Saturday, October 17, 2009
Interesting dreams have never been my forte. Usually I'm lost in a foreign land, can't remember the name of my hotel, and so I can't find my way back to where I came from. Sometimes my wallet's gone as well, and I have no money and no ID. Or, I return to where my car is parked, only to find that it's not there. I don't seem ever to have those luminous, revelatory dreams in which you meet up with an archetypal angel, or a Himalayan master who offers helpful advice.
Last night I dreamt I had a brush with the Taliban. I was with a good friend in an apartment building much like the one I grew up in in New York years ago. We knew Taliban were in the neighborhood because we had seen them. Despite the middle-sized green armchair (similar to the ones in my present-day living room) we put up against the door to block their entry, they showed up and managed to capture my friend while I was somehow outside in the hall bathroom. My friend yelled at me to run, and somehow I succeeded in getting on the elevator. "The Taliban are here," I said breathlessly to the elevator man. "Yes, I know,' he answered quietly. I hurried into the street to find help, even while I understood that this was impossible because it was already too late. Then I woke up, shaking.
While the Bush administration was busy conflating the Iraq War with the "war on terror," al Qaeda and the Taliban were busy regrouping and revving up in an ungoverned region on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, biding time while they watched America bleed its military and its economy over a misbegotten war in Iraq. Recovering at the time, myself, from a serious bout of illness, I spent a lot of time reading books about global Jihad, trying to understand what radical Islam was really about. That was when I learned they actually want more than to get rid of us--to get the West out of Muslim lands. Just as the U.S. wants to establish free-market democracies around the globe, Islamists have a similar ambition for 7th-century Sharia law to gain ascendency worldwide. They despise democracy. As I came to understand the real danger brewing in Waziristan, I would mention it to friends. Invariably I got the same response: "What's Waziristan?" And so I would joke back, "Have you gotten yourself a burka yet?"
Now President Obama has openly designated the border region as "the most dangerous place in the world," and by doing so, risks beating the hornet's nest with a baseball bat. Everyone has become aware of what Waziristan is, but, as a friend pointed out, we have only a not-very-large green armchair at this point with which to defend ourselves. It isn't working. Suicide bombers are currently fanning out all over Pakistan and only 37% of Americans, according to the most recent poll, are in favor of continuing this war.
After the U.S. had driven the Taliban out of Afghanistan, Bush's strategy for the threat emanating from Waziristan was to ignore it, and to rely on his "ally," then President Pervez Musharraf, also commander of the Pakistani army, to keep a lid on the "Islamofascism" breeding in the area. Unfortunately, it was a Faustian bargain, given that Musharaff's success depended on his hands-off policy: namely, we won't bother you if you don't bother us. It was always clear to Musharaff (and to me) that if ever he tried to go after the crowd in Waziristan, death-dealing insurgents would come after him and chop off his head. They would also begin suicide-bombing Pakistan. So, under his live-and-let-live approach, the danger continued to lurk and silently grow, like a toxic tumor in the body of the world. Bush considered the problem solved, and continued his war with the wrong enemy in the wrong place.
Now it seems we are stuck with yet another war--one that requires building a state, defeating the Taliban, defeating al Qaeda, and bringing economic activity to a country where there is none, except for international aid and the production of illegal narcotics. As Rory Stewart--the Scottish-born professor of human rights at Harvard who has lived and worked in Afghanistan--explains in his essay entitled "The Irresistible Illusion," this policy rests on "misleading ideas about moral obligation, our capacity, the strength of our adversaries, the threat posed by Afghanistan, the relations between our different objectives, and the value of a state." Is a centralized state, he wonders, even an appropriate model for a mountainous country with strong ethnic traditions of local self-government and autonomy? Besides, Osama bin Laden (as far as anyone knows) is hiding in Pakistan, a country that does have a strong central state government--one which has already made clear that it won't have its sovereignty violated by us, probably the main reason Osama prefers staying there.
Our attempt to modernize feudal, fundamentalist societies through building democratic nation-states has proved to be a thankless, witless task, especially in the face of adversaries who want, themselves, to remake the world through spectacular acts of terror. Just as technology can't stop climate change, it is proving impossible to stop a world network of terrorists with outposts in regions that no state controls. However, it is equally hard to accept that there are problems at the heart of American security that might have no solution. All of which brings me to precisely the point that I am hardly the first to make: in this new kind of unconventional war that is now being fought, THERE IS NO PROSPECT OF VICTORY. We are not winning now, and we are not going to win in any imagined scenario in the future.
Americans are particularly unwilling to believe that problems are insoluble or that a mission is impossible. Continuing the fight in Afghanistan is as much about the need to avoid being labeled a loser as it is about winning. No politician, as Stewart underscores in his article, wants to be perceived as having underestimated, or failed to address, a terrorist threat; or to write off the blood and treasure that we have already spent. Certainly they do not want to be the one to admit defeat. "The language of modern policy does not help us to declare the limits to our power and capacity; to concede that we can do less than we pretend or that our enemies can do less than we pretend; to confess how little we know about a country like Afghanistan or how little we can predict about its future; or to acknowledge that we might be unwelcome or that our presence might be perceived as illegitimate or that it might make things worse."
Recently I saw a section of the PBS documentary "Obama's War" as shown on Frontline. Stranded in the outer reaches of Afghanistan, our stalwart soldiers there function as "bait." Every day they get up and go out in search of an enemy they almost never get to see. They wander the streets and talk to ragtag bands of Afghans, who look at the them with mildly mocking smiles of curiosity, while the soldiers try to win them over and convince them that we are there to "help." Meanwhile, however, the Taliban have made it clear that anyone seen with the Americans should expect certain death, so I don't see any "Anbar Awakening" (like the one that took place in Iraq) happening in Afghanistan any time soon.
Obama's "Yes We Can" mantra may still be very much a work-in-progress in the U.S., whose final outcome is not yet clear. In Afghanistan, however, I don't think the phrase has much resonance or chemistry. It's more like when Tonto said to the Lone Ranger, "What do you mean 'we,' white man?" In this case, it really doesn't matter that our president is black, because the question still stands.