Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Rescued From Comments: Anonymous Vern

I had to rescue this one from comments. It provides a unique viewpoint. While I do not find myself as pessimistic as Vern, His viewpoint is so diverse as to beg a post of its own.

I guess I come at this from a different perspective from most of the contributors. Having a nearly 40 year interest in South Asian Islam and history, a graduate degree in Islamic history and just happened to be married to an Afghan, a Pushtun, to be exact, has really focused me. I have witnessed much suffering over there, most of it inflicted by the Afghans upon themselves. I say this based on three tours to Afghanistan myself, tours in which I did not hide in FOBs or at Bagram or Kabul, but actually went out and about (alone and afraid, often enough). I have witnessed some really amazing attempts by US military and civilian personnel to provide assistance in a humane and localized manner that would benefit locals and not the wallahs in Kabul or former warlords. I have witnessed the callous disregard for truth by western journalists (in one case, the journalist was actually standing on a destroyed wall, beneath which lay the bodies of dead civilians as she loudly searched for the bodies to blame on US fire). I have also read and heard, extensively, just as most of you have, from the American political elites and academic elites, but I generally either disagree (sometimes in person) with them or ignore them as their "observations" and "recommendations" are not only not based on reality but apparently on wishful thinking from inside too many "Western paradigms." Some of those are listed in the above comments as well as in the extracts from Senator Lieberman's extracts Bill & Bob have provided, although there are some good points as well. Obversely, I don't have all the answers either (that'll be a surprise to my wife!).

That said, despite the vast foreign interference in Afghanistan, dating from, oh, let's say, just after the Kushan Empire and especially during the time of Timurlane, most of the present problems of Afghanistan are because of the Afghans themselves, albeit "recently" with a large dose of "negative" assistance from the Soviet Pushtun genocide, the Pakistani efforts at control and the Deobandi/Wahhabi Arabization efforts by the Saudis and their ilk. The 1990s were all about the Afghans, and look how well they did in fixing their country and situation. Many Afghans have a huge reservoir of business initiative but when preyed upon by smugglers, criminal gangs, corrupted local leadership elites and "fundos," they have little recourse but to go along, lest they be killed. No amount of aid, reconstruction, externally applied COIN or hand wringing protestations about women's rights, the children, or drug cultivation versus subsistence crops will change that, especially if that hand wringing is done in Europe or America.

I just wish, from all readers and speakers, a more holistic and reasonable approach to the problems (and opportunities) of Afghanistan. The truth about Afghanistan is rarely understood or articulated, as too many people have created a "body guard of lies" to protect their particular piece of the exploitation pie (be they newsies, humanitarian gypsies, druggies, fundos, external foreign "players" or plain criminal types). No single "strand" is to blame nor can any single "theme" bring success.

Time, lots of time, is needed, along with real work by the Afghans themselves, and a realization that NOBODY "owes" them anything. To alleviate their pain so we (Americans, Europeans, liberal do-gooders, military control freaks, etc) "feel" better is to continue to institutionalize it for the majority of the populace. Only pain will force the Afghans to stop hurting themselves. Pain from shattered lives and society, pain from lost opportunities and present oppresion; only pain will force the Afghans themselves to correct themselves.

Sounds harsh but when has it ever been any different, historically? We are not, as some have stated in the past, at "the end of history," nor are we engaged in a unique "clash of cultures." Cultures always clash, be it openly or benignly. Stone age (neo-Stone, Bronze, early Iron, Luddite) cultures and societies wil always fall before modern Steel and Information Age culture, despite the most ardent and savage efforts of those in those cultures or the "Romantic" efforts of those misguided enough to assist in trying to retain them by rationalization of humanitarian cause(s). Progress is painful, and it is made worse by Progressives.

I would dearly love to see a peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan but I am very aware that it has never been a "Westphalian" state, much less a peaceful unitarian state, unless that has been enforced by brutal genocidal policies (refer to Timurlane, the Mongols, Alexander the Great, etc). Ski chalets in Nuristan, golf course in Kabul and dune buggying in Nimruz would be wonderful, but it won't happen until the residents therein understand that societal trust needs to supersede tribal blood lines, xenophobic ethnic codes of conduct (Pushtunwali) and the self-imposed strictures of a backwards looking religion of stultifyingly repressive communitarianism (Wahhabi/Deobandi Islam).

I would be more than willing to go back and help, if the carrion crows on the body of Afghanistan could be driven off. Until then, despite the humanitarian urge within me, I will not pour even more good money down a bad hole. I am even against sending more young men and women there unless domestic political concerns cease to hamper their ability to not only provide real assitance, but to even properly defend themselves. As for the Afghans themselves, reconstruction of the Sufi networks and "lodges" would be a tremendous step in that direction, one I fear the Deobandi/Wahhabists will fight against.

Just my opinion.

S/F, Vern


  1. Well stated Vern.

    I disagree with you on one part, and I suspect we don't really disagree that much.

    Intellectual progress happens in isolated places because people in those places have the free time to spend solving technological problems. Ancient Greece was a bunch of isolated valleys when most of the math and philosophy that we've inherited from them was first explored. America had two huge oceans on either side, making us basically an Island, while Europe fought several wars. The result was the technological dominance we had coming out of the Second World War.

    Afghanistan needs peace in order to grow. I don't know if the US presence there will encourage or inhibit peace: depends on the the day and how cynical I am feeling as which way I lean.

    I agree that we need to defuse the Wahibi approach. I know less about the Deobandi, but since I find that most forms of religious extremism are at odds with the pacification of multicultural areas, I'll give you the nod there, too.

    The problem is that on the US side, it is so hard not to tar all Moslems with the same brush. Greg Mortenson did a stellar job working with Religious leaders in Pakistan in getting schools built over there. We need to stop viewing this as an extension of the Crusades and give up the Christianity versus Islam attitude.

    As tempting as it is to let "good work" be done by Christian groups, they are going to spread the fear of proselytizing amongst the local people there.

    I don't think it is pain that will allow Afghanistan to heal. It is quiet, and a removal of the instigators of war. If the US leaves, there will be violence, but perhaps much less than if we stay. Foreign investment will help Afghanistan more than foreign military intervention.

  2. "Time, lots of time, is needed, along with real work by the Afghans themselves, and a realization that NOBODY "owes" them anything. To alleviate their pain so we (Americans, Europeans, liberal do-gooders, military control freaks, etc) "feel" better is to continue to institutionalize it for the majority of the populace. Only pain will force the Afghans to stop hurting themselves. Pain from shattered lives and society, pain from lost opportunities and present oppresion; only pain will force the Afghans themselves to correct themselves."
    BZ Vern! I think the above paragraph would apply to almost any failed state ( Haiti comes to mind...) Dave P.

  3. Wow, Vern, you definitely layout the problems. I did note a start of solution from VAMPIRE 06 (http://afghanistanshrugged.com/) where he talks of roads, education and a way to make a living as a start toward giving them something they want to defend. Of course, VAMPIRE 06 says he is just "a dumb ground pounder," and I'm not even that smart.

    It seems to me that the US has not been good at nation building, thus we are being continually faced with just that situation. Best we learn how, and perhaps we have done just that in Iraq. It seems building an Afgan nation is the only strategy that will make an ally or at least a neutral of that conflict.

    Thanks, again, for sharing your knowledge.


  4. Why should America be good at nation building?

    Who built our nation?

    Let them build their own country. Then maybe they will love it enough not to tear it apart.

    We came to drain the swamp, not pave it over and build another Dubai Emirates Mall on top of it.

    We do them no favors in the long run if we give them everything they ask of us. They'll never run out of things to ask for, they'll never be satisfied with what they get or how long it took to get it, and they won't take care of it after we're gone.

  5. Ran, I agree with you on the road thing. I wrote something similar on the Free Range International blog back on 3 Jan 09, which Vampire 06 responded to almost immediately in concurrence. Was all about needing to build roads into the boonies, etc. Roads, both in and out, will make the difference. The Brits knew that and worked at it, slowly but diligently, for 40 years. That is why there is the FATA and then the "Settled Areas" of Pushtun inhabited regions in Pakistan. Guess which one has the roads? Of course, if you don't use the roads well, you get situations like Swat, since the other side can use them equally well once they get the thumb out.

    We also need to build them well. For instance, I saw the political decision to repave the "Ring Road" with only a single paving, when at least three or even four were needed to make it durable. But the decision was one paving in order to "look like it was done in a short amount of time." I understand all about IO stuff, but when the road surface breaks up within a few months, what does that also tell the locals and other folks using that road?
    Just look at what helped Western civilization for a thousand plus years in Europe, those extremely well-built old Roman roads.

    As to Cannoneer No. 4, I agree that we should not be there (Afghanistan) to build a country, but to help them salvage it themselves. It has always amazed me to see other folks sitting and asking for hand outs and help to build a school (clinic, store, house, bridge, etc) when the basic raw materials are all around them and the application of just a little initiative, will power and some effort, they could be turning all that mud, rock, sand and limestone into concrete or bricks and mortar, enough to at least build a foundation that we can then help finish with them. Nope, they would much rather wait for someone else to do it for them.

    I take it as an indictment of the "Insh'allah" school of governance, where local initiative has been stifled and all depends upon the provision of approval and funding/material from the local or not so local potentate. Think the Ottoman empire, the Caliphate(s), the various local (and usually rapacious dynasties like the Timurids, Ghaznavids, etc).
    Initiative is bad, leads to free thinking and then, gosh, maybe a revolt, because the locals start thinking they actually know what might be best for themselves. I can just hear the ruling class: "Allah willing, there will be none of that!"
    So, better to sit in the swamp and trash with a hand out, like the forebears did, then to risk something and build ones own country for ones self.
    Yeah, I know...pessimistic isn't it?!

    And my wife, the lovely Pushtun, was all up in my face, saying it is hard to fight back against tyranny when you are starving and exhuasted. She believes that the Pushtun masses, for lack of a better word, are viciously oppressed by the Taliban (HiG, Haqqani, etc) and lack the energy, and more importantly, the weapons, to resist or to aid the Coalition. I told her history doesn't support her, that desperate peoples can turn on their oppressors (the Vendee, the numerous Peasant Revolts in Germany, the Servile insurrections in the Roman Empire, the numerous tribal/tribal confederacy risings in Persia, Afghanistan, Central Asia, etc). hope need not have anything to do with it, just fear, anger and a sense that there is nothing more to lose, even for your family.

    The pain I talked about is reaching that point, feeling that pain. I agree that different societies have different levels of pain tolerance and awareness, just witness America and the levels of taxation we today are willing to tolerate from the central government and the levels our ancestors would not tolerate before they revolted against their central government of the day (Great Britain).

    So what is the level of pain the Pushtuns will tolerate until they turn on the Taliban and kill them for the oppressive and exploitative bastards they truly are? Nothing really religious about them, is all about power and dominance, which we might understand at the tactical level but that our leadership elites just don't get (they keep trying to find a way out through the Qur'an and Ahadith, which is to my mind using the bad guys doctrine and terminology to validate the bad guy actions, not combat them).

    Time to get off the soap box, need to thank Bill & Bob for posting my "response" as a post in its own right.

    Last though, I remember working on a mission up in the Kunar/Nuristan area, way out in the back of beyond. I thought that the area would be wonderful if they could ever get it together, as winter ski lodges and summer hiking would be perfect. Lord knows the Nuristanis (and lots of Pushtuns, as well)would jump on it, as they are all about making money as a primary motive. Just them darned obsteperous Pushtuns trying to shove a doctrine of control (disguising it as a religion) of essentially denial and no sense of humor on them kept (and keep) getting in the way. Too many "Blue Meanies" out there...

    Anonymous Vern

  6. Anonymous,

    Reading your comments I am impressed with your historical knowledge but your outlook I must say seems dismal. You may have some first hand knowledge of these people and their plight but to simply sit back and allow them to arrive at their on turning point in history has in effect bred the extremists we are dealing with today.

    The reward is in the offering. I believe when serious effort is given to help these people help themselves fruit will bear. I have been encouraged by those such as Vamp 06 and Free Range that the AG's do want progress.

    Your approach IS pessimistic. You sound nearly as fatigued as they do themselves. Considering what he have at stake, namely our national security, are we not obligated to look at all venues to get these people literally on a road to civilized self-governance?

  7. 1. Who or what is a "fundo" ?
    2. You outline a rather extreme, but not unique form of societal misbehavior.
    3. Reminiscent of some of the goings-on in various Hispanic societies and our inner cities.
    4. Am no answer man. Just an increasingly dispirited observer.
    5. Thank you for your comments.
    6. Respects to Bill and Bob.
    V/R JW

  8. VA CRNA,

    Yes, I am pessimistic in regards to Afghanistan, at least for now. Historical research shows that every attempt by external players to occupy, conquer or "assist" Afghanistan or parts thereof, has been resisted, on average, for anywhere on the order of one to ten generations. As for the short end of the stick, counting a generation of a mere twenty years, does the US have the stamina and the political will for 20 years of constant, nagging, low intensity conflict? Most democracies don't. If it is in excess of 20 years, maybe even an open ended 100+ years, does the US have the stamina and political will for that?

    If the US does have the stamina and politcal will, I will be the first to say that Afghanistan will eventually be a much better place for the Afghans. Of course, to "stay the course" there will require not only constant effort but a permanent improvement in the logistical delivery infrastructure. Do you think that will happen? As well, the two big flies in the ointment we can't control are traditional Pushtun xenophobia and external Islamic extremist meddling. Do you think those two issues will go away soon or shrink to managable proportions?

    As an American, I see little real threat to US national security. Would I like to see a favorable resolution to Afghanistan from a US view point? Of course.

    But... Considering other options is, to me, instructive, whether they are palatable or not. Withdrawal and then adoption of a punitive policy of applied kinetics might be the most economical policy for us to retard or deny Islamic extremists a hoe in a collapsed Taliban-dominated Afghanistan. Is it a humane one? I don't think so but it may be politically palatable to most Americans who could give a crap about a far distant place called Afghanistan, especially as it is a constant economic drain. Another option: we could buy the yearly opium crop directly from the farmers there, then refine it into medical morphia ourselves and sell it on the international market, giving the proceeds back to Afghanistan. $4 billion a year doing that is cheaper than $25 to $30 billion we are spending there now yearly. Obversely, we could decriminalize the use of opiates here in America and cause the bottom to drop out of the opium market worldwide, thus causing Afghan farmers to look for some other money crop to grow as well as drying up much of the funds for insurgent groups. Lots of options but few people willing to look at all of them. For instance, will it is ok to consider complete withdrawal, is it politically acceptable to discuss adoption of Mongol pacification techniques? I.e., genocide. While probably quite effective at pacification and then reconstruction (for new inhabitants?), it is a "bad thing" to even think. Do you think a democracy will overtly consider and discuss anything remotely related to genocidal pacification policies, at least currently?

    I fully support folks like Vampire 06 and Free Range International, I just don't see how things will change for the better right now or in the near future as long as we continue to work within the same self-imposed strictures. To even bring up the notion of "rigorous pacification" efforts invites official ridicule and exile from any meaningful oplicy discussion and action. Thus we fail to consider, fully, ALL our options in Afghanistan and elsewhere. And our enemies know this, plan around it and act upon it.

    Should I be optimistic when we are our own worst foe? Freedom isn't free but the brave shouldn't be deaf, dumb and blind either.

    Sorry, morphed into a pet peeve of mine. I'll go back to my hole and be nice now.

    S/F, Anonymous Vern

  9. I have got to write in shorter, more pithy ways.


    A "fundo" is an Islamic findamentalist, "fundo" being a simple catchall phrase for bad guys I picked up from my British, Australian and Irish bretheren.

    Anonymous Vern

  10. Anonymous,

    Your suggestions are contemplative albiet extreme and I agree we do need to focus on some sort of end point. Perhaps simply keeping the the goal in mind of not allowing the country the establishment of these training camps. Does that mean we must democratize the country? Is that really necessary? What about a scaled down version of your "genocide." Establish outposts in the country where swift and lethal retribution is handed to any tribe that smells of extremest activity? That is the rationale for our being there anyway. In the meantime, could some philanthropic entity go into that country and help it rebuild itself? That shouldn't be the job of our military. I don't believe it is what they were trained to do and can only lead to confusing and mismanaged flare ups.

    Your points are well made regarding our country and its appetite for this ginormous endeavor. I would have to disagree though regarding our nations security. Further, I would say many New Yorkers don't share your same self-confidence. I for one am glad we have not seen another 911 and it is hard to believe its not b/c we have not been proactive on the WOT.

    Overall I do believe these people desire a better way of life for themselves. They simply need a leg up. And I agree with you, especially considering our economic situation at home; Americans will tire soon of this war. Not to mention the tainting of The Great Obama.

    I do believe the ghosts of Vietnam and hintings of a quagmire coupled with a first black president will expedite this course. Looking at the issue from those considerations, cheer up, your suggestions my not be so out the realm of possibility.


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