Absurd in Afghanistan
The Islamic world needs Avicenna, not America. Revisiting a prescient magazine piece from 2014.
Editor’s note: As America withdraws its troops from Afghanistan and the Taliban reestablishes control of Kabul, this 2014 essay by Andrew Doran from the 2014 September/October issue of the magazine appears increasingly prescient and worthy of a reread.
Five American troops moved briskly through the streets of Kandahar, their weapons at the ready. It was not yet mid-morning, and things had already broken down. Separated from their convoy, they were following an Afghan prosecutor to the city’s judicial headquarters. Afghanistan is generally not kind to foot patrols or improvisation, and that July morning in 2011 was quickly acquiring an aura of misadventure. Their mission was to kiss the ring of an Afghan judge to obtain the release of a young boy who had been arrested for no other reason than that a police chief found him attractive. Joseph, one of the Americans from that patrol, later explained that it was a uniquely Afghan problem requiring a uniquely American solution: “Begging for a favor while carrying a gun.”
While in police custody, the boy would be dressed in girl’s clothing, made to dance suggestively, and then sexually abused in a ritual practice known as bacha bazi (literally, “playing with boys”). The community had come to the U.S. battalion commander, pleading with him to intervene and secure the boy’s release.
“The commander was a rising star who’d spent months building schools and digging wells to win the loyalty of the village,” Joseph recalls. “He gathered us in a room. Everyone knew the stakes. We were risking our lives. He was risking his career. A firefight on an unauthorized mission in another regiment’s battle space is a quick route to early retirement.” A firefight on a crowded street where the enemies are indistinguishable from civilians would be a quick to route to the front page of the New York Times—and a court-martial.
“This is the tribalism of Afghanistan,” he says. “There is no public consensus on how to act in any situation. Everything is personal. That’s what ‘tribal’ means—it focuses on who is involved: Ask this guy to do you a favor to help you with that guy. Everything is about relationships and demonstrations of power. Who can protect you? Who can pull strings to deliver a favor? Every soldier in Khost and Zhari and Nangahar knows this.”
Joseph—whose full name is being withheld due to his ongoing affiliation with the military—had virtually no combat training prior to his arrival on the streets of Kandahar, but he was more seasoned than most of the soldiers around him. After a classical education at elite schools, his early career on Wall Street was followed by law school, JAG, and then Afghanistan. By the time he arrived, he was in his late 30s—the same age as British novelist Evelyn Waugh when he saw combat in World War II, and every bit as unlikely a soldier. Over an espresso in a Washington, D.C., suburb in the autumn of 2011, I begin a conversation with Joseph that continues off and on for three years, in which he reflects on the military’s helplessness in the face of violence and absurdity, particularly the violence of that July morning at the hands of America’s allies.
“We lacked the confidence even to say, ‘You may not rape little boys.’ All we had to offer was administration and technology, and they sensed this.”
Joseph believes that, in a peculiar way, this parallels America’s institutional system. “We have no consensus either. Nobody can agree on any normative reason to do anything,” he says. “So we default to an institutional structure. Our tribalism is institutional. Afghanistan was an encounter between these two systems. The first lieutenant leading a foot patrol stands square at the pressure point between these two tribal systems: one fluid, personal and violent; the other rigid, impersonal and violent. A quarter mile away from any soldier is a guy in a grape hut who wants to cut his head off. Nine thousand miles away is a guy in an air-conditioned room with video screens contemplating his pension who wants to drop a bomb on the guy in the grape hut.”
As Joseph and his squad made their way through the streets of Kandahar on that July morning to plead for the release of the boy, the mayor of Kandahar was assassinated by the Taliban. “We knew something was going on in the city. In Kandahar, it’s kind of mafia style. From the time they get a visual, it only takes them a few minutes to coordinate an ambush. So we were moving.” The Americans arrived at the headquarters of Afghan Intelligence, where they got permission to go ask for the child’s release. “This is the way they operate. We had to get the top-level guy to sign off on it.”
En route to the police station, with Joe on point, a woman in a burqa approached. “Normally they cross the street. This lady’s coming right at us.” They beckoned at her to clear the way; she refused. “They’ll strap explosives to 16-year-old kids,” he says, reliving the visceral emotions of that encounter. At the last instant, with the soldiers’ guns fixed at the ready, the Pashtun woman crossed the street. That he was nearly compelled to take a life in self-defense does not sit well with him. That it nearly happened in an effort to rescue a child from rape merely compounds the sense of absurdity.
Soon thereafter, the patrol met the judge. “He’s Taliban and he tells us how the Taliban ran everything better.” After the ritual of tea and homage, the police agree to release the boy to the custody of the patrol, who return him to his family, and then go back to their unit—another day of violence and irrationality in Afghanistan.
Like most combat veterans, Joseph does not discuss his experiences casually. Shortly after his return from Afghanistan in the fall of 2011, we are walking in D.C. when a metal container crashes to the ground at a nearby construction site. He startles, then quickly regains his composure, the fight-or-flight adrenaline of combat still very present. A week ago he was in Afghanistan; days later he is in Washington, D.C., amid wonks and contractors and Capitol Hill staffers and pundits, who cannot discuss Afghanistan “except in the most banal terms.” Nearly three years later, as analysts offer military and political reflections on Afghanistan, Joseph considers the mission through the lens of intellectual history and culture.
“It wasn’t just the violence—which was extreme. It was the bizarreness of the violence,” says Joseph. “That was the calling card.” For more than a generation, the entire country—if Afghanistan can be rightly called a country—has been steeped in violence. War disfigures and dehumanizes as a matter of course, but where the Taliban excelled was “in the sheer expressiveness of their violence.” He recounts a story in which soldiers at a district center west of Kandahar encountered an Afghan man carrying his five-year-old son, whose left foot had been blown off.
“The man tells the soldiers that the Taliban accosted the little kid and forced him to step on a mine to punish the village for cooperating with the Americans. The soldiers call in a medevac. Later they stand around and smoke. ‘Bullshit. That makes no sense—even by the Taliban’s twisted logic.’ The soldiers concluded that the father was constructing the bomb and did not want to be brought in for questioning. The following week they encounter two more fathers carrying in two more sons.” As Joseph was learning, no one was exempt from brutality in Afghanistan, particularly of the Kandahari Pashtun variety.
“We’d build a school and get people to buy in through much hard work. Then the second day, the Taliban would drive by and shoot at the children. The whole thing begs the most profound question: What the f–k? And yet we were never allowed to ask that question.”
That tribalism and perpetual war have contributed to the culture of violence in Afghanistan few would deny, but that is not the entire story, at least not for Joseph. “The whole time we were there, I don’t think we had a meaningful discussion. You could see this from the discussions between Biden and Karzai down to the average company commander and village leader—we could never discuss anything touching on reason or faith, anything that makes life intelligible. Never have two cultures collided that understood each other less,” he says.
“When Columbus stepped off the Santa Maria and met a bunch of naked natives, it’s possible that they understood each other better. And why is that? One day we’ll leave and it’ll be like we were never there.”
One can still observe today in Afghanistan the marks of conquering cultures of the past. Though little of the British or Russian incursions remains aside from battlefield artifacts, the conquest by the Hellenized Macedonians in the fourth century B.C. may still be seen in the blue eyes of many Afghans. Even the name Kandahar, the city where Joseph and the other American soldiers rescued the abducted boy, may be traced to Alexander the Great. He conquered Afghanistan not only with might of arms but with the confidence of Greek civilization, with its reason and science and philosophy. After more than two millennia, those Hellenic ideas continue to wax and wane around the world, bringing civilizations to their pinnacle, only to be lost again—and, in rare instances, rediscovered.
“We were trying to build a culture. But how the hell can you build a culture when we have nothing to contribute to them culturally, when we have no civilization to impart?” Joseph asks. “What we tried was essentially the Roman model. The Romans built roads but didn’t try to impress their culture upon the conquered. The Greeks, by contrast, brought their ideas with them.”
The intellectual legacy of the Greeks was never wholly adopted by the Romans who, like present-day Americans, considered themselves a practical people. There was, however, another civilization that readily adopted Greek thought in whole: Islam. Hellenic ideas were first translated into Arabic by Syriac scholars, which gave rise to Islam’s Golden Age. British historian Christopher Dawson described the region from Spain to Afghanistan in the Middle Ages as “the scene of an intense intellectual activity.” The Graeco-Arabic thought of medieval Spain unleashed the equivalent of an intellectual Big Bang, which helped Europe emerge from the Dark Ages.
Through Islamic scholarship, Europe became reacquainted with Hellenic thought, a development that would lead to a momentous intellectual synthesis—the foundation of Western civilization even today. As Dawson noted, “the European mind received from medieval scholasticism that fundamental training in rational thought on which all its later achievements are dependent.”
Like the Romans, we Americans have benefited from the Hellenized cultures that preceded us, but with relatively little reflection or appreciation. As Joseph observes, “The Romans dismissed Greek philosophizing in the same way that an American business executive might a philosophy seminar.” Thus America came to Afghanistan in 2001 with none of the confidence of Greece and all of the pragmatism of Rome—and no interest whatever in the foundational elements of civilization, though Afghanistan called for precisely that. It is difficult to imagine a military officer or State Department official proposing a strategy to wrest Afghanistan from its present Dark Age through a program to reintroduce philosophy grounded in common reason; it is equally difficult not to conclude that America failed to build anything like a nation or civil society in Afghanistan.
“We were there writing checks and shooting people,” says Joseph. “It was as incoherent to me as it was to the Afghans. But building a soccer field isn’t building a civilization. The foundations for civilization, for reason, for the common good, for law, for science—all of it was missing. It’s still missing and no one seems to have a sense of how to build it.”
How had a once thriving culture descended into the absurdity of Afghanistan? Most historians point to the Mongol conquest in the 13th century. “When the Mongols came,” wrote historian Stephen Tanner in his 2002 book Afghanistan: A Military History from Alexander the Great to the War Against the Taliban, “they had no intention of holding the place. They simply wanted to destroy it.”
Afghanistan never recovered. Its sedentary, agrarian social order was exterminated; only nomadic peoples, who had the means to flee, survived. It was a level of devastation that would be unmatched until the 20th century. In recent years, USAID undertook efforts to restore the extensive irrigation systems that existed prior to Genghis Khan’s invasion. But what could restore a lost civilization? Tanner recalled the observation of anthropologist Louis Dupree, who described the Mongol onslaught as “the atom bomb of its day.”
Throughout the American occupation and nation-building efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, one occasionally heard apologists for our foreign policy speak of the difficulty of rebuilding Germany and Japan after World War II. Germany and Japan were, however, highly educated and organized post-tribal societies, whose people united behind leaders and state institutions in their efforts to rebuild. More importantly, those nations were driven by a sense of the common good, which provided a cultural unity that simply does not exist in Afghanistan. America was able to apply the “Roman model” in the aftermath of World War II by doing what we do best—bringing efficiencies to bear—precisely because of the underlying socio-cultural and political cohesion that existed in Germany and Japan.
There was no such foundation in Afghanistan, so the postwar model that informed prior reconstruction narratives was doomed at the outset. If America had been tasked with building the foundations of a social order in Germany or Japan, it would have been equally unsuccessful.
“It was a weird mirror inverse,” says Joseph of America’s Afghan experience. “On our end, it was unreasonable because we couldn’t talk about anything because we came from an institutional culture—shaped by post-colonial guilt—that wouldn’t permit us to address religion or anything meaningful.” On the Afghan side, there was violence, abuse, tribalism, fundamentalism, absurdity. “We spent 10 years in the same room together,” he continues. “That wasn’t the problem. The problem was that we couldn’t penetrate to the core of each other’s values, to what animated the other. We couldn’t even ask each other honest questions. At a business meeting, you go through formalities, but then you get to the heart of the meeting. We never got to that breakthrough stage. We were blocked by our administrative tribalism; they were blocked by their own deracinated tribalism, which was inherently anti-Hellenic.”
The term “Hellenic” was once synonymous with enlightened and civilized. While many Western intellectuals of the last generation came to regard the term “Hellenic” as Eurocentric and “essentialist,” the minds that forged Islam’s Golden Age believed themselves to be Hellenized, part of a universal elite that transcended all tribes, cultures, and epochs. Thus the ninth-century Arab philosopher Abu Yusuf al-Kindi could pay homage to “philosophers before us not of our tongue … praising truth and in seeking it, from wherever it may come, even if it be distant races and people different from us.”
Al-Kindi was succeeded by an even greater philosopher, who would reconcile faith and reason: Ibn Sina, known in the West as Avicenna, whose family hailed from present-day northern Afghanistan. Both physician and philosopher, Avicenna was an authentic polymath—a phenomenon not so unusual for his day, when philosophy and science were seen as part of a single discipline. “Here was a guy born in the 10th century who had read Aristotle 40 times by the age of 18. Think about that. Most Afghans today can’t read. One of the biggest problems was finding literate Pashtuns to go to law school to become judges,” Joseph recounts.
Establishing the rule of law was part of Joseph’s duties in Afghanistan. There was no judge, no courthouse, and the police chief with whom he worked daily refused to turn over anyone arrested to be tried. There was only tribal retribution. “The Army made me build this courthouse, a judicial center, just so everyone could put it on their resumes. We knew it would fall apart a week later. Nobody cared. It was just so that they could say they did it. It was so absurd.” When the project encountered a substantial bureaucratic obstacle, Joseph contracted directly with Afghans to complete the building, accepting the furniture directly to see the task through to completion.
Unbeknownst to him, this violated Army regulations. In a land in which millions of American tax dollars were being stolen and funneled to foreign bank accounts, this rule of law project came under scrutiny. “So I said, ‘court-martial me. Put me in the [witness] chair. You guys are sitting at Kandahar Airfield and going to TGI Friday’s and pushing paper.’” Perhaps fearful of how this might look at trial, the military dropped the threat of court-martial. Such institutional challenges were not lost on many of those who deployed to Afghanistan.
In the spring of 2014, Joseph and I share a few drinks with Brian, a combat veteran of the same part of Kandahar Province, where Brian served in 2010. Brian recounts the story of a USAID project to build a well for a Pashtun village. When approached by USAID, the village leaders refused because they would not accept anything from the Americans. “So the contractor,” says Brian, “an Afghan contracted by USAID, told them the well was paid for by Saudi Arabia.” Toward the end of the construction, the villagers were told that the Saudi money had fallen through, so they would have to use American funds. “He had to trick them,” Brian recalls with a laugh.
In another example, they discuss an initiative at the U.S. embassy compound in Kabul. At the exit to the dining facility are recycling receptacles for every conceivable category of refuse. As a Foreign Service officer explained in hushed tones, “It’s all taken off the compound and thrown into the same pit.” Joseph sighs. “For someone, recycling in Afghanistan was the crowning achievement of their career. It’s featured prominently on their resume: ‘I brought recycling to Afghanistan.’ It was all hauled somewhere by an E4 [Army Specialist] and burned. Ridiculous.” It was values such as these that America projected into Afghanistan with confidence—to the bewilderment of the Afghans.
“To this day, I can’t think of what the Afghans must think of us,” says Joseph. “We came, brought them all this stuff, tried to set up a democracy. From their perspective, I can’t imagine how weird that must be. Ten years from now, none of that will be there.” The prospect of an abandoned U.S. embassy compound in Kabul is not unthinkable—like Krek des Chevalier, a monument to the futility of Crusader occupation, albeit ours is a less resilient, aesthetically inferior version.
It may be that an effort to forge something deeper, such as the Hellenic foundations of civilization, was simply not possible. Brian is skeptical that promoting abstract notions like the common good would have had an effect. “There was too much stuff blowing up,” he says. Asked about counterinsurgency efforts, which essentially engage the military in social and political tasks, Brian says, “We never really got that far. When I was there in 2009-10, I asked the [commanding officer] whether we there to win hearts and minds or kill Taliban. It changed daily. I never really got an answer.” After a moment’s reflection, Brian adds, “Thank God I wasn’t asked to build anything.”
Both veterans admired the Americans with whom they fought and bled, and they came also to admire many Afghans. “Afghanistan is much more than the Kandahari Pashtun,” says Brian. He observes that those in the Afghan National Army (ANA) who served in the Zhari district of Kandahar, felt as alien to much of what they saw as any Westerner; indeed, some even needed American interpreters to communicate. “The Panj Shiris and other Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras would likely make a fine country of their own.” He regards much of the talk of Afghanistan’s imminent demise as schadenfreude, though he acknowledges it may happen.
“It’s all fine to dismiss efforts in Afghanistan until there’s a real human being involved,” says Brian. “I’ll just say the very first KIA [“killed in action”] I carried to the chopper was a nice little [Afghan National Army] guy who just the night before he was killed by an IED said he didn’t think he would try and shoot to kill a Talib since he had no personal feelings against them. I guess the point is that washing one’s hands of all this is pretty tough stuff to do when one has been with the few Afghans who have been in the fight.”
Brian agrees that the kind of cultural and civilizational engagement that was needed simply never occurred. “The Afghans wanted to talk to us about what we value,” says Joseph, “But we had to censor ourselves.” They both recall the Afghan perception of Americans, largely shaped by the entertainment industry. “They thought we all lived in porno films,” Brian says with a chuckle. “One time they asked if I prayed. When I said ‘Yes,’ they laughed because they thought I was joking.” America’s institutional culture did nothing to alter this impression.
“If I’d been part of the British navy in the 19th century,” says Joseph, “civilizing would’ve been part of our mission. But for us, it was dialoguing about nothing, about projects, using words that mean nothing—sustainability, dynamism, governance, implementation, transparent, relevant, outreach, consolidate, force multiplier, cross-pollinate, trust-gap, legitimacy, capitalize, mobilize, incentivize, mandate, aftermathing, liaisoning, conflict-mapping, indices, unity of action. You see what I mean—the antiseptic, PowerPoint sociology speech.” Like the Romans, Americans were best suited to building roads, not imparting civilization. “The solution isn’t playgrounds or soccer fields,” says Joseph. “The answer is Avicenna.”
Medieval philosophy gave rise to what Dawson called “an independent and rival power” to religion, challenging faith to keep pace with reason, to re-examine its certainties, serving as a natural check on fundamentalism. In the Middle East, it was Avicenna who reconciled Aristotle with Islam. Islamic learning would later be transmitted to Medieval Europe and plant the seeds of a scientific culture that thrives in the West to this day. Joseph believes that such an approach is what was needed in Afghanistan.
“Avicenna was Aristotelian and used systematic reasoning,” says Joseph. “His family was from near Mazar-e-Sharif. He spent his life synthesizing faith and reason. No one in Afghanistan knows who he was. No one on our side knows who he was. Here was someone from there who lived a thousand years ago who should be the face of this project. But that would require both sides to re-engage their understanding of reason.”
It may be that America simply lacked the confidence—and perhaps the cultural consciousness—to facilitate such an encounter, to transmit civilization and notions of the common good and common reason. More than a decade ago, David Brooks noted that America’s foreign-policy establishment was institutionally handicapped by what he called “the secularist habit,” a tendency that he admonished policymakers to resist if they wished to achieve a meaningful cultural conversation about reality, ontology, nature, being, reason, philosophy—the animating ideas of civilization.
What would Avicenna say about present-day Afghanistan? “He would be stunned at the primitivism,” says Joseph. “He’d think he’d walked back into the past.” One will hear it routinely said of fundamentalists of every stripe that they wish to take humanity back to the Middle Ages. Medieval Islam, however, did not resemble the fundamentalism of the Taliban and its Islamist fellow travelers; the nostalgia is misplaced, for their barbarism is not medieval but modern. Medieval Islam was intellectually vigorous, able to contain diverse and even opposed systems of thought—a mark of civilizational strength. Avicenna personified this Golden Age.
“He did what Aquinas would later do in Europe,” Joseph continues. “In essence, he sees that faith and reason won’t answer each other’s questions but he accepts that. This is the perfect person, the model, committed to reason, to peace. Instead we’re holding diversity seminars that the Afghans think are the stupidest thing in the world.”
In the summer of 2014, our conversation, which has gone on for nearly three years, comes to a close. Amid controversial prisoner exchanges, negotiations, violence, elections, elusive peace, and a wave of post-mortems of America’s involvement, Joseph shares some final thoughts by e-mail:
The Romans were practical enough to understand the limits of their influence. Moreover, while they may not have cared about building a civilization in the way the Greeks did—at least they knew what their goals were. They were committed to ensuring the roads and bridges they built remained because they were part of their empire and they were going to stay there for 200 years to make sure those bridges lasted. We couldn’t even get that far. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not an imperialist—I don’t think it’s part of our DNA to do that. That’s why the Afghan experience was so baffling. We were half-hearted imperialists. It’s bad enough to do it in the first place when it stands against everything you’ve formerly stood for. But if you’re going to do it half-heartedly, don’t be amazed when it has no lasting influence. If you don’t believe in a public philosophy beyond some pragmatic goals, don’t be shocked when it has no lasting impact on anyone. That’s the take-away of the last ten years for me. It’s better not to try to be an empire; but if you do, at least propose something.
The Greeks were right in understanding the primacy of culture. That is, you can have no meaningful impact if you don’t have the courage to engage people on the level of culture. Governments cannot really do this; only people can. This is what happens when cultures come together, like in Andalusia. It’s messy and chaotic and sometimes violent. … There is a ton of risk involved, but the payoff is huge. This is when cultures come together and new ones are created. This is the risk that Hellenization embraces—that people can engage on this level without reflexive recourse to violence. This is the how cultures engage. But in order to do that they have to believe in something first and be willing to assert that.
As Joseph suggests, America had undertaken a greater effort in Afghanistan than it comprehended. The task was not merely bringing democracy: after all, Afghanistan now has democracy, and the results are not altogether encouraging; nor are they likely to lead to cohesion and peace and prosperity. The task in Afghanistan was that of building a civil society—an achievement for which few governments in history, if any, can take credit. The task was building the foundations of civilization, and it was in the end, perhaps as in the beginning, a task beyond America’s competence.
Andrew Doran lives in Washington, D.C.