Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Boots on "Being There"

The Washington Post on October 27 carried a front-page article describing the career of American Matthew Hoh – a construction engineer by training, a Marine with two tours in Iraq, and until the end of October 2009 a respected civilian working with Foreign Service Officers in Afghanistan.
What brought Hoh to the attention of the media was his decision to resign from his affiliation with the State Department and the Pentagon because he could not find a logical rationale for U.S. troops and civilians (along with troops and civilians from NATO and other countries) to be Afghanistan.

His position, as reported by the Post, has nothing to do with killing or capturing Afghan Taliban fighters trying to eject foreign forces that invaded their country in 2001. Hoh cannot find any “vital U.S. national interest” that must be safeguarded using (or threatening to use) military power.

Moreover, Hoh believes that the current Afghan strategy along with the “latest” rendition under review at the White House will not produce the results anticipated by the Pentagon, the Obama administration, and the coalition allies – let along meet the desires of most Afghanis for security and stability in their villages and towns.

Hoh spent ten months in Afghanistan working with the coalition provincial reconstruction team, the province’s governor and other local officials, and the State Department officers in Kabul. Despite the success of the reconstruction project he oversaw, Hoh finally realized that the U.S. approach was incomplete because time after time, project after project, the one category that none of the power players – Washington, London, Paris, Rome, the UN, Osama bin-Laden and al-Qaeda, Mullah Omar and the Taliban – consult is the people of Afghanistan.

Hoh did not just stumble on a hidden weakness in the structure and application of governance in Afghanistan, or a defect in the program of action put together by the Taliban to regain power. Afghanistan may have special twists in the never-ending struggle for power, but these twists are Afghani responses to what are Afghani problems. (September 11, 2001 was not a problem for the ruling Taliban faction until George Bush threw down the gauntlet October 7, 2001.) This is precisely what one should anticipate as rulers wrestle with their challenges. Unfortunately, U.S. presidents seem to believe that every world crisis demands an American response.

And because a military response is inevitable or at least “all options are on the table,” the form of crisis after crisis is repeated endlessly. Administration after administration finds itself constrained even before it occupies the executive branch by the initial assumptions that underpinned the U.S. international affairs position in the Cold War – particularly that the next war would be a protracted nuclear holocaust from which no one escapes but nonetheless has to be fought for “principles” and ideology before all else.

What Matthew Hoh “discovered” in Afghanistan were the simple ABCs of how people interact with other people every day – neighbors, relatives, foreigners, corrupt officials, and invading armies. For most of humanity, simply getting by is an accomplishment, and for this security they will fight against anyone attempting to alter their customs and culture. Yet such arrangements are easily forged and dissolved. The 80-to-20 silhouette of rural-to-urban demographics could have projected who would gain the most in Afghanistan’s September 2009 presidential balloting. The scale of irregularities discovered was so massive as to question whether a “fair” contest could ever be held.

Afghanistan will provide an answer to this question November 7. And as always – especially in countries with un- or under-education populations – the answer will be one that only they can devise.

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