Sunday, November 29, 2009

Thoughts on Afghanistan, leading to thoughts about America itself

This is a slightly edited letter to my brother, Chris, sent in reply to an article he had sent, in the days just before President Obama's speech set for Tuesday of this week which will announce his policy on further troops to Afghanistan. Posted on November 29th, 2009: Norma's birthday, and our fortieth wedding anniversary.

'Allo, Chris--

Thanks for sending out the Polk piece. (William R. Polk, Let America be America and Depart Afghanistan) I went back and looked him up, starting of course with a good article in Wikipedia, and found a trove, including his own website that gives lots of his writings, and a recent "Letter to Obama," very much in line with the article you sent.

Polk clearly has a very broad expertise, but in this current writing, he focuses very strongly on Afghanistan itself, and the Taliban. I myself think that the controlling factors in the decisions that Obama is now taking are not in Afghanistan. Afghanistan itself doesn't really matter a great deal, Stanley McChrystal and Leonid Brezhnev to the contrary notwithstanding. From its mountainous geography alone, not to speak of geography turning over the centuries into culture, it is poor, disunited, and while defensively strong within its borders, very weak outside them. To the Virginia of the plains and cities of Pakistan and India, it is West Virginia or Appalachia. It is not a prize or a linchpin, or worth fighting over for itself, and the idea that we owe Afghanistan the liberation of its women, or the modernization of its culture through the application of American force is absurd, although plenty of Americans will repeat this sort of thing with no idea at all of what they are really implying. Similarly, we need not be persuaded by the corollary that we must not abandon the Afghan women and others who have had a taste of modernity in the last decades. They will have to fight their own cultural battles within their own national context, and will undoubtedly do so, and will undoubtedly win, although perhaps not immediately.

Our original post-9/11 foray into Afghanistan had the character of a British punitive mission in the old imperialist days. It had to be expected, and was broadly acceptable because 9/11 was a very serious attack, and the Taliban government was defiant about its significant role in it of sheltering the attackers' chiefs. But severe retaliation upon the government of Afghanistan did not imply that we had to replace the Taliban government permanently in a situation where it was the "natural" government of the country, meaning the dominant party among the dominant Pashtun plurality of the population. Pushing out the Taliban in 2001-02 did mean that the government of Afghanistan, whether Taliban or other, had to understand that it could not provide a base and harbor to people plotting terrorist attacks against other countries, including us. It can be understood, as Polk points out, that even the Taliban now do accept this. The fact that they would not give Bin Laden up to us does not mean, after their own experiences after 9/11, that they would ever permit Al Qaeda to resume its plotting of terrorist attacks on the United States from an Afghan sanctuary. Apart from the issue of where Al Qaeda actually exists, the famous Afghan doctrines of hospitality and refuge do not go so far as to say that a guest under one's protection can repeatedly pull down the house of his hosts.

Unlike Afghanistan and the Taliban, Al Qaeda, is a real problem, although an infinitely more limited one than George Bush, for his own reasons, inflated it into being. (Remember your own question soon after 9/11, proposed for conversation in a restaurant in East Boston, "How important is this, on a scale of ten?") 9/11 was indeed a very serious hit against the United States. (I'm curious, and perhaps Eric Holder's trial of Khalid Sheikh and others in New York will bring out the answer, whether the 9/11 plotters knew and intended that the two tower buildings completely collapse. It appears to have been due to the burning fuel loads, but it was not obvious on the face of it that having stood through the impact of the planes, the buildings would fall completely, killing everyone inside and rising to 3,000 dead.) But the 9/11 attack was also the product of a handful of people in a struggle among sects in a distant religion which is not ours, and its threat to us was not remotely a central one to our continued existence. It was not all that different in kind from the Oklahoma City bombing by Christian extremists, which never for a moment generated a "War on Terror."

The subject, and all common sense, were completely confounded by the Bush Administration's use of the 9/11 attack as a pretext to go to war against Saddam Hussein. Following the punitive raid and the deposing of the Taliban government when it refused to hand over Bin Laden, and we failed to find him, the necessary defense against Al Qaeda and the Islamic terrorists was not a military but a police and secret service matter, as befitted the very small numbers of active terrorists, and also their dispersion, secrecy and "irregularity" in military terms. Not only immediately, but on a longer-term basis, the critical point in defending the United States against terrorism was obtaining the active cooperation of the national governments and the national and local police in Muslim and all other countries. After a hit as grave as 9/11, it could not have been for the tender-minded. Apart from massive and coordinated intelligence gathering, and intervention into money and weapons channels, programs of capture and killing such as the Israeli one in the film Munich, would undoubtedly have taken place, and perhaps on a significant scale. But it would not have been military war, and it would have been a great deal quieter and less public.

So, Polk is definitely right, along with a lot of other people, that we should not be fighting militarily in Afghanistan. He's right, I'm also sure, in his perception that Afghan politics is very different from ours--like totally. Tribalism is the key, and the flood of talk that we are going to make Karzai more acceptable domestically by bringing pressure against "corruption," is as ridiculous in Afghanistan as Boston Brahmin GooGoo's trying to break the link between the city's Irish population and James Michael Curley by crying "corruption."

In fact, in these days of decision (which apparently as of today, November 25 have pretty well come to a close) Obama is dealing with the familiar American rightist politics of imperialism and intervention (our permanent hawks) much more than he is dealing with Afghanistan. The real push for more troops to Afghanistan does not come from Afghanistan, or even from the situation in Pakistan (where there are real questions and dangers, greatly aggravated by nuclear capacity) but from within our own country. The military and the American right want to drag him into sustaining, and even redoubling the policies of the Bush Administration, under the general rubric of not giving up in the "War on Terror."

It comes down, in many ways, to what Obama often says: we are continually defining ourselves. True, we cannot be defined as a country that lets itself be hit without the will and capacity to reply. But we also do not want any more, to be a country on a broader "imperialist" power mission in the world, justifying military actions and a huge defense budget by a thin skinned and touchy, and very selective, sense of our own security. Our last national election rejected that, we hoped, and rejected a self-concept for us as a country that asserts the right (and practices it) of injecting itself unilaterally with force into very distant conflicts that are not ours, as the Bush-Cheney administration did.

In the present world, (although it needs to be transitioning to something much different and more multilateral in the next twenty years), we do (and should) play a role of a certain leadership, a dean-ship call it, making us a "doyen," based on our economic capacity, but also our modernity and intellectual strengths. We should try to exercise it well and responsibly, and generally earn respect and supporters through helping others toward what we want for ourselves, prosperity and a balanced modernity that it respectful of tradition. We can indeed help with matters such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, the world trading regime, the development agenda of Jeffrey Sachs at Columbia pushing to fight poverty worldwide. Right now, above all, we should be leading forward in matters of sustainable relations with nature, such as climate protection, rather than cowering and footdragging as we are. Isolationism is not recommended any more than intemperate military and proto-military engagement in the wrong things. In all domains, we should offer our counsels, which will generally be science and technology-based counsels of modernity, on a take-it-or leave-it basis, not impose them by force. In fact, what we offer, again, basically modernity, is a solid enough value that we will always have takers, and do not need force. Such leadership can be greatly rewarding, but of course it has burdens and costs (major ones) as well as rewards, which many among us are quick to wish away, rather than seeing the necessary balance.

Let me pass along a great quotation from Edward Levi, the University of Chicago law school leader and Gerald Ford's attorney general, who did a lot to stabilize the situation post-Nixon. It was preserved in Levi's NYT obituary in 2000, and has been on the wall of our study since then: "The one thing we ought to worry about is the propensity of this country to overreact and to engage in cycles of bitterness. There is a kind of theme that runs through the modern world that human relationships should be looked at in terms of power relationships, in terms of the manipulation of power. I really think that that is one of the most wicked ways of looking at the world. It's a very incomplete way. It strips people of their humanness. It converts all the other good attributes people have into just an ability or a desire to manipulate others."

That is a great thought, and expression of thought, by a very substantial man, although I differ from it in thinking that the prominence of power considerations in human relationships is not alien to our humanness, but, alas, as Mum recognized, deeply embedded in it. The power orientation, I would further dissent from Levi, is not a quality of the modern world, but is part of the traditional, non-modern picture, and is most fundamentally related to poverty. One of the things about the modern world is that it is basically rich, while the traditional world was poor, and much of traditionalism is based on adaptations to poverty. If in terms of material goods, now there can be "enough for everyone" in the rich modern world, the themes of contesting, manipulating, and establishing power relationships to corner scarce goods, cultural themes that were part of the poor traditional world, should be fading out, not intensifying. One of our great dilemmas in the United States now, is "how to be wealthy." It is certain that sharing, cooperation, saving, and moderation in consumption are part of the right answer, and obviously there is a lot more to it beyond that......

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