On Afghanistan

Frankly, I have no idea what we should do there, but I do have some reflections that might help put things in something like a perspective.

First, if you are pro-democracy, you are pro-western. Everybody knows that democracy was a concept developed by the Greeks and one which very few societies or communities have bought into since their day.

Certainly the Romans didn’t. They began with a monarchy, switched to a republic, and grew into an empire. A democractic element grew and flowed through their history, but the Romans were far from democratic.

Nor was any medieval European nation or kingdom or fiefdom. Few of them could read outside the church, and I have become persuaded that the two conditions for a democratic government are 1. a smallish size (the city-state or polis) and 2. universal literacy among the citizens.

Only after the Renaissance was democracy even up for discussion and that only in western Europe. If I have mis-represented this detail, I appeal for a correction.

Democracy, so far as I can tell, grew out of the French Revolution, though some of our founders seemed to respect it (though not as much as most feared it.)

But it grew up in England and the US under the shelter of a Parliamentary Monarchy on the one hand and a constitutional republic on the other.

I can find no trace of anything realistically qualifying as a democracy anywhere else, the short-lived attempt by the five nations of our northeast not withstanding.

If, as most pro-democracy folk seem to believe, democracy is the fulfillment of a historical process and the pinnacle of just government, then it is fitting for us to pause and appreciate that historical process and how long a gestation period democracy endured.

Magna Carta placed limits on the power of a weakened king in 1215. By 1520, the Tudors held more centralized power than any king would have dreamed of holding under the Plantagenets (Lancaster or York).

In 1688 The Glorious Revolution restored limits to the monarchy and established the basic rights of Englishmen that became our (much neglected) Bill of Rights.

Our Revolution further limited, on paper, the federal government, setting free an energy for creative destruction such as the world had never seen, combining the dynamism of the Romans with the energy of the Greeks and transforming the whole planet into a wearers of jeans and eaters of hamburgers in only two centuries.

A limited government, however, requires a restrained people.

And restraints on a people sufficient to allow for limited government, internalized and accepted without a feeling of lost freedoms, take a long, long, long time to negotiate and secure.

They can only be secured by the people themselves.

For the reasons derived from this history, I cannot help but feel we need to lower our sights in Afghanistan. They are not going to accept a democracy. The warlords have too much control, as medieval barons did in England and France.

I would suggest a more realistic approach might be that followed in Tajikistan, but for the presence of Al Qaeda in or near Afghanistan.

We ought to seek stability, not a form of government in the abstract. As for Al Qaeda and the Taliban, it seems the only realistic thing to do is to contain them.

What seems certain to me is that we will be in Afghanistan for a long time and that the more we try to establish democratic forms of government there the longer will be our stay.

After all, it took hundreds of years for the English to accept defined government (and that is where we learned it), and the 20th century saw us turn closer to the 16th century than to the 17th. If we can’t maintain a constitutional republic, much less a parliamentary monarchy – and it seems we no longer believe in these options – we ought to approach Afghanistan with great humility.

By way of application to education, this sort of foreign affair underscores our need to learn British and Roman history closely. I strongly advocate a year of each in any school that seeks to be classical.

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One Response

  1. You’ve over analyzed the issue, but you eventually get to the point and that is “We ought to seek stability, not a form of government in the abstract.”

    Afghanistan’s democracy was established some years ago, so that goal has already been accomplished.

    There are several reasons why America is in Afghanistan. Some say it is to rid the country of the Taliban’s threat to overthrow the fledgling democracy and to destroy Al Qaeda’s ability to launch another 9/11. While this is true, the other critical reason rarely discussed to length has to do with Pakistan’s stability.

    The Taliban’s objective is to split the Pashto-speaking frontier provinces from Pakistan and join them with Pashto-speaking areas in Afghanistan to create a nation called Pashtunistan. The bombings in recent months and the daring attack on a police academy near Lahore were designed to avenge the excesses of Pakistani forces in the frontier area. Slowly the Taliban are moving to achieve their objective. Today Sharia law, tomorrow a separate homeland and later full nationhood.

    Al-Qaida has its own objective amidst the turmoil – to grab a nuclear bomb or nuclear material and threaten the world. The Pakistani military is much more Islamic today than it has been in the past. It is possible that when pressured with religious zeal soldiers may put faith ahead of their duty. That could be the beginning of the end of U.S. and British-supplied security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. Individual soldiers are more prone to religious propaganda than their command structures; therefore they need to be watched.

    The day a nuclear device ends up in al-Qaida’s hands will be a catastrophic day for the world. A dirty bomb may not appear in a city overnight, but it could be used to blackmail the United States, for example, forcing it out of the Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the entire Muslim world. India could have a nuclear war at hand.

    In any case, it is no longer safe to trust terror-ridden Pakistan with nuclear materials. No amount of security can prevent their disappearance if the people guarding them are compromised. Al-Qaida, bent on acquiring nuclear materials, is a serious threat to Pakistan. It can no longer be taken lightly.

    To be searingly clear, Afghanistan is really about Pakistan’s survival. We have to save one to save the other. If Pakistan goes, 9/11 will look like mere bloody nose to us.

    Let’s hope General McChrystal gets it right.

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