That Pesky Question of Foreign Domination

One quick Afghanistan story. When I was riding along with the Hooligans in Paktia Province last year, I visited a stretch of farmland that, to a city boy like myself, was not recognizable as farmland. Nothing, for instance, was growing — it was an expanse of brown-grey earth, craggy as an acne scar, baked and sun-dried and barren. The Hooligan’s lieutenant, N. Blaine Cooper, was going to around to hear what the locals had to say and ask how he could help.

A bunch of the platoon’s soldiers were from farming states, and Cooper pointed out to me that the irrigation system used by the inhabitants of one particular farm was basically a series of ditches  — known as a karez — dug along the slope of a hill to collect melted snow after the severe eastern Afghanistan winters. Looking around, I saw discolored patches of ground at the terminal points of those ditches. And nothing was growing. Cooper, a pretty stoic sort, noted with calm that lots of his soldiers were ready to offer very solid tips about proven American irrigation techniques. America, after all, really knows how to grow stuff on a big scale. But the locals were happy with their old ways, and you don’t go into someone else’s country and tell him he’s farming all wrong, even though there isn’t anything growing, and so Cooper wasn’t inclined to dwell on something that would only frustrate him if he did. Whaddayagunnado, as we shrug in Brooklyn. 

That’s all a note of caution as we surge  uplift up to a thousand civilian officials into Afghanistan. On paper, it’s a great idea: help undergoverned and destitute Afghans build their own capacity. But, as I asked over at the Windy:

If U.S. civilians end up establishing mechanisms of governance in areas cleared of Taliban and the Afghan government doesn’t send a larger complement of officials, doesn’t that look to a local a whole lot like, well, foreign domination?

Cooper’s lesson has stuck with me. Don’t tell a man not to construct his karez, no matter how senseless it seems to you, because his family’s lived here for hundreds of years and will live here long after you’re gone. Respect him and respect the difference between assistance and parochialism. Without Afghan civilian officials in the lead in the provinces — and yes, that includes corrupt civilian officials, which is its own separate nest of problems — that difference is likely to erode in the people’s eyes.

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Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman

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