Nation-building is a term created by people living off Pentagon contracts. It is one of those queasy political expressions with no hard meaning yet its use raises few eyebrows. The term sounds as though it means something, and it is treated as though it were something you might study. At least this is true in the United States where people are hypnotized by hype and substance-lacking words, where inflating nothing into something is an everyday art.
To understand what absurdity the term disguises, conduct a brief thought-experiment and think about just one aspect of social behavior in North America and about how long it takes to change. Cigarette smoking was very stylish fifty years ago, and it has taken all those fifty years, despite scientific information providing many warnings, to change public acceptance of smoking.
In 19th century America, chewing tobacco and spitting were obsessions, observed and recorded by many disturbed European visitors. Spittoons graced the halls and lobbies of every public building, standing in ripples of warm brown carpet stains where the efforts of the less skilled were recorded. Eventually, this hideous practice ended, but it took a very long time.
So how much greater would be the task of altering the most fundamental attitudes and practices in a society? Could even ten years of costly effort by thousands hope to make even a small dent in the practices of an ancient society of twenty million people?
Much of Afghanistan lives as though it were still the 14th century, and this is the case any place where there has been little economic growth for centuries, where people grow up doing pretty much exactly what their parents do.
In Western society of the 14th century, it was perfectly acceptable for men to go off to war, leaving their mates locked in rude iron “chastity belts” with padlocks for years at a time. In Western society of the 14th century, it was common practice among powerful families to contract a 12-year old girl to marriage. Is the practice of women wearing the bourka in Afghanistan somehow more primitive than the past customs of Europe?
I take the bourka as an example only because a great many words were spent both before and after the invasion about the status of women in Iraq. Most of this was sheer hypocrisy, propaganda aimed at influencing the attitudes of America’s middle class in favor of war. As I’ve written many times, truth makes the best propaganda — it’s all a matter of twisting emphasis and context. Today, outside the city of Kabul, almost all women still wear the bourka, and it has nothing to do with threats from the Taleban. Even in Kabul half the women wear it.
The distinction between Kabul and the rest of Afghanistan is important, because the effective reach of Afghanistan’s president has been compared to that of a Mayor of Kabul. Most people in Afghanistan live under the effective rule of warlords whose only merit may be that they are opponents of the Taleban. In every other respect, they are indistinguishable from the Taleban. They hate seeing women without bourkas. They do not like girls going to public school. They do not believe in democracy — who did in Europe in the 14th century? — and they reject modern concepts of human rights.
The warlords, at least some of them, finance their satrapies with the proceeds of poppy crops, causing an explosion in the world’s supply of high-grade heroin, the Taleban, for all their unpleasant qualities, having previously ended this trade. The warlords are torturers and murderers, and their militias are capable of almost any horror you can imagine, some having conducted mass rapes according to numerous witnesses.
Yet the warlords cannot be removed. They were an integral part of the American strategy for invading Afghanistan, and they remain pillars of the existing state. America’s strategy consisted of bombing the Taleban and their supporters while warlord militias did most of the dirty work on the ground. America sent in thousands of special forces to search the mountains for Osama bin Laden and remnant Taleban bands, but for the most part they have been no more successful than the Russians were years ago. They have been successful in alienating and insulting many villagers with their tactics of bursting in with guns and grenades firing.
Apart from having killed thousands with bombs and mines, this is pretty much the sum total of America’s achievement in Afghanistan. The Russians actually had done a better job of making secular changes, especially for women, but this was ignored in American propaganda to win support for the CIA’s costly mujahideen-proxy war, the war that gave us figures like Osama bin Laden and led to the eventual rule of the Taleban.
A Canadian officer in Afghanistan recently was gravely injured when a young man attacked him with a home-made ax. The officer had removed his helmet out of respect towards the village elders to whom he was talking. The young Afghan man was immediately killed by other Canadian soldiers. Newspapers typically reported his age as maybe 20. In fact, it turns out he was only 16. A brief exchange of gun fire with some others who produced weapons then occurred.
The incident provides something of a parable for the entire misadventure in Afghanistan. First, the soldier was right to remove his helmet. You can’t get far in a society like Afghanistan without showing respect.
Second, a young man of just 16 was determined to take the life of a foreigner despite his lack of a suitable weapon and despite the likelihood of his sacrificing his life.
Third, because it was a small village, there is no possibility that the elders who were gathered were not aware of the impending assault. They kept silent and allowed it to happen.
Fourth, one of the reactions to the assault has been for Canadian officials to re-examine their practices, things like a soldier removing his helmet. Yet how can they hope to be sympathetically listened to otherwise? The alternative is to follow America’s apish tactics, creating even more bitter enemies. It is an unavoidable vicious circle.
Canadians and others find themselves in Afghanistan because a brutal American administration, in the wake of 9/11, instead of using diplomatic and legal powers to capture Osama and the boys, pressured everyone to support an invasion. Canada was later able to resist pressure for the even more pointless and destructive invasion of Iraq. Canadians today are asking what is the purpose of the mission in Afghanistan. The answers offered include that empty term, nation-building.
JOHN CHUCKMAN lives in Canada.