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  • Writer's pictureMichael Shurkin

Loose Change No. 11: The US Government's Strange Marxism and its Failure in Afghanistan

As we scramble to come to terms with what went wrong in Afghanistan, I wish to highlight certain intellectual imitations that had important consequences for how the US Government and military approached Afghanistan and its actions there on the ground. One often hears the claim that we erred in trying to Westernize Afghanistan because we underestimated Afghans’ unsuitability for modernization. The opposite was true: Undermining our own often costly modernization efforts was a deep-seated skepticism that hobbled those efforts and encouraged us to focus elsewhere. Members of the US government and military, notwithstanding State Department rhetoric, held a strangely Marxist view of Afghan politics that encouraged discounting the value of democratization and comforted us in our ignorance. We already knew all there was to know about Afghans and Afghan politics.

The pervasive view of Afghanistan and Afghan politics echoed Marx’s views on what distinguished pre-modern from modern politics. The former is about immediate needs of isolated people with no sense of the bigger picture, be it the national and international market or class dynamics. People who riot over bread prices because they are hungry is a classic example. Modern politics are another thing altogether: They bespeak a consciousness of the bigger picture, often resulting from being connected to the larger world. Marx used this distinction in his analysis of French voting patterns in 1848, when he strove to explain why the French would vote for Louis-Napoléon Bonapart, a man who clearly, he thought, stood against the class interests of the majority French voters. Marx’s answer was to denigrate French voters, many if not most of whom were farmers, as pre-modern archaics. The key passages in The 18th Brumaire are worth repeating:

The small-holding peasants form an enormous mass whose members live in similar conditions but without entering into manifold relations with each other. Their mode of production isolates them from one another instead of bringing them into mutual intercourse. The isolation is furthered by France‘s poor means of communication and the poverty of the peasants…

A small holding, the peasant and his family; beside it another small holding, another peasant and another family. A few score of these constitute a village, and a few score villages constitute a department. Thus the great mass of the French nation is formed by the simple addition of homologous magnitudes, much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes…

They are therefore incapable of asserting their class interest in their own name, whether through a parliament or a convention. They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented. Their representative must at the same time appear as their master, as an authority over them, an unlimited governmental power which protects them from the other classes and sends them rain and sunshine from above. The political influence of the small-holding peasants, therefore, finds its final expression in the executive power which subordinates society to itself.

These lines, though written to describe mid-19th century France, give voice to perceptions of early 21st century Afghans commonly held by Americans in the US government and military. Afghans are isolated primitives whose archaic and pre-modern politics could be reduced to material needs, Maslow’s Hierarchy, and warlordism, for it was a given that most Afghans would attach themselves to warlords. Yes, we oversaw the establishment of a legislature, but we considered representative democracy to be a joke and focused on working with and through warlords. We assumed warlords were all that mattered, thereby guaranteeing that they were all that mattered. We blocked Afghans interested in other forms of government and stymied the development of liberal democratic politics, while at the same time ensuring that the state would wield no monopoly over the legitimate use of violence.

Was Marx right? Not at all. French historians have picked apart Marx’s assumptions about French voters, French peasants, and French politics, demonstrating that even the most archaic seeming communities often were plugged into the larger world to surprising degrees, and they had sophisticated understandings of the larger picture, or at least no less sophisticated than what one might find among ostensibly modern political actors. As for early 21st century Afghanistan, Americans’ vision of an archaic Afghanistan entirely overlooked the profound consequences of the Soviet War and subsequent civil war, which displaced millions and forced many of them to reside in camps in Pakistan and Iran, where they encountered each other and the outside world. It overlooked the effects of mass media and, subsequently, cell phones. It overlooked the effects of urbanization, and then the rapid growth in literacy. That pre-modern archaic Afghanistan Americans imagined, if it ever existed, was gone. Of course, it was possible to encounter plenty of seemingly archaic communities, especially in the Taliban-infested areas ISAF soldiers frequented, but appearances often deceived, and in any case those Afghans were not most Afghans any more than the impoverished denizens of Appalachian hollers represent most Americans.

This matters for a number of reasons. First, the Marxist view undermined US efforts to democratize and foster modern politics. We did these things without believing in them; we did not make a serious effort at developing democratic politics; we did many things that directly undermined democratization. For example, we oversaw the drafting and implementation of a disastrous electoral law and subsequently made no effort to correct it, unconvinced, it seems, of their importance. Similarly, the elections of 2004 and 2005 generated thousands of pages of well-documented reports detailing all the ways in which flaws in the electoral process undermined election credibility, but the U.S. government ignored them, just as it later ignored cheating by Hamid Karzai in 2009. Why? Because if Afghans truly were as archaic as was believed, elections did not matter. State legitimacy did not matter.

Lastly, it matters because the COIN doctrine that we imagined we were applying makes clear that legitimacy is everything; politics are everything. It was all about shoring up the legitimacy of the Afghan state and cultivating as much as we could politics that strengthened the Afghan republic and rallied to it all the countless Afghans who had an interest in its success. This meant, among other things, encouraging democratic politics. It also meant focusing on the ‘most’ Afghans rather than the holler dwellers, and engaging with those who inhabited our “oil spots” to help mobilize them rather than ignoring them out of a sense that they could not be mobilized given their being stuck at the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid, and warlordism. Indeed, as far as we were concerned, Afghan politics did not matter; there were no politics, but instead just a question of who controlled which district. We would focus on “kinetic” strikes and building security forces whose unity and motivation we never attended to. Perhaps it might have been impossible to make democratic politics take root in Afghanistan, but thanks in part to our Marxist take on Afghans, we hardly tried.

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