DUBAI, UAE -- I was on my way to Afghanistan and have delayed the final leg of the trip a day to see whether being American is compatible with not getting blown up. The problem seems to be that, in addition to the U.S. military occupying the country for almost a decade and routinely murdering random innocent people, some bigoted jerk in Florida is creating a big stink about how much he hates Islam and enjoys burning copies of the Koran.
The Koran-burning preacher claims that he's just burned a book, not killed anyone. Of course, nothing excuses those who actually engage in killing, no matter what inspired their rage. But the preacher hasn't just burned a book. He's preached hatred. He's added deep insult to injury. The results were predictable, or at the very least are predictable now, while he shows no sign of relenting.
I'm trying to visit Afghanistan for friendship and peace, at the invitation of American and Afghan nonviolent peace activists -- the trip organized by Voices for Creative Nonviolence. I flew to Dubai from Washington on a huge plane. A significant percentage of the passengers were U.S. military or mercenaries, headed to Afghanistan or Western Asia (the "Middle East") for war and a paycheck, many of them at great cost to their family life -- being separated for long periods from spouses and kids back home. Our flight was probably less a "civilian" form of transport than the Lusitania. Yet, thankfully, nobody shot us down as we flew over a number of countries notable for the absence of any "no fly" zone.
The flight took over a day, began in the dark, saw daylight come and go, and landed in the dark. I slept part way, woke up, flipped on the flight-path map and noticed we were just over Nuremberg. If I could pick one place for words not to have been spoken in hypocritical pretense, that would be it. We headed further east than I'd been before, over the Czech Republic, just north of Vienna, into Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, over the Black Sea, and Turkey. We passed just east of Syria as we headed south over Iraq, down between the Tigris and Euphrates, and down the Persian Gulf, past Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain. Reports that the United States agreed to let Saudi Arabia attack the people of Bahrain in order to gain its support for a "humanitarian" bombing mission in Libya, take hypocrisy to new heights. One has to wonder whether Americans would stand for so many anti-humanitarian missions were the people involved not Muslims.
I read a couple of books on the plane, one being Joshua Foust's "Afghan Journal: Selections from Registan.net," a book of recent blog posts by a U.S. military contractor from my home town of Charlottesville, Va. Foust is a good dissector of the military's ongoing state of SNAFU, but his solution is to do wars better, not to end them. He dreams of "counter-insurgency" someday working, while I dream of the U.S. military someday leaving other people's countries. I believe my dream to be far less extravagant than Foust's.
Foust blames bureaucracy, or what is commonly called "big government," for the failure of what cannot work. It is not the number of fobbits (permanent bureaucratic residents of Forward Operating Bases) that is leading to eternal failure; it's the fact that the bases are in a country that does not want them and will not tolerate them. The most that a more COINy (counter-insurgency, winning hearts and minds) approach could achieve would be awareness of the futility, if not the immorality, of the war by more members of the U.S. military.
Foust also wants the prevention of U.S. military casualties downgraded from top-priority to a secondary concern, with the accomplishment of some sort of mission being made the primary objective of the war. But there is no reason to believe this would accomplish anything. At best it would persuade Americans to stop the war. At worst it would kill more people on both sides without ending the occupation.
Foust thinks the United States should get out of Kunar and Nuristan, but only because those areas are too hard to control. He describes Christian missionaries going to work there and says he's half-inclined to join them. This is someone offering advice on the conduct of the war who clearly sees nothing wrong with going into people's territory in order to change their religion to a different one. In fact, this seems consistent with his, and the U.S. military's, desire for a smarter COIN war. He wants to get to know the locals in order to change them, control them, and accomplish the mission (whatever that is). This is different from wanting to discover what people want even if what they want is to be left alone.
A local TV station in Charlottesville reported on my planned trip to Afghanistan, and one of the comments posted on its website urged Christian missionaries to stop hassling Americans and go over to Afghanistan to convert the Muslims. It occurs to me that I am not on a trip from a secular place to a religious one, but from a mostly religious place to another mostly religious (if very different) place. Former celebrities in the United States associate Islam with homosexuality, which they condemn. Current presidential candidates in the United States associate Islam with atheism, which they condemn. Can this have nothing to do with the arrogant colonial approach the U.S. military takes toward the Afghan people?
Foust is a good critic of that eternally failing approach. He thinks locally chosen leaders would bring more peace and prosperity in Helmand Province than U.S. puppets. But what makes him think peace and prosperity are the goals of the U.S. government? They clearly are not at home; why would Afghanistan be any different? Of course, a mission is going to look grossly incompetent if you've accepted propaganda about what the goals are. Foust thinks the U.S. plan is to leave Afghanistan someday. He thinks it would make obvious sense for Iran to oppose the Taliban but support the US occupation. And his vision of how long this madness will continue is apparent in the fact that he believes U.S. mistakes have lost Helmand for "at least another generation." I expect the graveyard of empires will have done its work by then.
The most encouraging section of Foust's book, I found, was about Kapisa, a model of success in the Afghan war, or something like that, despite repeated failures. Encouraging is that success there runs up against nonviolent resistance in the form of public protest, not violent attacks. That's the approach I hope to learn about if I make my way to Afghanistan in the next day or so. With the forests destroyed, migratory birds reportedly do not visit Afghanistan anymore, but airplanes do. The airplanes, however, are full of mercenaries. In the meantime, here I sit, near Erik Prince's new home.
The trip from Dubai to Afghanistan is probably similar to an elevator trip from a penthouse to the street in Manhattan, or perhaps from a private luxury space station to the depths of hell. If I could bring a little fraction of the wealth in which Dubai is rolling on the plane with me and let Afghans -- not foreigners -- put it to use as they saw fit, I'm guessing more would be accomplished than any kinder and gentler war strategy will ever produce.