What Would You Do About Afghanistan?

cartoon carlson

Cartoon by Stuart Carlson, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, from four years ago

The greasy politicians, the corporate war profiteers and the compliant media are working together to present us with the usual “you’re with us or you’re with the enemy” dichotomy on the interminable war in Afghanistan.

Like most modern “intractable problems”, it’s not a “complicated problem” at all (as we should have learned in Vietnam and a hundred other civil and regional conflicts, you can’t “impose” democracy on people). It’s a complex predicament: We have to learn to understand and live with it, and intervene in ways that make sense, without the expectation that such interventions will “solve” it, and with the humility to appreciate that things are the way they are for a reason, one that is usually self-reinforcing, and that our primary goal in any intervention should be to not make matters worse.

Here are some ‘facts’ about the situation in Afghanistan that few people, regardless of ideology, dispute:

  • Afghanistan is an ecologically devastated country, and has been for a long time. Its natural beauty and ability to support life have been desolated by horrific overpopulation relative to carrying capacity, centuries of overgrazing, bombing, landmines, and reckless misuse and waste of water and other resources. The reason opium poppy cultivation drives the entire economy is that nothing much else can grow there anymore, at least not at a scale sufficient to allow its people to trade for the things they desperately need and cannot provide for themselves.
  • Historically, the country has been repeatedly invaded, pillaged and then abandoned, leaving behind a vacuum that local warlords and rival militias have filled. Despite serious internal power struggles, no one has really been in “power” in all of Afghanistan in centuries. The Soviets decided to support one progressive faction to bring some stability to the country, leading millions of conservatives to flee to Pakistan and organize as mujahideen (“strugglers”) to overthrow the Soviet-backed regime, which they did with the help of covert and overt US and Pakistani arms and support. When the Soviets withdrew, the warlords and rival militias once again filled the power vacuum.
  • The Taliban, largely consisting of refugees who had fled to Pakistan as mujahideen, waded into this desperate situation with a promise of an alternative to the despotic warlords and endless wars between militias. With military and financial support from Pakistan, they won a civil war against supporters of the country’s post-Soviet government, and installed a brutal and repressive regime, which was toppled by the NATO invasion in 2001.
  • The country today is not centrally governed. It is once again run by local warlords who use power and propaganda to brainwash and cow their populations. The so-called national government is totally corrupt and substantially governs only in the capital district of Kabul, thanks to massive ongoing financial and military support from NATO nations.
  • If/when the US/NATO leaves, another civil war among rival militias, and a Taliban resurgence, are almost certain. The majority of the Afghan people don’t want civil war or another Taliban government.

The NATO invasion and war with various insurgents has cost at least a trillion dollars, killed thousands of mostly innocent people, further crippled the country, and lasted longer than either world war. Despite the promises of Obama, there is no reason to believe the current situation, which is chaotic and rife with corruption, can or could be improved by more or different foreign military, political and/or economic intervention.

So what should be done? I confess that I was sufficiently taken in by the reports of the mistreatment by the Taliban of its people that I supported the initial invasion, but I am no longer sure that was a defensible position. The current situation is untenable and unsustainable, and the reports given to Obama about the situation have been universally dismal. Few think the current interventions are working, but most think withdrawal is not an option either. Vietnam all over again.

If we are willing to admit that invading, even with the best of intentions, was a mistake, then what? Are we obliged to atone for that error by prolonging the inevitable, compounding the human and financial losses indefinitely? What is the value, and cost, of saving face? I recognize that pulling out of Afghanistan now will cause enormous suffering in a country that has suffered endlessly for decades already. It will embolden despots and desperate people everywhere. It will be a humiliating admission that even the best-intentioned military actions are, in a world where guns, bombs, mines and other technologies are cheap, easy to obtain and effective at oppressing citizens, probably going to fail, and make the situation worse.

Because it’s a predicament, not a problem, there is no “answer”. We will ultimately be forced by some other, more urgent, crisis to abandon Afghanistan. The real question, now, is, What is the best use of our people (especially the energies of the millions of our people whose jobs are in one way or another security or social welfare related) and our money, to make the world safer, happier, more livable? That is an existential question, probably far beyond the capacity of politicians, corporations and media to even think about.

My answer is another question: How can our energies and money (which is actually, if we were to be honest, our children’s money, since we’ve spent all ours and our spending now is just increasing the debts they will have to repay) best be applied to reduce the aggregate amount of suffering in the world?

Although my answer to that second question is probably not that different from what any thinking, caring, informed person would come up with, I dare not speak it, because my answer flies in the face of too many of the beliefs we hold sacred, and which we will probably cling to as our civilization continues to careen off the cliff. My answer would suggest that maybe we need to give up many of the hard-fought rights and freedoms we cherish. It suggests maybe the time for big governments and big organizations and globalization is past. It suggests that the way most of us in affluent nations (and I include myself) live, is an outrage, unforgivable. It suggests that just about every thing we have been taught about the world, and how to conduct ourselves in it, is wrong.

And, worst of all, it suggests that what we must do, to act in the best interests of all life on Earth now, is beyond our individual and collective capacity. It is, like the situation in Afghanistan, hopeless.

This entry was posted in How the World Really Works. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to What Would You Do About Afghanistan?

  1. Sasha says:

    Bomb them with books, plant OLPC laptops in unexpected places in far away villages. Send undercover special gardening forces. Plant seed bombs (balls) on strategical routes.Send poetical secret agents to enjoy their culture. Use guided missiles to spread seeds, build native plants fortified oasis in the deserts. Spread tools everywhere…

  2. Pingback: Tweets that mention What Would You Do About Afghanistan? « how to save the world -- Topsy.com

  3. Pingback: World Spinner

  4. Jeff says:

    Hopeless for whom? Isn’t there hope for Bowen Island? I agree there is little hope for those who want to keep the same standard of living and I agree that national policy and/or individual action alone won’t be enough to make the changes we need- but this ‘we’ that needs changes must be a manageable size-probably around 150, right? We can’t expect change to come from outside (of ourselves and our ‘tribe’), and we can’t fault our own carrying capacity. So while I understand the hopelessness of large scale change, I think the solution is what you’re doing now in Bowen, providing preparation & hope on a manageable scale, all the while spreading the news of your working model. Why should there be more?

  5. Helga says:

    I agree with Sasha. What would happen if we did that? When will we learn that bombs can’t create peace.
    Books, medical supplies, tools, food, gardens – more effective and much cheaper, I’m sure. Research across the world has shown that the most effective way to create a civil society is to educate women. Canadian women are supporting Afghan women’s quest for education through Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan. http://www.cw4wafghan.ca/ Many Afghan women have more hope than we do. I think it is self indulgent of us to engage in hopelessness instead of offering them support and resources.

  6. Nathan says:

    Biointensive gardening perhaps? That was specifically designed by John Jeavons to gradually repair soil in such conditions.

    Your point about the history of Afghanistan is good, but I think the royal We is fogging up your writing. For someone who shows some inclination towards emergent or bottom-up solutions, you tend to return to this journalistic idiom af talking about what “We” should do in Afghanistan. There is no “we” when it comes to what a given Government is doing. It is just a mental trick to convince mere citizens that they’ve had some part in the decision, because they happened to vote a few times. I certainly can’t convince myself that Tony Blair’s decision to push the UK taxpayer’s involvement in paying for this had much to do with me, just because I voted Labour in 1997.

    It seems even more tenuous to refer to a “We” that refers to what I you think you consider “Western Globalised Industrial Civilisation”.

    In my mind, there isn’t a “We” that can take any action to do anything in Afghanistan, it amounts to the collection of people who can get away with it while the working taxpayers can be convinced to not get upset enough to do anything. And why would they? Afghanistan is the crazy project of a bunch of politicians who have lost sense of what a human can actually do, and it is only a matter of time before the whole thing fizzles out. As far as Obama is concerned, I have no idea if the US president is really interested in “freedom” and “democracy” in Afghanistan or merely carrying on with a stupid policy because there is no easy way to do a sensible thing when it comes to politics. Who knows? Do you? I certainly don’t.

Comments are closed.