Afghanistan


tower-of-babelIn a recent post, Adam Garfinkle talks about why our adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan will necessarily fail.

Well, strictly speaking, he is talking about statism and anarchism, and advertising campaigns, and the Tower of Babel.  But he still gives a pretty good explanation of why we are tilting at windmills in the Middle East.

What also follows from this is a second verity of political life, namely that the political institutions of any society emerge from that society far more than the other way around. The United States is a democracy because its founding society was egalitarian-minded, not the other way around. All of the American Founders and all of their tutors, from Locke to Montesquieu to even the great bad-boy of the time, Rousseau, understood this. The idea that a governmental form could remold or create a society after its desired image earned the derisive label “talismanic” at the hands of William Taylor Coleridge.

I have noted this concern before, in my much less erudite way.

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This time, in Marja, the largest Taliban stronghold, American and Afghan commanders say they will do something they have never done before: bring in an Afghan government and police force behind them. American and British troops will stay on to support them. “We’ve got a government in a box, ready to roll in,” said Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top American commander here.

Well, I’m convinced.  What could possibly go wrong?

hubris : noun : Overbearing pride or presumption; arrogance

— The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition

(via Reason)

[America] goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.

She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all.

She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.

She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example.

She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom.

— John Quincy Adams, U. S. Secretary of State, Speech to the U.S. House of Representatives on July 4, 1821, in celebration of Independence Day.

In One Man Caravan, Robert Edison Fulton, Jr., heir to the Mack Truck fortune, recounts his rather spontaneous round-the-world motorcycle journey, undertaken solo in 1932-33 on a Douglas twin.  Fulton’s narrative is insightful and relevant, while maintaining the eclectic, rambling flavor of a good travelogue and generally avoiding the monotony of a bad one.  I would definitely recommend it.

Fulton’s journey takes him through lands very much in our minds today, recovering in a Baghdad hospital, camping with the British Army in Waziristan, and trekking into a hostile Afghanistan.

On Afghanistan (pp. 169-70):

    When the star of Afghanistan first rose on my horizon, little did I realize what a large and truly important part it has played in world affairs.  Even as the present name implies, the country is the “place of the Afghan.”  Wild nomadic tribes made it their stamping ground at the dawn of history, each stamping on the other, fighting for existence.
    Alexander of Macedonia; Timur, the lame Tartar of Smarkand; Mahmud of Ghazni; Nadir Shah, the Persian–all came and saw and conquered; exacting a vague submission from the Afghans.  But the tribes bowed down only until the current conqueror’s death.  Then they would be free again until the next conqueror came along.  They knew no law in their allegiance, and became masters at straddling the proverbial fence.

I think we can add Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States to the list.

From a discussion with a bazaari in Baghdad (p. 74):

    “No, but I have been to England,” he explained.  “I have read much about America.  A very fine land.”
. . .
    “Someday, someday we too shall have a country like yours, but we have far to go; very far, many centuries.  Things move slowly with us here in the East.  We have our customs and formalities and, do not misunderstand me, our ideas of what is right and wrong are very different from yours.”

I also think Fulton’s description of pre World War II Japan is important.  On many occasions, I have commented about the Bush administration’s arrogance in thinking that we would be able to wipe the Iraqi slate clean and build a functioning liberal democracy from nothing, especially given our track record at nation building.  Inevitably, someone mentions Japan as an example of success.  But, Fulton’s account of Japan shows the fallacy of this argument.  Pre-war Japan seems nothing like the Iraq of then or now.

On Japanese infrastructure (p. 260):

On other roads, other muscles had ached, but the roads of Japan, from Nagasaki to Tokyo, were a dream and for one who had spent many months on practically no roads at all, Japan was a bit of heaven’s highway.  Dirt or paved, they were well-marked and kept in tip-top condition.

On the press (p. 264):

    “Where did you learn all this?” I asked.
    “We read it in our newspaper!”  They were surpised that I did not know.  The Japanese, even more so than the Americans, are a nation of newspaper readers, their principle papers having a daily circulation running into the millions.

Fulton’s account of Japan is an anecdotal travelogue, not an intelligence briefing or a policy whitepaper, but he shows us a picture of a society and culture far removed from Sadam’s Iraq.