Comparing the brain sizes of migratory birds and U.S. presidents may not help explain this one. Birds have been avoiding Afghanistan for some years now. Afghans with higher educations have been leaving for decades. War profiteers, and occupation profiteers, and “reconstruction” profiteers seem to know their way out. But imperial rulers, whether British or Soviet or U.S., seem utterly incapable of withdrawing other people’s kids from Afghan wars until no other option remains.
Speaking with Afghans via Skype over the weekend, I heard their top concern as avoiding a “strategic partnership agreement” that includes permanent U.S. military bases. This concern seems not to diminish in the slightest if the bases are called “enduring” or “stable” or anything other than permanent that means permanent. The top concern of the Pentagon, and of the President who works for it, and of the Congress that does what the President tells it, is clearly the exact opposite: establishing permanent bases. Americans fantasizing that President Obama has said everyone will be gone in 2014 need to go back and read the transcripts of his speeches.
The desire of the majority of U.S. citizens, on the other hand, seems to be to end the “war.” If the occupation could last forever, but involve less financial cost and less cost in U.S. lives, even if Afghans continued to die and hostility continued to build, I’m not sure my country wouldn’t favor that. We’re against particular wars when the patriotic pomp wears off, but are we against the ever-growing and ever-weakening empire of bases we fund without comment smack in the middle of a manufactured spending “crisis”?
I’ve long been a huge fan of Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” but only recently did I read Chris Harman’s “A People’s History of the World.” Harman starts with what we can discern of prehistory before describing the first civilizations. Long before he gets to what we call the year zero, and then building ever more through the end of the book, a pattern emerges not entirely unlike that in Paul Kennedy’s “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers.” As civilizations in various ages, on every continent, develop, they often grow top-heavy. They stop investing in what made them grow. They stop caring for their infrastructure and for the mass of their people. They start dumping more and more of their resources into an extremely wealthy minority and into wars. This is not some sort of natural cycle. Some cultures do it right away, some not for millennia. Some start to do it and pull back. Some slide slowly into it. But eventually, if you wait long enough, everybody seems to get there. Whether increased awareness of this pattern can help prevent it remains to be seen.
Empires’ path to the graveyard may be examined particularly well in the graveyard of empires, Afghanistan. Edward Girardet has been reporting from Afghanistan since 1979, and has just published an account of that entire period, called “Killing the Cranes: A Reporter’s Journey Through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan.” I highly recommend it. Girardet’s focus is on Afghanistan, a nation whose fate was dramatically worsened by the Soviet invasion, again dramatically worsened by the Soviet withdrawal and what followed, and yet again devastated by the U.S. occupation. Afghanistan just cannot seem to catch a break. But the flip side of this story is the damage that the USSR and US have done to themselves in the process.
Girardet’s story of national tragedy begins pre-Soviet invasion, with Kabul an international city, its people fashionably dressed in western clothes, rock music blaring out of cafes. One could have imagined the 1980s as a time of tourism rather than what it was, a time of genocide. The Soviets deliberately made conditions unlivable in Afghanistan, so that its fourteen to fifteen million people would leave, die, or obey. Sayed Abdullah, the Khalqi commander of Kabul’s Pul-e-Charki prison, announced in a party speech: “A million Afghans are all that should remain alive — a million communists. That’s all we need.” Girardet witnessed and reported on the exodus to Pakistan, the accompanying atrocities, and the growth of Afghans’ armed resistance. On April 20, 1979, the communists executed over 1,000 men and boys at Kerala. Girardet’s narrative constantly jumps back and forth in time (for example, to point out that many members of the Afghan government both in the 1980s and now were/are well known supporters of the resistance), but he fails to mention or suggest any comparison between Kerala and the Dasht-i-Leili massacre of 2001.
Back in 1979, “Western interest in media reports from Afghanistan reemerged during the Soviet-Afghan war,” Girardet writes, “only when the United States seriously upped the ante by supporting the mujahedeen in what became known as Operation Cyclone. Well over three billion U.S. dollars (some put the figure as high as eighteen billion) of military aid was supplied, including the Stinger anti-aircraft missile. Highly favorable coverage of how successful the United States was in helping the mujahedeen was orchestrated by Washington. In one case, the CIA invited the publishers of Newsweek and Time for lunch. The next week embarrassingly similar stories lauding the U.S. role appeared in the two magazines.”
Girardet describes his encounters and conversations with numerous key figures. In one incident he is nearly lynched by a crowd in Pakistan that has mistaken him for Salman Rushdie. In another tense scene, he and Osama bin Laden are arguing with each other, standing at some distance in the mountains, as groups of supporters gather behind each of them. But before bin Laden and other Arabs arrive on the scene, two leaders loom largest in Girardet’s account: Ahmad Shah Massoud and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Girardet describes them:
“Massoud was Tajik, and Hekmatyar Pushtun. Massoud was a shrewd and persevering guerrilla commander whose heroes were Charles de Gaulle, General Giap, Che Guevara, and John F. Kennedy, and who had proven himself in battle. Hekmatyar was a calculating, deceitful politician whose inspiration was Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, but who had started out as a communist.”
Massoud also befriended Girardet, while Hekmatyar tried to kill him. Massoud appears in this book heroic, noble, and larger than life. He makes it a priority to avoid civilian deaths. He welcomes foreigners. His word is solid, his followers love him, and he risks his own life to try to achieve peace. The United States fails to seriously support him. Al Qaeda kills him two days before the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Hekmatyar, who is still alive, was funded by but hated the West (the United States gave him at least a half a billion dollars), sacrificed the lives of others recklessly, attacked Afghan rivals as much as Soviet occupiers, and looked out primarily for his own selfish interests. Girardet suggests that the Pentagon may have preferred Hekmatyar largely because he spoke English. Massoud, who spoke Dari, Pushto, Urdu, Arabic, and French, was clearly a savage barbarian who could not communicate in a civilized language. Another theory Girardet cites is that the United States did not want the Afghan resistance to be too effective and end the war too quickly.
Girardet does not hold back about his feelings for these two men. He recounts admirable actions by Massoud, and the time when Hekmatyar ordered Girardet killed. The reporter immediately went to Hekmatyar’s house to confront him. Massoud deployed several men to guard Girardet.
So, this story is very personal, but the author also employs Massoud and Hekmatyar, the lion and the hyena, as representations of all that was best and is worst about Afghan culture. The arrival of cable television in the 1990s and early 2000s, he writes, ended the function of travelers as bearers of news. But the arrival of foreign fighters most deeply damaged codes of hospitality and honor, introducing suicide killings and vicious religious hatred to Afghanistan, and eroding the idea of a unified Afghan nation. The drug trade and prostitution have taken their toll as well. The United States turned a blind eye to Saudi trafficking in human beings. Added to these influences, the brutality of the U.S. occupation, with its disappearances and torture, has fueled horrific violence, just as earlier missteps fueled the attacks of 9-11.
Girardet faults Afghans for where they have gone wrong, as well as faulting the Saudis and the Chinese, but be reserves the most blame for Americans and Pakistanis: “By 2000, Massoud was trying to persuade the West to understand that without Pakistani support, there was no way the Taliban could continue.” But in April and May 2001, Pakistan was sending 30 trucks a day across the border. “On Vice President Cheney’s orders, the U.S. government also provided the Taliban with a grant worth forty-three million dollars. While U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft later relentlessly pursued the ‘American Talib’ John Walker Lindh, a twenty-year-old Californian, as its scapegoat for consorting with the enemy, no action was ever taken against those within the Bush administration who supported the Taliban financially or with other means — including American intelligence ‘observers’ operating with the ISI.”
In 2001, Massoud made his first trip to Europe. He warned both publicly and in private meetings with U.S. officials that al Qaeda was preparing a significant strike against the West, and that Pakistan must be pressured to end its support for the Taliban. “The Taliban would not last a year without Pakistan’s support,” he said.
Also, four months prior to 9-11, Girardet recounts how ABC News was informed that al Qaeda was planning to hijack aircraft to attack the West. “ABC never used this information because of pressure brought by a ‘certain intelligence agency,’ presumably the CIA which wanted the runner [the informant] returned [to Afghanistan].”
In recent years, rather than trying to improve on its understanding of Afghanistan and avoid deadly mistakes in the future, the U.S. government has put resources into trying to silence people like Girardet, including hiring the Rendon Group to draft a press release for the Afghan Ministry of the Interior accusing him of financial crimes. A better use of U.S. resources would be paying someone to read “Killing the Cranes.”
Girardet’s book should be read for the fascinating accounts of his reporting adventures — as good as or better than “The Photographer” by Emmanuel Guibert, Didier Lefevre, and Frederic Lemercier — but also for the richness of the understanding he conveys of how Afghan culture has been changed by these decades of war, and in particular by the foreign jihadists imported to oppose the Russians. Girardet writes with some authority when he arrives at a similar conclusion to that of just about everybody not in the pay of the Pentagon:
“Not unlike their Red Army counterparts during the 1980s, the Americans and their military allies are increasingly perceived by ordinary Afghans as an unwelcome foreign occupying force. Their behavior and lack of cultural awareness often emerge as affronts to Afghan customs and their sense of independence. . . . The growing resentment of Afghans toward the Western presence is not because Afghans necessarily prefer the Taliban and other insurgents, but because they have always resented outsiders, particularly those who insist on imposing themselves. Even more disconcerting, many Afghans no longer differentiate between soldiers and aid workers. Western policies have largely undermined the recovery process by usurping the traditional humanitarian role through the deployment of military Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) and the deployment of foreign mercenaries and private contractors with little or no understanding of the country. Afghans also legitimately question the purpose of the United States spending one hundred million dollars a day on its military effort given that such funds might be better spent on recovery itself.”