18 March 2012

The Answer for Afghanistan

Gentle Giant - Rory Stewart
Well, how is one to be hopeful about Afghanistan now, after these horrific incidences – the accidental Koran burning, and then the insanity unleashed in the Panjwai district of southern Kandahar Province on a dark, disastrous night last week, supposedly by an angry, possibly drunken soldier? Sixteen innocent civilians, mostly women and children killed – this goes beyond cultural insensitivity. It reveals the cancerous mass that has taken hold of the United States’ involvement in Afghanistan like Hugo Chávez’s bald head no longer allowing his secret truth to remain hidden from the public. But, as with cancer itself, the road forward is fraught with fear, the treatment, painful, the future, uncertain.

Many in the United States and in the NATO ally countries that continue to contribute troops to the International Security Assistance Force, who just want this decade-long ordeal to be over and done with, welcome the call by President Hamid Karzai and so many others in Afghanistan for a speedup in the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. The situation just keeps dragging on, with no apparent progress toward even a faint, glimmering, misty mirage of a goal. The answer, to many, is to cut the losses and run.

Officially, the goal is for Afghanistan to be able to master its own security, meaning that the Karzai government will be able to keep the Taliban from rising up and forcing its way back into power once again. He knows that this is the endgame, which is why he has not pandered to the growing anti-American popular sentiment by calling for the immediate withdrawal of all coalition forces.

Yet, he is becoming increasingly combativeness toward the backers of his power, an attitude that is explained by Dutch author, Bette Dam, who conducted extensive interviews with Karzai for a book about his path to the presidency. She describes it as the pushback of a proud man to demands for change in a system that is seen from the outside as corruption, but to Karzai, it is an age-old custom of political patronage, the one source of power that he clings to within a weak government that is being propped up by the strong hand of the United States. The New York Times cites “a senior Western official in Kabul” in further explaining that Karsai's compativeness is revenge on the Obama administration for the “systematic insults” that he and his family suffered in those hands that strove to clean up the system of corruption/patronage that has been holding Afghanistan back all these years.

Despite his success at completing the original mission of the invasion of Afghanistan, the difficult task for President Obama to pull off there has just become far more difficult, as he cannot simply cut and run. Meanwhile, for his part, despite the heated rhetoric and the revengefulness, Karzai still needs coalition forces to maintain security in the country, especially now that the Taliban has backed away from negotiating with the United States and has been playing up these recent incidences, swearing that they will exact revenge via beheadings for the martyrs who were killed at the hands of the “sadist soldiers.”

It is not just the Taliban that is insisting that one soldier did not and could not have carried out the incident alone. A parliamentary probe was sent to the two villages that suffered the attacks, whose delegation spent two days collecting evidence and interviewing families, tribal elders, and survivors. Their verdict was that between 15 and 20 soldiers split into two groups to carry out the massacre. That the United States has whisked their suspected rogue soldier off – first to Kuwait and then to Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas - has maddened just about everyone in Afghanistan. They want the perpetrator(s) to be punished in Afghanistan. Declared one member of that legislative body, Wolesi Jirga,

If the international community does not play its role in punishing the perpetrators, the Wolesi Jirga would declare foreign troops as occupying forces, like the Russians.
It is very hard to trust the military with speaking the truth after the Pat Tillman incident and other such exercises in pure propaganda, and of course, it would be a complete and utter public relations disaster for the United States if it turns out that these brutal attacks were carried out by more than one soldier-gone-mad. Marital problems, a head injury, and anger management issues have been tossed out there as possible motives, with the idea that the soldier who has been pegged for the crimes was angry at the military about his deployment seeming to be his lawyer’s top pick, not that any of one these make for good messaging for the military: “Join the military and become an angry, crazy person!”

So maybe the silver lining here lies in what changes could finally be inspired to occur in the US military culture – a little humility, perhaps?

I was awestruck when I happened upon an interview with Charlie Rose a while back. The interviewee was a British guy named Rory Stewart, and his enlightened perspective along with his dignified nature intrigued me. He was there discussing the book that he co-authored titled Can Intervention Work?  He should know a little about Afghanistan, having trekked, alone and on foot, 6000 miles across South Asia (Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, India, and Nepal) in order to learn what it is really like in the little villages that define this rugged part of the world, beyond the point of view of the diplomats, other government officials, and the businesspeople that they serve. Something he said really resonated with me, because I am often characterized as being an unrealistic optimist, which I take great offense at. My positions are far more nuanced than that. I was amazed to hear Rory Stewart call out the military for being the unrealistic optimists! They have their failure-is-not-an-option mindset, so for them, every problem can be solved with more troops, more military investment, and more time.

How this echoes the words of Howard Zinn to which I refer in the Dedications and Apology at the beginning of my No Strangers book:

Overwhelmed by a mudslide of stultifying irony, I forgot what Howard Zinn had said one year previously in his speech of 8 November 2008, that war is antithetical to peace and stability because its outcome is unpredictable, as the perpetrators always seem surprised when their goals are not met, and it ends up corrupting everybody. In my desire to defend the President and hold on to the Hope that he represented, I was corrupted by this war...
...sigh... Anyway, elsewhere, the Economist points out Stewart’s very mature way of dealing with problems thusly:

He cites a pragmatic admonition from English Mountain Rescue: “Be prepared to turn back if conditions turn against you.”

Now, Rory Stewart has taken advantage of the moments following the Panjwai massacre to reiterate his position that the West should get mostly out of Afghanistan soon, as in this year. He has been saying for several years now that nation building and anti-terrorism are really two separate efforts rather than one congruent one, and the fact that the coalition and in particular the US military has failed in the effort to win the “hearts and minds” of the Afghani people really brings this point home. Without this connecting link, neither of those two efforts has any possibility for success. Conditions have definitely turned against NATO forces, and it is high time to call back the rescue mission and reprioritize.

The piece in the London Evening Standard from 12 March linked to above makes clear that Stewart is not advocating for a sudden and chaotic withdrawal, nor is he suggesting that all Western aid in various forms, including security, should give up on Afghanistan:

The time has come for the US and its allies such as the UK to begin the process of withdrawal — clearly, orderly, with dignity, minimising the number of casualties as we do so, and leaving only a light footprint behind.

Nato should be proud of its early achievements: from destroying al Qaeda in Afghanistan, to fostering female education, and healthcare. Foreigners could have a future role in Kabul in counter-terrorism and development assistance. And the US, the UK and the UN must do what they can to increase the likelihood of a political settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban and decrease the likelihood of civil war.

So, a change of plans is clearly necessary. Should the alternative be, as Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R, CA) advocates, to arm the Afghanistan National Front (ANF), the group of tribal leaders, former military leaders, and politicians whose goal is preventing the Taliban from regaining power, and whose calls for a national discussion about changing the constitution to create a less centralized Afghani government is a direct threat to Hamid Karzai’s corrupt power structure? Rohrabacher would seem to be in agreement with Stewart, except, of course, instead of phrasing it politely, he has authored a statement titled, “Get the hell out now...” He would have the withdrawal be sudden, chaotic, and complete, except, of course, for the arms left behind in the hands of opponents to Karzai’s government along with other forms of meddling in the internal politics of the country – to spread democracy, of course.

Rory Stewart was outspoken during that anticipatory moment in time when President Barack Obama was weighing his decision about the Afghan “surge” while simultaneously preparing to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. He was consulted by people in the highest ranks of the US State Department and gave testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as an expert in Afghanistan affairs. His advice was consistently less troops, not more, as he recognized that the goals of the surge were too lofty and therefore probably doomed to failure. He understood that which has escaped the military establishment – that Afghanis are who they are, and trying to impose different values and ways of doing things on them through sheer force, with very little cultural sensitivity, is not the best way of going about things. The needs of the Afghanis, he said, are different from the needs of foreigners, and if any goals were to be achieved, they would need to be more humble and down-to-earth.

Let us hope that Rory Stewart will now be listened to with new ears – especially his keen critique of the military’s overambitious optimism. Again, his voice carries weight here, having been in the British army. He was also deputy governor of two Iraqi provinces under the Coalition Provisional Authority. He has stated that he went into his mission in supported the invasion of Iraq, but after discovering the limitations of the coalition authority in such a complicated cultural and political situation, his opinion changed. He always returns to the same conclusion:

The best thing, I think, in retrospect, would have been to empower local political leaders much more quickly rather than struggling through our own very limited institutions to forge Iraq in the Coalition’s own image.
In Afghanistan, the cancer of hubris – that the West can succeed at forging an Afghanistan in its own image – has been exposed. The cells have turned against the organism that hosts them. They’ve gone rogue, feeding themselves and their own agenda rather than supporting the larger mission. The cancer must be removed, but not at the cost of killing off the healthy cells, as well.

Involvement in Afghanistan does not need to end altogether. It is the nature of the involvement that must be set straight, so no, Mr. Rohrabacher, there should be no arming of factions nor meddling on behalf of Karzai’s political opponents. No politician in that country is going to want to be seen as being influenced by any foreigners at this point, anyway – it would be political suicide. Karzai is being accused by both the Taliban on one side and his opponents on the opposite end of the political spectrum on the other side of being a puppet of the United States, and his very legitimacy is now being questioned by all, never mind his credibility. So let Afghanistan have its elections, staying on the sidelines and ensuring order to whatever extent is possible, perhaps using coalition forces other than those from the United States, and let whatever will be, be ...cancer free.


The New York Times. 17 March 2012

The Daily Outlook Afghanistan, Updated 17 March 2012


Charlie Rose. 18 August, 2011

The Economist. 22 October, 2011

London Evening Standard. 12 March 2012

Harcourt Books. The Prince of the Marshes by Rory Stewart

The Outlook Afghanistan. Updated 18 March 2012

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