Saturday, October 31, 2009

Rule of Law?

A headline in the most recent Christian Science Monitor (CSM, 11/1/09) suggested the following line of thought. The headline says “Afghan election chaos may boost rule of law.”

The strict meaning of that phrase is that the laws have universal applicability to all people under it, thus not just the ordinary people but also the wealthy, the powerful, and the ruler himself. The author’s premise is that American pressure to roll back a fraudulent election teaches Hamid Karzai that the laws of Afghanistan (they forbid ballot stuffing) apply to him as well. Nice try, CSM. The article attributes the nullification of the recent election to two internal election bodies and “the world’s elder statesmen.” I don’t really think that the media should serve the public baby food, and the use of phrasing like “elder statesmen” suggests something far removed from reality. When someone says “the world’s elder statesmen,” I picture Jimmy Carter and other revered but powerless individuals. This election was overturned because the U.S. government signaled to Karzai that it would not support him, either with troops or, more importantly, with money. Why? Public opinion would turn against the administration. The administration’s own precious rear was too close to the fire.

Karzai is in power because U.S. funds flow through his hands. These moneys next buy the services of the Afghanistani war lords beneath thick tables that hide the transactions fairly effectively from common view—certainly from the view presented by CSM and other media, which always speak of corruption as present only on the Afghan side. But the truth of the matter is that this corruption must be funded. There are only two sources of money in Afghanistan.

One of these is opium. The Taliban control the opium, but the money to buy it comes, in this order, from Europe, Russia, China, Africa, and the US and Canada—to name the top five markets. More than 20 percent of opium is consumed in North America. The source of this is the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC); I saw the story here. This means that the Taliban are supported by the drug trade of the rest of the world.

The other source of money is the U.S. taxpayer. This money supports the U.S. military effort, the half-cooked build-up of an Afghan national army and police (why is it still not effective?), and funds the war lords. It’s not as if U.S. paymasters were riding around in helicopters handing over bundles of dollars to war lords in ceremonies—but they might as well. The job, however, is left to Karzai & Company, meaning his family members and friends. The war lords keep the U.S. forward operations and convoys relatively safe. You can acquire more details about this subject here, one of the articles published by AntiWar.com. Ideological reflex may cause you either to embrace or to reject that message, but either reaction is also childish behavior. Just ponder the facts.

But here is the question I ask: What is wrong with the following CSM paragraph?

For years, the international community has ineffectually hectored Karzai for reforms such as sharing more power with parliament, electing governors rather than rotating around his cronies, and ending deals with warlords.
What this paragraph leaves unsaid is that one of the two sources of local power in Afghanistan is the war lord. The other is the Taliban. That famed Loya Jirga that formed the Afghan government was drawn from Afghanistan’s tribes. Those tribes are ruled by war lords. There is no third party in Afghanistan, no genuinely organized “we the people” that stands over against the Taliban and the war lords both. That third force is a figment of Western imagination. Real power in Afghanistan has always been tribal, and “war lord” is just the west’s denigrating label for “tribal leader.”

The paragraph also fails even to hint at other illuminating facts. One: After the Russians were defeated, a civil war began. In that civil war the Taliban fought, defeated, marginalized, and drove the war lords, their enemies, to the edges of Afghanistan, thus to regions bordering the former U.S.S.R. I recall staring at successive maps showing the war lords’ retreat. Two: When the U.S. arrived in Afghanistan hell-bent on defeating Al Qaida, aka Osama Bin Laden, aka son-in-law of Omar, the leading figure of the Taliban, the U.S. forces immediately armed, equipped, and fueled the war lords in order to deploy them, once again, against the Taliban. U.S. taxpayer dollars are still funding this faction.

My chief points here are that the media may present most of the facts, but the interpretation they supply does not match Afghanistan’s realities.  The various attempts to build the institutional framework of a republican style government are vain and symbolic gestures that lack a genuine grounding in on-the-ground reality. Republican style governments demand the presence of a strong, organized, and extensive middle class. There is no such class in Afghanistan. What Afghanistan does have is the early stages of a feudal order. These are dominated by dukes (another good word for war lord, derived as the word is from the Latin dux, which used to mean general or military leader; after the central power fell, these dukes became local sovereigns).

Another important point is that Karzai became president precisely because he was not one of the war lords. He was a well-connected operator from the yet-to-be-fully-developed merchant class on whom the dukes of Afghanistan could agree—and who was also acceptable to the invading kingdom (in local eyes) of America. There is no point in hectoring a hammer. You have to hector the hammer’s wielder.

Someone who introduces the notion of “rule of law” into this discussion is either naïve or is patronizing the reading public. We must teach history properly so that we can recognize recurring patterns on the ground. This sort of reportage reminds me of the soothing explanation a little child might receive when it inadvertently walks in on mom and dad as they are engaged in the marital act. “Don’t cry, honey! Mom and dad were just playing. We were wrestling…”

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