Shooting The Elephant, Again
June 27, 2014
A lesson of George Orwell’s short story, “Shooting the Elephant,” is this: If you are “there” – in Burma as the Brits and Orwell were – you have to shoot the elephant. There is no way around it or, put differently, there is only one way around it: Don’t be there. This is Orwell’s lesson.
This lesson is almost grasped in Anand Gopal’s excellent book, No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes.” Gopal wrote: “the Karzai government was tethered to American aid, incapable of surviving on its own.” [p. 273] True enough but this also means that the U.S. government was tethered to the Karzai government and had to go on that way endlessly or “get out.” These were the only options.
As Gopal points out, most the funds the US expended in Afghanistan was not for “development and governance” but for military purposes, and that most of this went to “regional strongmen.” This means that the US was actually funding “a network of power outside the state.” And this also means that the Karzai government, to remain in power, had to compete with these strongmen, these warlords, and as a result “the state became criminalized, one of the most corrupt in the world, as thoroughly depraved as the warlords it sought to outflank.” [p. 273]
Gopal’s language, however, obscures that this corruption was and is endemic to the situation, as illustrated by our “involvement” in Vietnam. It is not “depravity” that led the Karzai government into “corruption,” but rather it was weakness. And that government was weak because it did not have the consent of the people to govern. A strong government cannot be bought because it isn’t money that makes a government strong. It is consent or, more technically, legitimacy. Without consent, any government is weak, no matter how powerful it might appear to be. Even governments that brutalize people are weak as they are constantly teetering on the brink of disintegration. Hence, the need for continuing and increasing brutalization.
In Afghanistan, the Karzai government had to hide its weakness behind what it and the US claimed was “progress.” But as Gopal shows, “nearly every metric [used] to show progress unravels upon inspection.” For example, of the 740 schools alleged to have been established, 80% were “not operating at all.” Of the 4000 plus teachers employed, most were simply collecting paychecks without teaching.
But this behavior is not the result of, say, bad intentions or even bad people. It is rather the result of the government’s weakness, its lack of legitimacy, and its need to spend money intended for “development and governance” in other ways in order to stay in power. Building real schools and paying teachers to really teach would not do the trick. As Gopal notes, “Afghanistan…had become a Potemkin country, built almost entirely for show.” [p. 274] Eventually, Washington viewed the Karzai government as “corrupt,” as if that government, or any government in Afghanistan propped up by American aid, had a choice not to behave as it did. What Washington did not realize was that it was its own policies that led to the “corruption” of the Karzai government and that the only alternative to this state of affairs was to “get out.”
As Gopal notes, as time went on, the warlords who were contesting or supporting Karzai changed. However, the situation did not change, but “the new class of warlords was more sophisticated than their predecessors,” having been “rebranded” as “private security companies,” which of course only fed the corruption by making it look legitimate. Gopal’s illustration: Americans had about 400 bases throughout Afghanistan, which, of course, had to be supplied. This required trucks and the trucks required protection. This meant using the warlords, now labeled “private security guards,” and these “guards” had their own outlays to various groups, including the Taliban, in order to secure the supplies.
When the Congress learned that “US tax dollars were going to support warlordism, racketeering, and the insurgency,” it promised reform. “But reform was impossible because the new contracting economy was inexorably bound up in the project of counterterrorism.” [p. 275] And “short of bringing in hundreds of thousands of additional soldiers…, there was no other option.” P. 275]
But Gopal doesn’t go far enough here because, as illustrated by Vietnam, hundreds of thousands of soldiers would not “work” either. The only thing that would “work” was consent or, put differently, a political settlement.” That is, absent a settlement, a real settlement involving all parts of Afghan society, the “quagmire” would continue, endlessly.
As Orwell saw from his experience in Burma, you have to shoot the elephant; you have no choice, other that is than getting out.