The convoluted and irresolvable complexity of geo-political ethics.
Ten members of the International Assistance Mission were killed recently in Badakhshan Province located in northeastern Afghanistan. A wild and remote region, almost separate from the rest of the country it sits wedged between the Pakistani Northern Areas, the Pamirs of Tajikistan and China.
Largely free from the violence plaguing the rest of the country, these NGO workers were journeying back to Kabul via an indirect route when apparently they were attacked by the Taliban and massacred.
This was a clear case of murder, and while much of the killing in war can certainly be classified as murder, cases like these seem especially egregious. Already the American media is at work, and we can already presume what the response will be from Christian sectors.
A murder is a crime and sin, the deaths are tragic. This is the knowledge we have attained, facts we have been given.
How to respond and interact with these facts requires wisdom and there is a danger in oversimplifying the questions. People are dying, that's pretty straightforward and clear. But the reasons behind these deaths and the deaths of other innocents is anything but simple.
Apparently this particular NGO is listed as a Christian organization, but the extent of the Christianity is largely in the realm of good deeds. If you peruse the IAM website you'll find they largely are committed not to proselytizing, but rather are specifically devoted to a medical and humanitarian mission.
A few things have to be considered. First, they were consciously operating as a Western organization in a war-torn country. The country has been invaded and occupied by Western forces for nineteen of the last thirty-one years. This has created a culture of war, specifically guerilla warfare. Guerilla warfare, the only option for a lesser ill-equipped force fighting a massive invading army involves more than merely engaging in combat.
Since the American Civil War, all war is now what we would call Total War(*). General Sheridan of the Union Army was sent to Europe in the 1870's to observe the war between Prussia and France. This was a common practice in those days. He rebuked the Prussians for the lack of zeal in engaging in the type of warfare the Union had exercised versus the Confederacy and would later continue in their Indian policy in the western United States. Europe began to change not long after that, and the full effect of total war would come to fruition between 1939-1945.
For guerilla fighters total war involves in part, counter-propaganda. The invading force inevitably will promote an agenda employing terminology like liberation, advancement, and reform, under the umbrella of threat.. The guerilla force must not allow the invading force to convince the population and engages in a counter message accompanied by an equal or more terrible threat.
Both sides are almost always engaging in lies. They both want to win and the truth means little on the battlefield.
Whether they like it or not these Western NGO's are caught in the midst of this propaganda war and though they seek to be non-combatants and in one sense are...in another sense they are not. Groups like IAM by bringing medical treatment and education programs are in effect aiding the agenda of the invading and occupying force, which can create a moral bifurcation. It‘s kind of like doing evil (indirectly supporting the invasion) that good may come (assistance). For the Afghan people will potentially turn to IAM for aid and assistance and thus not mind certain aspects of the occupation. This not minding can in time turn to approving, so from the standpoint of the guerilla movement, this agenda must not be allowed to be carried out.
Educating the population regarding development, infrastructure, economics, and English literacy is in effect waging a culture war. We may see no problem with the content of these lessons, but from the standpoint of the fighters, it's deadly to their cause.
We're arguing over tactics. What's the real issue?
Which cause is legitimate? Who is morally right? The invading United States? or the Taliban?
No citizen of Afghanistan had anything to with the September 11th attacks and these terroristic acts were carried out not by a nation-state but by a criminal organization. This is another debate where the party lines split. Conservatives in the United States insist combating groups like Al-Qaeda is a military mission, while Liberals and the intelligentsia in Europe view it in terms of culture clash and police action. They would argue there is no military solution to these problems.
The Conservatives often tainted by Sacralist thought want to cast these issues in terms of good and evil. The United States is good and anyone who opposes American policy is to varying degrees, evil. We have discussed elsewhere why these categories are unhelpful and in many cases completely dishonest. The American public is unaware of their own nation's foreign policy and thus reject the suggestions made by large swathes of the Earth who would regard the United States as a force for evil....often a mesmerizing and enticing force, a powerfully alluring culture, but one ruled by a very evil government.
As during the Cold War Communistic language was often the cloak and rallying point for nationalist movements, even today in Afghanistan we find similar propaganda at work. What is often called Taliban and Jihad is in reality rallying language for nationalistic, ethnic, or even tribal goals.
There are several Taliban groups in Afghanistan. Some are indeed of the extremist stripe but it would seem the majority are regular Afghan men fighting not even so much for the idea of Afghanistan but to defeat and drive out an invader/occupier. The lessons of Vietnam have not yet been learned by the White House. I wonder sometimes if the leadership in Langley and the Pentagon deliberately ignore these lessons.
If it was legitimate for the United States to attack Afghanistan, then it is equally legitimate for the people of that country to resist the invasion. The United States blamed the Taliban for harbouring members of Al-Qaeda, but does that justify an invasion?
Let's be fair for a moment and try to lay aside all bias.
Say for example the United States allowed the leadership of the PKK (Turkish Kurds fighting Turkey), or the Chechen fighters (opposing Russia) to hide in the United States, and even set up camps and operate here. Would any American citizen accept an argument from Turkey or Russia that invading the United States was legitimate? Would we accept they were delivering or liberating us from these terrorists? Would the American citizenry call it murder when all the backcountry boys shot dead Turkish soldiers or Russian NGO's who came in and tried to teach our children Cyrillic? Would any of us accept that? What would happen in rural America if a Russian NGO wanted to help drill water wells? What would happen to the family that accepted their help? At the very least their house would be burned down, but more likely the result would be much worse.
Would it be murder for rural Americans to kill Russian NGO’s? Yes. But as I hope you can see, it's just not that simple.
We lament the deaths of these NGO's. Reportedly they carried Dari language Bibles, which if true indicates they were involved in some kind of proselytizing. From the Christian standpoint it means little to us if a government forbids the sharing of the Gospel. We don't answer to man but to God.
But what about when it's at the point of a gun? Were the NGO's pointing guns? No, they were offering medical assistance. But again consider the nature of the warfare. Total war. I don't like it any more than you do, but it is the reality. And in total war, the NGO's were, in some sense, aiding and abetting the Invaders. I realize the motivations of these murdered people were certainly pure...I heartily grant them that. But I am unsure of the wisdom of their presence in Afghanistan. Are the people there suffering? Terribly. Will IAM end the suffering? No. Alleviate it? Very little.
What would best end the suffering of these people? That's easy. End the war.
What would be the consequences for Afghanistan if the United States were to do that? More below.....
First, we need to also consider a couple of other points before we move on. This organization IAM is considered a Christian NGO. How are we using the term, and how is Christian defined by the people of Afghanistan?
Evangelical groups generally speaking have little or nothing to do with international organizations like the United Nations, which in one sense is probably wise. Tying in Church funds with quasi-political goals can be dangerous. Of course, that's exactly what the American church has done, simply with nationalist rather than internationalist political agendas. So while I can respect a certain caution in dealing with international bodies, the reason the Evangelical Church in the United States refrains makes no sense in light of their other behaviour, unless their motivations are nationalistic. At that point perhaps we need to ask...what is a Church?
I've failed to find any kind of affiliation statement for IAM, leaving me to believe it is a broad organization encompassing just about anything that goes by the name Christian. Usually we will find representatives from a wide spectrum, everything from quasi-Unitarian to Evangelical. If anyone knows otherwise, please inform me. I base this assessment from my own encounters with ‘christian’ NGO-minded people and accounts from expatriate friends.
Nevertheless for the sake of this argument, we will assume all these people who were killed were indeed Christians in the traditional orthodox sense.
How would the people in Afghanistan define Christian? We have argued repeatedly one of the unique points of Biblical Christianity is the categorical rejection of Sacralism. Verduin argues rightly the notion is pagan in origin, hearkening back to the Tower of Babel and ancient Egypt. Theonomists and others argue that all cultures have to be in some sense religious, or as we would say, Sacral. They're right. So, they would say, if the culture is not Christian, it's some kind of idolatry. Right again.
Nevertheless, our Kingdom is not of this world, and we can be perfectly content living in a culture which more or less is idolatrous. It only becomes a spiritual danger to the church, when the idolatry, the sacralism is Christian in nature.
We seek to extend the Kingdom of God through the proclamation of the Word, through worship, and by making disciples.
Christian Sacralists reject this model and historically have persecuted adherents of Two Kingdom theology. Other cultures always represent Sacralisms whether it be Confucian, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu, or Statist. So for these people, they are literally unable to conceive of our understanding of the Kingdom. We cannot expect them to.
Let me say it again a different way. They cannot conceive of a religion promoting an idea of a Kingdom which is not synthesized with the whole of society. A spiritual Kingdom, an eschatological Kingdom, is beyond their ability to grasp. Theonomists acknowledge this as well, and embrace the idea of impossibility and thus heartily promote Constantinianism as the only alternative.
By eschatological I mean a Kingdom that is of this age and the age to come, a Kingdom already and not-yet. A Kingdom that is fully established in the person of Christ and yet is still being worked out in time by His body, the Church.
Why can't the people of Afghanistan see the Kingdom of God? Why couldn't the average person in the Middle Ages see the Kingdom of God?
Because you must be born again.
There is no possible way people in Central Asia could understand the nature of Christianity. To them it can only be an idea tied in with a cultural mission and intertwined with society. They're wrong, but that's how they're going to see it.
America since it is historically and culturally of European heritage is a Christian nation. Most Evangelicals celebrate this. It's utterly false because the categories aren't Biblical, but that's how Muslims will view it. Only those who live in the West and have learned something of our cultural history will be able to grasp our modern secularism versus our historical sacralism. I try to emphasize these distinctions to Muslims whenever I can.
So remember, for many Muslims when they turn on the television and see Hannah Montana, or Britney Spears, or Ellen Degeneres......to them, all these people are Christians. Madonna is a Christian. Elton John is a Christian. George Bush and Barack Obama are Christians.
If you define the world Sacrally....in one sense, they would be right.
All this is wrong of course, but now back to the sad news. If we know that people in a place like Afghanistan are certainly going to equate our country, culture, and geo-politics with Christianity, should we (as Christians) be there when American guns are pointed at them?
The gospel cannot function in such a setting. It could if they didn’t think of America as a Christian nation, but that’s not the case. And if the missionaries didn't cooperate with the American forces, they would be quickly removed.
In addition to the medical work IAM is involved in educational programs and English literacy. Think with the Sacralist paradigm again and you will see why the IAM is merely 'an arm' of the American Occupation. It may not be technically true, but that's how the Afghani's would see it, and it makes sense.
I hope you see the whole situation is a disaster. What's happening in Afghanistan is a tragedy and in many ways a crime. The poor people of that wondrous land are caught in the middle and for just over thirty years they have seen almost complete societal collapse.
What's the solution? First as Christians, we must in no way whatsoever rely on the military to solve our problems or help the Church in its mission. The Church must never turn to the military for aid and a revenge response, a racist response, or an Imperial response are all contrary to the gospel. Our weapons are not revenge nor are they bullets. We bear the Sword of the Spirit.
What is the solution for Afghanistan and for America? What would happen if America just ends the war? That's complicated, but I'll make an attempt to frame the question which others will have to answer.
Afghanistan's geography is both a blessing and a curse. Its mountainous terrain has enabled it to defeat powerful invading empires, but its centralized location has constantly placed it in the path of geo-political struggle.
The British and Russians played the Great Game here throughout the 19th century, and in the 20th century the Soviet Union became involved in Afghan politics. Iran to the west had long been an Anglo-American puppet regime, and Pakistan had lined up with the American sphere. For a country like Pakistan this had little to do with a desire for Westernization but pragmatic security concerns. India though techinically part of the of non-aligned movement had often looked to the Soviet sphere for weaponry and other aid. This in part was driven by their tensions with China, and after the Sino-Soviet split, Russia was a natural ally. Marxist movements in India, their non-aligned status, and America's friendship with Pakistan drove India away from the American sphere. This would change later, particularly after Indira Gandhi's assassination, the opening of China, and the fall of the Soviet Union, but in 1979 the whole world was tense as the Cold War seemed to be escalating. The Soviet Union also driven by Imperialism had a real interest in making sure Afghanistan did not fall under the Pakistani and thus American sphere.
At that moment the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to prop up its struggling puppet regime. This move destabilized the fragile situation in the region. Had the Soviets won, what would have happened to the geo-politics of the region? Other than losing face and placing a Soviet satellite on Pakistan's border, probably nothing. But the Afghan people had a long tradition of resistance and sure enough the Mujahideen began in earnest to fight.
The brilliant if not scheming Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter's National Security Advisor pushed for aid to the Afghan resistance and Carter acquiesced. Later under Reagan this aid would increase and escalate when in the mid-80's the CIA began to provide Stinger heat seeking missiles to the fighters. Much of this is well know.
There was a tremendous refugee crisis as millions of Afghans poured into Iran but mostly into neighbouring Pakistan. These camps became horrific and ended up providing the breeding ground for what would later become the Taliban. Many of the original movement were young men who had grown up in these camps, been indoctrinated in certain agenda-driven madrassas and then returned to conquer the homeland many had never seen or could scarcely remember.
When the Mujahideen defeated the Soviets they spent the next several years fighting each other and completely decimated the country in particular cities like Kabul.
Part of the problem with Afghanistan is that in some ways it is not really a viable country. The Pashtun majority lives in the east of the country, their lands being divided by the British Durand Line, leaving half of them in Afghanistan and the rest in Pakistan, another fictionalized and illogical geographic boundary drawn by the British. The Pashtun people have always resented this division of their lands and in many ways have little interest in either the greater Afghanistan or in the Punjab dominated Pakistan. They are in between and many still dream of a Pashtunistan. Their culture is that of the mountains and quite different from the Punjabi, Saraiki, and Sindhi portions of Pakistan where the power and majority of the population lives.
Tajiks are a Persianized people living in the north and west of the country. They speak Dari, not Pashto and have in many ways a different culture than the Pashtuns. Culturally their ties are more with Iran and the old Persian city-states of Central Asia...like Tashkent, Samarkand, and Khiva.
There are also Uzbeks, Turkmen, nomads, and the Hazara living in the central mountains are of the country. The Hazara are a Persianized people with a part Mongol heritage.
It’s a complicated mosaic and difficult to unify. In fact it can be argued the country has never been unified in the sense we would speak of a modern state. By some definitions it cannot be properly called a country.
The Taliban can only be understood in light of Pashtun culture. Some have suggested it is Pashtun culture turned up a few notches, or perhaps we could say radicalized. Some of the issues regarding burqa’s the treatment of women have little or nothing to do with extremist Islam, rather they are an extremist Pashtun-ism. At that point the United States or any humanitarian organization must ask....will we invade a country and under threat of arms to force an entire culture to change?
The Northern Alliance of the late-90’s was a conglomeration of the various Tajik and Uzbek warlords. So was it about resisting the Taliban’s extremism or was it really an ethnic/cultural clash and power struggle? A bit of both of course.
During the 80’s the United States backed Mujahideen fighters who then fought for control during the civil war of the early 90’s. Now, some of these same men, Hekmatyar and others are fighting for the Taliban, or one of the Taliban‘s which they ostensibly opposed in the mid- and late 90’s. Many of these leaders are often identified as Warlords and I don’t think it a stretch to say the Afghan public in many ways views them as the worst enemy of all. With these men like Hekmatyar, Dostum Rabbani, Khan, and others it’s not about ideology but raw power. They will switch sides when it suits their purposes and America has made use of them as well, only adding to the moral dubiousness of the entire operation.
It is also well documented that Bin Laden’s ties to what would become the Taliban go back to the 1980’s when many of these men were receiving aid from the United States. It only made sense that once the Taliban took over, the newly formed Al Qaeda would look to establish a refuge there. The country couldn’t be more perfect for finding out of the way places to hide and already possessed a very conservative almost pre-modern form of Islamic culture.
The extremist Muslims much like many in the Reconstructionist movement also live in a fantasy...desiring pre-modernism and looking to old models from simpler times as a solution to the world’s woes. Like the Reconstructionists they can’t come to terms with modernity’s transformation of society. Population and resources alone, not to mention the host of other factors relegate these pre-modern solution-models to the realm of fantasy.
Even though the Taliban was getting bad press in the late 90’s the United States was very interested in pursuing contracts with them for pipelines that would allow them to tap into Central Asia. The Clinton administration didn’t seem to have any qualms about several key Taliban figures visiting Texas in the late 1990’s to discuss the possibilities of a Turkmenistan-Pakistan line, which would by necessity run right through Afghanistan. Everyone knew full well human rights abuses were occurring under Taliban rule, but no one at that point cared. Unocal (Karzai’s old employer) wanted to strike a deal.
The United States and any other powers are often most concerned with stability, what will be good for regional security and business interests. There are those within the regime who genuinely care about the welfare of other people, but often the humanitarian concerns are really marketing tactics for the public.
Let’s talk fantasy for a moment:
If the United States had really wanted to change Afghanistan, the invasion should have been conducted by overwhelming force and then the rebuilding and development efforts should not have been handed over to Halliburton, American mercenaries and American companies but to Middle Eastern organizations. That would be if they REALLY cared about the Afghan people.
Of course this makes no sense because then the war profiteers so intimately tied in with the defense establishment would be cut out. It won’t do. Also, in terms of geo-political capital it would be like handing over your spoils to someone else. It just doesn’t happen that way. Superpowers or Empires never act altruistically. Humanitarianism is a means not an end.
Who would they have brought in for a coalition? The logical choices would have been Iran and Pakistan, but one is an American enemy and the other is tied in with other wider regional tensions and would have led to trouble with India. Of course, that’s happened anyway as the Indians are heavily involved in the Afghan chess game. Even when you consider the disaster-scenarios and problems of going about it the ‘humane’ way, they are no worse than what has in fact happened.
In addition, there are issues with Russia and the Tajik and Uzbek populations in Central Asia. If there are troubles or even political successes among their cousins in Afghanistan it affects and destabilized the whole region and motivates other players to get involved.
I could go on and on, but anyone can see the whole situation is an impossible mess. I hope the doctors who were killed not only understood the risks involved, but also apprehended the complexity of the whole situation and how their presence would be perceived by some. Had they grasped this, they might have re-evaluated the wisdom of such a mission. If they went in a spirit of naiveté, God bless them. If they went despite the risks and perceptions their presence would generate because they believe in what they were doing...God bless them.
I’m only questioning the lack of understanding of the whole situation, and the wisdom of Christian participation. I want to identify the culprits of the Afghan disaster as something far larger than a nebulous group called the Taliban. I want to look at this situation with wisdom and look at solutions we can pray and hope for.
So am I suggesting the United States and all other extra-regional players just abandon the people of Afghanistan? I don’t want to downplay the horror of what is happening there and the media acting as a propaganda arm for the Obama administration keeps trying to tug at the heart-strings of the public. Think of the recent and very moving picture of the young woman on the cover of Time magazine. Her nose had been cut off as punishment. Again, this is not strictly the Taliban, this is Pashtun culture run amok. Is this a problem NATO forces can solve?
I am reminded of what happened in Cambodia in the late 1970’s. The Khmer Rouge had taken over and in a few short years completely destroyed the country murdering over a million people. Eventually their actions were destabilizing the whole region and a newly victorious Vietnam invaded and drove them out. They were defeated and their remnants returned to the jungle where the United States continued to back them for several years just to spite Vietnam.
These regimes destroy themselves. Some might argue morally that powerful states should intervene to stop these regimes and overthrow them. Fine, but give me an example where this approach has worked? Afghanistan? Iraq? More people have died since and as a result of the invasions then ever died under Saddam Hussein or the Taliban.
Culturally much of Afghanistan was opposed to Taliban rule which was for a time supported by the United States.
If the United States were not a factor in the region it seems likely the country would eventually divide with Iran gaining influence in the west, Russia possibly gaining influence through Central Asian proxies in the north, and Pakistan grabbing the east. This would change the variables in the equation and possibly generate stability, but then the United States would be out of the picture and so any such scenarios are unacceptable.
A similar situation can be found in Iraq where American hypocrisy is most evident. The Kurds of Iraq are considered allies with legitimate security concerns and the United States has backed them since the early 1990’s. Even the Kurds are pragmatic. They were betrayed by the United States in the mid-70’s when Saddam began to fall into the American sphere, but for their own interests they are willing to overlook or forget history.
But just across the border in Turkey, millions of Kurds have been displaced and thousands killed by the Ankara regime. American policy demands the Kurds in Turkey are to be ignored or considered enemies. The Turks have abused and murdered these people for decades but since Turkey is a vital ally, the United States looks the other way while Turkey brutalizes its own citizenry. This alliance has also played a part in recognizing the Armenian genocide almost a century ago.
The rest of the world is well aware of the myriad hypocrisies of the Americans and their humanitarian language and demands ring hollow to all but the American public.
There are no good solutions. We can continue to pray for the Afghan people and for resolution. If America would abandon its interests and Imperial ambitions, the situation in Afghanistan would resolve itself, in fact it might have years ago. The Taliban was far from thriving in 2001 and if it were not for the United States intruding in the region, the other powers in the vicinity could have eventually dealt with the inept Kandahar regime of Mullah Omar. This would give victories and power to certain regimes the United States doesn’t like, but the Afghan people might have averted years of bloodshed.
Even if the Taliban were still in power, it could not possibly be worse than what has happened since 2001. While many Afghans were happy to see the Kandahar Taliban ousted in 2001, the alternative has been no better. For many it was like having to choose whether to ingest arsenic or cyanide.
Let us pray for the families of the ten murdered people but let us also pray for the Afghan people. Their story is not told in our media, while the doctors are obviously getting extensive coverage.
I say it again, these people were murdered, but let us refuse to listen to Fox ‘news’ and the Christian Right as they call for retaliatory bloodshed. Let us refuse to listen to their oversimplified and ill-informed analysis and understanding.
Let us view these things with wisdom befitting the called of Christ. We can mourn the dead on all sides and condemn the actions of all murderers...on all sides.
Let us also pray for Pakistan. There are many Christians in that troubled land and they are suffering along with everyone else right now. These floods have the potential to bring down the Pakistani government and it is not a good time to try and hold elections. It will mean more scheming, more assassinations, a return of Musharraf?, and could help destabilize the entire region with repercussions from Iran to Central Asia, and from Afghanistan to India. You cannot understand Afghanistan without looking at Pakistan, and Pakistan is probably the greatest flashpoint in geo-politics right now. The only possible rival is North Korea.
* Total War as defined by some has existed for ages, but historians recognized a shift in the 19th century. With society’s complexity and the intertwining of media, economics, logistics, etc.... the nature of warfare changed. It was no longer merely about armies in the field but a comprehensive strategy seeking to break the opponent. Eventually this developed into strategic bombings, propaganda, and terrorism as a tactic. War has always been horrific, but who can deny in the industrial and technological age it has taken an especially sinister turn.