Monday, November 15, 2010
Afghanistan: the Present against the Past.
As the tedious grind continues in Afghanistan and President Karzai, whose power doesn't extend beyond his family and Kabul, tries pathetically to assert himself as an Afghan by complaining about the military presence of those who keep him power, we are reminded of something mostly forgotten- that the fall of the Soviet Union turned the clock back anywhere from fifty years to a couple of centuries almost everywere outside the West, China and Japan. In Afghanistam, the triibal anarchy that has continued since the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, hasn't been seen since the 1870s, during the Second British-Afghan War. What we have witnessed both there and in Iraq is a new world bringing a modern, World War Two sort of warfare and modern liberal democratic values, to an older, sometimes ancient world.
The problem is, that no one had predicted it. There was no western army fit to engage in tribal wars, no western government equipped to deal with the ancient worlds suddenly dislosed when the layers had been pulled back: first the layer of a modern-style Soviet and Capitalist Cold War order and in many cases, underneath that, an older layer of British colonial rule- meaning that very often it was a pre-modern society that suddenly revealed itself. Modern, big-army land warfare is great for fighting other modern big armies in open, European and Russian plains; but it stumbles pathetically when faced with tribal peoples in mountains, deserts and jungles rising out of the past. Liberal democarcy staggers just as embarrassingly.
But in a world that takes less and less interest in history, there is a failure to see the historical absurdity of the situation: so there's hand-wringing about incompetence in missions that are misconceived in the first place- reverse anachronisms if you like, when the present finds itself surrounded by the past; worry about corruption while premodern people understand corruption as patronage; about waste in situations condemned to eternal trial and error; about mission-creep in a war in which battlles can only be won against another army but never against a hostile people. Sadly, it may take future generations to understand that the world wakened in 1989 too groggy to see that any war pitting the present against the past would underestimate the past, its ability to improvise and its sheer endurance.
Has history provided earlier hints? There are doubtlesss a few but here's a major one: Napoleon could control Germany and Austria which, even if they were feudal, had rulers who had experienced the enlightement. When Napoleon occupied Spain, which had almost no experience of th Enlightenment and whose Catholicism was both rigid and passionate, the early 19th century was facing the 17th century. You cannot defeat a people, let alone convince them of something unless you understand them and they understand you.