September 28, 2006

The War Nerd on Afghanistan

Gary Brecher writes:

If your exterminator says he just killed 200 rats down in the basement, is that good news or bad news?

On the one hand, it's good those rats are dead. On the other hand, I thought we got rid of them years ago, and now there's hundreds? What's going on?

That's the Big Question everyone should be asking in Afghanistan. NATO's claiming we killed 500 Taliban near Kandahar this month. That's a mighty impressive body count, sure, but if Nam taught us one thing, it's that body counts are a bad sign. For all sorts of reasons, starting with basic common sense: if we're killing that many, how many more are running around out there? ...

We were spoiled by initial success in Afghanistan; we got the Taliban down and then just stopped paying attention. Dunno if you remember this far back, but after 9/11, when it was obvious we had to go in there and root out Osama, everybody was saying Afghanistan was unwinnable, "the graveyard of empires," etc. And the campaign seemed to stall at first, till we took Mazar-I-Sharif and sent the Northern Alliance rolling into Kabul. Boom, game over, victory party, let's go home.

Except the new wars just don't work that way. The tough part was really just beginning. The biggest problem once we took Kabul was tribal. Reporters are always calling the Taliban "Islamic extremists," but it's way simpler than that: the Talibs are Pushtun, and our allies in the Northern Alliance were their old tribal enemies the Tajiks, Uzbeks and a few free-agent Hazaras.

The Pushtun are the biggest tribe in the country, if you can call it that, by far. Afghanistan is 42% Pushtun, and the second-biggest group, the Tajiks, are only 27%. Pushtuns are -- now how can I say this nicely? -- insane. The craziest Taliban rules, like demanding every man have a beard that was at least ZZ Top length, aren't Mohammed's rules; they're just Pushtun tribal ways.

It's like if the Baptists took over in Fresno, they'd make it God's rule that every guy had to have an extended cab on his pickup, and if you asked where in Scripture it says that, they'd shoot you. That's the Pushtun way: total tribal insanity, all the time. They're so "sexist" that feminists might like them, because they don't even think of women as "sex objects." To a Pushtun guy, nine-year-old boys are the sexiest thing on earth.

Professor Victor Davis Hanson might approve, because from what I've read, his classical Greek heroes felt the same way. The Pushtuns are so classical that to them, women are just labor-saving and baby-making machines.

And never mind peace; these Pushtuns may be gay but they sure ain't sissies. They love making war, and they're real good at it.

Also, they don't get the whole "literacy" thing. They're not interested in becoming entrepreneurs or learning self-esteem or personal hygiene or compassion or any of that crap. And let's be honest, the joy they felt running around Central Asia blowing up Buddhas and blasting infidels is the same joy a frat boy feels running around a 10-kegger party with a bra on his head. It's pure fun 'n joy, Pushtun-style.

So once we'd taken Afghanistan we had this leftover problem, which was that nearly half the population consisted of these lunatics who had no stake in "peace," didn't want "peace," and thought "peace" was a lot of newfangled nonsense only fit for heterosexuals, foreigners, and assorted sissies. Especially because "peace" came to their town on tanks and APCs driven by their old enemies the Tajiks and Uzbeks.

Worse yet, right behind those tanks came American do-gooders whose idea of pacifying the Pushtun was doing incredibly naive stuff like starting a TV news show with female anchorpersons or whatever you call them. I'm not making this up. First thing the US occupation officials did in Kabul was start a news station with some 19-year-old Pushtun girl as anchor. That was our idea of winning hearts and minds. That's what was going to calm down those bearded angry dudes: seeing a perfectly saleable daughter telling them the news, as if she was the one laying down the law.

I get tired of having to say it, but: not everybody thinks like we think. Not everybody wants what we want. The Pushtun want (a) somebody to kill; (b) women kept in their place, which is somewhere between the clay oven and the livestock; (c) nobody reminding them that there are other ways to live. [More]

Ah, the Pushtuns (a.k.a., Pashtuns, Pathans)! Life just wouldn't be the same without them.

I've used it before, but here's a quote from Churchill's great memoir for boys, My Early Life: A Roving Commission, about his experience in the 1890s in a punitive expedition against the Pushtuns near the Khyber Pass:

Except at harvest time, when self-preservation enjoins a temporary truce, the Pathan tribes are always engaged in private or public war. Every man is a warrior, a politician, and a theologian. Every large house is a real feudal fortress made, it is true, only of sunbaked clay, but with battlements, turrets, loopholes, flanking towers, drawbridges, etc., complete. Every village has its defense. Every family cultivates its vendetta; every clan, its feud. The numerous tribes and combination of tribes all have their accounts to settle with one another. Nothing is ever forgotten and very few debts are left unpaid… The life of the Pathan is thus full of interest…

Into this happy world the nineteenth century brought two new facts; the breech-loading rifle and the British Government. The first was an enormous luxury and blessing; the second, an unmitigated nuisance. The convenience of the breech-loading, and still more of the magazine, rifle was nowhere more appreciated than in the Indian highlands. A weapon which could kill with accuracy at fifteen hundred yards opened a whole new vista of delights to every family or clan which could acquire it. One could actually remain in one's own house and fire at one's neighbor nearly a mile away.

One of the oddities of cultural anthropology is that, despite 2000 miles of rough country in-between, the Pushtuns are quite similar in many ways to the desert Arabs from whom Mohammed arose.

In my reductionist way, I see Mohammed as a public-spirited reformer trying to get his fellow desert raiders to stop being so bloody awful toward each other. The problem with living in the desert is there is no law and order. Recall the early scene in "Lawrence of Arabia" when Lawrence and his Bedouin guide spot camels on the horizon, so the guide immediately drops behind the brow of a sand dune to spy out whether his fellow Bedouins are his friends or whether they would try to kill him if they caught him. The life of the Bedouin is thus full of interest.

This jihad thing is a way to turn the violence outward, thus preserving a sphere of peace at home. It's been used a thousand times down through history all over the world, and it often works fairly well.

One problem with Islam, however, is that while it tries to curb the worst excesses of desert bandit cultures, it also, sort of by osmosis, also preserves those cultures and promulgates their values to places where they aren't inevitable in the landscape. For example, Egypt had been an orderly farming nation-state for 3,500 years when the Arabs showed up with their desert religion.

A reader writes:

In contrast to the silly ideas of people like Dawkins and Dennett, isn't this the real problem with religion, that its greatest strength, binding people together to do good, also shades into its greatest liability? Given what human nature is, you can only make people so good by preaching and teaching. Given also that the best way to make people get along is to have them fight a common external enemy, isn't any group or ideology that tries to make people good going to be tempted to take the easy way out and have its members go out an fight some common enemy?

Example. We've all heard of something called the Crusades. But what we seldom hear about is the Peace and Truce of God movement. During the Early Middle Ages the Pope spent massive amounts of energy across centuries trying to keep the warring rulers/thugs across Europe from fighting their fellow Christians. [The Peace of God exempted clergy, peasants, widows, and virgins from attack. The Truce of God required warriors to take weekends off, and ultimately reduced the number of legal fighting days per year to 80.]

Needless to say this was a lot more in keeping with the actual teachings of Christianity than Crusading, but, human beings being what human beings are, it was almost a complete failure. Then, Pope Urban II comes up with the wonderful idea of attacking the Muslims. In contrast to the reaction to Peace of God, this idea almost instantly captures the imagination of all Western Europe. While it didn't completely stamp out fighting among the Christian rulers, it did reduce it by quite a bit. Given the anti-religious polemics of our time, we tend to hear a lot about the Crusades and the wickedness of religious warfare, but we hear almost nothing about the much more massive efforts the papacy put behind its Peace of God initiative.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

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