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.