Recently, I saw an excellent documentary on the US military’s ongoing efforts to train and equip the Afghan National Army; the film, Camp Victory, Afghanistan, left me reflecting on my own thinking about this ongoing war. Despite the recent attention to the conflict, which seems to have returned to prominence, I have yet to read anything that helped clarify my thought – in particular the nagging question of what “we” owe Afghanistan.
There’s much to pick apart there: who does “we” refer to? Why would we owe Afghanistan anything? And what does it mean to talk of Afghanistan as a subject to whom we have duties? I’ll try to address these questions in working out why I’m troubled by the idea that we owe something to the people of Afghanistan.
There is surprisingly little sustained consideration of the ethical questions thrown up by America’s long war in Afghanistan. There are repeated strategic reassessment; calls to stay the course and refuse defeat; critics who (often rightly) denounce the drone attacks, civilian casualties and the vicious excesses of soldiers (I avoid “war crime” as an insufficient and problematic technical category); and exhausted pleas for withdrawal by many who no longer see the purpose of the war. As important as it is to think carefully about how the conflict can be ended, the legality and morality of drone attacks and to call for greater accountability for military personnel – especially sociopaths like these assholes – this avoids the broader ethical question of whether US and other NATO forces, as well as the states they represent, have an obligation to Afghanistan. This question is important, whether we think the answer involves continued military occupation, immediate withdrawal, or some other course of action. What goes unaddressed is the end we ought to pursue in Afghanistan and how we might go about determining that end.
After watching Camp Victory, Afghanistan, we were able to speak with the director, Carol Dysinger, who raised an important point. She suggested, and I’m paraphrasing from memory, that unless we were addressing the difficulties of supporting the people in Afghanistan to make their country work, on their own terms, we were missing the crucial challenge. Reflecting on this point led me to think that the focus on US strategic and national security interests, the threat of a reconstituted Taliban supporting global extremists, the dysfunction of Pakistan’s border regions and security services, the legality of drone attacks, and the alleged and actual perpetration of war crimes is an ethical failing. At least so far as these concerns distract us from the questions of how to make Afghanistan work for the Afghan people. Those directly responsible for Afghan policy in the US and other NATO countries are most guilty of this failing, but I think this guilt extends more widely.
The Time cover story about Bibi Aisha, the young woman brutally attacked and disfigured by her husband and brother-in-law, comes closest to asking the right kind of question – though the analysis offered by the author avoids the complexities involved in asking whether “we” owe the women (and people) of Afghanistan more than a speedy exit. I want to return to the questions I raised at the beginning in turn.
1. What do “we” owe Afghanistan?
There are two simple and unsatisfying answers we could give here. On one hand, a democratic government that respects human rights might be the debt owed. While on the other, we might owe only our respectful disinterest to the sovereign nation of Afghanistan. There are many more nuanced ways to articulate these positions, but the hard truth is that the dominant way of thinking about the war presses us into asserting either that we can/should do something, or there’s nothing much we can/should do. But our political imagination is limited – our something and our nothing – to the world of our understanding, which in this case is a tragic distance from the world of our experience.
Afghanistan will not become a capitalist and representative nation-state under US tutelage. It is unlikely to become even a flawed-protector of international human rights standard anytime soon. Further, it’s likely it will remain a battleground for as long as the US maintains its military occupation. The unappealing reality is that US policy-makers don’t know what they can or should do in the circumstances they face.
Yet, withdrawal is hardly a practical option. Afghanistan is not a functioning state and if (when) US troops leave, they are likely to leave a “failed state” – a loaded bit of jargon, but one useful for critical purposes – that is incapable of playing its assigned role as a sovereign state within the international system. Even if the US left Afghanistan to its own devices with all the best intentions (just for the sake of argument), the state would undoubtedly be subject to various forms of international control through development and state-building assistance, along with being vulnerable to internal and external violence. The likely result is continued suffering and disorder for the people of Afghanistan.
While I think these prognostications are realistic – I’m happy to be corrected where others think I’m wrong – I don’t think they are the necessary result of conditions in Afghanistan, but rather of the way we understand those experiences. The limits of understanding in these matters are, I think, best displayed by Steven Kranser’s open advocacy for a return to colonial forms of rule for “failed states” – he of course presents this as a the need to retread the path of state formation that was ineffective initially, a “colonial do-over,” if you like.
I want to forgo any suggestion about what I think is owed to Afghanistan beyond these limited options until I can examine how we understand that question.
2. Who does “we” refer to?
A first step in challenging the understanding of possible options in Afghanistan is to think more critically about the “we” I have presumed has duties to Afghanistan. I think there are two ways that the appeal to a “we” leads us to misunderstand the problem at hand. First, “we” identifies an American national subject. Second, “we” refers to a wider cultural identity appealing to “the West” or some similar formulation. Both of which are deeply problematic.
Not only does the assumption that “we” – in either sense – have a special responsibility imply a privileged US or Western interest in determining the fate of Afghanistan, but it also reaffirms a relationship of superiority, in which the civilized must come to the aid of the barbarians – this trope is particularly common when policy makers and commentators discuss Afghanistan. I want to reject this transactional idea of justice, in which duty becomes a debt to be delivered to the Afghan people by the US or the West – whether that debt is paid as democracy, civilization or just a Western-allied central government.
The responsible “we” in this case is plural and attempts to reduce this plurality are pernicious. Not only do appeals to national or civilizational responsibility co-opt those who oppose the war, speak out against the military tactics of coalition forces or are critical of the state-building enterprise in Afghanistan, but they also suggest to us that personal responsibilities and commitments are inseparable from our wider political identities – however fraught and ambiguous they might be. This also affects our understanding of possible ways forward in the conflict – national pride and responsibility become inseparable, the stakes are inflated so that justice entails bringing civilization and emancipation, and individuals are left with a choice between loyalty to the national project or apathy as denial of responsibility.
3. Why would we owe Afghanistan anything?
The basic intuition that suggests we owe something to Afghanistan is that the suffering of Afghans should move us. An intuition exploited in the initial justification for war – liberating the Afghan people from the Taliban, particularly women, was a common and celebrated cause – and continues to resonate today. A less powerful intuition is that by brining war to Afghanistan the US and its allies should leave the country more stable and secure.
I don’t want to undermine either intuition, but both require that we are more careful in thinking about who owes what to Afghanistan. The policy makers that planned and executed the war owe a profound responsibility for improving conditions in Afghanistan, having started a war to topple the major governing power, diverted resources and energy away from the conflict at a key stage in the rebuilding process and pursuing self-serving strategies in rebuilding the country. Those of us living in these countries, both in support and opposition to the war, have a different responsibility. In particular, I think we have a responsibility to remain alive to the reality of human suffering in Afghanistan wrought by our governments’ policies, a responsibility, at the very least, to use our representative privilege to address the suffering we indirectly participate in.
Personally, this involves a cautious commitment to ending military occupation, but I can concede that there are compelling arguments to the contrary – what becomes unacceptable is an apathetic acceptance of the status quo. A still wider responsibility should move all of us to be concerned for those suffering in Afghanistan – even if it doesn’t lead us to support a single solution to that suffering. What is most important, however, is that the focus is on what responsibility each of us has to make common cause with the Afghan people struggling to live their lives.
In Camp Victory, Afghanistan, the relationship between Colonel Shute and General Sayar (an American advisor and a veteran Afghan soldier) documented by Dysinger is a model of this process and the benefits of finding common cause. The responsibility any of us have to those struggling in Afghanistan is only made effective and explicit as an ethical relationship. While this opens the door for vast differentials in responsibility, distinguishing between those who have more and less relation to events there, it also enables us to make ethical appeals to those who have clear relations to the Afghan people but deny having any responsibilities.
4. What does it mean to talk of Afghanistan as a subject to whom we have duties?
In the same way that it is problematic to speak of the duties of the US or NATO or the West in Afghanistan, the claim that we have duties to Afghanistan, or even the Afghan people, is ambiguous. Most importantly, it directs our sense of responsibility toward a particular solution: the rebuilding of the Afghan nation-state, without stopping to acknowledge that the pursuit of this end may in fact be part of the problem. For this reason, I am far more inclined to think about our responsibilities to the people living in Afghanistan, without presuming they are a single political community, that their needs and suffering are the same, or that our responsibilities – our ethical relationships – are the same for all citizens of Afghanistan. As the responsible “we” is plural, so is the “Afghan” subject – a reality our ethical thinking should take account of.
At The Contemporary Condition, Jairus Victor Grove writes:
It is the interminable panic, the slow, seemingly endless terror, a sick feeling in the gut, that at any moment the sky could fall and there is nothing you, as a singular person could do about it, that makes me sad for our world. To paraphrase Norman Mailer, nothing you do, nothing that you are, will change the fact that in an instant you can be reduced to little more than a few teeth or other grizzly remain to be cataloged or counted in some post-mortem ledger.
Grove is writing about the bombing of Hiroshima and the use of drone aircraft in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but his concern with the lived experience of those subject to the ever present threat of unpredictable violence is insightful – it orients us in the right direction. I don’t think there is any singular answer to the questions of what any of us might owe to Afghanistan, but I can commit to giving our primary concern to those trying to live decent lives while beset by violence from many sides and in many forms. But beyond that, I think we need to be generous and creative in our response – not asking, for example, how Afghanistan can be become a “modern democratic state”, but how can we enable the people living in Afghanistan to have control over their lives and to live their lives as free from the ever-present reality of violence as is possible.
These rough thoughts may seem the height of academic irrelevance, but I disagree. We must think about the ends pursued in politics in a critical and deep way, we must probe the limits of understanding – challenging the comfortable intellectual frames – in order to exercise critical intelligence in addressing the conditions of our experience.