A Cheery Good Day To You, Too

Yesterday we had the pleasure of attending the most charming discussion of the impending end of the free world. Over a genial lunch, a family friend who's been spending the past few years trying to get his native Afghanistan back on its feet held forth on conditions there, in the presence of a bunch of knowledgable Cold Warriors. The most interesting things he had to say I feel I must hold back on the off chance that one of my five readers might be able to identify him (wonderful tales about his ancestors and the state of Afghan engineering from the 1930s on) and he should be more endangered than he is. But in a nutshell, he believes Afghanistan cannot be saved from utter implosion within the next couple of years.

I hasten to add he's neither a military nor a political man and these are one man's opinions and impressions (see RC2 attempt to maintain hope), but he says:
  • Kabul is stable and safe only because it is highly militarized. If you leave an event after 10 pm, you will be stopped and have your papers checked literally every block or so.
  • President Karzai is effectively a prisoner in his own home. He never leaves his compound to interact with anyone. Moreover, our friend doesn't see how the U.S. can continue paying for his protection, which costs more than what we pay to protect Bush. Karzai can trust no one, and all his security people are provided by a contracting company.
  • Since the Americans & Karzai interact with no one, they are not winning friends and influencing people.
  • Karzai is weak --he's afraid to show up anywhere, nor does he have the vision to give people hope. He's in his position because he'd worked with the CIA for 6 years and the US trusts him, but he's become quite corrupt. For example, he married his brother off to the daughter of the chief opium dealer in the country.
  • The US strategy of letting the warlords drive out the Taliban was temporarily effective, but has had the long-term effect of strengthening and enriching the warlords. This is because the US paid the warlords $200/month/man. The warlord might say he had 10,000 men and be paid accordingly, even though he had only 500 men --whom he paid $60/month. The common man is completely at the mercy of these folks now.
  • NATO is functioning more or less the same way the Soviets did: run the "resistance" out for a few days, then retreat, and let them right back in again. This is because an Army runs on its belly, and so much of Afghanistan has zero infrastucture. It's simply impossible to hold territory for any length of time because of the expense involved.
  • Our friend is from a prominent Pashtun family, but he says frankly the Pashtuns are, like everyone else, "stupid." They can't break out of the mentality that the Pashtuns have always run Afghanistan and must do so forever --they can't think of themselves as Afghans first, and neither can any of the other tribes.
  • The new Constitution is internally contradictory. It declares sharia at the behest of Islamic extremists and human rights protections at the behest of the Americans, and no one knows what any of it means.
  • The people have no hope --they are living day to day and not capable at present of thinking beyond that. Many returned refugees are actually returning to Pakistan, where they can at least be warm. You can't survive the Afghan winter in a tent.
  • There's also a fair amount of paranoia. Our friend reports that Afghanistan has no natural resources, but much of the population is convinced it must be sitting on some secret gold-mine--otherwise why would the rest of the world be fighting over them?

His view is that NATO should concentrate on securing the Afghan borders from al-Qaeda and some of the warlords (who all prefer to mastermind things from palaces in sunny Pakistan) and at that point we should just let the people be for the most part. They live in the year 1000, he says. We need to let them evolve --trying to find ways through poverty alleviation and education to speed their evolution so that in a generation or at most two there can be something to work with. But as it stands now, he foresees all-out civil war within a couple of years.

  • One of the other guests asked if things would have been different if Massoud hadn't been killed. He didn't think so. He said Massoud seemed to be a genuinely good man --someone who helped his people and had vision beyond the next year-- but that the territory he controlled was too small to have changed the outcome much.

When questioned, our friend also favored a federal system of government as a means of trying to manage tribal factions, but he's of the opinion that it's already too late --the time to implement such a thing would have been 2002.

As he was talking, I had three thoughts. The first, as daily life in Afghanistan was described, was that Ann Coulter turns out to have been right about the solution in Afghanistan --even though she was being facetious. Those people desperately need to hear the Gospel (not at gunpoint, though. I modify Coulter's program to that extent). The second concerned the wisdom of our own Framers in keeping tribalism, nationalism and religious fighting out of the US to the extent they could. The political problem we face in the Middle East is the problem of faction (exacerbated of course by many other opportunistic problems). Yet the US itself is in a weak position to be helping anyone overcome faction, since multiculturalism is just the importing of Faction into the body politic, and we have a very tenuous hold ourselves at this point on any political understanding of the common good. The other thought was that common wisdom is that Afghanistan is the Just War that is going well and Iraq is the disaster that's been mishandled from the get-go. I wonder if history will vindicate that view.

(That's if free speech remains to discuss such matters. The Cold Warriors spun out all sorts of scenarios from our apparent impending retreat from Iraq that amount to the fall of the free world and the end of our little experiment in self-government. As I say, it was the most charmingly depressing luncheon I've ever attended. It's about to be over, folks: more coffee?)