A Passage to Kabul
A recent reading of E.M. Forster’s novel, A Passage to India, prompted me to reflect on the West’s drawn out engagement in Afghanistan. The centerpiece of this prescient narrative is an incident in an ancient cave in Northwestern India between an Indian doctor and an English woman during the heyday of the British Raj. The alleged assault of an English woman by a ‘native’ doctor raises tensions among the community of Anglo-Indians, Hindus and Muslims, exposing the inherent racism and bigotry that accompanied Britain’s ‘benign’ imperialism in India.
The smothering void of the cave reflects the failings of the British mission to civilize the country; no matter what noise visitors make, one echo is monotonously identical to the next: “The echo in a Marabar cave is not like these; it is entirely devoid of distinction. Whatever is said, the same monotonous noise replies and quivers up and down the walls until it is absorbed into the roof. Boum is the sound as far as the human alphabet can express it, or bou-oum, or ou-boum – utterly dull. Hope, politeness, the blowing of a nose, the squeak of a boot, all produce boum.”
‘Boum’ is what’s currently echoing in Afghanistan. In the novel, ‘boum’ also serves as an allegory to illustrate the gap between the Indians and British and the innate misunderstanding that the unequal interaction between imperialist and native produces.
In Afghanistan, ‘boum’— after 10 years of war — is an illustration of the piecemeal progress that has been made in the country; the Western voices only have produced a monotonous echo, which in many parts of the country barely is noticeable. ‘Boum’ is also the echo of a foreign imposed alien form of government held together by foreign experts, advisors, and a foreign army.
Yet, “generalizations are by definition wrong in Afghanistan,” I was told by a colonel working at ISAF headquarters in my recent visit to Kabul. “There is no black and white in the country. Just shades of gray. It all depends what gray tone you define as victory!” From a macro perspective, victory is far off. Afghanistan today is the third most corrupt country in the world. There are more than 435.000 internally displaced people, according to UNHCR reports. Around 3.2 million Afghans are food insecure.
The UN Development Index ranks Afghanistan number 159 out of 165 countries. As of 2011, 3.1 million Afghans still live in exile – mostly in Iran and Pakistan. A World Bank report states that accumulative foreign aid for the year 2010-2011 accounted for 91 percent of the Gross National Product of the country. By 2014, NATO will have withdrawn most of its combat troops. Many aid organizations and Afghans fear this will lead to a simultaneous reduction in foreign aid. The United States already has reduced its 2011 budget from a 2010 level of $4.2 billion to $2.5 billion. Other nations will follow suit.
For example, the European Union has spent around $12 billion on development cooperation with Afghanistan since 2002. I spoke with the EU’s Ambassador to Afghanistan, Vygaudas Usackas, who asserted that the European Union will commit resources to Afghanistan beyond 2014. “The European Union agreed to begin negotiations over a comprehensive partnership agreement going beyond 2014. This is a serious step and should illustrate the long-term commitment of the EU to peace and stability in Afghanistan. We cannot repeat the mistakes of 1989 and 1993!”
Usackas hopes for pledges of a strong long-term commitment of the international community at the Bonn conference on Afghanistan this week; however, he frankly stated that we will more likely see a reduced flow of foreign aid to the country.
In many ways, the West has recreated colonial society in Afghanistan—the introduction of a new elite, the unavoidable side product of western military intervention and foreign aid thrown at a very traditional underdeveloped country, and the maintenance of law and order by foreign troops. We have created an army of consultants and advisors in the various ministries and agencies of the Afghan government. Go to any foreign guest house in Kabul, and one can overhear the conversations of Western advisors—the successors of the ‘politicals,’ the official British advisors to the Native States during the Raj—expressing their frustration with the slow moving Afghan bureaucracy and Afghan idiosyncrasies.
Like British colonial society, there is a strict divide between foreigners and Afghans socially. “In any town in India, the European Club is the spiritual citadel, the real seat of the British power, the Nirvana for which native officials and millionaires pine in vain,” writes George Orwell in his novel Burmese Days: A Novel. The equivalent to the ‘club’ is the secured guest house or Western residence in Kabul, filled with Afghan guards, cooks, and laundresses. The only Afghan guests in these residences are the wealthier and Western-educated urban populus. In Passage to India, the main protagonist’s wish is to “see the real India.” Seeing the ‘real Afghanistan’ is difficult, if not impossible, given the current security situation.
Ultimately, the West’s presence in Afghanistan—like the British presence in India—is built on force. The majority of aid organizations and diplomats work under the umbrella of the U.S. lead coalition and NATO. Although Western aid workers would not openly admit it, success and failure in Afghanistan is linked inextricably to success on the field of battle. The Taliban will not be as likely to allow NGO’s to settle in their territory as in 2001. According to the aid community, one of the reasons is that NATO forces often use humanitarian aid to achieve military objectives, making aid workers just as legitimate of a target as soldiers for the insurgents.
Forster cautions that the military “soldiers put one thing straight, but leave a dozen others crooked…” In a sense, we have revised the old army of the Raj under the guise of Joint U.S.-Afghan forces. Similar to the Anglo-Indian Army, the Afghan Army is primarily an infantry organization. Most support arms are still in the hands of NATO because the war is primarily an infantryman’s war like the famed campaigns of the Raj’s army in the North West Frontier Province around the turn of the last century.
The U.S. has currently 100.000 troops stationed in Afghanistan. 33.000 will withdraw by the summer of 2012; the rest by 2014. “All our operations are based on the premise that they have to be ‘Afghan sustainable,’ i.e., Afghan forces have to be able to operate independently once we leave,” said Major Joseph Buccino of the 172 Infantry Brigade stationed in Paktika Province. Lt. Col. Curtis D. Taylor, commander of the brigade’s Task Force 3-66 in western Paktika, sums up this sentiment with his official mantra: “Our legacy is defined by the Afghan forces that we leave behind.”
Hekmat Karzai, head of the Center for Conflict and Peace Studies in Kabul, said that an early departure of U.S. troops could undermine the fragile political progress achieved. At the same time, he argues that “counterinsurgency has not been implemented properly in parts of the country. Instead of focusing 80 percent on the political and 20 percent on the military side of the problem, the West has focused 90 percent of its efforts on the military. The U.S. heavy-handedness and cultural insensitivity (e.g. night raids on Afghan homes) have turned many Afghans against them.” Winning the hearts and minds of Afghans might not be achievable, not because we have only two years left, but perhaps because we have been there already for far too long.
In India, departure of the British and the subsequent partition of India displaced around 13 million people and killed hundreds of thousands. While, the West’s withdrawal from Afghanistan will not, in all likelihood, have as severe consequences, prolonging a tenuous and awkward occupation in this foreign land is a fraught dalliance. Forster’s acquitted Indian doctor warns a British friend. “Clear out, you fellows, double quick I say. We may hate one another, but we may hate you most.”