In his powerful biography of Peter I Romanov, Robert Massie puts words in the mouth of the czar: “I will drag you, kicking and screaming if need be, into the modern world.” Peter could do that to his own people because he was one of them. By our standards, Peter was a hereditary monarch, a military dictator. But by the norms and culture of his own people, he was the man the Russian people recognized as their legitimate ruler.
We cannot make a similar claim to legitimacy over Afghanistan as Peter could over Russia. And it’s high time we recognized that.
We are invaders in Afghanistan. We came to depose rulers of that country complicit in a brutal and unprovoked attack — and we were successful. We came to install a democratic government and present the Afghan people with an opportunity to reconstruct civilization and re-enter the community of nations after decades of brutal internal conflict, Soviet invasion, and xenophobic theocracy.
We have fought in Afghanistan for longer than we have fought in any other war in our nation’s history. We have sunk the blood of many of our finest citizens into the dry hills of that land literally on the other side of the planet. We have dispursed our treasure to an impoverished people in a display of generosity following that nation’s attack upon us in a manner truly exceptional in human history.
So about a week ago, soldiers in Afghanistan disposed of some trash by burning it. Somehow, some tattered old copies of the Koran were included in there. No one reasonably suggests that these Korans were intentionally included; it was by all accounts a mistake. When word of what had happened leaked out, riots broke out all over Afghanistan and have claimed the lives of several Americans there and who knows how many Afghans. All because of an inadvertent mistake.
It seems completely unreasonable, barbaric even, that such a thing could happen. Is this because of Islam? I can’t say “yes” as a definitive answer — Islam is part of it, but the real reason is a whole cultural soup of which Islam is only an ingredient. There must be some magical thinking involved, as though the books had some sort of divine power. There is some symbolic thinking, too — if we burned some Korans, we must somehow be symbolically insulting Islam, symbolically insulting the Afghan people — people who from our perspective are the beneficiaries of longer, harder work than our military has ever worked before in our nation’s short history to benefit.
Obviously, we find the Taliban unacceptable as peers on the international stage; they were complicit in the 9/11 attacks upon our country ten and a half years ago. But given that we’ve knocked Afghanistan back several metals, and have found ourselves mired in localized conflicts with roots tracing back to family feuds from before the time of Alexander the Great’s visit and ill-advised marriage, at some point we’ve got to leave the Afghan people to their own devices. It isn’t our country. So what if they vote in a government displeasing to us? Will they grow more terrorists there? Perhaps — but it’s not worth our blood and treasure to prop up a nation that doesn’t want our help.
The United States and its allies have given the Afghan people every chance they could possibly have wished for to step up and be part of the modern world. If internice tribal warfare is more important to them than forming a nation, who are we to tell them it isn’t? If they prefer feudalism and local warlords to democratically elected leaders and the rule of law, who are we to tell them they have to act like us? If they would rather have their hoary superstitions and magic books instead of running water and pennicilin, who are we to force them to enter the modern world, kicking and screaming? It’s their choice. We’ve held out an open hand for a long time to the Afghan people. We’ve tried to play by their rules, we’ve tried to address our concerns and nothing makes any difference. It’s too bad for all the innocents who will be hurt when we leave — but then again, they’re being hurt now and our presence isn’t helping them all that much, only hurting us.
We aren’t wanted and we aren’t welcome. In a land where the most powerful cultural norm is that of hospitality, this is how our hosts are treating us. It’s time that our people come back home, back where they belong, away from a place where the inadvertent destruction of a magic book full of ridiculous superstitions makes people die in the streets.