Another View of "We Will Break Your Teeth"

Yesterday I mentioned William Dalrymple's report on resentment of US/NATO troops in Afghanistan. An American enlisted man now serving there writes back:

Having just read this morning's post regarding Mr. Dalrymple's experiences in Afghanistan, I am uncertain as to when he was in the country but it seems like it can not have been recently. I have been deployed here since March with my Army Guard infantry company in Paktia Province. Paktia is part of RC-East, the most active part of the country after Helmland and Kandahar in RC-South.

Theater-wide rules of engagement do not permit us to fire warning shots in convoys. This was a controversial decision made almost a year ago by General McCrystal to placate Afghan citizens and advance the COIN cause. I would submit to you that Mr. Dalrymple's material is outdated based on this alone.

Additionally, the unquestioned allegation that coalition forces drag any local nationals out of their homes by their hair and kick Afghan kids should raise a few alarms as soon as it is heard. There is no context to the elder's motivations or affiliations, which is all-important in this very complex environment. An event of this sort, even a single one, would be cause for serious disciplinary action of the U.S. serviceman in question, up to and including court-martial.
Having taken part in many operations here, I can assure you that searches of Afghan homes are almost exclusively handled by Afghan National Security Forces rather than U.S. troops. We are reminded constantly to let the Afghan forces take the lead, particularly in matters of entering private homes or mosques. Again, this in keeping with the principles of COIN and guidance from CENTCOM.

While I do not necessarily disagree with your theme, you should know that the evidence cited by your source is questionable at best.

In keeping with this soldier's argument, most of the criticism-from-the-right of the McChrystal- led COIN strategy is that it has tied US troops' hands and exposed them to extra risk by requiring them to be so careful about civilian casualties. From another reader:

The anecdote told by Dalrymple could be construed as exactly that - an anecdote - and it certainly will be so interpreted by defenders of The Mission...

... but if I may be so bold, I do think you missed two hidden implications of this interview: the first is simply that the tribal elder may not be threatening us as it sounds but rather is simply suggesting that we will find this part of the world and its people too tough to "chew" and "digest" over time and that hunger (for a respite) will overwhelm us as it has others.

The second point is more subtle, perhaps, and it goes to a conclusion that I have reached many times in the past but that I find hard to retain: it is simply that nationalism can, in fact, exist and endure in the absence of a state... and that in some moments in history and/or in some parts of the world, it may be inimical to the establishment of stable state institutions. I find it all the more significant because I am continuously guilty of forgetting that "nation-state" is a conjunction of two relatively independent aspects of collective behavior. I could say more in discussing Afghanistan, the Kurds, the Basques ... but the key point is that my 'forgetfulness' is probably more typical of Americans than is the opposite.

Another way to put this "nationalism without a state" is of course "tribalism," a great blight domestically and internationally. More another time. 

Presented by

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.


The Horrors of Rat Hole Mining

"The river was our source of water. Now, the people won't touch it."


What's Your Favorite Slang Word?

From "swag" to "on fleek," tweens choose.


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in Politics

From This Author

Just In