Mission of Ignorance

Thursday, September 24th, 2009

Right up there with “our mission,” in the pantheon of sacred foreign policy mumbo-jumbo, is “training Afghan security forces,” that endless, multibillion-dollar prerequisite for our departure from the country.

We’ve been training a local army and police force for eight years now to take on the good and noble task of defending U.S. interests. Yet: “What is there to show for all this remarkably expensive training?” writes Ann Jones at TomDispatch. “Although in Washington they may talk about the 90,000 soldiers in the Afghan National Army, no one has reported actually seeing such an army anywhere in Afghanistan. . . .

“My educated guess is that such an army simply does not exist.”

The implications of this possibility — that we’re kidding ourselves, lying to ourselves, hemorrhaging our national treasury on pie-in-the-sky strategic objectives — are so troubling that we’ll never face them as a nation until every last avenue of denial has been exhausted. I fear we’ve still got a long way to go in this regard.

Early in the game, the Bush White House actually boasted that it was no longer fettered by reality. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality,” an unnamed White House spokesman famously crowed. The “Afghan army” is one of the results of this hubris-that-passeth-all-understanding — this attempt to turn desperate Afghan men into junior American warriors.

Jones writes of visiting training fields near Kabul, where Illinois National Guardsmen — “big, strong, camouflaged, combat-booted, supersized American men” — put Afghan trainees through the paces. “Keep in mind,” she writes, “Afghan recruits come from a world of desperate poverty. They are almost uniformly malnourished and underweight. Many are no bigger than I am (5-feet-4 and thin) — and some probably not much stronger. Like me, many sag under the weight of a standard-issue flak jacket.”

Keep in mind also, she notes, that the Afghans have a warrior tradition. They defeated the Soviets 20 years ago; free of the massive weight of the equipment and ammo U.S. soldiers carry, they can traverse the mountainous terrain of their own land with ease and efficiency. The Taliban, of course, fight within this tradition now, with great success, but no matter: “The U.S. military is determined to train (the Afghan recruits) for another style of war.”

What happens, she says, is that the poor Afghans, who can get no other work, sign up for military training, become certified as soldiers, desert, then sign up for the training again under different names. Taliban members also take the training, then use the skills they learned against U.S. and NATO forces.

And, oh yeah: “When I visited bases and training grounds in July,” Jones writes, “I heard some American trainers describe their Afghan trainees in the same racist terms once applied to African slaves in the U.S.: lazy, irresponsible, stupid, childish, and so on.”

Well, hmm. Some kind of American vision has come to fruition here, and it is all too familiar. The Bush-era neocons who were creating their own reality were merely remaking portions of the Middle East and Central Asia along the established, culturally obtuse lines of the colonialism of yesteryear, pumped up with American pop-culture machismo in the style of Rambo and G.I. Joe.

Our “mission” in Afghanistan is a potent blend of arrogance, ignorance and power, and the pretend army we keep creating, over and over, out of the malnourished and dispossessed locals, is an example of the dysfunctional society such a mission inevitably births. It’s what a different generation of war criminals birthed in Vietnam.

And we are not yet at the stage of reflecting and regrouping. The Obama administration, despite its mandate to dismantle the Bush era and reel in the neocon arrogance the previous administration loosed on the world, is pursuing the flawed vision it inherited. We continue to stomp across Central Asia with utter ignorance of the culture and people we purport to be liberating, bringing with us the worst of who we are. We have absolute faith in our latter-day manifest destiny and the three-word religion that sustains it: Might make right.

Such a religion is also called the myth of redemptive violence. It is history’s oldest, simplest, most pervasive myth, and its influence is stronger than ever among the American ruling class, having embedded itself in the war economy to which this class is beholden. Humanitarian aid? Food? Health care? No way. These are not part of the myth.

They may be common sense to an adult, but as theologian Walter Wink writes: “There is no rite of passage from adolescent to adult status in the national cult of violence.”