Have Plato’s cave shadows finally made it into the Afghan debate?
Joshua Foust has a great piece up at Registan.net about a two-day workshop he attended on tribal engagement in Afghanistan. While essentially focusing on how far the United States should rely on tribes to find a solution to Afghanistan, he raises a fundamental question about the nature of the debate on what to do in a war now into its ninth year:
“There is a bit of a crippling strain of experientialism in the military. It leads a lot of people to trust implicitly their own experiences and to assume those experiences are shared or generalizable. It also tends to engender a degree of mistrust of academia, since most academics gain their understanding through voracious reading rather than extensive experience.”
“Indeed, at the end of the day the whole workshop was crippled by three things the workshop’s organizers cannot control: the war’s strategy and history, the military’s bureaucratic inertia, and a nasty ontological problem we still didn’t resolve. Most importantly, we are coming at this in 2010, when the leadership has already decided upon tribal or community or local ‘defense initiatives’ as the way it is going to solve the war. That severely limits the discussion—despite an entreaty to answer the question ‘should we even do this’, there was almost no discussion of why everyone assumed the answer was ‘yes’”.
I have been trying to work out for a while not so much how the conflict in Afghanistan should be resolved – a question which many others are far better qualified to answer - but rather the way in which the discussion about what to do is defined by our own cultural history. Are we, as Joshua Foust suggests, no better than the men in Plato’s cave whose understanding of the shadows they saw there was limited by their own experience?
Before you dismiss this as an academic exercise, consider first that there appears to be a divergence between Britain and the United States over how far the international coalition should go to strike a deal with the Taliban. We don’t know how much this divergence is merely a matter of public posturing. What we do know, however, is that Britain and the United States have very different historical experiences of Afghanistan and South Asia and if policy is based on experience you will almost certainly get different outcomes.
Britain learned the hard way in the 19th century the dangers of invading Afghanistan. It also has a long history of wheeling and dealing in South Asia, learning the local languages in order to build its British Indian Empire, suppressing a Muslim-led insurrection, and playing one community off against the other to extend its power. That does not make its experience right, nor indeed necessarily applicable to 21st century Afghanistan. It does make it different from the one which defines Washington’s own view of policy.
Take another example – the way in which ordinary Muslims view the campaign against Islamist militants in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. One of the arguments you hear frequently is not over how the United States should bring a successful end to its post 9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but rather of the need to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Here is what even Pakistan’s very liberal secular English-language Dawn newspaper had to say about it:
“Unsurprisingly, Muslims around the world view their governments as partners in the Israeli and American crimes in Palestine. Their anger partly feeds into the global jihad that has endangered lives and property around the world. While Western governments are not willing to consider this cause-and-effect threat to their security, preferring to close their eyes to Israeli excesses, the fact is that until the Palestinian issue is not resolved, large numbers of Muslims will continue to be radicalised. Some of them will become brainwashed into joining one terrorist group or another.”
That is not an experience given a great deal of prominence in Western accounts of how to deal with Islamist militant groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
So to get back to the point raised by Joshua Foust in his original post, can you decide what is best for Afghanistan on the basis of experience? The answer is almost certainly not.
What then do you replace it with? Western powers tried using democracy to find out what Afghans themselves wanted and failed miserably as a result of last year’s disastrous presidential election and the political manoeuvring which followed. No individual country with a stake in Afghanistan can be trusted to be neutral, either because it wants to get its own troops out or because it wants to retain influence there once the United States eventually leaves. Academics are usually too distant from ground realities, while for journalists the rigours of academia are a luxury they can rarely afford.
I have no idea how you resolve that. What does seem clear, however, is that there has been very little analysis — at least in the mainstream media — of how cultural experiences define attitudes (and sometimes firm convictions) towards the war in Afghanistan. And as we approach the 10th anniversary of 9/11, it may be too late.
(File photo of Marjah offensive)