Sunday, 17 July 2011

Afghan Lessons from Rambo

The Washinton Post's Pamela Constable looks back through sepia-tinted glasses on 10 years of western involvement in Afghanistan and laments at the loss of the Kabul she once knew:
I can’t find my old house, my old street or the bakery where I used to watch the early-morning ritual of men slapping dough into hot ovens beneath the floor. They’ve all vanished behind a high-security superstructure of barricades and barbed wire, a foreign architecture of war. Elsewhere in the Afghan capital, a parallel construction boom is underway. The slapdash sprawl of nouveau riche development has sprouted modern apartment buildings, glass-plated shopping centers, wedding halls with fairy lights, and gaudy mansions with gold swan faucets and Greco-Roman balustrades, commissioned by wealthy men with many bodyguards and no taxable income.
She concludes that the real tragedy of Afghanistan is how little advantage it has taken of the enormous international goodwill that followed the defeat of the Taliban in 2001:
Showered with far too much aid, clever Afghans have learned to imitate Western jargon, skim project funds and put their relatives on the payroll — while many show little interest in learning the modern skills that would propel their country forward. At its core, this remains a society of tribal values and survival instincts. Goals such as democracy and nationhood come much further down the list.
There's little to take issue with in her analysis.  However, one overlooked cause of today's frustration might be the boundless optimism she describes after the fall of the Taliban:
I was privileged to witness that awakening and to experience the exhilaration of a society being given a new chance after a generation of war and ideological whiplash. In those early years, I met Afghan exiles who had given up careers in Germany or Australia to participate in their homeland’s renaissance, and American jurists and agronomists who had come to help rebuild an alien land.
Foreigners were welcome everywhere, and a new generation of Afghans was in a hurry to catch up. In the cities, I met girls who led exercise classes and boys who took computer lessons at dawn. In rural areas, women still hid behind curtains and veils, but schools reopened in tents, and mud-choked irrigation canals were cleaned. In 2004, long lines of villagers proudly flashed their ink-dipped thumbs after voting in the country’s first real democratic election.
The Taliban were a symptom, not a cause, of Afghanistan's troubles.  Instead of curing the condition their excision only exposed the deeper fissures of Afghan society.  Instilling the belief in Afghans and foreign donor governments that things would change for the better overnight, instead of the reality of trading in one basket of problems for another filled with longer standing issues, is part of what has added to Afghan and donor fatigue.

The war would have been a hard sell to Congress and other NATO governments if they had been told beforehand that it would last over a decade and its end would have little resemblance to a traditional victory.  But at least this would have girded governments and their citizens for what was needed to do the job right or allowed them to bow out gracefully before getting stuck in the mire of nation building.  But the business of coalition building requires compromise and consensus, which all too often means kicking these questions of commitment down to succeeding administrations.

This is not the first time western expectations have split from reality in Afghanistan.

In 1988, Rambo III hit theaters across the U.S. The movie, the most violent of its day, lionized the pious Mujahideen in their battle against the godless Soviets (see clip here).  The film makes much of the Afghan struggle for freedom (another clip here and here), providing a glimpse into the popular opinion of the day.

However, only a year after the movie's release the U.S. disengaged with Afghanistan.  Following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, the problem seemed solved to western eyes.  The much-vaunted Mujahideen, re-labeled warlords, faded from the zeitgeist, were left to fight among themselves and would eventually spawn the Taliban.

In the closing credits to Rambo III the film is dedicated to "the brave Mujahideen fighters of Afghanistan."  After the attacks of 9/11 this was changed to "the gallant people of Afghanistan."   

As the U.S. declares a marginal victory and begins extracting itself from Afghanistan once again, it is worth remembering that expectations ought to be managed and that pedestals are inherently unstable. 

Alim

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