Thursday, August 5, 2010

Histories in a Time of War

A recent article by Christian Caryl in Foreign Policy Magazine criticizes the mainstream view of Afghanistan as an unconquerable “graveyard of empires” where the US effort is “doomed to fail.” Caryl’s point – that the popular conception of Afghanistan’s past lacks real knowledge of the region’s history – is well-taken. He argues that this understanding is based on the past 30 years of the country i.e. beginning at the time of the Soviet invasion. However, Caryl offers his own, equally reductive account of Afghan history. In a nutshell he says: Afghanistan has been part of one empire or another since the 5th Century BC. So, the Soviet intervention was a “radical break with the country’s past, not an extension of it” and the US has a chance to help Afghans “attain the future they deserve.”

Caryl’s article shows how the Western historical accounts of regions involved in the War on Terror are tailored in accordance with shifts in policy. The reworking of Afghanistan from an empire-beater to a region that has been (and thus can be) successfully ruled by an outside power appears just as the WikiLeaks controversy has raised domestic doubts in the US about Washington’s war in Afghanistan and as the US Congress has nevertheless decided to continue funding a force surge there. Caryle reduces the battle over the historical portrayal of Afghanistan to a dichotomy of “unconquerable” versus “conquerable” and the “graveyard of empires” versus the “cradle of empires.”

The history of Iraq has also been spun and re-spun during the War on Terror. In the early period of the US invasion of Iraq, a black and white narrative was touted with Saddam Hussain as the evil tyrant and an undifferentiated Iraqi mass as victims awaiting freedom. Only after civil war erupted in Iraq did accounts of deep-rooted sectarian conflict and a history of “complex” ethnic relations emerge. When Saddam Hussain’s overthrow did not result in a clear “mission accomplished” result, Saddam’s portraiture changed. Toby Dodge, a well-known policy analyst, laid out a revised understanding of Saddam Hussain in his 2005 book “Inventing Iraq”:

[…] Saddam Hussain must be understood less as the cause of Iraq’s violent political culture- or even of Iraq’s role as a source of regional instability – and more as the symptom, albeit an extremely consequential one, of deeper, long-term dynamics within Iraq’s political sociology. The degree to which these dynamics can be overcome – with what expenditure of resources – is the crucial question facing US and UK administrators.

As the US increases its involvement in Pakistan, we witness a similar tendency. Pakistan has already been subsumed into “Af-Pak” – a purely Washington invention with little historical meaning. Furthermore, the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan which borders Afghanistan receives the bulk of any media attention and a history constructed around terror has largely become a stand-in for the history of the entire country. Foreign Policy Magazine, an influential US publication, recently produced an “Ultimate AfPak Reading List” or the “guide to the most critical readings on Afghanistan and Pakistan.” The list includes four categories relating to Al-Qaeda and two relating to Pakistan. One of these is “Pakistan: the Jihadists post 9/11” and the other is “Pakistan: General Interest.” The “General Interest” category is comprised of titles such as Islamist Networks: The Afghan-Pakistan Connection and Most Wanted: Profiles of Terror.

Irresponsible portrayals of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan show a propaganda process at work and can create dangerously misinformed public opinion. This undermines the function of the public as a critical body that can keep a check on state powers and thwarts the possibility of democratic oversight and meaningful citizen engagement with foreign policy issues of the day.

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