Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A personal take on the Afghan War

As most of you on this blog know, I’m Indian by descent. A very Westernized and deracinated Indian, of course: I was born in the United States, raised in a family that spoke English far better than they spoke any Indian language, and without much Indian culture in an obvious sense. I never formally learned any Tamil, for one thing, though the ‘sound’ and ‘feel’ of the language is familiar to me and I can understand a little; nor was I raised a Hindu, nor was I deeply educated in Indian history. Nevertheless, my descent and my cultural roots sometimes have an effect on me, I think, in subtle ways that I might not be able to perceive at the time.

I was around 20 when the United States army entered Afghanistan, in response to the terrorist attack on New York, and began the long and bitter war that has occupied us for most of the last decade. I had just begun another semester at college when the call came from my mother at eight thirty or so in the morning, that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. It was just two days after the Lion of the Panjsher, Ahmed Shah Massoud, had been murdered by two Taliban agents posing as reporters, which gave the green light to Osama bin Laden to order the attacks on America, and thus to begin what many have already started referring to as the Third World War.

My reactions to that horrible day were probably the same as most Americans’ and I won’t belabour them here. When the United States went to war with Afghanistan, two months later, however, I found myself at odds with much of the undergraduate student community, and I’m still at odds with much of America’s youth today: and perhaps more interestingly, I found myself at odds- in a curious and strange way- with what I had previously believed. I’ve always, since I became old enough to read about politics and history, been bitterly opposed to most American foreign policy over the last two centuries. The Second World War, of course, was a noble cause to end all noble causes, and so was the Civil War: but our post-WW II history, and much of our dealings with our southern neighbours in the previous century, filled me with loathing or disgust. I saw- and I still do see- most of our Cold War policies in places like Vietnam, Greece, and Latin America as blatant and ugly power-plays, meant to defend the interests of the rich and powerful, and I was as incensed and ashamed by the United States interventions in Nicaragua or the Dominican Republic as by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Perhaps more so, since it was my country that had done them. I was deeply disgusted by America’s conduct during the Cold War, and almost equally so by the foreign policy of our first post-COld War president, the insufferably smarmy and sleazy Bill Clinton. Clinton put a liberal face on the quest for American hegemony, just as Reagan had put a conservative face on it, but I saw them as two heads of the same rotten coin, and I saw American power and international hegemony as ugly things, the sooner ended the better. Clinton’s intervention in Ecuador in 2000, to suppress a revolution there, struck me as just more of the same, nor was I particularly sympathetic to his interventions in Yugoslavia, or his support for globalized capitalism. If someone had told me in 1999 that within two years the basically soulless, meaningless and self-centered culture of late twentieth century America was to be ended, I would have been all for it.

Well, it ended, though not in a way any of us could have hoped for, or even foreseen. I did have a premonition that something terrible was going to happen: when my best friend at the time graduated in the summer of 2001 I remember walking with him around Boston, on a cool spring night, talking about this and that. I had just read St. Augustine’s ‘City of God’, as well as the Apocalypse of St. John, and though I wasn’t then a Christian, I was very struck by both of them; I had also taken a class on medieval Europe, and was struck by the similarities between Rome in its heyday, and America in our time. I said to my friend that I had a sense that something was about to break- this was in August 2001- and that soon America would face a calamity akin to that which Rome had faced in the fifth century, when Alaric and his Goths stood at the gates of the City on Seven Hills.

When the World Trade Center fell, and it became clear that the bearded villain in Afghanistan, who had previously run drug farms in the Sudan with the labour of Ugandan slave children, was responsible, my longstanding hostility and distrust of American capitalism and imperialism took a back seat. I am still as anti-capitalist as I ever have been, of course: but I began to feel, in the fall of 2001, that as much as I sympathized with the enemies of globalized capitalism in Latin America and in the Slavic world, the primary fight in our time wasn’t against capitalism. Not any more. In the 1960s it had been, just as it was against Fascism in the 1930s and against Stalin in the 1950s: but today it was, first and foremost, against the barbarians at the gates, the prophets of a new Caliphate, who would enslave us to the words of an epileptic camel driver, and drown the world in blood to do so. I got into some heated arguments in the fall of 2001, because in contrast to the generally pacifist sentiments on many college campuses, I was all for war with Afghanistan. I was driven largely by a mixture of fear and outrage, and I wanted the Taliban and their allies to pay for what they had done to us.

But there’s something more to it, I think. As I mentioned, I’m Indian by descent, though a fairly deracinated one: and to Indians, however deracinated or Westernized they may be, Afghanistan- the name itself- means something different than it means to most Americans. To most Americans, at least prior to 2001, Afghanistan was just a remote place with a funny sounding name: someplace impossibly far away. That was the genius- to Reagan’s mind and those of his allies- of funding the Mujahideen. They were on Russia’s doorstep, not ours: they were impossibly far away from ours. Whatever nasty elements might exist within the heart of Pashtun militancy, they weren’t our problem.

Of course, they were on India’s doorstep too, and there’s the rub. Throughout Indian history, for at least a thousand years, the name ‘Afghanistan’ has had a deep and chilling resonance. It means something like what ‘Assyria’ connoted to the Biblical Jews, or what ‘Norway’ connoted to European peasants of the tenth century. Afghanistan was a hidden, obscure land beyond the Khyber, veiled in the snow and clouds that form around the peaks of the mountains, full of green pastures and dry valleys: it was known for many things, including its apples, its almonds, its sheep and goats. But most of all it was known for one thing, that came out of Afghanistan with depressing regularity: vast hordes of men on horseback, heavily armed and deeply skilled in the arts of war, brimming with self-confidence and with the conviction that they, the descendants of the Tribes of Israel and the carriers of the banners of Allah the One, were entitled by right to all the land, gold, and political power that they could seize.

As it turned out, they could seize a hell of a lot. I don’t know a hell of a lot about the history of pre-Islamic Afghanistan, but I do know that beginning in the tenth century, when the new faith spread from the deserts of Arabia to the shepherds’ villages and almond groves of the Pashtunwali, the Pashtun- they are the dominant group in Afghanistan, and traditionally the two names were synonymous- they aquired a new driving spirit and thirst for conquest. No longer were they merely motivated by the lust for power and for gold: now, like the Spanish Conquistadores, they were motivated by the desire to spread the One True Faith, and to smack down the Hindu idolators. In wave after wave they came, one Afghan dynasty after another: often with one Afghan king supplanting another, and establishing a new dynasty: as the Ghor family overthrew the Ghaznavids, as the Slave Dynasty overthrew the Ghorids, as Babur of Kabul overthrew the previous Lodi dynasty, also of Afghan origin, that had held the City of Delhi. Over the fertile plains of the Gangetic Basin they established their power, and from the point of view of the long-suffering peasantry of the northern Indian plains, who struggled each year to raise enough wheat, rice and lentils to survive and pay their taxes, they brought a long dark night of tyranny. The stories of the Muslim invaders’ depredations became legion, and passed from the realm of history into that of folklore. You can read today the legends of Muhammed of Ghor, who was chivalrously released by his Rajput enemy Prithviraj, and repaid that chivalry by coming back in greater force, capturing Prithviraj, and gouging out his eyes. You can read the history of Muhammed of Ghazni, who slaughtered fifty thousand unarmed pilgrims at the temple of Somnath, so that the rivers ran red with blood and the water was undrinkable. You can read the memoirs of Tamerlane, Emir of Samarkand, who boasted of building a pyramid of human skulls outside Delhi, in the name of the One True God. You can read of how temples were razed to the ground and mosques built on their ruins, including by Babur himself. You can read of the mad Sultan Muhammed bin Tughluq of Delhi, who arbitrarily moved the capital from Delhi to Daulatabad and from Daulatabad back to Delhi two years later, causing immense death from thirst and famine both times. You can read of the opium-addicted, orgiastic Nawabs of Lucknow, and the fantastically kleptocratic Nizams of Hyderabad, both of whom initially won power in the name of the Mughal Emperors of Babur’s line. You can read of the massacres of Sikhs and Hindus, of the martyrdom of the Sikh Guru Arjun, who was roasted alive on a hot plate on the orders of the Mughal: of the usury with which the Afghans, Mughals, and other invaders exploited the peasantry: of how the poor were worked to death to profit the merchant and the moneylender. All this, and more, was the legacy of the invasions from beyond the mountains.

For the better part of a millennium the invasions came, again and again. One after another native Indian power, each of different cultural and ethnic origins, rose up to establish itself in the northwest of India, and each time they were forced to resist Afghan incursions and win the independence of their motherland. The Jats, the Chauhans, the Rajputs, the Marathas, one after another, fought to push back Afghan expansionism: sometimes ending in success, sometimes in defeat. Towards the closing days of the eighteenth century, an eighteen year old boy succeeded to the baronetcy of his late father in a small Punjabi fiefdom, and would eventually become the man who would resist the Afghan imperialism more successfully than any Indian leader ever had. This youth- handsome, self-confident, beloved by beautiful women, a brilliant military leader and a fearless knight, respected by his Afghan and British rivals as much as by his own people- was Ranjit Singh, the Misldar of Sukerchakia, and who was later to become (at the age of twenty) Maharaja of the Punjab.

The Sikhs, of which Ranjit Singh was one, were a minority in their own homeland of the Punjab, which was majority Muslim and had many Hindus as well. They had sat out the last series of wars, between the Afghans and the Maratha confederacy, waiting to see who would win, and when the Afghans won, it became clear that the next great rivalry would be between Sikhs and Afghans. In the event, Ranjit Singh unified most of the western Punjab, and defeated the Afghans, who a half century earlier had destroyed and defiled the Golden Temple, the holiest citadel of the Sikh faith. He drove them back to the borders of what would later become the Northwest Frontier, won back Kashmir from them, and for the first time seized part of the Pashtun homeland, the border city of Peshawar. (This might not have been such a good idea: when the British conquered his empire in 1849 they were stuck with the border he had established, and that’s why the Pashtuns today are divided between Pakistan and Afghanistan, which has promoted destabilizing irredentist sentiment). Ranjit was famed throughout India, and is well spoken of today, not merely for his military prowess and the economic growth of the Punjab, but for his tolerance and ecumenicism. This was, after all, a Sikh king aided by a largely Hindu intellectual class, ruling over a mostly Muslim population, using Persian as their court language, and aided by British, American and Italian advisers. Unusually for the time, there was no religious persecution, nor forced conversion, nor discrimination under Ranjit’s rule.

No good ruler lasts forever, of course, and when they shuffle off the mortal coil there always comes the problem of succession. The Sikh Empire was a big prize: it contained some of India’s most fertile farmland, and stretched from the peaks of Tibet to the marches of Afghanistan, including what is now Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh as well as the western Indian Punjab and northern Pakistan (the easternmost parts of the Punjab were in the process of being absorbed into the British Empire). It had an immensely powerful army of sixty thousand, well trained and well armed, self governed by elected soldier’s councils, conscious of its own power; that army had fought the Chinese Empire to a standstill in Tibet, had successfully invaded the Afghan homeland, and not even the British wanted to mess with it. They had originated as a religious order, formed to resist Muslim persecution, and were inspired by religious fervor and the chivalric ethos as much as the Knights of the Crusades had been: their very name, ‘Khalsa’, meant “the Pure”, and was steeped in mystical meaning. Factional fighting ensued between various pretenders to the throne when Ranjit Singh died in 1839, none of whom lived long (the second successor, Nau Nihal Singh, reputedly died when a building suspiciously collapsed on him, and another queen was murdered in her bath). In 1845 the British went to war with the Sikh Army under the boy king Dalip Singh and his mother, Regent Jind Kaur (whose own drug-addicted brother had been assassinated by the army the previous year): they were outgunned and outnumbered, and some contend (I don’t know how accurately) that the British only won because the Sikh military commanders, distrustful of their own army, decided to turn traitor. The British took over part of the Sikh empire in that war, includeing the northern fastnesses of Kashmir, and in 1849 after the second Anglo-Sikh war, took over the rest: and they integrated the Sikh military into their own colonial army, to make a fearsome and powerful military force, that would stand loyal to the Crown in the rebellion of 1857 and, among others, help ensure the rebellion’s defeat.

The British were the next power to try intervening in Afghanistan: they had done so first in 1839, around the time Ranjit Singh died and the Punjab began sliding into disorder. They entered Afghanistan with an expeditionary army, to secure the country against Russian influence and prop up the unpopular Shuja Shah, and sat in Kabul for two years while the country became increasingly hostile to them, and as their own political agents were assassinated: in 1842 they left, and out of a party of over 15,000 British and Indian men, women and children, only a single survivor, the doctor, made it back to India. All the rest were either killed by Afghan tribal raids, or died from cold and the hardship of the journey. The British would fight two more wars against Afghanistan, but the country would resolutely maintain its independence: in 1979 the Soviets would try their hand, doing in the name of Socialism what the British had done in the name of capitalism and the Sikhs had done in the name of their faith, and again, like the British and Sikhs before them, would find Afghanistan too tough a nut to swallow.

This is the history between Afghanistan and India: a history of well-justified fear and resentment, on the part of India, towards their neighbour to the northwest. Perhaps this history plays a part in the way I have felt about the Afghan War since 2001. On the day that Osama bin Laden’s death was announced, I acted like I was happy since it seemed the thing to do: a wicked man had paid for his crimes. But in truth, I wasn’t sure what to think. It made me realise that at some level, my support for the Afghan war might have been tied into some deep, hidden sense of ethnic nationalism, and resentment over the fact that for a thousand years, people who looked like me had been oppressed, invaded and murdered by the Afghans. Afghanistan was the ancient enemy, for India far more than for America, and as someone with cultural roots in India, perhaps at some deep, subconscious level I saw in the Afghan war an opportunity for a great and final retribution for a thousand years of invasion and tyranny, for the Hammer of the Lord, held in the hand of a rather stupid and incurious businessman-politician from Texas, to descend upon the heirs of Ghazni and Durrani, and an opportunity to finally and permanently pacify the Pashtun nation, and rule over it until the last vestiges of extremism and militarism had been burned out, the same way that they were burned out of Japan and Germany. I think I hoped that the defeat of Afghanistan and the Pashtun would be as final, as total, and as terrible as the defeat of Japan or of Germany, and that out of the American occupation would come a total transformation of the Pashtun culture into something as innocuous and milquetoast as Japanese culture today. This, the pacification of the Pashtun nation, was a sacred duty, something we simply could not escape, and even if it took America fifty years, or a hundred, it would be worth it if the threat to India- which now took the form of an ideological, religious and terroristic threat rather than a military threat- could be ended. All my burblings over the last ten years about the existential threat of Jihadic Caliphates, all the comparisons of the Taliban to the Vikings and the Visigoths, all the dire warnings about women getting their noses chopped off: maybe this is what was always at their heart. And then again, maybe not. Psychological motivations are difficult to tease apart, especially when they’re youre own.

On a rational level, of course, I know this is nonsense. Cultures simply don’t change that easily, and why would I assume that America could succeed in doing what the Persians, the Sikhs, the British, and the Russians couldn’t do? Evil, too, is in the long run indestructible, because as long as humans have free will, evil is always a possibility: it will never be possible to eliminate the threat of your neighbors deciding to go to war with you, because the will to power, and the temptations thereof, is an inescapable result of original sin. And finally, on a moral level, the atrocities the American Government has committed in Afghanistan- destroying wedding parties with drone strikes, razing the countryside, holding people for years without trial, torture- are unacceptable, no matter what we hope to gain by them. As evil as the Taliban are, and as boundless a rage I feel against the history of Afghanistan, and as critical my feelings about Islamic doctrine and about Jihadism in particular, that we are fighting a wicked enemy does not leave us exempt from the moral law. “Ye shall not do evil that good may come of it”, said St. Paul to the Romans, and if that applies to anything, it certainly applies to bombing a wedding party in the belief that there MIGHT be a terrorist in the vicinity. As well as torturing suspects to death, which we have done, too.

On a rational and moral level, I know these things. But of course, a lot of this isn’t decided on a rational or moral level at all, but on an emotional one. I’ve come to realise, I think, why St. Paul says that “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord, and I will repay,” when he counsels Christians against trying to seek revenge. The thirst for retribution is a natural one, and not inherently a bad thing: justice demands that people be rewarded for doing good and punished for doing evil. But retribution needs to be limited by the laws of justice, and of mercy, and of love, and needs to be their servant, not their master. Because if we separate the idea of retribution from the broader context of justice and mercy, it becomes an insatiable lust that can never be satisfied. How do you avenge a thousand years of tyranny, after all? Is it over when Osama dies, and can we then say ‘That’s enough, the debt has been paid?’ How would we possibly know? How could the Greeks be ‘paid back’ for the four centuries they suffered under Turkish rule? Was the Megali Idea a fair way to pay back the Turks? Who knows?

Any subordinate love, when we separate it from the broader context of our love for our neighbour and for God, can become, not a goddess, but a demon. This is true of the love of justice, as much as of anything else. Wanting to see the guilty pay is perfectly understandable, but we always need to limit that desire, to constrain it by the general requirements of morality, and especially by the desire to seek our neighbour’s good as well as our own. Because the danger of wanting payback, by itself, is that it’s a lust which just keeps on growing, an itch that gets more itchy the more you scratch it. Osama is dead, and he has paid for his crimes, which is a very good thing. But I’m not sure that I really feel any less resentful over the sack of Amritsar or the massacre at Somnath than I did before. It’s like I ate a sweet dessert and I’m totally unsatisfied, and feel like I didn’t eat anything at all. Maybe the thirst for payback is actually something dangerously addictive, and perhaps that’s part of the reason that St. Paul counsels so strongly against it, as does Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount.

I have no suggestions about whether we should stay in Afghanistan or not. Nor do I promise that I won’t revisit this post in a few days and disagree with what I have just written. Much of our political thought, I think, comes down to our mood on a given day. But right now I’m in a reflective mood, and this is my thought for the day: that perhaps, before we think about what we want as the endgame in Afghanistan, we should pause and re-assess our own motivations