What would Jacques do?
After more than a decade of nation-building in Afghanistan, with at best mixed results, perhaps it is time to take an opposite tack: "deconstructing" that sad land. This would entail some very bold policy shifts, beginning with a willingness to see our very "structures of thought come undone," as Jacques Derrida, the great philosopher of deconstruction, once described the first step in the process. In practical terms, this would mean challenging the guiding notion of democratization that has, thus far, cost us and our allies several thousand casualties and about a trillion dollars — to little effect.
The key to deconstruction is to search out the inherent contradiction that lies at the heart of virtually every strong belief. As another leading theorist of deconstruction, Paul de Man, once put the matter, the central task is to "undo assertions…by means of their very own elements." For example, Derrida thought deeply about Ernest Hemingway’s conclusion, in his Death in the Afternoon, that bullfighting is the ultimate sport. Derrida then formulated a key question, "How often does the bull win?" He concluded that any sport in which one side lost almost every time — for centuries — was no sport at all.
It doesn’t take too much reflection to see that beliefs about Afghanistan fit the deconstructionist pattern of being "undone by their very own elements." Starting from the beginning, there is the belief that Afghanistan is an isolated land filled with xenophobic people. Yet from ancient times, this "land of the high flags," as Zoroaster labeled it, was a crossroads of rich commerce, its peoples drawn from an admixture of Aryans, Chinese, Indians, and Mongols — among others.
Another long-held belief, that Afghanistan is the "graveyard of empires," has been misleading from the beginning. Alexander the Great conquered Afghanistan with a relative handful of troops, and the Greeks stayed for a few centuries. Indeed, "Kandahar" is but a variant of "Alexander." And for many centuries after the adventurous Greeks, outsiders often ruled for long periods. The remarkable work of Boston University anthropologist Thomas Barfield makes quite clear that difficulty in exerting external control over Afghanistan is, in historical terms, a quite recent phenomenon.
Taking the deconstruction process up to the current situation, the single most telling contradiction lies at the heart of the Western "democracy project" in Afghanistan. If I may channel Derrida briefly — he passed away in 2004 — I think he would observe our efforts and ask: "If you are trying to nurture democracy, why is it that you regularly embrace the results of fraudulent elections? If your goal is the emergence of a civic culture, why, after all your efforts, is Afghanistan rated the most corrupt country in the world?"
There are other long-held assertions that seem to come undone by their very own elements as well. One is the idea that peace and security will come to the country from the center in Kabul and spread outward. This belief flies in the face of a long history of decentralized governance, with power widely distributed outward, toward the edges of the society. Even Alexander found it useful to cultivate and develop alliances with local tribes.
Another problem confronts the faith of those who believe staunchly in the "Afghanization" of the military effort to secure the country that has been underway for several years now. A deconstructionist view of this effort would point to the 31 battalions created thus far, and note that only one of them is capable of independent action. So-called insider attacks on allied forces training them would raise deconstructionist eyebrows as well. The overall conclusion Derrida or de Man might reach would be that the whole process is turning Afghans, some of the world’s best natural warriors, into some of the world’s worst soldiers.
There are inherent contradictions in the development process as well. Take, for example, the routine "flipping" of construction contracts — i.e., the winning bidder on a particular project sometimes simply takes a cut off the top and passes on what’s left to a party willing to do the job for less. There are known cases of several flips on a single contract, leading to the paving of roads that wash away with the first hard rain. And when projects are completed and things actually do work, as with electrification efforts and improved cell phone connectivity, the dams and towers that provide these social goods are often held hostage and "taxed" by the Taliban. "Pay up or we’ll blow them up."
Deconstructing Afghanistan in this fashion performs the kind of service that Derrida sought to provide with his concept: it improves the clarity of vision and deepens understanding of the daunting challenges that bedevil almost all meaningful endeavors. In this instance, the deconstruction process should lead to a willingness to question and debate the strategy to be pursued as the Afghan endgame unfolds.
Just how might strategy change? Recognition that the democracy project in Afghanistan has fallen prey to cronyism and corruption might lead to an extra effort to ensure the integrity of elections in 2014 — and to abide by their honestly derived results. Understanding that centralized power will be resisted might lead to a willingness to rely more heavily upon provincial actors around the country to provide security — much as was the case during the peaceful 40-year "rule" of Zahir Shah, Afghanistan’s revered last king. Indeed, his fall ushered in the current 40 years of political strife and war that have been visited upon Afghanistan. At the great jirga of 2002, after the Taliban were driven from power, leaders from around the country called for the return of Zahir Shah — but we insisted on democracy, not monarchy.
In terms of the final strategic military question the West faces — how many troops, if any, to leave behind after 2014 — deconstructionist thought would almost certainly embrace the point that "surges" of soldiers have done little to improve the situation. Paradoxically, a small military presence, closely linked to Afghan tribal forces operating from the edges, will likely do far better than the big battalions.
Were Jacques Derrida still with us, he would no doubt find Afghanistan a fertile vineyard in which deconstructionists could toil. For those of us who see the value of analyzing matters using his methods, there is even more: a chance to correct costly errors and avert a looming debacle. But this will only happen with the emergence of a willingness to see the many fatal contradictions in our core beliefs about Afghanistan — and about the Western role there as well.
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