Nation-building is a term created by people living
off Pentagon contracts. It is one of those queasy political expressions with no
hard meaning, yet its use raises few eyebrows. The term sounds as though it
means something, and it is treated as though it were something you might study.
At least this is true in the United States where people are hypnotized by hype and
substance-lacking words, where inflating nothing into something is an everyday
To understand what absurdity the term disguises, conduct a
brief thought-experiment and think about just one aspect of social behavior in
North America and about how long it takes to change. Cigarette smoking was very
stylish 50 years ago, and it has taken all those 50 years, despite scientific
information providing many warnings, to change public acceptance of smoking.
In 19th century America, chewing tobacco and spitting were
obsessions, observed and recorded by many disturbed European visitors.
Spittoons graced the halls and lobbies of every public building, standing in
ripples of warm brown carpet stains where the efforts of the less skilled were
recorded. Eventually, this hideous practice ended, but it took a very long
So how much greater would be the task of altering the most
fundamental attitudes and practices in a society? Could even 10 years of costly
effort by thousands hope to make even a small dent in the practices of an
ancient society of 20 million people?
Much of Afghanistan lives as though it were still the 14th
century, and this is the case any place where there has been little economic
growth for centuries, where people grow up doing pretty much exactly what their
In Western society of the 14th century, it was perfectly
acceptable for men to go off to war, leaving their mates locked in rude iron
"chastity belts" with padlocks for years at a time. In Western
society of the 14th century, it was common practice among powerful families to
contract a 12-year old girl to marriage. Is the practice of women wearing the burqa
in Afghanistan somehow more primitive than the past customs of Europe?
I take the burqa as an example only because a great many
words were spent both before and after the invasion about the status of women
in Iraq. Most of this was sheer hypocrisy, propaganda aimed at influencing the
attitudes of America�s middle class in favor of war. As I�ve written many
times, truth makes the best propaganda -- it�s all a matter of twisting
emphasis and context. Today, outside the city of Kabul, almost all women still
wear the burqa, and it has nothing to do with threats from the Taliban. Even in
Kabul, half the women wear it.
The distinction between Kabul and the rest of Afghanistan is
important, because the effective reach of Afghanistan�s president has been
compared to that of a mayor of Kabul. Most people in Afghanistan live under the
effective rule of warlords whose only merit may be that they are opponents of
the Taliban. In every other respect, they are indistinguishable from the
Taliban. They hate seeing women without burqas. They do not like girls going to
public school. They do not believe in democracy -- who did in Europe in the
14th century? -- and they reject modern concepts of human rights.
The warlords, at least some of them, finance their satrapies
with the proceeds of poppy crops, causing an explosion in the world�s supply of
high-grade heroin, the Taliban, for all their unpleasant qualities, having
previously ended this trade. The warlords are torturers and murderers, and
their militias are capable of almost any horror you can imagine, some having
conducted mass rapes, according to numerous witnesses.
Yet the warlords cannot be removed. They were an integral
part of the American strategy for invading Afghanistan, and they remain pillars
of the existing state. America�s strategy consisted of bombing the Taliban and
their supporters while warlord militias did most of the dirty work on the
ground. America sent in thousands of Special Forces to search the mountains for
Osama bin Laden and remnant Taliban bands, but for the most part they have been
no more successful than the Russians were years ago. They have been
successful in alienating and insulting many villagers with their tactics of
bursting in with guns and grenades firing.
Apart from having killed thousands with bombs and mines,
this is pretty much the sum total of America�s achievement in Afghanistan. The
Russians actually had done a better job of making secular changes, especially
for women, but this was ignored in American propaganda to win support for the
CIA�s costly mujahideen-proxy war, the war that gave us figures like Osama bin
Laden and led to the eventual rule of the Taliban.
A Canadian officer in Afghanistan recently was gravely
injured when a young man attacked him with a homemade ax. The officer had
removed his helmet out of respect towards the village elders to whom he was
talking. The young Afghan man was immediately killed by other Canadian
soldiers. Newspapers typically reported his age as maybe 20. In fact, it turns
out he was only 16. A brief exchange of gunfire with some others who produced
weapons then occurred.
The incident provides something of a parable for the entire
misadventure in Afghanistan. First, the soldier was right to remove his helmet.
You can�t get far in a society like Afghanistan without showing respect.
Second, a young man of just 16 was determined to take the
life of a foreigner despite his lack of a suitable weapon and despite the
likelihood of his sacrificing his life.
Third, because it was a small village, there is no
possibility that the elders who were gathered were not aware of the impending
assault. They kept silent and allowed it to happen.
Fourth, one of the reactions to the assault has been for
Canadian officials to re-examine their practices, things like a soldier
removing his helmet. Yet how can they hope to be sympathetically listened to
otherwise? The alternative is to follow America�s apish tactics, creating even
more bitter enemies. It is an unavoidable vicious circle.
and others find themselves in Afghanistan because a brutal American
administration, in the wake of 9/11, instead of using diplomatic and legal
powers to capture Osama and the boys, pressured everyone to support an
invasion. Canada was later able to resist pressure for the even more pointless
and destructive invasion of Iraq. Canadians today are asking what is the
purpose of the mission in Afghanistan. The answers offered include that empty