Did we ever have it to begin with?
Over the past two weeks, the American effort in Afghanistan suffered an ugly one–two punch. American soldiers desecrated four Korans only a week after a rogue American soldier massacred sixteen Afghan civilians. To the surprise of many Americans, the Koran-burning incident prompted a wider and more violent backlash than the massacre did. 41 people were killed, and at least 270 were injured.
“How could this be?” many Americans wonder, and with good reason. Violent outcry over religious desecration seems strange compared to quieter dismay over the systematic killing of dozens of civilians. How can dishonoring the Quran compare with the martyrdom of innocent civilians?
As prominent Afghan religious cleric Mullah Khaliq Dad told the New York Times, “the whole goal of our life is religion.” His incredulity at the question of even comparing the two incidents hints at why American influence in Afghanistan will always be a struggle in a losing direction. Culturally, the two nations are simply too different. Faith occupies an exalted space in Afghanistan unmatched in any Western nation. Khaliq Dad’s reaction ironically works well for those who criticize America’s quest for cultural imperialism as the Afghans have never seemed more impervious to it.
Yet the political effects of the recent killings should not be underestimated. Hamid Karzai has recently called for the expedition of Northern Atlantic Treaty Organization disengagement from Afghan villages, and the Taliban have broken off talks with the Afghan government until this condition is met. This is why the one-two punch is so destabilizing. America loses cultural capital (the little we ever had) by committing what might be the most sinful act an Afghan can conceive of, and to add insult to injury, another American goes on a shooting rampage. The combination detracts from America in the eyes of townsman and politician alike.
Afghanistan is said to be the “graveyard of empires,” and it is remarkable how tone-deaf American policymakers can be when it comes to past history. Afghanistan’s recent resistance to and historical disdain for occupation made it hard enough to catch the bad guys, much less remake the nation in America’s image. Moral questions aside, the American project in Afghanistan is logistically impossible. The assumption that our cultural values would take hold organically was misguided, and the assumption that they would take hold given enough American-assured security was wrong, too.
America’s leaders have chosen to see Afghanistan as a petri dish for terrorists in the War on Terror rather than a nation with its own complex history and culture. For example, Pakistan was a safe haven for Taliban fighters and encouraged them to rule Afghanistan with Pakistan’s interests in mind. The United States was two-timed by a corrupt Pakistani government and military, yet they were late to recognize this as they did not understand the geopolitical climate of the region. If we had taken heed of Afghanistan’s past and listened to local leaders, Afghan experts and United States Agency for International Development (rather than Central Intelligence Agency) officials in the earlier years of occupation, legitimate bonds of trust and cooperation between the two nations might have developed.
The clash of civilizations is real and we’re experiencing it today.* While Afghanistan’s cultural history is by no means uniformly islamist and militant (Kabul was known in the 1970s to be on-par with the most cosmopolitan cities in the Middle East, as well as being secular and somewhat communist) there are some cultural values that are now so deeply embedded that no amount of dialogue will change them. Frankly, why should they?
A scrambled exit from Afghanistan will surely cause numerous problems; but at this point, what other option do we really have?
Addendum 1: Others have said that Afghan reaction to the killings was relatively subdued simply because they are now used to loss of innocent life at American hands. Shocking, but very likely true. In that case, rather than chalk up the reactions to cultural differences, maybe we are just seeing America’s chickens coming home to roost, or a combination of both.
Addendum 2: An interesting critique on Afghanistan as a “graveyard of empires” can be found here.
Addendum 3: Sgt. Robert Bale, the soldier who carried out this shooting, was on his fourth tour of duty. Not to excuse his actions, but when we ask thousands of young men to operate in stressful combat environments for years upon years, it’s a miracle that we haven’t seen more snaps like this.
*Controversy alert! I don’t necessarily endorse the Clash of Civilization theory as trotted out by Samuel Huntington. I don’t think this reaction is representative of the whole and I don’t think it points to a fundamental East vs West divide. But there is a fine line between cultural essentialism and ignoring very real differences between cultures. I’m walking on narrow ground, but forty-one deaths in response to a burning of a holy scripture does seem to point to something irreconcilable.