Thursday, May 26, 2005

We're blowing it in Afganistan

Sarah Chayes, a former NPR reporter who has been doing development work in Kandahar since 2002 reports in a NY Times op-ed piece that we're blowing it again — this time in Afganistan.
What most Afghans have complained to me most consistently about is the inexplicable staying power of predatory, corrupt and abusive officials, on both the provincial and national level. Having waited patiently through the emergency loya jirga, or national assembly, in June 2002, the approval of a new constitution at a second loya jirga in December 2003, and the presidential election last fall, Afghans are at a loss as to why the Karzai administration and its American backers repeatedly put their confidence in unqualified and often criminal officials. By blindly allying themselves with some of the most destructive elements of Afghan society (over-armed, under-disciplined thugs), American forces paint themselves in the ugly colors of their Afghan proxies. The extortions, murders, unwarranted searches and unfair monopolies on lucrative work contracts are seen as integral components of American policy.

Somehow, in the three-and-a-half years that the United States has been here, it has not figured out how to avoid this trap. This incapacity for institutional learning is perhaps the most surprising failing on the part of the Army that I have witnessed. Each new contingent starts from scratch; knowledge of local tribal dynamics, geography, customs and personalities painstakingly acquired by the previous unit is never properly transferred. And so the same mistakes are made again and again.

Highhanded American behavior has also contributed fuel for the fire. The 200 to 300 Afghan men who work on the American base in Kandahar, to give a mundane example, wait several hours in the sun to be admitted through increasingly stringent searches. Why not stagger the arrivals of different teams of workers, to ease their discomfort and reduce the target that such a large group of people represents? The contractor Kellogg Brown & Root initially wanted its Afghan laborers on the base to work 12-hour shifts, with a half-hour for lunch and one half-day free a week. Such sweatshop labor practices are unworthy of the values the United States claims to represent. (Afghan workers did succeed in getting the workday reduced to eight hours.)

But inconveniences are one thing, atrocities quite another. On their own, the fatal beatings of probably innocent detainees and the use of religiously based sexual humiliation at the prison on the American base in Bagram would be sufficient pretext for troublemakers to provoke a riot, never mind the Newsweek report about desecration of the Koran.

Such behavior is not only a disgrace but also a serious national security risk. Our safety and survival depend increasingly on our ability to forge profound, cooperative relationships based in mutual comprehension with Muslim peoples. But when the United States can be plausibly depicted, by Pakistani operatives or Muslim extremists, as a country with little regard for the human dignity of Muslims, such friendships founder. The kind of behavior that has been documented in Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib or Bagram presents a gift of inflammable tinder to the very extremists we claim to be fighting.

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