Serendipity sometimes plays a strange game. Such was the case last weekend when a war veteran from Seattle showed up at my door to haul away an old MGB he’d taken a fancy to.
At one point, while deeply involved in the required ritual of tire kicking, he happened to mention he’d done Iraq twice, Afghanistan once. As this week’s column would look at our most recent foreign-policy disaster, I asked this Marine lieutenant colonel for his read on the longest war in American history.
He was told by old timers that Afghanistan would be like Iraq on steroids. He should expect religious fanaticism unlike anything he’d seen before and a fierce tribalism that would make a mockery of any effort to implant a national consciousness where none existed.
Intrigued, I asked Adam to go on.
The Marine and his comrades often scoffed at the very idea of our client, President Karzai. He was nothing more than the mayor of Kabul. Where pavement gave way to dirt roads, Karzai’s legitimate authority ended.
Even within the few heavily defended metropolitan enclaves, corruption was endemic. Afghan generals paid top dollar for 100-square-mile franchises. Fortunes were made on these chunks of real estate within which each square mile was in turn overseen by a lesser-ranking Army officer. At every level there were shakedowns of local businesses, police strong-arming motorists for bribes, graft and corruption throughout the entire system. All the players — even the victims — accepted this as the way things were done.
Adam commented further that he and his fellow Marines came to understand why Iraq bred Saddam and Libya spawned Qadhafi. Such a region of tangled conflicting religious sects, ethnic groupings and old tribal loyalties could only be unified under the iron fist of a tyrant.
Which brings me back to my original topic. I’m willing to forget the un-workability of our own government as it lurches from one mismanaged crisis to another, to forget our nation’s history of savagery inflicted upon our own racial minorities. Let’s assume all the jingoistic apologists are correct and our form of government is the best and freest that ever was or will be.
But here, having just given a free pass to all that balderdash, is where I draw the line. It would be humorous if it weren’t so tragic how we stomp around the globe, convinced by a hubris matched only by Imperial Rome that we have the solution for every society defined by us as dysfunctional. Play by old Uncle Sam’s rules and we’ll lead the way to a promised land of democratic freedom and justice for all.
Sounds nice but, as any student of world history or politics can attest, it just doesn’t work. One size — our size — doesn’t fit all.
We invaded Afghanistan with the stated purpose of wiping out Al Qaeda’s safe havens and along the way toppling the Taliban regime. Problem was Osama — the mastermind of 9/11 — was holed up in Pakistan. If my Marine friend is correct, the Taliban had as little use for Osama as we did. They tried to convince us he was beyond their reach, but no one was listening.
Understandably, they failed to produce bin Laden’s scalp, we pushed even harder and — playing the bully boy — lost an opportunity to settle for something short of a full-scale war. Adam described the corner we pushed the Taliban government into: “In a fight between my brother and my cousin, I go with my brother. In a fight between my cousin and a stranger, I choose my cousin ... every time.”
So the Taliban, out of power, played a waiting game not unlike that played by North Vietnam. The American public would eventually tire of endless quagmires of bloodshed.
Americans seem mostly OK with our system of government. But we can’t forget that our liberties evolved over eight centuries, dating back to Runnymede and the signing of the Magna Carta. Nothing happened overnight.
And most of all, going forward, we must turn a deaf ear to those like Bush and his neo-con brain trust who tell us that we can impose a system of government from the top down upon ancient cultures with no history to support a structure which, to them, is artificial and decreed by an occupying army.
McGehee, a lifelong activist, settled here in 1973 and lives in Palouse with his wife, Katherine. His work life has varied from bartender to university instructor to wrecking yard owner.