For the first time in the history of this blog, I have opened the floor to someone else besides myself to convey an opinion even if I do not agree with the opinion in full. It may not become a regular habit, but this person offers a sober reflection from the perspective of someone who was on the ground in the Middle East and other parts of the region – in both an official U.S. government capacity and a humanitarian capacity – during the 20-year U.S. led mission. At the request of the author, I have agreed to keep their identity anonymous.
The most that I have been authorized to reveal about the author is that she spent more than a decade living and working in Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia as a diplomat, economist, humanitarian, and international development leader. The author was born and raised as a blue-collar child in New Haven, Connecticut. – Cameron L. Atkinson
On September 11, 2001, I was in my mid-20s and stuck in Logan Airport where the terrorists and their commandeered weapons of mass destruction/airplanes departed earlier that day. It was brutal on a cellular level. We were stuck for hours without a steady supply of news from cellphones, and, at some point, without access to food that didn’t come in a condiment packet. We even lacked usable toilets. I also had friends and colleagues in the Twin Towers and the Pentagon and on the ground in those places. The day was a literal groundswell – an earth shattering, grow-the-fuck-up kind of moment where some people decide who they are and what they want to stand for.
That moment for me – and weeks after – was chaos- inducing in mind, body, and spirit. As someone who long felt a vocation to do good in the world, 9/11 galvanized a call to action in my mind. The call to action was not out of bloodlust or revenge, but out of a curiosity, a sense of human-oneness, and a desire to understand just how the rules of engagement at what seemed like a time of relative global stability could be turned on its head so quickly.
Maybe this sounds eerily familiar as the world considers the events of the past month in Afghanistan some two decades later?
That winter, I contemplated important philosophical questions like, “What in the actual fuck had happened in this far off part of the world?” and “Why America?” I pondered why did I not seem to be finding any answers for how we got here? I also was a young, idealistic, Ivy-league educated, 1st generation, college-graduate, and I thought I might have a role to play in changing the future. Because, of course. That’s who we are. We are a nation of scrappy, special people who go fuck shit up – for the good – but also sometimes, not.
Are we not chosen by destiny somehow because our forefathers and ancestors didn’t die in poverty, oppression, war, disease, or the dangers of escaping those things? We have the best education, technology, geography, people, etc. So if not us, then who?
As a result, I did not enlist in the military. I did not immediately go to do government or aid work. I didn’t become a journalist. I didn’t even protest. I went to graduate school to study economics and diplomacy.
That school was a war college – a neo-conservative finishing school of sorts founded by the elite, disenfranchised, and disillusioned liberals of the post-WWII era who firmly believed that nation building and peace-by-force was a God-given right of the Western culture. It was our ethos. Our inheritance. Our duty. Our destiny.
Clearly, that and the academic rigor worked well for my state-of-thinking at the time and for many others. The school was full of global and diverse progressive liberals, conservative theorists, and the global gods of statecraft and diplomacy that believed – uniformly – that the West had the collective will, resources, and expertise to shape a different future globally – especially in the post-Cold War, post-fall of the Berlin Wall era. Some thought that the tools of choice would be weapons. Some bet on diplomacy or environmental statecraft. Many thought economics and inclusive democracy would be key to building a better world. Others thought all of the above. This wasn’t a political debate. It wasn’t even American-centric. We were practitioners, academics, professionals and military leaders from across the spectrum trying to understand how to build a more peaceful and just world by whatever means necessary.
Then 9/11? That was a set of new world marching orders, and a new opportunity to try out a new brand of Western-led, if not “American” exceptionalism.
A few short years later, I landed in a region on fire. Amman. Istanbul. Basra. Baghdad. Ramallah. Riyadh. Kabul. Kandahar. Wars were well underway. Old and new fights were being (re)ignited. Human suffering was unimaginable and only beginning while profiteering and powerplays seemed to be everywhere.
I served in many different capacities in the decade I was in and out of the Middle East, Turkey and Central Asia – an economist, a diplomat, a humanitarian worker. While helping set up operations for a humanitarian mission in Iraq and evacuating my people, I managed to get out only by the grace of a few U.S. Marines who scooped me off a commercial flight that either had a bomb scare or was about to be commandeered by some armed forces. My colloquial Arabic was only good enough to know that I needed to get the fuck out at whatever cost, or I wasn’t coming back to do any good for anyone. This was in a time of relative peace, no less. I questioned my motivations every day.
I am not a scholar of the region and cannot begin to truly pretend to grasp the history of Afghanistan and Central Asia, nor the Middle East, but, with wars being fought while simultaneously trying to bring humanitarian relief, democracy, and economic development to the battlefield, it felt like a blur of “too much” and “too little too late” even to a young an idealistic American with her new degree and first big girl, international, do-good job.
One thing that struck me in particular was that Afghanistan – at the crossroads of stronger, more economically and ordered places – was a place run by groups of people who had innate understanding of their circumstances and almost nothing to lose by taking some risks. The country had very little by way of universal services or infrastructure. The rule of law was fractious at best. Functioning government, western-style human rights, education, and inclusive economic prosperity (my interest, of course!) were, at best, ancillary to decision-making by warlords, mujahadeen, or most government spokespersons. They were bargaining chips to be used only when it suited the bargainers. And so was their right.
To be clear, no one has ever made the Afghans bend to their will fully– not the Persians, not the Russians, not the Ottomans, not the Chinese, not the British Empire, and now, not the Americans. Porous borders, small tribes, regional economic and cultural centers, and an ability to navigate relationships, trade and transit in a complex and unforgiving geography has been what sustained them. Flexibility. Self-determination. Tribalism.
Further, while we – the U.S. leadership and our weak and half-hearted group of NATO allies – obsessed with all the efforts to stabilize Afghanistan and rebuild it, I could hear the echoes of post-WWII Europe everywhere. Everyone fashioned themselves a Marshall, or an Eisenhower, or a Patton, who was going to root out the evil and rebuild a place of splendor and common purpose and identity based on a just system! Really?
But here is where being a blue-collar, street-raised, child of immigrants and only a few steps removed from a culture run by feudal warlords imported right to America, might have been a useful mindset to consider. It’s one thing to negotiate with family. It’s another to deal with strangers. For all intents and purposes – the rule of law, religion, culture, state of civil society, economic development – Americans and Afghans were not famiglia. They were not even distant cousins. Nor was Afghanistan a version of Japan. It is not protected by clear borders. It is not isolated and has no homogenous population and common history. Not only did it seem that we were trying to negotiate with strangers, but it also seemed that we thought that, after some early military victories, we might actually try to win them over to our ways of being. We did so in a region that offered no examples of regimes that had survived on our ideals. I mean, hadn’t anyone seen the Alexander the Great epic movie? He was married to Afghani royalty and still kind of got his ass handed to him.
Sure, it’s tempting to think of women in miniskirts in Tehran in the 1980s or Ataturk’s Turkey. Butyou know the meme – “how it went” vs. “how it’s going.” It’s not going great. From where I was standing at the time, I could see the Platoon-style, all-or-nothing mentality of when America & friends engaged in War. We were in it to win it in Afghanistan and the Middle East whatever it took, and whoever had the big, bold, badass idea was in charge. It was full hog, so to speak. Everyone was going to get their democracy, their guns, and the right to import Bud Light, wear miniskirts, and enjoy the rule of law, or Uncle Sam was going to go apeshit.
But, sometimes people in these kinds of places know how to wait out that kind of naive excitement and hypocrisy.
What makes America so unique is that we have long believed that we are exceptional. We can do what no others have done because we have done it here. Representational democracy. Rule of law. Economic prosperity. Equality for all. But have we?
I do not want to be flippant. This is not a treatise on the role of the military or their sacrifices. I know many who served with great honor. They had a job, and many did as they were instructed to do and had faith and hope in the mission.
However, as we watch our experiment in democracy be tested and questioned – especially as we waffle on the rights of women and marginalized people, the rise of different forms of radical extremism in our own territory – would we get into an Afghanistan again? If so, would we approach it differently? Each generation seems to bring their own idealism and hypocrisy. We pulled back on military action and turned to doing “good” because that seemed to fit our idea of who we are better than waging longstanding, long-raging war. A war was most likely was a losing proposition if you listened to the folks at the War College, but Americans had been attacked on American soil! Lessons of history be damned! Twenty years later, do we have any choice but to leave after the Doha all but gave the timeline of the withdrawal and a blueprint for the Taliban to plan their offensive?
Approaches that forced statecraft, large nationalized territories, borders that needed protection (usually weak), and some kind of “unified identity” on a people who survived on their flexible identities and alliances – proved to be a fatal flaw for every power that meddled in the Middle East over centuries of human history. We had those lessons before the U.S. even entered into the latest two-decade extension of active warring and reconstruction Even when we had Taliban on the run and Osama Bin Laden was neutralized, it was temporary. Maybe it should have been enough.
Ironically and tragically, we have handed the bones of a modern nation with millions of people to a group of blood-hungry, radicalized, under-educated, ideological, and weaponized band of extremists who never should have had access the investment, organization, and infrastructure that they have been handed. To be fair, this doesn’t feel all that different than some of the dystopian things I hear in this country; but we have resilient systems and a strong system of states’ rights that tempers some of the collective craziness.
The saddest thing here is fate of the Afghan people, especially women, girls, and the western educated who are the victims of this mess. Afghanis are a beautiful patchwork of all humanity – boasting wry humor and resilience in the face of the worst of the worst. This is a reconciliation that we need to make separately. We owe a debt of gratitude to many. They have paid a price that is dear for the “great games” that have been played in that region for too many generations.
It has been a long two decades. I am reminded of two things that keep me grounded. First, the wisdom of great warriors of old (or at least Hollywood). Any American who experienced 9/11 will remember the sage advice of of Vizzini, the charlatan and thief in the classic movie, The Princess Bride, “Never get involved in a land war in Asia.” Truth. I am pretty sure I quoted that in my oral examinations, which I passed with distinction!
And then there is the allegory of Bonasera, the Undertaker who comes to Don Corleone, professing that he “believes in America” and yet seeks traditional justice in the opening scenes of the Godfather, Part I. That story is in part one of an ethnic clan and way of life at war with itself, steeped in blood, honor, religious idolatry, and for which assimilation seemed like an infamnia but also necessary for survival.
Unlike Bonasera, the Taliban does not “believe in America,” and they do not come to us or anyone for justice. We have – like everyone else – always been in their world and have failed to adapt to their rules. If we don’t like their rules and what they foster under that system including fanatical extremism, any show of force – weapons, economic, or otherwise – will only empower and embolden it right now. It’s time that we stop letting our predilection for hubris and exceptionalism by force get in the way of actually doing some good.
I hope things have changed over at the War College some when it comes to thinking about building peace and prosperity around the world Where there is good, there is always bad. Where there is success, there is often failure. We can’t, and we shouldn’t, give up on places like Afghanistan, nor should we dismiss the threat of the Taliban or terrorism. We failed to build a strong military to secure a modern Afghanistan because perhaps it wasn’t anyone’s destiny after all. But this wasn’t all for naught either. We learned both the limits of traditional warcraft and statecraft in Afghanistan and places like it. Rather than turn our backs in shame and regret, we need to consider how we help displaced and at-risk Afghanis like Operation Allies Refugee. They may hold a key to a future nation. We need to continue to develop our understanding and relationships in the region from a less egocentric point of view, form (even uneasy) alliances, and find ways to reach regular Afghanis with opportunities such as technology, innovation, environmental investment, , access to the global economy, and information and education. There will always be the challenges and threats of a more open, more connected world but, if we really want self determination in a place like Afghanistan, then we need to invest in building a fairer playing field and to give people the tools and ability to thrive, escape, or fight for themselves whatever it takes. I have no idea what the new regime holds and just how hard this might be; or how long it might last. I can only hope that someday that the Afghanis and allies who worked so hard these past years to create a peaceful, stable and prosperous Afghanistan organically get what they deserve.