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On Afghanistan: Reflections From the Past

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Author's Note: This essay was written in 2005 and recently discovered in a dusty electronic file underneath a pile of virtual packing crates ... It was one of my application essays to a graduate program in government and sheds some interesting light on the doubtfully optimistic mentality pervading the mission at the time. I wonder, seven years later, whether these musings still hold true?

Kabul, Afghanistan: 2005

If necessity is the mother of invention, then it is surely context that begets inspiration. Context, at this particular juncture in my life, consists of the dusty outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan. I am here as a tiny cog in the larger machine of internationally backed Afghan reconstruction. Despite the idealistic claims of pure altruism, the combined endeavor is ultimately about the exportation of liberal democracy. Is this experiment in the spread of Enlightenment political ideals a fleeting historical caprice or a permanent development, destined to redefine the future of this long-suffering region? It is through the lens of my current situation that I contemplate my academic, professional, and personal reasons for pursuing a degree in government.

From a purely academic standpoint, and as a student of history, it is impossible to avoid the cynical suspicion that our presence and our ideals are all very impermanent. I am less than 2,600 miles from the cradle of Solon's legal code on equality and citizenship. Yet in the 2,600 years since that defining era, the history of human governance has been defined more by oppression and tyranny than by freedom or democracy. As a student of the present, however, it is impossible to avoid the optimistic signs of significant and permanent change. For the first time in history, a major and growing portion of humanity is free to choose from the dictates of its conscience, to own property, and to participate in governance. The seat of sovereign power has moved steadily through time from the hands of provincial warlords to nation states to supranational institutions. Respect for individual rights is increasingly the non-negotiable demand for legitimacy in a global arena. Does the welcomed ousting of the Taliban and the genuine appreciation for our project represent a long-awaited initiation toward a new political order? Or are the ever-present specters of poverty and power-play lurking beyond the pale, ready to take their familiar stand against individual freedom?

Professionally, I have an obvious vested interest in the outcomes to these questions. As a military officer, I am quite consciously at the forward edge of a political sea-change. War, as von Clausewitz notes, is an extension of politics by other means, and in the current age of political desire to promote liberal democracy abroad, war is a likely prospect. Is this political determination wisely founded? Are the inevitable sacrifices likely to yield broad and lasting results? Can we expect, through short-term violence, to engender long-term peace? These are questions I intend to explore.

Personally, I am struck by the sheer improbability of my presence here and the overwhelming significance of events around me. I am likewise struck by the contrasting realities of human misery and hope that can be either eliminated or nurtured through the political institutions we build for ourselves. Afghanistan is a case study for either. Emerging from the depths of oppressive theocracy, it is busily redefining itself in terms of liberal, democratic ideals. How effective it is in this pursuit has deep implications for the world.

In this country one can see the future of liberal democracy itself. It is possible, indeed likely, that the basic mode of human life here will be determined by age-old brute force rather than values imported from without. But it also possible, in a kernel of tremendous optimism, that the values of liberty and democracy are indeed transcendent, bearing the beginnings of an entirely new age of human peace and prosperity. I can think of no topic more worthy of concerted study and contemplation.

Author's continued notes: Considering the increasing tensions on the ground between the "liberators" and the "rescued" and the Taliban's resurrection as a negotiating party & political reality, I wonder if what I did over there was worth it. I'd have to say, in the end, that it was. While it appears to be a hopeless mess "over there," the core of the question has moved from "Is Afghanistan going to be a rigid theocracy harboring terrorists?" to "is Afghanistan going to be relatively moderate modern state that can kick the US out?" While it's sort of sad to be cast as the oppressor or even as a failed friend, the reality in Afghanistan is far better than when we arrived. The questions being asked today could not have even been imagined a decade ago. Good luck Afghanistan, we wish you the best...