Robot-Heart Politics wrote a thought-provoking reply to my previous post on Afghanistan. Robot-Heart challenges my assumption that any intervention into another country and culture can ever be positive.
I am about as ambivalent as possible on Afghanistan. While I disagree with many of Robot Heart’s arguments—I don’t totally disagree with her conclusion. I’m all for withdrawing from Afghanistan—provided we think through the consequences of our withdrawal and determine that they’re not as bad as the probable consequences of our staying. I’m not convinced that they are—but I’m open to the argument.
Robot Heart writes:
I don’t know if you’re just a kinder person more willing to see people in a positive light, or what. BUT. I don’t think we got into Afghanistan because we were afraid and angry. Maybe a lot of people supported it for those reasons, but I believe that the reasons we actually went to war were: 1) mid-term elections and trying to get people excited for the GOP by amping up the hawkiness, 2) GOP leadership thought it would be easy and OBL’s head would make a nice trophy for the “cowboy president” to hang on his wall (figuratively speaking), and 3) increased control of oil and natural gas resources. And I think much of the argument about how much we’ve helped or want to help is, well, pretty bullshit meant to 1) cover up real motivations and real problems, and 2) to make the people who ignorantly supported it feel better about their choices.
I’ve always found the “No Blood for Oil” thing to be a bit of a red herring. There isn’t anybody in the “Yes! Blood for Oil” camp. In the bipolar Cold War era the idea of a war for the control strategic resources made sense—regardless of whether or not it was a good thing. But now, unless the warmongers are stupid as well as sinister, it doesn’t really make sense.
I feel the same way about the electioneering result. While election ambitions clearly play the way we talk about a war—I think there are very, very few people who think they should affect our decision to go to war. Until somebody isolates the Evil gene, I’m going to try to assume that people I disagree believe they do things for the reasons they say they do, so long as those reasons are plausible. (And yes, there certainly is a connection between the things we say as political posturing and the things the country ends up doing. I won’t say that politically amplified anger had nothing to do with our decision to get into a pair of wars.)
I think there is something incredibly condescending about this idea that we not only know, but have the right to decide and then implement what we think constitutes what is best for Afghanistan. There is something that bothers me to the extreme in having a conversation where our “good intentions,” which I would argue aren’t even all that good, somehow makes up for the huge numbers of civilian casualties, the destruction we’ve wrought upon another people completely and totally without their request or support for our actions, and the very fact that in typical American fashion, we have presumed we have the right to barge in and interfere and force change on sovereign nations because we don’t like the way they do things even though this is something we shouldn’t be doing at all.
I think it’s a mistake to wholly discount the views of the Afghans who were on the receiving end of the Taliban’s systematic brutality. Sure, the Taliban didn’t support or request our actions—but there was a lot of support for our intervention in Afghanistan from Afghans. We need to be careful not to reduce the entire population of Afghanistan to a victimized other, utterly lacking in volition. We don’t need to believe that our intervention in an ongoing civil war was a good thing to admit that there was an ongoing civil war.
Of course it’s a little problematic for us to sit here insisting on what the Afghan people want.Their voice has been noticeably absent from the discussion. (As far as I can tell, a common view is that the U.S. should eventually leave, but should do so in a way that leaves a secure enough state in place that the Taliban won’t immediately overrun everything. Unfortunately,there are a few practical barriers that make it hard to get a good sense of what views prevail.)
[M]uch of history points to the fact that when we do this, we create more problems than we solve.
Much of it does. We’ve gotten a lot better at working with and respecting other cultures recently—but I won’t contest that we have a long way to go.
And sometimes intervention goes pretty well. In one case, moving a Navy ship closer to Liberia and raising a flag halted a brewing civil war. We mostly remember the cases where things have gone catastrophically bad.
Other times, we don’t intervene. Rwanda. Darfur. The Democratic Republic of the Congo. The genocide is still genocide—even if we’re not there to witness it.
That’s not to say I think conditions in Afghanistan previously were awesome or that I was satisfied with the status quo. But I don’t think that gives us the right to step in and try to fix things on our own. Not only does that rarely—extremely rarely—lead to the kinds of positive results we want to see anyhow, but the entire concept is based on the racist, colonial idea that white, Western states have the god-given right to intercede with brown/black populations where we see fit, in order to bestow “civilization” upon the repressed or ignorant or incapable darkies. (And I use this term only to illustrate the era in which this idea originates.)
I agree onlyto the extent that our interventions (military, humanitarian, whatever) frequently have serious and unintended consequences. But I can’t agree that any attempt to intervene or assist other cultures or countries is inherently racist, ethnocentric, and saturated with all the problems of 18th century colonialism. We are, of course, limited to a certain extent by our own perspectives. But we shouldn’t treat other cultures as if they are so alien that any sort of shared values are impossible. The hardcore cultural relativism argument generally comes up when we don’t want to do anything about a problem for some other reason. Does anybody apply it consistently?
- Who are we to say that Afghan men don’t like being beheaded? Maybe that’s part of their culture.
- Ignore Sudan. Condemning genocide is so … Eurocentric.
- Preventing the AIDS epidemic is a fine choice…for us. But injecting Western medicine into Africa assumes that people in Africa don’t like to see their children die of preventable causes. Isn’t that just more colonialism?
- Am I my brother’s keeper?
When something’s wrong in the world, we should try to make it right. When doing it, we need to be careful to make sure that something is actually wrong (genocide) instead of just different in a way that makes us less comfortable (like entire cultures that leave bits we consider naughty exposed). And we need to keep in mind that we (however we define we) don’t get a monopoly on helping others. And it’s also others’ responsibilities to help us.
That we try to paint this as some sort of act of charity or goodwill makes me INSANE. Especially when there were and are other, far less charitable motives for our involvement, and there were and are negative repercussions for the peoples we have decided to interfere with.
I wholly agree that we shouldn’t try to white-wash what we’re doing in Afghanistan. We need to think beyond ourselves. And since we’re already mucking about in somebody else’s country, we need to take their aspirations into account. And I’m not sure “withdraw for the sake of the Afghans” is really a cogent argument.
Whatever we do in Afghanistan, we should do for the sake of Afghanistan? In the last 6 months along, over 1,000 Afghan civilians have died. 1,500 more were injured. Yeah, 60% of those deaths were due to insurgent fire…but that still means that nearly half have been the fault of our troops. Is that for the sake of Afghanistan? For Afghanis?
So … an Afghani is a form of currency. Forty-three Afghanis are worth about a dollar. With regards to the people of Afghanistan (the Afghans) rather than their currency, yes, I think we need to consider what they want. Also, we should try to keep the civilian casualties down. Four hundred in six months—between our troops and the Afghan army—is a lot. But we’ve got nothing on the Taliban when it comes to indiscriminately killing civilians. I don’t in any way want to diminish our crimes in Afghanistan. But we’re not the only problem. And we’re not the worst problem.
It was one thing to go to Afghanistan to attempt to hunt OBL—although even that was a misguided and mishandled project. It’s quite another to do as we have done in Iraq and Afghanistan to argue that we have some sort of moral impetus to force our charity on people who neither wanted nor asked for it. That we believe ourselves to be better people because we’ve helped when we didn’t have to ignores so many other underlying issues, motivations and problems that completely gloss over the entire problem with the idea that we have any business at all forcing regime change on others.
I really can’t think of an excuse for how seriously we’ve botched the Afghan War. We went in without clear goals. Worse, we stayed without clear goals. It’s only quite recently, now that it’s possibly too late that we may have a cogent strategy.
I’m not sure how coherent this is. This just makes me so flipping mad.
It’s entirely coherent. And there’s a lot worth being mad about in Afghanistan. And if some of that’s directed at me for enabling it, that’s fair too.
I just don’t think there are convenient answers in Afghanistan.