How the U.S. tried and failed to recreate Afghanistan in its own image.
Imagine, if you will, an unethical social and psychological experiment.
Picture a mountainous nation ravaged by war in the previous centuries, besieged by various interlopers and invaders from antiquity well into the modern age. A brutal totalitarian regime has kept the country trapped in a medieval serfdom and squalor since time out of mind. It is a hotbed of terrorism.
Now imagine the majority of people living there are under the age of 25- well under it.
Imagining such a young population is difficult for us in places like the United States, Japan, and parts of Europe. We are used to our aging populations, our Baby Boomers. We are accustomed to seeing people of all ages, virtually everywhere we go in society.
Truly understanding why the population is so young in this particular nation will be even more difficult, though the explanation is a simple one; War.
War, it need not be said, is a blight on humanity, the worst imaginable perversion of our twin gifts of creativity and engineering. No further social experiments or lessons are necessary to prove this immutable fact. War represents a failure of our intelligence, the ultimate breakdown of community, communication and compassion. It is a betrayal of our very survival instinct.
And yet the human arms race, from the hand ax to the chariot to the hydrogen bomb to the biological and chemical weapons we must surely face in the next world war, have defined and shaped humanity at every turn.
The direct result of war, in the case of our social experiment, is a nation of 38 million people where the majority of them are under 25 because the only people who survived the most recent wars were the very, very young and the extremely old. All the men of prime fighting age died in war.
Then 20 years ago, something changed; the wars didn’t exactly stop, but violence did lessen somewhat and nation-building began in earnest.
What couldn’t a well-meaning Western nation accomplish with such a young, impressionable population?
“Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select,” boasted behavioralist John Watson back in 1930; “ — doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.”
Was the obnoxious old racist right? The U.S. government, after shifting priorities from the War on Terror to Rebuilding Afghanistan was determined to find out, and this was no theoretical experiment.
Afghanistan was instead a real-life laboratory where the amateur behavioralists in the U.S. government decided to see if they could eliminate, or at least temper, the religious conservatism for which the country was, and remains, rightly famous.
Education initiatives began; on gender studies and the patriarchy along with STEM disciplines. The economy doubled, then doubled again.
But U.S. authorities kept brushing aside two very major, very inconvenient truths about Afghanistan and the region: 1.) Afghanistan is a very religiously conservative country and 2.) No Middle Eastern nation (or Central Asian nation with a Muslim-majority population such as Afghanistan) has a democracy.
A monarchy would have probably been better. Nation-building which worked with the religiously conservative population rather than against it would have improved matters, too, to say nothing of the corruption which was allowed to run rampant in the U.S.-backed Afghan government.
But power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely, and power wielded “for the greater good” can be the most dangerous of all.
“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive,” mused the writer C.S. Lewis, possibly describing the twisted aspirations of John Watson. “It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”
Had the U.S. behaved less like The Patriarchy- that is, imposing a top-down, father-knows-best type of power structure- and instead treated the Afghan people as partners to be respected as opposed to malleable children subject to the machinations of “more advanced” nations, there is no limit to what might have been accomplished.
It was tremendous opportunity wasted, not even considering America’s blood and treasure.
The Afghan people were sick of the Taliban; sick of war. All the U.S. had to do was be less frightening, less authoritarian, and less dictatorial than the Taliban, and things might have gone very differently.
The Taliban never stopped killed people in Afghanistan. In perpetuating acts of terror, Taliban insurgents disguised themselves as doctors to gain access to hospitals in order to kill health workers. In one attack on a hospital maternity ward, mothers, nurses and newborn infants were murdered.
Car bombings, suicide bombings, executions of female journalists, assassinations of government officials opposed to the Taliban; the reign of terror perpetuated against the Afghan people, the threats, the killings, the kidnappings never stopped.
But while classes of women’s studies students watched an explanation of why a display of a white porcelain urinal is considered a turning point in conceptual art, a phenomenon which still stuns sensibilities all over the world, to say nothing of religiously conservative Afghanistan, the Taliban was still somehow winning.
Culturally, the U.S. seems less to have tried to understand and help the Afghan people rather than turn them into a U.S. lite.
History will not be kind to the United States on the subject of its 20 years in Afghanistan, nor should it. Hubris, Euro-centrism, Islamophobia, colonialism or a combination of all four, with a dash of mercenary greed and a soupçon of patriarchal savior complex; whatever factors were at play, the U.S. seems to have spent the last 20 years “helping” Afghanistan…right off a cliff.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)