February 19th, 2010

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#162 – Dick Bernard: Afghanistan

Friday, February 19th, 2010

Last night I made the wise decision to attend an informative talk and ensuing conversation entitled “Afghanistan, Pakistan – and India? The Curse of Bilateralism in American Foreign Policy. Afghanistan in Regional Perspective.”

The speaker, William Davnie, had extensive experience in the U.S. State Department, some of which was in the South Asia area. He, along with informed comment from many in the filled meeting room, contributed to my too-meagre knowledge of South Asia – an area which has been reduced to bad words like Taliban, and ‘they’re all alike’ kinds of descriptors. I won’t even attempt to summarize what I thought I heard last night, since I don’t want to garble someone else’s very coherent message, but my main take-away was to convey the sense that the entire South Asia situation is very complex, and the news media, politicians and military don’t make it any simpler to understand.

In the question period I asked if there was any “Afghanistan for Dummies” books that could be recommended. No recommendation was offered (See last sentence, below.)

It was the bombing of Afghanistan in October, 2001, that prodded me into getting off the couch and into the peace and justice fray. I could see nothing good coming out of that action, which 94% of Americans approved of at the time. I haven’t seen any refutation of my snap judgement of the 2001 situation over the last eight years, but news reports, positioning of advocates, films like “Charley Wilson’s War” and “Kite Runners” haven’t been very enlightening either.

A while back, I attended another briefing on the South Asia area which was officially off the record. That session was a good complement to last nights session.

It was the richness of the group interaction at the meeting last night that helped me better understand the multiple quandaries in the south Asia quagmire.

Yes, Davnie didn’t think President Obama made the right decision in sending more troops into Afghanistan; he seemed aware, though, of the dilemma faced by the President in making this decision.

In the shorthand way that we receive, and even demand, information, “Afghanistan” has, for most of us, a single meaning. Someone, perhaps the speaker, perhaps someone in the audience, said that’s tantamount to saying that “United States” has a single meaning, including during the time when we were systematically eliminating the Native Americans, and holding slaves. It isn’t so simple.

Assorted tensions, alliances, etc between Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and other places were briefly discussed. The interests of the U.S., Russia, China, Iran in the area…the assorted ethnic groups which complicate matters in all of the countries…the long history of the region – all of these came into the conversation.

Particularly interesting note was made of the Pashtun ethnic group which makes up 40% of Afghanistan’s 32 million people. It would be one thing if the Pashtun’s were only in Afghanistan, but 15% of the population of Pakistan are also Pashtun – a significant minority in Pakistan, but nonetheless extremely significant since they number about 25 million of Pakistan’s 170 million people. There are more Pashtun’s in Pakistan than in Afghanistan. Taliban is the radical faction of the Pashtun ethnic group….

Then there’s India next door to Pakistan, with one billion people.

The U.S., of course, has a complicated and controversial role in the region, in large part governed by assorted political considerations. For example, U.S. military versus civilian agents (i.e. diplomats) is hugely disproportionate: 240:1. Even today 20% of State Department slots are unfilled; 20% are below grade. In the field, only 12% of military are in forward kinds of positions, while 68% of State Department employees are forward employees. If the military seems dominant, it is because it is dominant, and it is the American political will that it be so, the speaker suggested, and this has been true throughout our history. Politicians reflect the public.

The job for those of us who disagree with this assessment is to continue to make the case for diplomatic rather than military engagement be the most important.

Before we left the room, Mr. Davnie did recommend one writer that he trusts on the subject: Andrew Bacevich. You might want to look him up.