August 21, 2009

In those heady days of 2003, when the War Party was really feeling its oats and the neocons, the “€œwarbloggers,”€ and the television talking heads were triumphantly hailing the invasion of Iraq as an unqualified success, one Iraqi pretty much summed up the Arab response to the “€œliberation,”€ as reported by the New York Times:

“€œIn the giddy spirit of the day, nothing could quite top the wish list bellowed out by one man in the throng of people greeting American troops from the 101st Airborne Division who marched into town today.

What, the man was asked, did he hope to see now that the Ba”€™ath Party had been driven from power in his town? What would the Americans bring?

“€œDemocracy,”€ the man said, his voice rising to lift each word to greater prominence. “€œWhiskey. And sexy!”€

According to this reporter, the crowd shouted its approval, and, here at home, the warbloggers took up this cry as their signature slogan, celebrating this anonymous Iraqis”€™ apparent joy at the imposition of modernity on Iraq at gunpoint as decisive proof that the policies of the Bush administration were right and the “€œtransformation”€ of the entire region was on the agenda.

It didn”€™t quite turn out that way, however: far from “€œdemocracy, whiskey, sexy,”€ the Iraqis got an Islamic “€œrepublic”€ where shops that sell alcohol are frequently bombed, if not outright banned,”€sexy”€ is highly problematic, and democracy such as we conceive of it in the West is still a will-o”€™-the-wisp.

Now that we are entering phase two of the Western crusade to make the Middle East more like Kansas and it’s Barack Obama’s turn at the plate, Afghans are reacting to the imposition of “€œdemocracy, whiskey, sexy”€ with rather less enthusiasm than their Iraqi brothers. A recent news report on the Afghan election averred:

“€œFornication, bare flesh, and a descent into Western decadence”€”these are Afghan definitions of democracy that expose how little the foreign concept has permeated the national psyche as elections near.”€

Actually, it seems to me as if the “€œforeign concept”€ has penetrated quite well, if one “€œWasim,”€ described in the report as a 28-year-old waiter in a Kabul kebab restaurant, is being quoted correctly here:

Western democracy is freedom and fornication. This is democracy for Western, American, and European people, and it is developing the same way here.

“€œFreedom and fornication”€”€”a more accurate description would drop the former and focus exclusively on the latter. As long as they”€™re allowed to fornicate freely, Westerners will believe they”€™re free and won”€™t so much mind being slaves.

Mansoor Aslami, a 21-year-old cosmetics shop owner cited in the same news report, also seems to have a pretty good handle on the sort of system we”€™re trying to export to his country. He “€œis less than keen on some of the trends he sees among his patrons. “€˜I see signs of democracy among customers with bare arms and necks,”€™ considered shocking immodesty in Afghan culture. “€˜But so long as democracy is according to Islam,”€™ he adds, “€˜it is good.”€™”€

I cite these remarks because they illustrate how naïve we were in seeking a “€œtransformation“€œ of the Middle East by force of arms”€”or by any other means. In the context of Afghan society”€”where clan, tribe, hierarchy, and tradition trump all”€”the equation of democratic values with those of an irresponsible hedonism and even nihilism is perfectly understandable. Aslami, who sees “€œsigns of democracy among customers with bare arms and necks,”€ understands the issue quite well”€”far better than our own blinkered grand strategists and counterinsurgency specialists.

The latter seek to “€œclear, hold, and build“€œ a functioning Afghan state patterned on the Western model, in which citizens assent to a social contract that imposes social and political discipline in exchange for allowing a relatively wide berth in the personal realm. This places the Americans, right from the start, in total opposition to the last thousand or so years of Afghan history, just as it did the Soviets.

In Afghan society, the realm of the personal is ruled by Islam, and people take their pleasures when and where they can. There is no central state and no social contract: Allah and the weight of history give order and shape to people’s lives. To take one particularly dramatic aspect of the vast gulf that separates the Afghan mind from the American: the role of women in the social and political order is not something that meets the approval of Western feminists”€”not that this has stopped Western-backed President Hamid Karzai from going along with the notorious “€œfood for sex“€œ law, which allows Afghan husbands to withhold all sustenance from wives who refuse to perform their wifely duties in the boudoir. It’s election time in Afghanistan, and Karzai is making a populist appeal by wooing tradition-bound voters and criticizing the Americans for what he regards as their lack of concern over civilian casualties in the fight against the Taliban.

This and his reputation for corruption is no doubt failing to win him many kudos from Hillary Clinton’s State Department, and Washington generally, which is why the Obama administration has been nervously edging away from Karzai of late. They would much rather have somebody in there like Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister and academic who lived abroad for 30 years and was an official at the World Bank. Ghani has taken on James Carville as his campaign adviser-manager, a move likely to garner more votes in Washington than on the ground in Afghanistan. In Ghani”€”registering at 4 percent in the polls “€“ a less likely populist insurgent can hardly be imagined.

The Americans will probably have to settle for Abdullah Abdullah, scion of a family that served the old Afghan monarchy. Abdullah’s chief claim to fame is his association with the legendary Ahmad Shah Massoud, known as the “Lion of Panjshir,”€ the charismatic anti-Soviet jihadist and chief figure in the Northern Alliance. Massoud was assassinated on Sept. 9, 2001, after he had warned U.S. intelligence agents of an impending attack by al-Qaeda.

No one knows, of course, how much the favored candidate of the Americans”€”whomever that might be “€“ is being subsidized and otherwise assisted, but the outcome depends more on what happens in Washington than on the streets of Kabul. The proliferation of ballots for sale and the almost entirely ersatz voter rolls are bound to make the Iranian election seem relatively credible in comparison. While we breathlessly await the election “€œresults,”€ let’s understand that the winner will be determined by who is buying up all those phony ballots and how big their budget is.

In any case, the imposition of “€œdemocracy”€ on the face of Afghan society is already liquidating the glue that holds their culture together, destroying the social fabric and replacing it with”€”what?

Remember the mantra repeated by the high priests of our new counterinsurgency doctrine: clear, hold, and build. After they”€™ve cleared away the “€œprimitive”€ tribal structures and religious strictures that give life meaning to Afghans and held it against the onslaught of natural resentment and hatred unleashed against this alien intrusion, what do they intend to replace it with? What, exactly, are they building? In all likelihood a grotesque mutant hybrid of Western mass-democracy and Islamo-feudalism, one that will prove just as incapable of surviving the rough Afghan terrain as the Soviet hybrid did.

The “€œclear, hold, and build”€ scenario painted by the Obama administration’s military theoreticians doesn”€™t tell us the whole story. They”€™re leaving out an important step. A more accurate way to describe our task in Afghanistan is “€œclear, hold, build”€”and keep holding.”€ The Soviet-backed leftist government never got off life support, and the need to pour resources into the war was an important factor leading to the dissolution of the Soviet empire.

That we will allow ourselves to be similarly drained, and with a similar result, seems almost unbelievably stupid “€“ but, then again, we never learn from history, do we? After all, our officials believe they stand above history”€”that they are making history, and not the reverse.


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