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.

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