The Afghan Mask Slips

Fixing what’s wrong in Washington… in Afghanistan.

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This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

Explain something to me.

In recent months, unless you were insensate, you couldn’t help running across someone talking, writing, speaking, or pontificating about how busted government is in the United States. State governments are increasingly broke and getting broker. The federal government, while running up the red ink, is, as just about everyone declares, “paralyzed” and so incapable of acting intelligently on just about anything.

Only the other day, no less a personage than Vice President Biden assured the co-anchor of the CBS Early Show, “Washington, right now, is broken.” Indiana Senator Evan Bayh used the very same word, broken, when he announced recently that he would not run for reelection and, in response to his decision, Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz typically commented, “The system has been largely dysfunctional for nearly two decades, and everybody knows it.” Voters seem to agree. Two words, “polarization” and “gridlock”—or hyperbolic cousins like “paralyzing hyperpartisanship”—dominate the news when the media describes that dysfunctionalism. Foreign observers have been similarly struck, hence a spate of pieces like the one in the British magazine the Economist headlined, “America’s Democracy, A Study in Paralysis.”

Washington’s incapacity to govern now evidently seems to ever more Americans at the root of many looming problems.  As the New York Times summed up one of them in a recent headline: “Party Gridlock in Washington Feeds Fear of a Debt Crisis.” When President Obama leaves the confines of Washington for the campaign trail, he promptly attacks congressional “gridlock” and the “slash and burn politics” that have left the nation’s capital tied in knots.

And he has an obvious point since, when he had a 60-vote supermajority in the Senate, congressional Democrats and the White House still couldn’t get their act together and pass health-care reform, not even after a year of discussion, debate, and favors trading, not even as the train wreck of the Massachusetts election barreled toward them. These days the Democrats may not even be a party, which means their staggering Senate majority has really been a majority of next to nothing.

The Republicans, who ran us into this ditch in the Bush years, are now perfectly happy to be the party of “no”—and the polls seem to show that it’s a fruitful strategy for the 2010 election. Meanwhile, special interests rule Washington and lobbying is king. As if to catch the spirit of this new reality, the president recently offered his vote of support to the sort of Wall Street CEOs who took Americans to the cleaners in the great economic meltdown of 2008 and are once again raking in the millions, while few have faith that change or improvement of any kind is in our future. Good governance, in other words, no longer seems part of the American tool kit and way of life.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the planet, to the tune of billions of taxpayer dollars, the US military is promoting “good governance” with all its might. In a major campaign in the modest-sized city of Marja (a place next to no one had heard of two weeks ago) in Taliban-controlled Helmand Province, Afghanistan, it’s placing a bet on its ability to “restore the credibility” of President Hamid Karzai’s government. In the process, it plans to unfurl a functioning city administration where none existed. According to its commanding general, Stanley McChrystal, as soon as the US Army and the Marines, along with British troops and Afghan forces, have driven the Taliban out of town, he’s prepared to roll out an Afghan “government in a box,” including police, courts, and local services.

The US military is intent, according to the Wall Street Journal, on “delivering a new administration and millions of dollars in aid to a place where government employees didn’t dare set foot a week ago.”  Slated to be the future “mayor” of Marja, Haji Zahir, a businessman who spent 15 years in Germany, is, according to press reports, living on a US Marine base in the province until, one day soon, the American military can install him in an “abandoned government building” or simple “a clump of ruins” in that city.

He is, we’re told, to arrive with four US civilian advisors, two from the State Department and two from the US Agency for International Development, described (in the typically patronizing language of American press reports) as his “mentors.”  They are to help him govern, and especially dole out the millions of dollars that the US military has available to “reconstruct” Marja.  Road-building projects are to be launched, schools refurbished, and a new clinic built, all to win Pashtun “hearts and minds.” As soon as the fighting abates, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs has suggested, the post-military emphasis will be on “economic development,” with an influx of “military and civilian workers” who will “show a better way of life” to the town’s inhabitants.   

So explain something to me: Why does the military of a country convinced it’s becoming ungovernable think itself so capable of making another ungovernable country governable? What’s the military’s skill set here? What lore, what body of political knowledge, are they drawing on? Who do they think they represent, the Philadelphia of 1776 or the Washington of 2010, and if the latter, why should Americans be considered the globe’s leading experts in good government anymore? And while we’re at it, fill me in on one other thing: Just what has convinced American officials in Afghanistan and the nation’s capital that they have the special ability to teach, prod, wheedle, bribe, or force Afghans to embark on good governance in their country if we can’t do it in Washington or Sacramento?

Explain something else to me: Why are our military and civilian leaders so confident that, after nine years of occupying the world’s leading narco-state, nine years of reconstruction boondoggles and military failure, they suddenly have the key, the formula, to solve the Afghan mess? Why do leading officials suddenly believe they can make Afghan President Hamid Karzai into “a Winston Churchill who can rally his people,” as one unnamed official told Matthew Rosenberg and Peter Spiegel of the Wall Street Journal—and all of this only months after Karzai, returned to office in a wildly fraudulent presidential election, overseeing a government riddled with corruption and drug money, and honeycombed with warlords sporting derelict reputations, was considered a discredited figure in Washington? And why do they think they can turn a man known mockingly as the “mayor” or “president” of Kabul (because his government has so little influence outside the capital) into a political force in southern Afghanistan?

And someone tell me: Just who picked the name Operation Moshtarak for the campaign in Marja? Why am I not convinced that it was an Afghan? Though news accounts say that the word means “togetherness” in Dari, why do I think that a better translation might be “crushing embrace”? What could “togetherness” really mean when, according to the Wall Street Journal, to make the final decision to launch the operation, already long announced, General McChrystal “stepped into his armored car for the short drive… to the presidential palace,” and reportedly roused President Karzai from a nap for “a novel moment.” Karzai agreed, of course, supposedly adding, “No one has ever asked me to decide before.”

This is a black comedy of “governance.” So is the fact that, from the highest administration officials and military men to those in the field, everyone speaks, evidently without the slightest self-consciousness, about putting an “Afghan face” on the Marja campaign. The phrase is revelatory and oddly blunt. As an image, there’s really only one way to understand it (not that the Americans involved would ever stop to do so). After all, what does it mean to “put a face” on something that assumedly already has a face? In this case, it has to mean putting an Afghan mask over what we know to be the actual “face” of the Afghan War, which is American.

National Security Adviser James Jones, for instance, spoke of the Marja campaign having “‘a much bigger Afghan face,’ with two Afghans for every one US soldier involved.” And this way of thinking is so common that news reports regularly use the phrase, as in a recent Associated Press story: “Military officials say they are learning from past mistakes. The offensive is designed with an ‘Afghan face.'”

And here’s something else I’d like explained to me: Why does the US press, at present so fierce about the lack of both “togetherness” and decent governance in Washington, report this sort of thing without comment, even though it reflects the deepest American contempt for putative “allies”? Why, for instance, can those same Wall Street Journal reporters write without blinking:  “Western officials also are bringing Afghan cabinet members into strategy discussions, allowing them to select the officials who will run Marjah once it is cleared of Taliban, and pushing them before the cameras to emphasize the participation of Afghan troops in the offensive”? Allow? Push? Is this what we mean by “togetherness”?

Try to imagine all this in reverse—an Afghan general motoring over to the White House to wake up the president and ask whether an operation, already announced and ready to roll, can leave the starting gate? But why go on?

Just explain this to me: Why are the representatives of Washington, civilian and military, always so tone deaf when it comes to other peoples and other cultures? Why is it so hard for them to imagine what it might be like to be in someone else’s shoes (or boots or sandals)? Why do they always arrive not just convinced that they have identified the right problems and are asking the right questions, but that they, and only they, have the right answers, when at home they seem to have none at all?

Thinking about this, I wonder what kind of “face” should be put on global governance in Washington?


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