Afghanistan: Gift or Grand Conceit?

Many tend to think of the war in Afghanistan as a war in one country. It could be any country. Thinking this way is only possible if the country is seen to have no cultural history or broader cultural and political associations of significance. Julia Gillard’s and Tony Abbott’s recent parliamentary speeches in defence of Australia’s participation in Afghanistan are good examples of this. Similar claims concerning Australian interests have been made about Iraq and even, with difficulty, the endless and ever-growing strife in Israel.

On reflection many will realise that this overall orientation masks a deep-seated ambiguity. To grasp how this works requires an appreciation of the role played by cultural blindness in the way people usually think about social conflicts.

In Afghanistan (and Iraq before it) Australians have exhibited a blindness not dissimilar to that involved in the interventions by Australia and other Western colonial countries in the Middle East after the break-up of the Ottoman empire (Gallipoli included). Today, though, there is something new: the culture we take for granted and wish others to adopt is now far more clearly a poisoned chalice (if left unexamined its assumptions will lead to consequences far beyond the legacy of colonialism).

Typically, the role of social, ethnic and religious bonding grounded in the deep history of other cultures is absent in the thinking of the West and its agents. The people being opposed can then be regarded as no more than troublesome social atoms or alien evil gangs who need to be ‘dealt with’. They are beyond being understood. Often they are thought to be sub-human and not worth being understood, unless, that is, they agree with us. Even then those who do accept our ways are usually regarded as the flotsam of war and conquest, grist for the mill of Western cultural superiority. These populations may even be considered ungrateful, not appreciating our helping them to enter the democratic world. Certainly it is beyond most Westerners to understand today how offers of democracy are really much more than this: there is a widespread incapacity to grasp the social assumptions that are embedded in our ‘gifts’.

With this in mind, the debate in the Australian parliament has been morbidly interesting. With the Greens’ welcome insistence that this debate be held, we can now see why there was no earlier one. Rather than dig into the meanings of the cultures we are seeking to transform, or clarify our strategies and consider opposing ones, our parliamentary leaders and their supporters think debate requires no more than a presentation, a performance that dazzles. In this they reflect other expressions of a widespread incapacity to genuinely reflect on our actions and values.

Media debates and media celebrity are key examples of this incapacity. Even more disturbingly, media-style performance resonates with changes in the academy, where the process of listening, thinking and mutual exchange around core assumptions that may be interrogated and defended at face-to-face conferences has been displaced by personal performances, which are the end of the story. The assumption that ideas need to be challenged and worked out in social interchange is now in default. University media campaigns like Melbourne University’s, to ‘Dream Large’ within the spirit of entrenched assumptions, stands in place of philosophically searching inquiry concerning the changing institutional arrangements of social life.

Increasingly, parliamentary discussion is marked by narrow, self-referential thinking. At the heart of this crisis of debate, speakers and listeners seem to have nothing to learn from each other. This is a self-defeating approach for any culture and polity seeking to renew itself while confronting a deep-seated crisis.

Instead of a searching discussion of Australia’s forces in Afghanistan, we circulate and re-circulate narratives that simply drive the ‘need’ to be there. The primary rationale, which framed both leaders’ and just about everyone else’s speeches, is the need to defeat terrorism, even though it does not take much thought to understand that terror is never defeated head on. After all, terror usually has an underlying context. And if the same background issues that generate terror remain, terror will return in one form or another. The Western strategy to transform that background is to promote democracy and other Western institutions, including the neoliberal market.

Yet it is clear enough that in Afghanistan and other places in the Middle East the West is the background issue for many people. As a few commentators have pointed out, far from providing security in Afghanistan the presence of Western forces ensures its absence, as was the case in Iraq and the emergence of the insurgency, and with decades of uncritical US support for the state of Israel, giving rise to the intifada. Given the history of Western relations with Arab and Muslim peoples for the last half-century, and of course for much longer, such attitudes are not going to change for at least a generation. For any prudent Western leader this should in itself be enough to lead them to look for ways other than warfare to achieve their ends, or to reassess the ends themselves.

Instead we soldier on; we do not give up easily; resilience is the name of the game. Of course resilience is to be valued, but without the capacity to take on board how others see their place in the world and then make in-depth judgements, it can become a tragic flaw and be utterly counter-productive. It does not say much to observe that the West’s grand conceit is beginning to falter. Even commentators from the Right such as Greg Sheridan in The Australian are now realising that it will not work; that the West should pull back (in his argument, to preserve some possibility of the United States staying in Asia to balance the rise of China). For Sheridan it is Pakistan that has made Afghanistan unworkable. There is no doubt that even before the recent floods Pakistan was a powder keg, but that is only one element in the West’s failed strategy. These issues, however, do not seem to have an impact on the political warriors in Canberra: they will corral their vision to focus on ‘terrorism in one country’, as if the West has nothing to do with the insecurity besetting the world.

To penetrate this closed circle of ideas it is necessary to dig into the core project of the United States in the Middle East. This is no longer spoken of directly, not since the demise of the Iraq occupation, but it remains an underlying preoccupation. The aim is to create ‘jewels’ of freedom and democratic process throughout the Middle East, with the view of transforming Islam into a member and supporter of the West. We—Australia accepts its role in this massive campaign—will assist Islam to modernise on our terms. This is the grand strategy—not merely to fight terrorism but to remake Islam in our image. Afghanistan cannot be understood outside this broader range of reference points, points no one wants to discuss any more. Why talk when ingrained assumptions provide the answers? Above all, this mindset ignores the main forces producing world insecurity. The West carries gifts of a more gentle culture and democratic interchange in social affairs, which key thinkers like Adam Smith associated with the rise of the market. But whatever the truth of that in Smith’s own time, today cultural assumptions largely left unquestioned in his day contribute to an emerging, worldwide crisis. When things go wrong that shock us—be it to do with war, as in Afghanistan, or the economy, as in the GFC—we tend to attribute such events to individuals and surface forces. We find it hard to see that they are a consequence of institutional change. And not being able to see allows us our aura of ‘innocence’.

Our way of living has radically moved on from the world of Adam Smith. If his was the world of capitalism, ours is of a different order. It is capitalism radically enhanced by a revolution in technology, set in train by the techno-sciences in the new academy. This revolution makes possible a whole range of developments that seem unrelated: a new individuality, radically distanced from family and community; the rise of global markets; an assault on the limits of nature; the genius of the pilot-less weapon now striking Pakistan and Afghanistan and producing such contradictory results. In this more abstracted world, community no longer requires face-to-face interaction, bank loans are no longer sourced to knowable people, biotechnology celebrates the possibilities of an endlessly malleable self, warfare is universalised with the prospect of displacing face-to-face combat.

This is a radical culture that takes nothing for granted except the means of its own techno-transformation. This is the true background to ‘democratisation’ and it is not only blind to cultures constituted in very different social relationships, where the face to face remains a primary cultural form, it is actively hostile towards them. It is here, in this change, that we can source the true core of the insecurity that typifies our world. It is this gift, with its attendant social assumptions, that we carry in ‘innocence’ to the peoples of the non-Western world, and we are shocked when they do not take the opportunity to accept it. Rather than persisting with this futile quest the West needs to turn its attention to the reconstruction of its own way of living before it overwhelms us all.

John Hinkson

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