The reports from our generals in Afghanistan—trying to convince the public to support extension of the war, to be shortly reviewed by the President– remind me of a study by anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard. He wondered how rain makers could stay in business, given that they hardly produce rain on demand. The shamans, he found, had well-honed explanations that kept them in business. Our generals are using the same rationales to keep going. When no raindrops followed the rain makers’ dance, they would claim that the dance was not properly performed. Our generals argue that we did not fight right in the first six years of our engagement in Afghanistan—but now they have found a better way: it is called counterinsurgency. So far, though, it has not produced any better results.
If still no rain was coming the rain makers in Africa would argue that some external force interfered, and it is to be blamed for their failings. Our generals are employing a similar argument . Indeed, they name the external force. They call it Pakistan—which provides a safe haven for the Taliban—and the ISI is said to arm them and provide them with intelligence and training. True enough, but this “external” force is not going away.
And if countering the external force with a new dance still did not do the trick, the shamans held that the dance had to be done over again, and that it will rain—only later. The generals argue that they need more time; they assure us they will prevail by 2014 or by 2015, or—some say—it will take even longer.
Indeed, the generals have a rationale they can add to the rain makers’ repertoire. They say that they did not have enough “dancers”. And whatever additional numbers they get is never enough.
There is one very telling difference. Eventually, it would rains and “validate” the shamans. I am far from sure that our generals will be able to keep us supporting their “dances” for long enough for them to win in Afghanistan, if only because what winning means is changing all the time.
We first were in Afghanistan—in wake of the 2001 attacks on our homeland to ensure that it did not harbor terrorists. Indeed, as late as 2009 President Obama defined our mission there as “to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda,” period. Since then, the mission has been expanded to include building a legitimate and effective government in this 12th-century country, in order to prevent future terrorists from making it their home, a very tall order, at best. We recently added that we cannot leave unless the Taliban agree to abide by the Afghan constitution that guarantees women’s rights. We are now also told that we must stay there to avoid a civil war.
The most recent twist, in this ever changing –and growing—rationale is that if we leave, it would “be a big shot in the arm to different militant groups in the region, groups that are not just Taliban insurgents—and they are diverse—but groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba that are fighting into Kashmir and want to attack India, and groups in Tariqi Taliban in Pakistan that are fighting the Pakistanis,” according to Caroline Wadhams, Director for South Asia Security Studies at the influential Center for American Progress. Still others argue that India will be troubled if Pakistan can unduly influence the post–U.S. Afghanistan, and—that Pakistan will be upset if India gains more influence after we leave. Some even argued that our retreat could lead to a regional war.
Those of us who opposed the war in Vietnam and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, find all this all too familiar. Generals are wisely very reluctant to go to war, but once they do, they hate cutting their losses and calling it a day. This is why we must raise our voices. We cannot build a legitimate, effective government in Afghanistan. We should let the people of Afghanistan figure out what kind of government they want. And it is up to Pakistan and India to work out their differences, curb terrorist groups that aim to undermine their regimes. We never could be the world’s policeman, and we are less equipped to do so now than we were in more affluent days. Above all, never mind the shamans’ excuses. Look at the result, here and now.
Amitai Etzioni is a professor of international relations at the George Washington University and the author of Security First (Yale 2007).
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