Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Codes of War

No, not encryption, but the coded language in which the principals discuss everything they do that pertains to war. The war in Afghanistan--itself a code for a conflict broader than the borders of that one country--offers a case in point, or rather a slew of them. The codes and the issues that occasion their use reveal something about the situation on the ground, and in many cases its greater seriousness than the White House and the Pentagon would like to admit--and they admit freely to its seriousness. Just not all of it.

Take one example. President Obama wants to see significant change in the attitudes of the Karzai government in Kabul. Secretary Gates reinforces that in a Senate hearing the day after the West Point speech by saying we will happily seek out partners in provincial governments if the Kabulis cannot deliver on the promises of Karzai's second inaugural address.

The code, though it will surprise nobody: the White House is having a hard time deciding whether Karzai's incompetence trumps his corruption, or the other way round. They want to encourage competent, upright, reliable provincial administrators to step up beyond the reach of recalcitrant Kabulis to rein in the provincials' cooperation. They have done it before, notably in the case of a governor of Kunar, during our Babylonian Captivity. Gates means to say that it will not happen again.

This problem goes deeper than what the President has said, and one presumes he knows it. If we call ourselves a melting pot of myriad peoples, the Afghans comprise a relatively small number of ethnic groups--four major ones and a few minor ones in border regions--"organized" to use far too strong a word by tribes, especially in the case of the Pashtuns. This organization, if you can call it that, explains the emergence of Hamid Karzai in the shura or council at Bonn that proposed a preliminary government after the overthrow of the Taliban, and his confirmation in the loya jirga or grand council that followed in Kabul. A Popolzai Pashtun, his father had led the Popolzai tribe, and the Popolzai have long had a prominent place or even pride of place in Pashtun affairs. He came in, one could say, as heir apparent on one very big assumption: that the Pashtuns had the best case for leading the country.

One of the great difficulties in governing Afghanistan lies in gaining inter-ethnic cooperation. Before the Taliban Kabul had a fairly cosmopolitan mix of ethnic groups. Herein lies the irony the underlies and undermines, along with bad behavior, Karzai's government. He rules as the head of a minority group, but the largest of the bunch. The Hazaras, Uzbeks and Tajiks, along with a few Kyrgyz and others, out number the Pashtuns as a group, but see their strength not in alliances, which they make and break like the rules in a billiards game at Mark Twain's house, but in pursuing their own regional agendas. Hence the Pashtun ascendancies of the Taliban and Karzai.

Our main difficulty there will derive from the very fluidity with which they understand themselves. The Pashtuns along the Durand Line that delineates the border with Pakistan laugh at its legal standing. They do not so much move back and forth between the two countries as move within what they take as the natural range of Pashtun territory. Obama's language at West Point became very vague on the issue of our pursuit of al Qaeda into safe havens by appropriate means. I have spoken to at least one Special Operations veteran who, without quite saying so, seemed to want me to infer that he had served not only in Afghanistan but also in Pakistan. Code again. No one will say so, but if the Taliban ignores the Durand Line, it behooves us to do the same thing. What exactly will the Pakistanis do in protest?

One final point along the same lines, which will include a final cavil cum observation. CNN's coverage after the President's address featured Mike Ware and Wolf Blitzer looking at, in effect, a war map of Afghanistan. Their graphic artist had placed the national flags of all the NATO countries to represent the deployment positions of their troops. Mike Ware, an experienced British war correspondent, observed that all the Stars and Stripes sat in the south and east, and all the other flags in the north. We, the Canadians and the Brits, he strongly and dramatically asserted, have taken on all the "hot spots" while our allies have it easy elsewhere.

Two points. This characterization may (more or less) accurately reflect the situation now, but historically some of the bloodiest fighting has taken and may yet take place in the north, particularly the notoriously impregnable Panjshir Valley and Nuristan, and the northwestern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. This occasions a second and much broader point. The most interesting writing on Afghanistan that I have seen has come from a diplomat and journalists, but not from war correspondents per se, or at least not writing as war correspondents. Rory Stewart, Ahmed Rashid, Christina Lamb, Sarah Chayes, Jason Elliot eschew bomb-chasing--though Jason Elliot describes a colleague's days as consisting of little else, and Rashid got caught in a firefight while lunching in a garden in Dushanbe, Tajikistan--in favor of understanding the cultural melange we call Afghanistan.

The really useful writers want to understand the cultural complexities as well as the little rebellions, such as the so-called "sewing circles" Christina Lamb writes about that kept girls' education alive under the Taliban in the culturally rich Persian border city of Herat. Bomb-chasers and embedded reporters have a difficult and very dangerous job. I admire their guts. They are not the code-breakers, however, not the ones who will help us understand what, who, where, and how we must fight. We will do well not to take too seriously their reports from the field, or standing in front of fields of flags in the CNN studio in New York--they simply cannot step back far enough to get appropriate perspective. Their reports constitute part of the code. The military wants them where they allow them for a reason. The story, the important story, will almost always happen somewhere else, underneath the radar of the bomb-chasers, in the places and involving the personnel the code seeks to conceal.

We must hope for a day when we need no longer speak of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia in code. Inshallah, God willing, we will get there. For the sake of Afghanistan, let us fervently hope that we do.

1 comment:

  1. Your posts are always thoughtful and thought-provoking. The slippery language used during war - or any conflict - is something to pay careful attention to.