Posts Tagged ‘history’

A History Of Wounded Afghani Pride

February 22, 2009

Barnett Rubin writes an amazing account of his work with Afghani governments in the post-9/11 era, for the Boston Review. He picks just the right details from the history of this tortured country to give us a very human portrait of what’s been going wrong there for more than 30 years now.

As Manan Ahmed observes elsewhere:

It is one sad casualty of our current myopia that we are interested only in the monolithic account of Soviet-Afghan war and the “Talibanization” and continue to stress “top-down” factors in our analysis.

The New Great Game of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, while not necessarily imposing a particular great power’s direct control over the region, has essentially been a process of destroying a strong central government in Afghanistan in order to keep their options open, as it were. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan to have a more pliable ruler there, so that they could more easily counter American influence in Pakistan. The Pakistanis encouraged radical Islamist militants in their fight against the Soviets because they were afraid that the nationalism of the more liberal Afghani would lead to loss of territory around the disputed, century-old, Durand Line. The Americans were interested in destroying the Taliban in order to drive the Al-Qaeda out or at least underground. What every one failed to do was provide the region with some form of centralized bureaucracy and administration — even if it wasn’t democratic — so that a movement could be made towards the creation of liberal institutions and a more globalized form of economy. Without either of these, Afghanis have no incentive to move away from tribalism and bonds of local clans.

This situation, perversely, leads to an argument for an increased engagement with Afghanis in terms of the tribalism that they have been forced by many decades of Western intervention of the most haphazard kind, to reluctantly embrace. In Senator Clinton’s confirmation hearing for Secretary of State, Senator John Kerry, Chairperson of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, says:

We have not, I think — we honored tribalism when we dealt with the Northern Alliance and initially went in to Afghanistan. We really haven’t adequately since.

What Sen. Kerry probably doesn’t realize is that “honoring tribalism” is merely a short-term strategy that doesn’t address, and in fact probably exacerbates, the underlying problem in Afghanistan, which is the lack of a central government.

What Afghanistan has lost, as a result of this neglect of the West, is a way of life that will probably never return, a way of life that Rubin, in his article, briefly alludes to when he mentions lunching

… in a private room in the rear of the Marco Polo restaurant, where Malikyar [a friend of Rubin’s] father had run a night club in Kabul’s swinging sixties.

This era in Afghani history was the pride of its elite, an elite that could have been seen as an anomaly in a largely rural and Islamic region, but it could also have been an elite that could have provided a way forward for the region into true nationhood, had it not been betrayed on multiple occasions by the short-sightedness of those who needed Afghanistan as merely a base for pursuing larger power struggles that had nothing to do with the population of the region.

It is an unimaginable blow to the hopes of the Afghani elite that has been struck. For people in the West, who might look fondly back on the Sixties, as an era of unparalleled experimentation and permissiveness, the current age is merely an inconvenience or irritation in its return-to-roots fervor. But for Afghanis, the difference is one of life and death, sometimes literally, and always in a spiritual sense. What has been lost will possibly never be recovered. Such a loss is a true tragedy, because it is a loss without any complementary gain. They have been stripped of their old identities but have no comfort in a new one — at best, they can show each other fading photographs in the comfort of suburban dwellings in various Western countries that have offered them refuge.

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Causes of War: A Brief Treatise

January 2, 2009

I hung out with a friend today and she brought up the question of where we will be twenty years from now. I immediately started thinking about the state of the world, and she was thinking about which one of us will have how many kids. How typical. Women.

Anyway. The problem of the state of the world has certainly been on a lot of minds recently. My friend brought it up at our New Year’s Eve dinner party too. What will be the good things about 2009, someone said. Nothing, I responded.

Can you blame me for being dismal? Things are clearly going down the tube in more ways than one. My friend, the one who is wondering about kids, is shocked I don’t care more, and I say, if humanity destroys itself, I will count that as par for the course. I am amazed in spite of all we have done to each other, that we are so horribly resilient. We all somehow survive. The Europeans wiped out so much of the Americas, and yet there are strains of those genes left, entire tribes still surviving in the Amazon and North American “reservations.” You attempt a Holocaust and you still have enough left to start a fifty year long war in the Middle East. But I continue, despite all these efforts by the human race to stick around, to believe that we are getting better at total annihilation.

And I don’t mean because of war, and that’s going to be the real topic of discussion here. War is not the problem for the human race in this millenium. And here’s why.

There are three causes for war: territory, labor capital and war.

A lot of times, people think the reason for war is economic and control of “resources,” but that hasn’t been the main reason, because there have been reasonable systems of trade that are almost always cheaper to use to procure resources than war is. The reason someone needs to go to war is that you need the land itself and more importantly to control the people who live on that land. First, the land itself — the strategic importance to military purposes is what drives most wars, not the economic benefit from resources that might be available with the land. WWI was a long battle of controlling enough land to be able to control more land. So is the Middle East conflict (where the military purpose has become one with the existential purpose, which complicates matters a bit.)

Moving on to labor. More often than not, the aggressor nation has a grand economic plan that can only function with added labor capital, that is only available outside the aggressor’s territory. Germany needed land to build its war factories and more people to operate them. Hence, WWII. Hence the wars of the Mongols and the wars of ancient Rome and Greece.  Hence, the US Civil War, because the South didn’t want to let go of the labor capital they possessed (rather than wanting, as is usual, to procure more of it.) People are needed to drive a slave economy or to run a war engine.

Today, most of the great powers don’t need more land. Nor do they need more people because corporations have taken the place of the state in the exploitation of labor capital. If we need cheap plastic goodies from China, we don’t need to invade China with tanks and force its denizens to make us our tchotchkes at gunpoint, we just invest in some Chinese middleman’s company whose sole purpose is to bribe the local officials and lock the doors while the plastic toys are being manufactured for cut-throat prices.

The only reason still left for a labor-capital-based war is that some nation might throw its weight behind its people and declare their labor unavailable for certain needs — Brazil might protest, for example, that it can no longer allow its ranchers to grow corn if in fact the Brazilians need to eat wheat.

However, to the greatest extent, the most danger to war is from the third reason: religion. The Crusades of course come to mind as does the modern Middle East conflict. And today, the biggest possible trigger for a new war is religion.

Who’s going to start it? Well, let’s list the suspects — the Christians are pretty much exhausted in the war department (at least as far as fighting for Christianity is concerned, their last hurrah was the cleansing of Muslim Croats and Bosnians in the late nineties); the Jews can’t fight any kind of war except the one they’ve got going on; and the Hindus don’t have the requisite firepower yet nor even a credible enemy to encourage a really hot war. That leaves the Muslims and the Chinese.

The Chinese don’t have a religion, except for that of stability. For the Chinese, preventing internal chaos has been a religion, with the Politburo of the CCP as its most holy clergy and its collective pronouncements forming a kind of common-law holy text. So if the Chinese start a war, it will be as a way of giving its restive populations something else to besides riot against oppressive government and bureaucratic intervention in their lives. A Hitler-style attack will probably start with South East Asia, whom nobody really loves, and then proceed against India and Japan in the hope that one or both will sue for peace. Whether this strategy succeeds or not will depend on how desperate or megalomanical the Chinese generals get.

So that leaves the Muslims, who are fighting a religious war but not as a united force. Currently, they are mainly fighting it as Palestinians and their supporters against Israel; as jihadis against pretty much anyone they don’t like and can find some way to attacks; and as assorted bands of Islamic warlords in Africa. There seems to be no clean process for these groups to unite, nor to sustain concerted attacks from their Western, Israeli and Indian opponents. Their only hope is to find become convenient partners against these forces with the Chinese, as Mussolini and Tojo did with Hitler.