Roma, Friday, March 22, 2002
A lingering unease has consolidated regarding the implications of the quasi-success of the American war in Afghanistan, which has yet to be formulated and clearly delineated. To some, and in particular those in the Arab and Islamic world, that kind of victory is either no-victory at all --as witnessed, they would argue, in an inability to conclude that war successfully: the fates of bin Laden and Mullah 'Umar remain uncertain; the pro-western Afghani government in Kabul has little control over its territory and would not survive if the Anglo-American forces were to pull out; and, more importantly, massive operations are still needed every once and a while against combined Taliban and al-Qa'ida mountainous strongholds. All such factors combined raise the crucial issue of whether genuine nation-building, under western presence and funding, would be feasible in a difficult society like Afghanistan. Usually, those who tend to dislike American power and arrogance would like to perceive the future of Afghanistan on the verge of nervous breakdown, wishing that it might bring a halt to American expansionism altogether. For those people, however, there are no other alternatives for a possible nation-building in case the one attempted by the Anglo-Americans proves to be a failure either on the short or long run. The only solution to them would be to simply leave the Afghanis on their own: that's apparently the only decent solution, one that avoids the pitfalls of imperialism, foreign domination, and American supremacy. The point here is that there is an apparent impossibility for the United States --given its abundant wealth, national and regional interests, its affection for Zionism, and its past unfinished wars in Iraq, Kurdistan and Somalia, not to mention its withdrawal from Afghanistan after the Soviet collapse, or the unwillingness of the Marines to act effectively in the newly pacified Kosovo, all of which point to unsuccessful and immature attempts to commit for a positive idea in international politics-- to even think positively and deeply about nation-building, and understand what kind of commitment that implies. And if the United States is incapable of doing so, the argument goes, it's because, and due to its geographic isolation, it does not possess that genuine colonial experience of the British and French, which led in the past to a massive debacle like Vietnam.
Unsurprisingly, many of those in Europe and the United States situated on the "left" would give similar arguments to the ones above, namely they would tend to side with a broad and diversified current in the Third World, and among Arabs in particular, with whom it nurtures a suspicious relationship with the United States. Yet, those so-called "leftists" have neither sympathy for religion in general nor for religious and/or ethnic nationalisms for that matter, not to mention their open aversion to the political symbols of Islam and their use for non-religious purposes by the masses in the Arab world and elsewhere. That's because the "left" in the United States, and more so in Europe, which still lives an unbalanced hangover from the all too sudden demise of the Cold War, has not bypassed its hatred of colonialism, which in reality is a self-hatred oriented towards the values of laissez-faire capitalism and liberalism. Moreover, that same left, even though it gave up its critique of capitalism a long time ago, seems unable to accept the political and economic consequences of the successes of the latter as a world-system. We're therefore left with broadband and poorly defined ideas of sympathy towards that colonized Third World, and of self-hatred and guilt for the supremacy of western civilization. Hence this overlap between trends that are secular in the western world, with others that use religion for social action, both of which constitute these days the bulk of resistance towards American hegemony. The skepticism towards the quasi-victory in Afghanistan is therefore deeply rooted, and well widespread in various parts of the world, but what purpose does it serve exactly? In the absence of clearly defined goals from the Bush Administration, and an even more confusing discourse from conservative think-tanks, editorialists and commentators, independent intellectuals and academics, the "left" has also little to formulate and worry about --except wait for the worse to happen, and then react with a "we-told-you" kind of slogan.
This desire to "pacify," without, however, any interest per se in the economic and territorial resources of a country, is what is probably historically new in the emerging relationship between the US (and its European allies) and the non-western societies and civilizations. To be sure, the US did play such a role of "pacification" in the post-World War II era, but it did so for societies whose contribution to modernity had already been significant, but had nonetheless problems adjusting to laissez-faire capitalism, and in particular in the aftermath of the 1929 recession (which the US had managed thanks to the New Deal and a self-sufficient economy). Thus Italy had been liberated in 1943-45 from fascism (a period which was more of an internal civil war than a resistance to fascism as is often portrayed), then witnessed in the 1950s and 1960s the most impressive economic boom since its unification in the 1860s, and which led to its integration in the capitalist world-order as the sixth industrial nation (or the fifth, based on some accounts). The old constitution of the House of the Savoy, Italy's ruling monarchy, had been remodeled to open the way for a modern parliamentary republic. Germany for its part had been de-nazified, and became the world's third economic power, while Japan had its emperor lose his divine status and was poised to become the second industrial nation right after the US. All that would have been unthinkable without a massive military and economic investment (the Marshall plan) on the part of the US.
In all those cases, however, the US was faced with countries which were already significantly developed, and as witnessed by the Cold War era, they were all poised to become important players on the world scene. The situation is much different now with much of a so-called Third World in deep economic decline, and with states and societies whose abiding to international norms remains erratic at best. "Pacification," therefore implies the creation of states that would abide by the international norms of the United Nations. Whether such states would be able to pull off their respective "nations" together and have them "integrated" within the new political and economic world-order is the most problematic aspect of this whole enterprise and needs to be considered on a case-by-case basis. It is, indeed, ridiculous, to assess such a longue durée enterprise globally, as if all nations have equal resources or similar socio-historical systems. Its success would also depend on the ability of the US and its European allies to proceed consistently and meaningfully, primarily through an exploration with their own populations of what is really at stake here.
A reformulation of a global political strategy for both the United States and its allies in Continental Europe has therefore to begin from scratch, one that would have to assume responsibilities towards a Third World in deep fragmentation, if not disintegration. To begin, we need to formulate the obvious, and ask ourselves what kind of "victory" did America achieve in Afghanistan? For which specific reasons could "operation enduring freedom" be labeled as a "success," if at all? In this respect, the common arguments that emanate from leftists, anarchists, anti-globalizationists, Islamicists and friends to the Arab world, etc., and which relentlessly point to the massive and unnecessary B-52's carpet-bombings, displacement of the population and collateral damage, fail to assess the positive outcome of the one-hundred day war and its aftermath. Thus, compared to the ravages of the internal Afghani civil wars since the Soviet invasion in the late 1970s, which have wrecked apart cities and their countrysides, the damages of "operation enduring freedom" look minimal at best. To my knowledge, and even though it is difficult to assess human casualties with great precision, I have not seen that number exceeding 8,000 civilian casualties in any of the journalistic reports. Moreover, the war as such, which liberated the major cities and regions from the Taliban regime, did not last for more than a hundred days. Its swiftness has minimized damage in civilian lives and properties, to the point that the cities went back to normal life immediately after their liberation. Reporters who rushed to the center of Kandahar after its liberation were surprised at how quickly the population went back to its regular routines, and even the luxurious villa of Mullah 'Umar had received minimal damage, to the point that Hamid Karzai, the chosen head of the interim six-month government, selected it as his temporary residence prior to moving to the capital Kabul. All this does not point to much irresponsible American behavior from the air.
As a matter of fact, a series of circumstances (or "conjunctures," as Fernand Braudel would say) played in favor of the United States. First and foremost was the nature of the Taliban "regime" itself and its presumed links with the al-Qa'ida network. That ancien régime --assuming that such a qualification would apply to the Taliban-- only dominated the various populations and regions very superficially, hence their fleeing from Kabul without much noticeable resistance, which even in their own Kandahar fiefdom turned out minimal. Indeed, what still survives of the Taliban and al-Qa'ida are now entrenched in desolated mountainous areas. What we see here is a trend common to many Middle/Near Eastern and Asiatic societies, where political integration does not take place on the top of a social and economic integration from the bottom --or what is commonly perceived as a prerequisite for a successful "civil society"-- but politics simply imposes itself as a process of "subservience" from above, and quite often by minority groups who simply manage their way to the top by an amalgam of pure force and external support. Thus, in the case of the Taliban, they became admired for their "moral" behavior in the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal --something that even the CIA reports were keen to report at the time-- by providing support to local populations against excessive tribal abuse. Being themselves from the dominant Pashtuns, they managed their way aggressively up to Kabul through a minimalist military organization, help from the neighboring Pakistani intelligence services, and even the approval of the US State Department, which looked at them as a factor of stabilization in the region. The point here, however, is that the Taliban never managed a process of "integration" to society, and they never sought it in the first place. That would have been far beyond their means and the political traditions of the region, and it remains to be seen whether all the post-war governments in Kabul combined will be able to work out any process of "integration" successfully. What the Taliban have instead managed to implement is a rigid and abstract Wahhabi moral code, which prevented women from working and men from shaving their beards; they also prohibited music, television and satellite dishes, the internet, western art, and even the art left by centuries of Buddhism. Not only did such measures not contribute in societal integration in any way, but they remained foreign to the bulk of the Afghani population, whose Islamic practices were very much different from the austerities of Wahhabi Islam. In hindsight therefore, it was no surprise that the Taliban had fled so quickly. I say in hindsight because many at the time predicted a strong resistance, on the basis that a massive air bombardment, without any significant deployment of ground troops would not deter the Taliban. We were incessantly reminded that ruthless as they were, they will not give up unless they suffer massive casualties.
That's to remind us, once more, that in those one hundred days, events took one after another unpredictable turns, beginning, of course, with the rapid defeat of the Taliban. What primarily led to their defeat was obviously the massive B-52's carpet-style bombings, a technology that was perceived by many commentators as outdated, and useless in the context of a guerilla war, and which even was not enough to deter the Vietnamese. Easy comparisons are always misleading since Afghani society is non-urban by a wide margin of 70%, and its population is very much widespread over a vast and difficult territory. More importantly, however, Afghani groups remain --literally-- poorly connected. All such factors, in addition to the massive US military superiority, "explicate" the American "success," which, I think, has engendered an overt embarrassment in many journalistic, intellectual, and political circles all over the world. Remarkably, it turns out that it's very difficult to give credit to a superpower whose population tops every list in terms of income and wealth, and when the source of that wealth is laissez-faire capitalism and a culture of narcissism, one can only hope that the Americans will be embroiled in another Vietnam rather sooner than later.
What does such a success establish in terms of inter-state relations, and does that point to a new direction in international relations? The urgency of "the war on terrorism" has at the same time narrowed the debate considerably, and prevented it from pondering at the more abstract and less factual implications of what might turn out as a more global politico-military strategy --one that has not fully matured yet, or probably barely exists, and which needs great efforts to materialize.
If the American war in Afghanistan is to be labeled "colonialism" of any sort, it must then be an imperialism of a new kind whose modus operandi badly needs to be formulated. To begin, there was no interest in a territory per se. Neither the Afghani landscape nor its people seem to be of any importance in American strategy, meaning that there was no intention to "conquer" them. The usual arguments of imperialism regarding raw-materials and economic subjugation are not at stake here. Neither the US nor its European allies have much at stake in Afghanistan economically, hence a domination of the territory for economic ends seems superfluous. Moreover, the Bonn agreements of November-December 2001 between various Afghani factions also suggests that political sovereignty is not at stake either. The Americans have thus launched a war from-the-air, with minimal troop deployments, and with practically zero casualties (except those unfortunates hit by friendly fire), only in order to displace the miserable Talibans. What then emerged was a friendly government with some old warlords among its members --and that's precisely the key point: the emergence of a state that would conform to international rules-- and there are no other political and economic interests besides that one. Why should that kind of state be so important to the western powers? What is really at stake here? Has the state (or the concept of nation-state) as such become even more important than the old territorial and economic interests?
The Italian war in Ethiopia in 1935-36, which probably carried the last vestiges of classical colonial war --and its caricature-- was fought with 400,000 Italians deployed on the ground, and had no specific purpose, except perhaps a fear that without that kind of colonialism and empire-building Italy would purely and simply decline eaten by its internal limitations --including, Mussolini thought, demographic ones. The French and the British, who at the time were still hoping that Mussolini would not side with Hitler, left Il Duce proceed with his grand debacle and illusions of an Italian empire. At the time, both the British and the French were suffering from their excessive colonial practices, and all kinds of illusions regarding the subservience of the colonized to their own interests. The point here is that nineteenth- and twentieth-century colonialism involved the takeover of a territory. Territorial ambitions were, indeed, crucial, first, because it meant the takeover of land and its resources, and the establishment of a legal regime that would manage the land resources of the colonized natives (in terms of confiscation, private property, public domains, sharecropping patterns, and an understanding of the legal and juridical practices of those natives), and, more importantly, second, Europe had to abide by its long-standing practices regarding territory and land, which legally managed the inter-state relations between the various European nations.
This last point is definitely the most crucial because in modern discourses on international rights and inter-state relations there is a general tendency to forget that territorial domination has been, since the early Middle Ages of Latin Christendom, mediated by all kinds of legal and juridical frameworks. By the time that system had matured in the high Middle Ages, and under the seigneuries regime (which had no existence in the territories under Ottoman control in Eastern Europe and the East of the Mediterranean), the legal framework operated between sovereigns, lords, vassals and peasants. It provided them with specific rights of property and its possession, and above all, inheritance and transmission of property from one generation to the next. By the time the feudal system had degraded and the absolutist states had emerged as a political reality, those same rights were administered by the apparatus of the state. Inter-state relations, including diplomatic relations and wars, were also subjugated to a legal framework whose main basis was the control of a territory. The point here is that by the nineteenth century, when colonialism became a common policy, the colonialist powers only applied that legal and juridical framework internally, while all territories "outside" "Europe" (the old Latin Christendom) remained by and large like a no-man's-land without any specific regulations. The prime failure of the Versailles conference in 1919 consisted in leaving that primordial issue unresolved, and by that time --the post World War I era-- the United States had already consolidated as a major power on the world-scene, and hence was de facto integrated within the juridical norms of the European inter-state nomos.
Those same issues of sovereignty, territory, and nomothetic universal laws that would apply to all nations currently recognized by the UN, remain mostly unresolved. To be sure, the main problem remains that those legal and juridical norms protecting sovereignty over territories are difficult to implement outside Europe and North America. Indeed, they are mostly the outcome of a long European tradition that began to develop in the tenth/eleventh century of Latin Christendom, and based in turn on the development of Roman law up to the Justinian codex. The United States, in its current role as the only superpower and mediator of world-relations, assumes, for better or worse, all the difficulties that the old colonial powers had left behind, and it is indeed impossible to evaluate the problems that the Americans are facing without a proper understanding of what the classical juridical notions of territory and sovereignty imply in a modern context.
In my view, a major positive outcome of the Afghani war --and which has thus far remained underestimated-- is the attempt to override territorial concerns by de facto handling them to the powers on the ground under the supervision of an indigenous government and state, which in turn is maintained thanks to a European and US mediation (the Bonn agreements). Thus, by launching a campaign from-the-air with minimal forces on the ground, the US has attempted to bypass the old colonialist burden of territorial sovereignty and its juridical implications (in particular the juxtaposition of western standards with the indigenous ones). Whether such a policy will effectively work and has any chance of survival is a different matter. That would mostly be determined by the ability of Afghani society, with its meager resources and labyrinths of divisions, to integrate itself on new societal grounds.
Be that as it may, there are several issues at stake here. (1) Should "the war on terrorism" (or the axis-of-evil campaign) be the final aim, or should it be a more comprehensive policy of nation-building? Even though the two policies might overlap, as seems the case in Afghanistan, a subtle difference nonetheless exists. For one, "the war on terrorism" could be limited to a quasi-police overt operations to dismantle "terrorist" networks and their supporters, or even covert actions intended to assassinate or intimidate, while nation-building is much more longue durée, whose aim would be to a comprehensive institutional restructuring, and hence would not be limited to economic aid only. Needless to say, it would be hard to imagine dismantling all kinds of networks, regimes and para-military groups, without working for an alternative.
(2) Once we opt for an alternative, it is our conceptualization of all those so-called Third World societies in all their subtle variations which is at stake here. For one, we need to go beyond all the clichéd descriptions of "tribalism" and the like. That's a domain where the scholarly literature could help in providing crucial descriptions on the modus operandi of those societies. The Bonn covenant is a good example of a "constitutional" text which combines universal neo-liberal values with the normative rules specific to Afghani society. Obviously, that balance is not that easy to handle, and the success of western intervention will come to nothing unless the roots of integration begin to emerge.
(3) What is slowly emerging as a new American nomos --as an alternative to classical colonialism-- needs to be formulated as clearly as possible. At present, terrorism and the axis-of-evil campaign predominate. But those are shortsighted and could backfire. For one, it is always easier to "win" a war than finish it properly. Finishing a war, assuming there is some end in sight, implies having allies on the ground that would pursue meaningful policies. It also implies handling pockets of resistance, political opponents, and prisoners of war. The less rights those opponents are granted, the riskier the enterprise of peace and reconstruction becomes.
(4) We were repeatedly told that the war on terrorism will be very long, and that terrorist networks and their hosts should be dismantled. Yet, such assertions do not say much, and much is needed before we can fully understand the implications of a modern war against a poorly developed country.