If you follow my seriousish blog at DownWithTyranny with any regularity you probably also know that as a hobby I run a fun travel blog on the side. I ran away from home when I was 13 -- hitchhiked to Florida (though I only got as far as the New Jersey Turnpike where I was arrested) -- and I've been on the road ever since. I lived overseas for almost seven years and I normally spend at least a month out of the U.S. every year -- a habit I got into in the late 1970s. Lately I've been to Mali and Bali and I'm putting the finishing touches on a trip to Albania. When I write about foreign policy questions I like to think my time abroad informs what I have to say.
There aren't many members of Congress who have traveled extensively out of the country. In his delightful book, Fire-Breathing Liberal, Rep. Robert Wexler marvels at how many of his Republican colleagues seem to think not possessing a passport is a badge of honor! Last weekend I spent some time with Rep. Barbara Lee who is no longer surprised when she talks with Republicans who haven't been -- and don't want to be -- outside of the U.S. The opposite extreme would be one member who certainly qualifies for the Century Club, Rep. Alan Grayson. When I told him I was going to Mali he was able to give me some travel tips for remote, seldom visited villages like Bandiagara and Sanga, and a few weeks ago he told me about some odd customs I can expect to experience in Albania.
In 1969 I drove to Afghanistan. Between then and 1972 I spent over half a year there, and never spent one single day in a hotel. Traveling from London, through then still-Communist nations like Hungary and Bulgaria, then through Turkey and Iran and into Herat, the most important component doesn't feel like mileage, but time. Sure, I traveled in space; but what seemed far more profound was a trip back in time. Afghanistan was like being in the 11th Century, not the turn of the 20th. And I noticed immediately that the people there don't recognize a country called "Afghanistan." In Herat and Kandahar, respectively the 3rd and 2nd biggest towns, there was resentment towards the "central government" as a pretension -- backed by foreign military equipment -- of Kabul, the biggest town and what foreigners insist is the capital of "the country." The only part of the discussion of Afghan policy more awkwardly missing from the calculations that there is no Afghanistan, is that all the men there -- yes, all of them -- are stoned all day, every day on the strongest hash (much of it opiated) on God's earth. I know West Point was just named the best college in America by Fortune but do they teach them that stuff there?
This week Robert Greenwald debuted his intense new documentary, Rethink Afghanistan in Washington, DC. Rep. Grayson was on a panel and made some remarks worth taking a look at:
I think that the aid program is a fig leaf trying to make Congress and the American people feel better about the war and about killing. I think that diplomacy in the areas of fig leaf to try to make the American people think that there is some constructive alternative to the war when the war itself is destructive and not constructive.
I think that the basic premise that we can alter afghan society is greatly flawed. Afghanistan is simply the part of Asia that was never occupied by the Russians or the English in the Great Game. It's not a country; it's not even a place. It's just an empty place on the map. It's terra incognita. People who live there are a welter of different tribes, different language groups, different religious beliefs.
All over the country you find different people who have nothing to do with each other except for the fact that we call them Afghans, and they don't even call themselves Afghans. They're Tajiks or they're Pashtuns, or they're Hazzaras or someone else. The things that hold them together are simply the things that we try to create artificially.
And the idea that we could transform that society or any other society through aid I think is entirely questionable. I've never seen it happen; probably never will happen. If you go to the Stan countries north of Afghanistan, and I've been to all of them; what you find is that the way that the Russians altered that society was by crushing it. Stalin killed half a million Muslims in Kazakhstan, in Turkmenistan, in Kyrgyzstan, in Uzbekistan.
He simply sliced off the head of that society in order to remake it in the image that he wanted. And I think that we would have to do no less if we wanted to remake Afghanistan in our image. We'd have to destroy it in order to save it, and I don't think the American people are ever going to do that to anybody. So I think that the underlining premise is simply wrong.
I've been to 175 countries all around the world including Afghanistan, including every country in that region, and what I've seen everywhere I go is that there are some commonalities everywhere you go. Everywhere you go people want to fall in love. It's an interesting thing. Everywhere you go, people love children. Everywhere, they love children. Everywhere you go, there's a taboo against violence. Every single place you go. And everywhere you go, people want to be left alone. And that's the best foreign policy of all. Just to leave people alone.
Grayson was one of the 32 members of Congress who stood up on June 16 and said "NO!" to more war funding. It's more than a promise; it's something he did. Blue America is hosting a page, No Means No! seeking to encourage members of Congress to put their feet down and help end the occupation of Afghanistan. Please visit the page and consider making a contribution to Grayson or any of the other courageous members of Congress on the list. Is your own congresscritter there?
And even if Obama isn't listening to a freshman like Grayson, it sounds like Appropriations Committee Chairman Dave Obey is. Obey's asking the kinds of tough questions that every single member of Congress should be asking unless they want to be considered in dereliction of their duty.
"The problem with increasing the number of troops is that we become the lightening rod, and our presence runs the risk of inciting more anti-American sentiment that can become a recruiting tool for the very forces we seek to curtail," Obey said of one option President Obama is weighing.
"If any adjustment is made in U.S. troop levels, it would be much better if those troops were focused on the job of training Afghani troops and police to take on the job of securing the population and maintaining law and order," he said. "But even there, we have to ask what is achievable. My understanding is that there have never been more than about 90,000 troops under the sway of the central government. Now we are told that the goal is to train up to 400,000 soldiers and police personnel. I think it is reasonable to ask whether that is a realistic and achievable goal."
As for a policy bent on counter-insurgency and nation-building, Obey said, "We should be asking not what policy is theoretically the most intellectually coherent, but which policy is actually achievable given the only tools we have in the region; the Afghani and Pakistani governments. Is there sufficient leadership, popular support, and political will, not in the United States but in Afghanistan, necessary for effective governance to take hold?"
Equally important, he said, "Do we really have the tools to overcome language, culture, history and a 90 percent illiteracy rate to sufficiently transform such a country?"