Afghanistan: War of Illusions


In American politics, deficits have suddenly become all the rage. Throughout the presidency of George W. Bush, the federal government hemorrhaged red ink, with no one paying much attention. Upon the election of Barack Obama, however, the rules abruptly changed. As if overnight, Republicans in Congress discovered that theirs is the party of fiscal conservatism. From out of nowhere came the Tea Party movement, providing at least a pretty good imitation of people who are “mad as hell” about a government unable to manage its own affairs and careening toward bankruptcy. Although the administration’s spending plans add more than a trillion dollars each year to the national debt, President Obama himself has allowed that this might not be such a good thing—for long. In Washington the sky grows dark with deficit hawks.

But the deficits that plague the United States extend well beyond the realm of fiscal policy. At least as important is a deficit in self-awareness that makes it difficult for policymakers to learn from and avoid repeating past mistakes.

Afghanistan offers a case in point. United States troops are currently engaged in an assault on a reputedly major Taliban stronghold at a place called Marja in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. In the weeks leading up to the offensive, the Americans made no effort to disguise their intentions. “We intend to go in big, strong and fast,” promised the commander of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, reflecting the best traditions of his service. Yet what promised to be a big fight has turned out to be more of a hard slog—with the real work still to come.

Salvage Operation

Once the Marines have defeated or dispersed the enemy, United States officials will dispatch a specially constituted civilian reconstruction team to Marja to rebuild a decrepit irrigation system and cajole Afghan farmers into growing something other than opium poppies, the sale of which sustains the anti-Western insurgency.

“An unstated aim,” reports The Washington Post, “is to salvage a project the United States began more than 50 years ago.” Say what?

It turns out that the Marines are not the first Americans to arrive in Marja intent on putting things right. When Dwight D. Eisenhower was president, the Agency for International Develop-ment embarked upon a massive agricultural re-form project there. The purpose of that project was to persuade nomadic Pashtuns to put down roots in Helmand. Domestication, it was thought, would put the kibosh on Pashtun agitation for an independent homeland, a prospect that the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan both found deeply disconcerting.

That was the idea. With that end in mind, A.I.D. oversaw the construction of the huge Kajaki Dam and a sprawling irrigation system. It constructed and staffed schools, and, according to the Post, it provided each settler with “almost 15 acres of land, two oxen and free seeds.”

Unfortunately, this ambitious effort proved to be a complete bust. The Americans did not understand the local hydrology and did not understand the local populace. The Pashtuns clung stubbornly to their own ideas about agriculture and about life, neither of which conformed to U.S. ideas. “From the beginning,” wrote an A.I.D. analyst in 1973, “the project was plagued with basic cross-cultural misunderstandings and technical miscalculations.” Well before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, A.I.D. had conceded failure in Marja.

So 50 years on, the United States will now try again, this time with good intentions—who can doubt that America means well?—backed by bayonets. The development specialists following in the wake of the Marines will no doubt arrive in Marja armed with various “lessons learned” drawn from the errors of their predecessors. Yet these will be lessons of a technical sort. The implicit assumptions informing version 1.0 of this undertaking survive to inform version 2.0—and there lies the problem.

The central assumptions are these: a) that the Pashtun way of life is defective; b) that the Pashtuns know this and yearn for something better; c) that United States officials understand where the problems lie and by mobilizing American resources and skill can repair them; d) that in doing so, the United States will both improve the lives of ordinary people and enhance America’s standing in their eyes and in the eyes of many others.

Little in the record of United States policy in Afghanistan (or elsewhere in the Greater Middle East for that matter) supports these assumptions. In fact, Pashtuns and other Muslims are as interested in preserving their way of life as in changing it—or, if entertaining change, they are insistent that it occur on their own terms. Reforms conjured up by the United States, informed by American perceptions of what is true, right and good, are frequently at odds with what devout Muslims consider to be true, right and good. The upshot is that American do-goodism succeeds neither in improving people’s lives nor in winning their hearts and minds. It serves only to encourage anti-Americanism.

Paving the Road to Modernity

Policymakers in Washington seem unable to grasp this contradiction. Deeply, if unconsciously committed to the imperatives of secularized modernity, they cannot conceive of an alternative nor imagine that others might be inclined to do so.

As they see it, the prerequisites of development (and therefore of a properly functioning society) are plain to see: a free-market economy, the rule of law, respect for individual rights, quality education and gender equality. And for good measure, let’s make birth control widely available to avoid an excessive birthrate. What fair-minded person could oppose any of these things, especially when advocated by individuals who endlessly and seemingly sincerely profess their high regard for Islam?

What proponents of modernity cannot (or will not) see is that they are proposing to drive a wedge between religion and politics, consigning each to a separate sphere. Whether wittingly or not, they are thereby launching a direct attack on Islam itself, which insists that the two spheres must be one: Allah governs.

One might speculate that the casual, allocate-the-Lord-an-hour-on-Sunday religiosity to which so many Americans subscribe makes it difficult for us to understand any connection between religion and getting on with the job at hand. We ourselves have consigned God to his rightful place and insist that he stay put.

Seeing themselves as good Christians, or at least as respectful of believers, United States commanders, diplomats and aid workers will not easily understand how the subjects of American beneficence may view the prospect of being dragged into the modern world. What does religion have to do with putting a roof over your head, earning three square meals a day and securing the possibility of a decent life for your kids? To which a Muslim might reply: in my tradition, religion has everything to do with everything.

Shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, the writer Salmon Rushdie published a short essay called “Yes, This Is About Islam.” In it he argued that modernizing the Islamic world would require first the “depoliticization” of Islam itself. The “restoration of religion to the sphere of the personal,” he continued, was “the nettle that all Muslim societies must grasp.”

If indeed the peoples of the Islamic world are ever to enjoy access to the personal autonomy and material abundance that the West defines as freedom, Rushdie is probably right. If so, then the operative question reduces to this: Is grasping the nettle something that Muslims must decide of their own volition? Or is it a choice that hard-charging, well-meaning infidels—United States Marines, for instance—can force Muslims to make?
We know what the Marines think. Developments in Marja and elsewhere in Afghanistan will show whether this time around they will get it right—or whether the United States will manage only to dig itself into an even deeper hole.

ANDREW J. BACEVICH is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. He the author of The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.

This article originally ran in America Magazine: the National Catholic Weekly.



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