Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving... Prime Minister Singh

Now, I have not throughly read the response in the press nor viewed that of the media punditocracy to the visit and recorded remarks of Prime Minister Singh of India, nor to the significance of the Obamas throwing their first state dinner not for a long-acknowledged friend but for the head of a state with which we have had an often difficult relationship. Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain purportedly felt miffed at not receiving such a dinner during his visit earlier this year. If he sulked then, how must he feel now?

What I have seen so far has centered on the menu--largely vegetarian in respect of Mr. Singh's dietary habits--who came, whether by invitation or no, what Mrs. Obama wore and the fact that she used Indian-American designers and wore lots of bangles, who played as house musicians, and so forth. All very well, and I actually consider the fact that the First Lady wore bangles and dresses with a lot of cloth-of-silver thread important for the respect they suggest of traditional Indian clothing and fabrics. She might have respected Indian modesty by not going strapless agains the Indian First Lady's sari. But so far so good--I guess.

Except if that's all we have to say about this visit, this dinner, this guest, and most of all this timing, then we deserve the shrinking influence so many scholars and journalists attribute to the United States now and into the future. Some of what follows depends heavily on Ahmed Rashid's Taliban (Yale, 2000), an acclaimed account of the rise of the Taliban and the climate in which they developed. That would include the geopolitical climate. Enter India.

India? What about Pakistan, our supposed allies in our funding and their stage-managing the fight against the Soviets from 1979-89, and now? More pointedly, why India, and why all the talk about the Indian-American partnership as though between equals, less than a week before President Obama lays out his Afghanistan policy in a speech at West Point next Tuesday? Why, indeed.

If Gordon Brown probably has a sulk on, one can imagine chairs thrown at television screens in Islamabad, and the senior officers of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in apoplectic fits. You remember the ISI, the Taliban's chief handlers and enablers, who see the Taliban as the leading edge of a pan-Islamist movement. Unfortunately, the Taliban's Pakistan-encouraged extremism has scared everyone in the region and beyond. The Taliban take the Wahhabi movement within Sunni Islam to a bizarre fare-thee-well that even their longtime backer the Saudis, themselves the chief advocates and stewards of Wahhabism, found alarming. They voted with their checkbooks. This all gets us to the situation about ten years ago, before 9/11 and its aftermath.

Some things have changed. The geopolitics have not, except that the Pakistanis have made a half-hearted show of fighting their own Taliban movement--the word simply means "students," as in students at Islamic madrassas, some funded by Pakistan, some by the Saudis. They have attacked South Waziristan with great fanfare. The experts on the Afghan conflict think they need to but will not go after more dangerous groups in North Waziristan. In short, our very unreliable "friends" in Pakistan continue to do little to contain let alone turn the tide of this war, even as it threatens to erupt towards their heartland as much as across the Afghan border.

Once again, enter India. Pakistan's arch-enemy and the excuse for so long for Pakistan to keep their military pointed east toward their borders in Kashmir and Punjab and ignore the Pathan/Pashtun tribal areas along their western border with Afghanistan. But if you stop for a second and see Afghanistan as a problem that leaks across international borders, following both ethnic and sectarian relationships, you see a different picture, one Rashid saw ten years ago. Iran nearly invaded Afghanistan over the Taliban's massacre of the Hazara, a Shia ethnic minority. Turkmenistan stands, or stood, to make a great deal of money in a pipeline deal, but not through a country engulfed in civil war. Uzbekistan watched its ethnic compatriots massacred and at one point worried, with its neighbor Tajikistan, about a Taliban invasion of Central Asia. Even now some Taliban elements operate outside their normal range in northern Afghanistan. They could hardly succeed militarily, but could their warped vision of jihad--which primarily means interior spiritual struggle--have an influence the Tajiks and Uzbeks cannot control?

And India--at last. They have already felt the lash of the extremist whip wielded by Islamist militants bred in Pakistan. Witness Mumbai, witness infiltrations across the Line of Control in Kashmir. Of all the countries Afghanistan and Pakistan border, only China remains out of this, largely thanks to the spectacular wall of the Karakoram that guards its border with Pakistan, and the puny and remote fragment of border it shares with Afghanistan at the eastern end of the Wakhan Corridor.

So, a grand arc of countries, from Iran in the west, through Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and probably including even Russia in the north, through India in the east have interests in this conflict. Pakistan, of course, would like to keep it to themselves. That will not happen. And what better way to say that loudly and clearly in the language of diplomacy than by having the Indian prime minister to the first state dinner at a White House that clearly does not plan to give a lot of state dinners, if their first year says anything. Gordon Brown, get over it. Pakistan, take notice. We have other games to play than yours.

We can, of course, hide behind claims of all the other matters we have to discuss with the Indians, which of course we do. But if you think Singh and Obama didn't discuss the geopolitics beyond India's western and northern borders, think again. And if you don't think the Indians would love to have a role in humbling Pakistan in the region, then you really need to read up on your history. And if you think Obama will lose sleep worrying about what the Pakistanis will make of the visit, the dinner, and the timing, forget it. I'll bet he'll split his time the next few days among the West Point speech, enjoying Camp David or wherever he plans to spend Thanksgiving with his family, and getting in a couple rounds of golf. Pakistanis? Not on the agenda this week. Maybe next week...

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Memo to the President

Mr. President:

Your election, as you know, both reversed and validated the intertwined histories of racism and the civil rights struggle in this country. Your election makes no sense, nor can one make sense of your presidency, without understanding that history. So, too, must an understanding of history inform your decision regarding whether or not to deploy more troops to Afghanistan, how many, and under the aegis of what mission.

The difficulty of defeating and holding Afghanistan often comes up in arguments against an increased deployment. History actually gives a rather ambiguous record on this score, since part of the tragedy of Afghanistan lies in its so often falling to invading armies, whether Persian, Hellenic, Mongol, Moghul, British, Soviet or American. All of those great powers struggled, and some had more success than others in holding onto their Afghan vassals. My point is probably obvious: we seek no such dominion over them. Kindly take those arguments with a large bag of Morton's salt.

Have we found it a tough place to fight? The mountains pose enormous challenges; just count the relics of Soviet armor in the Panjshir Valley of the Hindu Kush northeast of Kabul. Helmand and Arghand would make great terrain for tank warfare, except the Taliban have no tanks, just RPG's (rocket-propelled grenades, but you know that) and mines. We need more Dari and Pashto speakers, not more armament.

One other obstacle, though not altogether ignored, has gone under-reported. David Martin touched on it in his interview with Gen. McChrystal for CBS News' 60 Minutes. One could hardly not notice it. In a village in Helmand Province villagers wore loose-fitting pants and long shirts covering the knees, all for modesty, and either soft hats or turbans. Our troops, by contrast, wore uniforms sufficiently snug-fitting to appear immodest by Afghan standards. We've dishonored their culture--and our own--before we even open our mouths.

At one point in Martin's piece McChrystal waves his group of bodyguards away, and further away, to seem more approachable. I don't know how much that helps. The troops have so much obvious body armor on that can hardly look anything but terrifying to the average villager. We think of our uniforms as sensible, but stretched as the analogy will sound, so did the British when their red coats gave Afghan fighters the same juicy targets they gave our own militias in Vermont and the Carolinas.

Some cultural problems will take years--yes, sir, not months--to address. This one shouldn't. Presumably the Army and Marines have uniforms in a wide range of sizes. Instead of the expensive though perhaps preferable solution of redesigning the uniforms, reissue current uniforms two-to-three sizes larger than a given soldier ordinarily wears. They will discover the wonderful usefulness of the belt.

They do need at least one piece of clothing they now lack. Every Afghan male--and the women would do well to dress like men, which they do already, anyway--carries an item that combines the uses of shawl, blanket, and turban. If the Taliban can fight in them, why can't we? For all I know--and you would know this--the Special Forces may already dress this way. Surely we have uncut bolts of camouflage material in some garment factory somewhere that could be put to such a use. We don't need to dress as Afghans, as though we'd ever hope to blend, but merely with respect for Afghan norms and values.

One more thing on the McChrystal visit to Helmand, and then on to harder issues. I have read that Greg Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea has become required reading for the military in Afghanistan. If that no longer holds true, it should once again. If it does, McChrystal needs to read it again. His approach to the villagers comes across as fantastically (quite literally, to the Afghans) American, and not in the complimentary sense of the word.

We value terseness, directness, informality, McChrystal apparently more than most. Businesslike to us means let's do business now and we can think about drinks later. Much as the Afghans would respect his abstemiousness--if they know about it, and it should be a priority that they do--he would accomplish so much more in his conversations with village leaders if he let them set the pace. Let them show him hospitality, a tradition of which they are proud. I suspect they find his fly-bys insulting.

His pace suggests arrogance, an unwillingness to spend time--the key word here--in their houses, drink at least one cup of tea, and listen while the village mullah takes the lead in the conversation. Let them find out about us, then we can find out about them. If that slows down his schedule on his days in the countryside, good. You know all about bubbles, sir, and he lives in one in Kabul, as he acknowledges to David Martin. He needs to learn how to be a guest before he can really accomplish anything else. And he needs to learn the meaning of it in Pashto and Dari, Helmand and Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif and Faizabad, if he can get into Faizabad without getting blown to smithereens.

Every writer I've read on Afghanistan speaks of the Afghans' hospitality and kindness. What the Afghans--a term that makes no sense to a Panjshiri, a Herati, a Hazara, or a Pahstun-- find incomprehensible about us is that we make such ungrateful guests. If loose uniforms and drinking tea have tried your patience, please stay with me here. I know we went there in 2001 to take down the Taliban and get bin Laden. They don't see it that way. However Brzezinski and Rumsfeld might have thought we camouflaged our contributions to the anti-Soviet jihad--which as you certainly know does not mean holy war, but merely struggle--the mujaheddin knew perfectly well the source of the money that bought their weapons.

To them our presence goes back to 1979, and our failure to help them rebuild after the collapse of the Communist regime counts to them as our reneging on an implied promise to help them rebuild. From 1992 to 2001 the warlords--Hekmatyar, Massoud, Dostem, and Omar--finished the destruction of the country Brezhnev had begun. Then we swoop in, dump more bombs, just like the Soviets, and help set up a provisional government in meetings in Bonn, a place of which most of them have never heard. We breathe a sigh of relief when the loya jirgha rubberstamps Karzai, an old associate from his days in the Mullahs Front of the men who later formed the Taliban, and for all intents and purposes we disappear again. And we wonder that they don't trust us.

And now the hard part. Sir, I respectfully disagree that our main mission in Afghanistan is to capture and disarm al Qaeda. That said, by all means send--or keep sending--Special Forces troops and Predator drones into Pakistan to accomplish that part of the goal, amd probably the less the Pakistanis know, the better. McChrystal may want more troops than you want to send him for political reasons, but this isn't a political conflict. Call it nation-building or whatever you want to call it, but this is a moral conflict that will play out in the political sphere. If we have any integrity as a nation, we stay in Afghanistan. We build schools and infrastructure, where and as they want it. We sit on Karzai and whoever wins the next election until they realize that we will not be gone on the next C-130. Then real change can happen, and we can begin to repay the debt we owe.

Karzai is angry at you right now for forcing him to negotiate an election runoff with Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, before his former Foreign Minister decided to save face by pulling out and and calling for a boycott. As for Karzai's anger, good for him; let him stew in his own juices. If we're going to undo our mess, and the mess he and his friends in the mujaheddin made with more than a little help from the Soviets, we are quite willing to listen to the innocent; the guilty will have to prove themselves worthy of our trust all over again. You will note that I adhere to the perhaps unpopular theory that there exists such a thing as innocence in Afghanistan. Relative innocence, anyway.

More to the point, however, while we have to support civic institutions on all levels, from Kabul out to the countryside, the most important issue here is not your trust of Karzai or his of you--you're stuck with each other (isn't democracy great?). The most important issue is the mullah McChrystal met in Helmand. If he, and a critical mass of others like him in Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif, Kandahar, even Faizabad, can see that we're trying very hard to change our spots, then and only then will we have the chance to pay the debt we've owed them for twenty years. Brzezinski and Rumsfeld may never have signed that promissory note, but it seemed clear to the Afghans that they had.

That has to be good enough for us, and that has to be our mission. Some in your administration won't like it; some loud voices in the Senate will hate it. Call London to speak with Jason Elliot, who wrote An Unexpected Light. See if he can arrange for you to visit Ali Khan in the upper Panjshir Valley. McChrystal will tell you not to go. Go. You'll need a Dari translator, probably Dari Tajik. (Ask Jason.) Drink some tea with Ali Khan and his neighbors. Listen to their stories of fighting, and of disappointed expectations. If part of you objects that the Afghans' unrealistic expectations are not our fault or concern, listen. See if you still feel that way afterwards. And whatever you do, don't wear your American flag lapel pin; in fact, don't wear anything with a lapel. Call Sarah Chayes--you remember The Punishment of Virtue and her interview(s) with Charlie Rose; she'd be happy to consult. If she can cross-dress as an Afghan boy (at 5' 9"), she can give you some pointers on how not to intimidate a medieval Afghan who can operate an RPG, courtesy of Zbig and Rummy.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Fear and Courage and the Travel Book...

... by which I do not mean Rick Steeves, Fodor's, or The Lonely Planet, and definitely not Baedeker's (someone here must have read Forster). I mean the genre to which I have exhibited periodic episodes of addiction over the years. The cast of characters--Eric Newby, Bruce Chatwin, Paul Theroux, Rory Stewart, Christina Lamb, Sarah Chayes--comes from a much more colorful background and couldn't give a hoot whether people follow their tracks. In many cases they would prefer for a variety of reasons including safety that people go somewhere else altogether. Unfortunately, their writing has so fixated people on particular places that they become obsessions, which have a tendency of winning out over common sense in the end. If I start posting from Kabul or the Wakhan Corridor, you will know what happened.

After all, travel literature has a fundamentally escapist underpinning. Theroux left London to get away from a very painful divorce. Traveling with his portable kayak through Melanesia from a beginning in New Zealand and Australia seemed likely to readjust his perspective. Chatwin lived a notoriously impulsive live open to everything from bisexuality to Greek Orthodox monasticism with a little African post-colonialism and Australian Aboriginalism thrown in for good or ill. Newby's A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush ties Theroux's The Happy Isles of Oceania for best or at least most sarcastic title. Newby left London with a friend who'd flown in from Rio de Janeiro and wound up in Nuristan, challenged for remoteness in Afghaistan perhaps only by the Wakhan Corridor.

Then come the writers--don't worry, I have no intention of cataloguing the types of travel books, just the ones that have appealed to me--drawn by war or its aftermath. These bear some correspondences to the first group, pun intended, since most of them have worked as journalists at one point or another, though none wrote their books as journalism. Rory Stewart, a former diplomat, harkens back to Newby's diplomat companion; more obviously, his book tells the tale of a very long walk in the western Hindu Kush. He encountered enough danger, including getting shot at by a petty warlord and nearly freezing to death, that the warning of Ismail Khan, the very substantial warlord of Herat, that he not take on the trip and certainly not in winter, looked prophetic or at least shrewd in retrospect.

Lamb and Chayes take diametrically opposed approaches. Lamb moves around the country, between Herat and Kabul; Chayes, after a hair-raising ride in from Quetta, Pakistan, spends most of her time in Kandahar, with the odd run to Kabul, Boston, or Washington. The little people interest Lamb as much as the major players. She titled her book The Sewing Circles of Herat after the underground schools that bucked the Taliban's prohibition of women's education, not Ismail Khan and the Fall and Rise of Medieval Afghanistan. Chayes has an instinct for power paired with not just a nose for but an insistence on integrity. She fixes her book in orbit around the Police Commissioner of Kandahar and follows his subsequent career in Mazar-i-Sharif and Kabul, until his assassination, probably by the Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) or their Afghan pawns.

Which brings up perhaps my most important point. Chayes' book The Punishment of Virtue, a play on the name of the Taliban's morality ministry--The Department of the Promotion of Virtue and the Punishment of Vice--may not strike some as a travel book at all. When she gets to Kandahar she looks around, as a good travel writer should, but then she moves in, which a travel writer definitely shouldn't. She met the Police Commissioner then, because he didn't think she should move in, either. The single most important thing she does in the book, it gives her a perspective into the life of her hosts that among the other writers mentioned here possibly only Stewart and Chatwin (The Songlines, about Aboriginal central Australia) approach. Like Stewart, she does it in the face of considerable danger.

I promised myself not to write another post on Afghanistan this soon, and in a sense i have only partially broken my promise to myself. I know that nobody will design a radical new course at Duke around the insight that we read travel literature to liberate ourselves from the entrapment of familiarity. That and $2.75 or whatever... Nor does the element of danger hurt an author's sales, necessarily. I do think, though, the people who actually had the courage to do what titillates us both fascinate and frighten us. Fascinate, because of their audacity; frighten, because of our lack of it. We read their books because we know we will never do what they did, or suspect we will not.

In the end, it takes a certain skill on the part of the authors to make sure that we still find them sympathetic by the end of the book. At the end of The Happy Isles of Oceania Theroux, who has risked sounding a bit spoiled while lounging at a Hawaiian golf resort, knows enough not to stop there. The book concludes with Theroux and a local guide paddling with spinner dolphins off the Na' Pali coast of Kauai, than which a more glorious conclusion to a travel book I cannot imagine.

Rory Stewart, on the other hand, closes The Places in Between in tears over the death of his canine companion on the trek, Babur, as a result of misplaced kindness in Pakistan the night before the dog was to fly to his new home in Scotland. After an account in which he had spent a great deal of time revealing as little of himself to some of his hosts along the way as possible, that revelation to us came as both a confirmation of what we had been permitted to see and a glimpse into the fragility of the seam between there and here, the possible and the impossible.

Roland Barthes wrote that "we read because we forget." Perhaps we read travel books because we recognize our fear and want to experience courage, if only vicariously, in a place that resembles our own as little as possible.