Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Wisdoms of the Deserts

We think we know what we mean by the word "desert." We have grown up with images of the Sahara and the Arabian peninsula--dunes, camels, oases, Bedouins, mirages--as our ur-desert, the original, the essence of what we mean by the term. While, like most cliches, this one has some basis in fact, it also has the dangerous effect of trying to hide our fear of the vast and wild and barren under a veneer of banality. We have to get over it--the fear and the too-frequent recourse to banality--or we will doom ourselves to a series of politico-military misadventures in which our inability to understand a desert mentality will cripple from the outset any chance we have of success, whatever we mean by that most malleable of military markers.

If this sounds like McChrystal-redux, as in Gen. Stanley McChrystal's not-quite classified status of mission report to the White House and Pentagon that someone leaked to Bob Woodward ofThe Washington Post over the weekend, don't stop here. McChrystal clearly understands that the longer Afghans perceive his forces as isolated in bases, disengaged from the population, the more they look like centuries of occupiers have looked, dug into encampments or fortresses. Afghanistan and Afghans have a very good record in dealing with occupiers, and I don't mean showing them hospitality. I mean showing them the door.

I find this interesting. Sure, they fight well, know the terrain, can tap resources too meagre for those from non-desert civilizations to find survivable, and don't have to manage supply lines halfway around the planet, in our case. Still, I don't think that quite explains the issue. We didn't go there to fight the Afghan people; we went to fight al-Qaeda and their allies the Taliban, both roundly disliked by a majority of the population. That should have made us welcome, one would think.

We forgot something, though. They have no model for foreign troops coming in force as anything but imperial occupiers. We had a lot of work to do to overcome that hard-wired expectation, and we didn't do it. We expected them to accept us as friends after we'd helped them twenty years ago and then left them to the untender unmercies of the Taliban. Suddenly al Qaeda bombs us with commercial aircraft and we expect cooperation? And then we blame them as unreliable when they double-deal with us at Tora-Bora? Come again?

Hospitality and welcome: two notions central to desert life, whether the Christian desert fathers of Egypt or the denizens of the barren expanses of the Afghan countryside, mountains or plains. Think about it. You live in a very remote place where you see very few people. Suddenly someone emerges at your door. Out of religious--Christian or Muslim--or merely pragmatic motivations--who ever heard of pulling a trigger or committing rape on a full stomach?--one invites the stranger in and produces a meal as generous as one's means permit, and often moreso. I fear our troops haven't poked their heads in at enough doors in Afghanistan, whether in remote stretches or in cities. Military culture tells them to go kill bad guys; it needs to start concentrating their energies on making friends with the good guys. And don't immediately ask for help finding the Taliban before the pilau has cooled.

Some would object by alluding to another desert trope: mirages. They argue that one simply cannot find any good guys in Afghanistan. I haven't lived there, but many who have would beg to differ. Those who can't find the good guys haven't paid enough attention to the culture to know how to look. Back to the desert fathers. The emptiness of the desert, the tendency of the desert to absorb our voices without bouncing anything back, leads us to fall prey to the steady chatter in our minds, which leads us quickly to what both monastic Christianity and Buddhism refer to as illusion. The Sufis, who appealed so strongly to the Afghan heart, would certainly agree.

I have found the notion of war in Afghanistan troubling from the very beginning, from about 12:15 on 9/11, 2001, sitting in a college chapel, of all places, listening to the vengeful blood-lust of colleagues and students, even my friend the chaplain. I felt then I could never ratify another war. If we fail in Afghanistan, we leave the Afghans to a desert stripped of illusion. Right now the three insurgent groups vying for control are all Islamist extremists with both conflicting and overlapping interests and territories; the government, stripped by the incompetence and corruption of the Karzai brothers and threatened by the none-too delicate surgeon's hands of Dr. Abdullah-Abdullah, might as well not exist. One cannot imagine their surviving our exit in their current state.

I know President Obama has little stomach for propping up a Karzai government, nor should he. Don't mistake Afghanistan for Iran, let alone Iraq. Mousavi would have had real credibility in Iran; al-Maliki, a Shi'a, represents the largest ethnic group in Iraq. Abdullah, a Tajik, presents a real stretch as president of a nation dominated by Pashtuns, Karzai's ethnic group.

I have one thought for the president to consider before he starts buttoning this back down into a Predator-launched missile campaign against bin Laden, whom Obama will no doubt argue gave us a reason to go the Hindu Kush in the first place. True enough, Mr. President, but have no illusions about the wrecked lives you will leave behind, the unspeakable distortion of Shari'a law that will ensue--that has already begun to function as a shadow justice system in the south, according to Woodward and others--if we scale back our war to a laughably circumscribed CIA remote-control effort. Surely we owe the Afghans more than that after bombing their houses to hell and back getting rid of the Taliban. Cut and run now, and we merely double-down on the immoral mistake of the Bush administration when their minds wandered to Iraq.

No comments:

Post a Comment