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Stuart Whatley Headshot

Civilizing Afghanistan While We Decivilize Ourselves

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Sixty years ago, as Europe's satrapies threw off their colonial patriarchs, the African-Martinican author and poet Aimé Césaire warned the Old World of the damage its adventures abroad had at home. Whatever its obvious destructive effects on the colonized, colonialism also "decivilized" the colonizer. Europeans entered the Third World as "civilizers," but it cost them the power and moral standing that brought them there to begin with. Césaire wrote that "between colonization and civilization there is an infinite distance."

America is not a colonial power, and its occupation of Afghanistan is not an outwardly colonial exercise, but Césaire's warning may still carry wisdom. What is our role in South Asia if not that of a "civilizer"? And if not that, then for what purpose have we remained for nine years and over 1,000 American lives? Whatever it is, the power we assume overseas seems to stand in stark relief to any élan vital we still have at home. The fact that Congress passed additional funding for the war while simultaneously denying the unemployed an extension on benefits is an alarming indication of where our priorities lie.

Most of the statistics and facts on the ground from Afghanistan are widely known. Today the war's budgetary cost is $280 billion, and it will only continue to rise as additional troops deploy this summer. The enemy is said to number less than 100 individuals, by some estimates, with the rest residing across the border in Pakistan, or thousands of miles away in troubled states such as Yemen or Somalia. We've replaced one general with another of like mind. Both advocate a strategy that experts will tell you takes a least a decade to implement (we first began implementing it two years ago). President Obama's tentative 2011 withdrawal date for such a long-term counterinsurgency (COIN) approach has only fostered confusion and frustration among civilian and military ranks alike, as well it should.

Some military strategists tell us that the war is indeed winnable, but at what cost? The Taliban has been replaced by a coterie of hopelessly corrupt feudal warlords who enrich themselves with the billions in aid dollars funneled in from the rest of the world. Afghanistan is far larger and more rural geographically than Iraq was; some say that to adequately occupy and "civilize" the full population would take hundreds of thousands -- if not millions -- of troops. A year ago I spoke to aid workers who had recently returned from Afghanistan. They painted a picture of progress and relative success in the large metropolises, such as Kabul and Jalalabad; but in other more remote areas conditions had only worsened. After a year, reports from the ground indicate that little has changed for this dichotomous situation.

What has changed since we first put feet on the ground in South Asia is the situation at home. 15 million Americans are now unemployed, and the prospects for any sudden improvement in the economy grow dimmer by the day. Americans now buy groceries and basic services in the same way that we fund the war in Afghanistan: with debt. In 2007, household debt approached 100 percent of GDP, and that was before the crash. Wages for 80 percent of workers have remained stagnant for three decades, leading to unprecedented wealth disparity. The income for the top 5 percent of families in 2004 was 20.7 times the incomes of the lowest 20 percent, up from 11.4 times as much in 1979. These trends occurred in close correlation to the financializaion of the U.S. economy (FIRE sector output, comprised of finance, insurance and real estate, now makes up 20.4 percent of GDP, up thirty percent since 1979).

We have essentially handed over what was once the most vibrant economy in civilization's history to a single intermediary service sector industry. As finance became not just a necessary means to economic ends, but an end in and of itself, the economy stopped working for the bulk of the people. Growth has remained consistently tepid during this period while the occurrence of bubbles has grown more frequent. The most recent pop, in 2008, increased the nation's debt to GDP ratio by 30 percent.

Neither the financial sector nor the Afghanistan war can singly take all the blame for rendering the lugubrious situation we're in now; but both are powerful symbolic examples of our government's failures to govern for the people, as opposed " target="_hplink">to powerful political or special interests. Does exorbitant nation-building in Afghanistan actually benefit Americans? Are we safer now because of the occupation, or have we actually radicalized more? Here at home, why have we allowed our economy to transform into a system that only truly serves the top 20 percent, while the rest languish behind and fall increasingly into debt? The nation that in 1776 bestowed on the rest of the world the legacy of democracy now bestows a legacy of decadence and predation gone overboard.

Just as Césaire warned sixty years ago, we must not lose sight of what matters most while we pursue endless contingencies abroad. This situation is redeemable, but it will take a government that is Of, By and For the People. Right now, whether or not we have that is questionable at best.