Sunday, September 20, 2009

Afghanistan and Vietnam

Those of us of a certain age well remember the debacle of Vietnam. My brother, for one, was a Naval Medic attached to the Marine base in Danang. He also experienced front line duty, as in jungle patrols. It was not good, to put it mildly. In our misguided effort to keep the "Communists" (e.g. Chinese) from toppling the dominoes of Southeast Asia, we managed to facilitate the slaughter over a million Vietnamese in addition to getting over 50,000 of our own troops wiped out. In spite of a massive effort on the part of the youth of the world, the War went on for long after it was obviously over. Years later the "threat" from Communist China has turned into our major source of cash, used in large part to line the pockets of those who recently brought the World close to financial ruin (see the current New Yorker for a blow-by-blow article: Eight Days by James B. Stewart.)

Why do I bring this up? Well, I heard the ambassador from the current Afghanistan government to the United States speak on the situation there two days ago. Ambassador Said T. Jawad is an extremely well spoken gentleman. He is, as can be expected, a strong friend and supporter of Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president. His lecture gave a cogent, and compelling argument for the continued involvement of America, the principal NATO force there, in the civil war between the Karzai government and the insurgent Taliban. Yes, I believe him when he states that the Taliban are interested only in winning, and they will do anything to accomplish that goal, particularly engage in terrorism. I also believe him when he states that Taliban infiltrate the country from Pakistan and that the goal is to win the hearts and the minds of the peasants. I also believe him when he says .....

Wait a bloody minute. Where have I heard this mantra before. Was it a certain Mr. Nixon who declared that we would hand the job over to the Vietnamese? We would have "Vietnamization?" That if only America sent 50,000 more troops, they would turn the tide?

Etc., Etc., Etc.

Yes, the Taliban are terrorists. Their methods are brutal and they frequently employ intimidation to control peasant populations in rural Afghanistan. And yes, they finance their movement using money from the poppy trade that makes the heroin that shoots into the veins of Europeans and Americans. We do, and we should, despise them. But, no one has ever been successful in subduing rural Afghanistan, including Flashman. Ambassador Jawad made an important observation. He acknowledged that the structure of most of Afghanistan had been tribal up until the Soviet invasion. But, he observed that there have always been such power structures, e.g. the tribal leader who was an absolute ruler, but that they would not survive, much as the kings of England would not survive, unless they gave something back to those they ruled. While he didn't say so explicitly, he intimated that this was in many cases "security." (Well, one could make an argument that our involvement in Afghanistan is principally because we hoped to guarantee American security by removing the source of terror attacks, Al Qaeda. Life has a way of coming back on itself.) In any case, when the Soviets invaded, this structure was destroyed and that of the war lord took its place. (An interesting book involving war lords is that about the Taiping rebellion in China in the 1860's, God's Chinese Son.)

In any case, it is quite possible that, in spite of our good intentions, in spite of the cogent arguments made for our involvement there by Ambassador Jawad, that, just as in Vietnam, we are doomed to failure. After all, the British controlled India for hundreds of years but had their ups and downs with Afghanistan (see history). I guess it is too soon to see if America, following in our friend's footsteps across the pond, will be any more successful in changing the course there. I certainly hope so. The civilization that Ambassador Jawad outlined seemed one that would appeal to a reasonable person from the West, whether it will to all Afghans remains to be seen.

The picture at the top is the Fort in Western Afghanistan attributed to Alexander the Great on his eastward journey.


Ray Girvan said...

I can't recall where I read it, but I recently ran into what seems like a plausible commentary on Afghanistan: that everyone is wading in with completely the wrong cultural assumptions. "We" (US and British) rather assume that things work like Western European feudalism: top-down hierarchy of power, where you can just go in and install yourself at the top, and everyone else below slots in the hierarchy.

But this only works in places where there's good communication and ease of anyone at any level of the hierarchy getting to the spot to enforce that hierarchy.

Afghanistan's very different, with regions largely isolated from each other, enforcing local self-reliance, and a bottom-up power structure based on local interactions and level of kinship. You may have a feud with your brother, but if a cousin threatens him, you'll side with your brother. If a warlord threatens your cousin, you and your brother will side with him. If another warlord threatens your nearest warlord, all of you will side with your local one. And so on (with the obvious conclusion as to what the reaction will be to a complete outsider coming into the game). It's different, anarchic even, but perfectly logical in its own terms.

Dr. C said...

Thanks, Ray. I agree with this analysis. I guess the question is, can the country be modernized quickly before it sinks back into neo-feudalism. I tend to think not. However, apparently our new star general there (Westmoreland II) today said we couldn't "win" without more troops.

Ray Girvan said...

I'd add that I'm sure the people on the ground know this (the Russians and English in the Great Game era, whatever their mistakes, knew all about forming local alliances). The misunderstanding - or choice not to admit that's how it works - is at the political/public level.