August 03, 2020


It’s not really whether the glass is half-empty or half-full.” Charles Petrie is a career United Nations official now aiding the Afghan government of Hamid Karzai in Kabul. “It’s not how much water’s in the glass.” Petrie’s main experience is in Central Africa, including Rwanda at its worst, but he says that at least one lesson is transferable to Afghanistan: “It’s whether the water level is rising or falling.”

It’s what Bush One called “the M word”: Momentum. Shakespeare wrote of “a tide in the affairs of men,” but momentum, while sometimes just as strong, is less predictable than the tides. It is given to quirky surges and sudden shifts. Its contagious power is subject to astonishing fragility.

Let’s consider momentum in three contexts: micro-Afghanistan (the past 11 months), macro-Afghanistan (the past seven decades), and mega-global (most of the past century). Let’s do so with great concern over which way the water level is going.

My conversation with Charles Petrie took place in April outside Karzai’s office. Immediate topic: communications inside Afghanistan. Three species of telephones sat on his desk. It was harder to call Kandahar than New York. Calls within Kabul were hardest of all unless you had one of the newest phones that circumvented the old switchboard. Obvious problem: “You” consisted of only a few officials. Key question: Could the old switchboard be restored while there were still good things to communicate?

In other words, before the tide of momentum turned. Petrie reviewed the early progress of brave new Afghanistan: Karzai’s inauguration in December, the pledges of international assistance at January’s Tokyo conference, the mostly secure streets of Kabul, a general sense of hope and support in the hinterland. Now, however, things had stalled – and a minister of civil aviation had been assassinated at his own main airport – but there was still great hope for June’s Loya Jirga, the most significant national assembly in Afghan history. “I just hope that it goes well,” said Petrie. “A lot of people regard the Loya Jirga as a panacea. If it doesn’t go well. …” His unfinished sentence was all about shifts in momentum.

The national assembly seemed at first to go well (without bloodshed and approximately on time) but its aftertaste has turned sour with accusations of U.S. manipulation and a disproportional ethnic outcome. Pashtun resentments have been exploited by psychopathic opportunist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and by al-Qaida remnants, very possibly in cahoots along the Pakistan border.

Petrie’s hope was that the sphere of security – that most vital of commodities – would expand outward from Kabul. Instead the reverse has happened, and Kabul itself is jolted by bomb explosions. Only 37 percent of the Tokyo pledges have been fulfilled. The United States has met its aid commitments but, unlike many other donors, has not formally committed for more than one year. And, until two weeks ago, we blocked the possibility of extending international peace- keeping beyond Kabul. Now the Pentagon has kindly dropped “objections” to this indispensable strategy but refuses to consider a U.S. peacekeeper contingent. And still no trace of Osama bin Laden. Instead, a renewed call to arms from Mullah Omar.

Water level rising or falling? Stay tuned for more on fragile, fickle momentum in the 2002 micro-theater of Afghanistan. Meanwhile remember that it’s been the main show in our War on Terror. Bush rhetoric advertises “liberation” and “emerging democracy.” Really?

Now for a macro instance of sudden momentum shift, again in Afghanistan. Even long-term trends, well established and widely acknowledged as positive, can change in the space of hours. Fewer than 48 hours in 1978 undid the good of half a century.

From 1929 (when a bandit held power for nine months) until 1978, “Afghanistan” grew toward reality as a nation-state. First steps date from the 1880s when Abdur Rahman, the “Iron Amir,” brutally imposed his centralist will. Provinces became responsive to Kabul in fact as well as name. Subsequent monarchs furthered centralization by less bloody means. After 1929’s brief interregnum, momentum was consistently in one direction: toward Afghanistan as a state in the mind as well as on the map. True, the Afghan government was weak and corrupt, but gradually less so. Even an intra-family coup in 1973 did not divert this growing momentum.

The trend seemed unalterable. During my time as a diplomat in Kabul (1972-73) and anthropologist in a northern village (1976-78), ordinary Afghans were essentially unified in acknowledging, albeit with some grudges, the ultimate authority of Kabul. Then came the Marxist coup of April 27-28, 1978.

While mounted in the name of “Afghanistan,” this takeover led to national fragmentation. The hard-won but brittle edifice of unity shattered like an eggshell (see “Humpty Dumpty on the Hindu Kush,” BDN, Oct. 24, 2001). Positive macro-momentum, seemingly secure, was reversed and has still not been firmly restored. Afghanistan remains less unified and peaceful than seven decades ago. Despite White House boasts, the country is still in chaos and – like our own economy – may be headed backward after its brief recovery.

Time now to get mega-global. Issue: human survival. Only possible long-term approach: international cooperation. Political science buzzword: multilateralism. Its opposite: unilateralism.

The worldwide momentum in recent decades has been toward multilateralism. The current risk is that the United States of America may do to multilateralism what the Marxist coup of 1978 did to Afghanistan.

Multilateralism has been building, despite terrible conflicts, since the League of Nations was founded at the end of World War I. The league’s aim, doomed in part because of U.S. non-participation, was to transcend and prevent the cutthroat nationalism that had led Europe to the trenches in 1914. Unempowered, it failed to stop the nationalist ambitions that led to World War II. In 1945, we tried again, this time with American leadership. That effort is called the United Nations. It was founded in San Francisco and housed in New York. Perhaps the most basic item in its charter: That no member state shall attack another. Both the United States and Iraq are charter members.

It is also true that the leader of Iraq is a murderer of his own people and a menace to the Middle East. And that Iraq has flouted, repeatedly and flagrantly, U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding free access for arms inspectors. President Bush is absolutely correct to renew these issues. That they need renewal is the fault of President Clinton who was distracted from them by the fallout from his reckless sex life. It is also the fault of us citizens who, swallowing Clinton-haters’ bait, were more interested in someone else’s love affairs than in our own international affairs. Finally it’s the fault of every recent U.S. administration – and the voters who elected them – for not pursuing all UNSC resolutions with equal vigor. That failure has weakened both the U.N. and the principle of multilateralism. Which resolutions have been neglected? Ask any Palestinian.

But there’s a greater menace than Saddam Hussein: That the slow, awkward, trial-and-error movement toward growing multilateralism will be forcibly reversed. Last Thursday’s U.N. speeches by Secretary-General Kofi Annan and President George W. Bush were riveting in their contrast. Annan: “I stand before you today as a multilateralist – by precedent, by principle, by charter and by duty.” Bush: “By heritage and by choice, the United States of America will make that stand [to confront Saddam].”

“By heritage and by choice” is a celebration of unilateralism. It speaks to that most mythic quality of Americanism: independence for better or worse. It’s helped make us great; it may destroy us. One of its main celebrants, William Bennett, recently pontificated that Bush on Iraq was like a Western movie hero, that “going it alone” was an American “value” and therefore ample basis for solo intervention. (Not content with his status of ex-drug czar in another unwon war, Bennett now prates in books about virtue and vice, a favorite Taliban topic.)

Momentum is not only fragile but wildly contagious. Sensing a shift toward unilateralism, already Russia talks about going it alone into Georgian territory. What’s next if a century’s momentum toward multilateralism is abandoned? Ask any Afghan about chaos.

Dr. Whitney Azoy, a cultural anthropologist and former U.S. diplomat in Kabul, has worked for 30 years with Afghanistan and the Muslim world. He was last in Afghanistan in May on a U.S. government contract.

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