards Afghans as it turned a blind eye toward Karzai’s comically blatant corruption, implicitly implying that such behavior is endemic to the culture of the region and thus unavoidable. But the former president and his ideological flunkies do not represent the feelings of those that have a vested emotional stake in the future of that region.
And it doesn’t stop there. The entire basis of American nation-building and counter-insurgency theory (though I separated them here little distinction can be made between the two) has been built off of assumptions that have been unchanging since the time of the Kennedy administration (or if you like, colonialism for that matter). The foundation of Western policy towards the developing world has been that we have discovered the ideal (and it’s us!), that we’ve developed a fool proof method of achieving that ideal, and that history follows a clear linear path towards this prototype. This “Modernization Theory” (it is often given other names to differentiate it from previous models as its vacuousness is exposed, remaining fundamentally old wine in new bottles) proposes that “development” can best be directed by the developed and that the cure all for unstable countries is to provide stable government that allows its people’s pockets to grow fat. Economic progress, financial security are the ultimate demands of the underdeveloped, and from that democracy, individual rights and all those other goodies will follow. This belief, that individual financial prosperity, is the basic desire for all the world’s people underlines the flawed logic of the theory and the prism through which it has been formulated. Like all universal theories it runs into trouble once put against unexpected variables and its foundational assumptions are tested. That isn’t to say that Afghans do not want some measure of economic security. Instead, it is wrong to assume they desire a Western lifestyle or that even a faint replica of that lifestyle can overcome the divisions that are endemic to Afghan society.
Nor can Fanon’s solution of anational class solidarity, the force that Modernization theory sought to create an alternative to. But as George Orwell points out, a looser understanding of the word “nationalism”, one that would capture the spirit of the word’s origin, would suggest that a person’s fidelity and willingness to promote a particular CAUSE captures the proper meaning of the word – promoting the cause of a particular ethnic group, religion etc. would merely be a subcategory of “nationalism”. Nationalism is merely a means of categorizing individuals and adding to it an aggressive element as a nationalist promotes and pursues the “cause” of that category to which she or he belongs and to the detriment of their rivals. Thus, following Fanon’s advice Afghans should promote the nationalist cause of the peasantry (ideally a socialist would advocate on behalf of the proletariat, but Afghanistan has almost no proletariat) against those who exploit them – a not unreasonable position. The trouble with this outcome is that divisions would persist. Ethnic consciousness and the pitfalls that come with it would be replaced with a class consciousness, something that would be tantamount to running in one place as the hatred perseveres and metastasized itself into another category. As Orwell writes, regardless of the category, nationalism is “power-hunger tempered by self-deception” and thus destructive.
This does not mean that we need to oppose a solution that focuses on collective rights rather than individual, so long as that solution is not rigidly utilitarian. But is that necessarily the best manner? It seems that the problem is how the solution is implemented but the assumptions underlying it and in turn the breadth of the solution. Maybe a plan based on a more narrow concept is necessary even if it is equally difficult. What I am interested in is a greater concern for human security. This should not be confused with economic security or the establishment of Jeffersonian rights, though legal rights are a part of it. No, the focus should be on creating an environment where Afghans can fulfill their individual goals and the aspirations of its varied communities peacefully within the confines of their country with the establishment of individual security from physical violence and duress. These rights do not necessarily have to be legally enshrined so long as they are respected. A formal document guaranteeing individual Afghan’s right to be free from threats of physical violence and physical violence is only effective if properly enforced. The primary concern should be establishing a civic minded police force and army to allow for the resumption of a normal social and economic life for the country.
Of course the likelihood of such a scenario happening in the near future appears to be nil. The Karzai regime and its Western benefactors have lost too much credibility over the past ten years and appear too uninterested in making the necessary commitment to ensure the security, so far as possible, of individual Afghans. Developing a responsible and effective armed force takes too long and too much time has already been wasted for any positive outcome to develop by the 2014 withdrawal date. It appears Afghanistan will continue to a sixth decade with its Hobbesian existence and life for individual Afghans will remain “poor, nasty, brutish and short”.
This outcome should weigh on the world’s conscience.