"We Will Break Your Teeth": The Prospect in Afghanistan

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I have never been to Afghanistan. In that I am like most Americans -- and virtually all Americans who are not part of the military (or contractors etc).

Therefore when I hear and read reports about how things are going there, I have no first-hand grounds for judgment. This is hardly an Afghan-specific problem -- the world is too big for any of us to know more than a tiny sampling. Most of us have never been to Darfur, worked on a deep-sea oil rig, been part of the Iranian resistance, lived in North Korea, etc, just to mention several other topics now in the news. But we're expected to support, oppose, or at least acquiesce to policies on those topics.

At one level this is a reminder of the importance of journalism (of traditional and new-media varieties); usually, that's the only way we know anything about situations beyond our immediate experience. It also raises questions about how we know what we "know" about the world. Yes, yes, I realize that much of the electorate "knows" things mainly by tribal loyalty, resentment, party-line-ism, etc. But if you really wanted to make up your mind about things you haven't experienced, how would you do it?

This long-term question is on my mind now because of a column in the New Statesman by William Dalrymple. It argues that the U.S./NATO military effort in Afghanistan is doomed. Since I can't judge first-hand its assessment of conditions there, I compare its outlook to what I have seen in other parts of the world, and the predictions I've seen proved true or false about similar efforts over the decades. And based on what I know about the rest of the world, I'm inclined to believe reports like this. Which is why I opposed the expansion of efforts in Afghanistan last year and think the U.S. must concentrate on curtailing its exposure now. Part of what Dalrymple says:

After the jirga was over, one of the tribal elders came over and we chatted for a while over a glass of green tea. "Last month," he said, "some American officers called us to a hotel in Jalalabad for a meeting. One of them asked me, 'Why do you hate us?' I replied, 'Because you blow down our doors, enter our houses, pull our women by the hair and kick our children. We cannot accept this. We will fight back, and we will break your teeth, and when your teeth are broken you will leave, just as the British left before you. It is just a matter of time.'"

What did he say to that? "He turned to his friend and said, 'If the old men are like this, what will the younger ones be like?' In truth, all the Americans here know that their game is over. It is just their politicians who deny this."...

Now as [for the Brits in the 1840s], the problem is not hatred of the west, so much as a dislike of foreign troops swaggering around and making themselves odious to the very people they are meant to be helping. On the return journey, as we crawled back up the passes towards Kabul, we got stuck behind a US military convoy of eight Humvees and two armoured personnel carriers in full camouflage, all travelling at less than 20 miles per hour. Despite the slow speed, the troops refused to let any Afghan drivers overtake them, for fear of suicide bombers, and they fired warning shots at any who attempted to do so. By the time we reached the top of the pass two hours later, there were 300 cars and trucks backed up behind the convoy, each one full of Afghans furious at being ordered around in their own country by a group of foreigners. Every day, small incidents of arrogance and insensitivity such as this make the anger grow.

For the record: Yes, I have argued the U.S. should have borne down much harder in Afghanistan in 2002, rather than switching to Iraq. Like so much from that era, that's a permanently lost opportunity. Things are different now.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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