Three Cups of Teabaggers: Insight from the Right on Afghanistan

I've often used this space to describe our weary and frayed democratic institutions. Our electoral dysfunction, our antique Congress. Yet there is no doubt that American democracy today is healthier than ever at the individual level. Opportunities for participation -- spurred on by the internet -- have created innumerable possibilities for us to communicate about decisions that impact our lives. The election of Barack Obama illustrates the power of collective action when people see themselves as stakeholders. The Right's nationwide "tea party" protest is a more recent example.

The American Right has changed the entire political landscape through adept organizing and communications technology. In the 90s, Christian conservatives took over school boards and ran ballot measures to draw people to the polls for a sweep. Before that, they mastered direct mail.

But conservatism has fallen into disarray lately. It is out of ideas. Today's loudest voices don't talk about small government, they want no government. Hunkered down in defensive mode, they've formed militias, painted crazy signs for their tea parties and descended into social nihilism. The extreme conservative goalpost has fallen off the horizon. The path leads to a place where there is nothing left to conserve.

This particular dilemma of the American Right provides an angle of insight into the challenge that we and our allies face in Afghanistan: rejection of central control by much of the population and perceptions of corrupt illegitimacy of the government that does exist. This challenge is especially great in the parts of the country dominated by the Pashtun tribes and by Pashtunwali -- their collective code; In these areas legitimate authority comes from local leadership, and collective decision making is indigenous and specialized. This vast and varied swath of people are unified by this code which is a core feature of Pashtun culture and identity. A chief characteristic is disdain for anything resembling outside authority and rejection of distant interference. They hate central government, in other words.

To be successful, U.S. objectives need to better explain the difference between government -- a what, and governance -- a how. The integrated U.S. civil-military plan for Afghanistan was released on August 10th. Its goals are impressive: accountability, opportunity and reconciliation are all features. Yet it needs more creative input into how we plan to localize and empower Afghans as the ultimate stakeholders. This action must all be local. If the central government of Afghanistan is viewed with disdain by the Pashtun and distrust by the rest of the population, we are going to need to accelerate the broad distribution of influence double-time. This will be imperative if the impending government restores the much hated Jihadi commanders who pillaged and abused the population (especially women) in the 90s.

Much of the campaign plan skips the 'how' part of the main efforts. This must be remedied, as it is increasingly obvious that it is not so much 'what' the international community does with regard to development and reconstruction but 'how' they go about it, that makes the difference in community perceptions. We need to make clear how local people will actually be supported and empowered in decision-making or be given the opportunity to lead local processes. We need a detailed peace-building strategy that empowers legitimate interest groups; women, youth, professionals. Their voices can't be marginalized.

Thing is, we should be good at this. Despite our wacky extremes, Americans instinctively allow for differences. We are masters of participation and of open process. We hate being bossed around. Everyone reading this probably took a class in conflict resolution or can think of some version of a closed and insular clan that somehow interacts in a socially meaningful way. For us, this is normal -- participation that enforces a broadly accepted set of rules and diminishes the "us versus them" mindset that in other places leads to calamity and violence.

Where I grew up, in a dusty southwestern neighborhood of stucco houses and fiberglass trailers, I could name three general tribes: the gun fetish cops, the friendly but paranoid meth-heads and the end of the world fundamentalist Christians. We were the hippie transplants. None of these folks paid much attention to the federal government. Indeed, they hated it. Yet they did show up at pot lucks. They served on the local irrigation board and all the kids played together in a pack. In other words, it was all cool at the interpersonal level. (this was self governance!) We just didn't talk about what went on in Washington, D.C. We talked about horses and dogs. Government never came up.

Americans are good at talking to other people. We're good at making it up as we go along and adapting when we need to. This is a vital skill in today's world. It is what our Army (the most traditional institution in our government) and the Marines (the most innovative) are actually doing in Afghanistan. In today's world, security is about people. And people want a destiny, not just a fate. Because you choose one and the other chooses you. This is what we've talked about for more than 200 years now. This is what can't be achieved by force. And in the end, this is what will provide the ultimate story of why we must make a commitment to this far away land.