Some Thoughts on "Rethink Afghanistan"
“Rethink Afghanistan” has been widely toured by peace activists in the English-speaking world around the anniversary of the 2001 invasion, and I made it up to New York University tonight for a screening and discussion held by the fine formation Radical Film and Lecture Series. It is a seriously flawed—if welcome—contribution to the debate over the so-called “Good War.” If accompanied by a solid political presentation and discussion—as it was tonight—it is ultimately useful to anti-war organizers on the ground, and I am glad that it is giving fellow activists the occasion to resume a very important discussion.
The first really substantive section of “Rethink Afghanistan” deals with Pakistan, first giving a cursory explanation of the ties between Pakistan and Afghanistan that surmount the artificial divisions the British Empire imposed on Southwestern and South Asia. The film covers U.S. drone attacks and the destruction they wreak on entire communities, which merit all too little mention in the mainstream media. The border has not only become porous for refugees and the Afghani resistance, but also for the U.S. aerial war.
It also delves a little into the domestic politics of Pakistan, in a deeply problematic way. Nothing about this segment indicates that secular politics are alive and well in Pakistan (if totally fucked)—or even that Pakistani people are capable of secular politics in the first place. It attempts to argue that Pakistan is on the precipice of being hijacked by a cabal of Islamic fundamentalists, who will exploit its status as a nuclear power to wreak havoc around the world. It tries to impress this upon us by ominously looping footage of an anti-war march that should resonate with any peace activist in the world. We see images of justifiably pissed-off Asian militants accidentally fulfilling the fantasy of the malevolent mustachioed “jihadist” that plagues American policy-makers’ dreams (When neither their anger nor their facial hair should indicate anything in particular politically. The film does not care to explain who organized this march in the first place either.). In any event, this was not an auspicious beginning, reeking of the enormous condescension that colors many Americans’ impressions of the region—and the film does not entirely redeem itself in the end.
“Rethink Afghanistan” makes much hay over why the United States should not be there, but within the confines of an argument that accepts the United States as regional and global hegemon: international peace-keeper and arbiter of the “civilizing process” in the developing world. The film refrains from giving any account—let alone a critical one—of how the United States got there in the first place or its long-term geopolitical objectives in Central and Southwestern Asia. Given that the film heavily relies on interviews with people who have made a trade being stationed in NGOs in the third world or pontificating about it in a Washington or New York think-tank, this is unsurprising.
The cost of the war is initially framed largely in terms of the strain the war has inflicted on the institutions of the U.S. state and American prestige. The film goes into detail about how the war has imposed a costly logistic boondoggle on U.S. forces: e.g. the stresses that the U.S. Military has had to shoulder due to overland transport of artillery and construction materials to landlocked and mountainous Afghanistan.
Numerous talking heads foreground the fact that the war is “unwinnable” and a detriment to fighting the “War on Terror” abroad and at home, which was ultimately assumed to be just. I resented traveling into the city just to hear the usual platitudes in the “hearts and minds” genre hauled out in defense of “The Good War," this time marshaled in the service of an ostensibly anti-war argument. The amount of time allotted to wonks waxing philosophical about counter-insurgency strategy was another baffling aspect of what was a relatively brief political documentary (as far as left-liberal political documentaries with 2 AM PBS production values go, anyway). The thrust of the conclusion was that the U.S. should instead engage in a vigorous nation-state building project via non-governmental institutions, and that would be the proper restitution for the long-suffering Afghan people.
The bright spots in the film are the opportunities where ordinary Americans and Afghani people were allowed to speak, amidst the succession of heavily credentialed NGO and think-tank tops (and somewhat wasted cameos from Pakistani socialist intellectual and veteran anti-war activist Tariq Ali, who looks a little harassed or like he's been kidnapped). The film rightly places the war in the context of the current economic and healthcare crisis, and we get to see that the cost of the war paid by Alabama is roughly equivalent to what it would cost for the state to deliver universal healthcare to its residents—including the badly injured GIs that get some screen time. Deviating from the script of many of the dominant forces in the American anti-war movement, it steadfastly gives a platform to Afghani villagers who want the U.S. and coalition forces out of their country now.
However, it is unfortunate that the film does not conclude on this note, and our parting glance of the villagers indicates who had become casualties of this merciless war: villagers as victims. Instead, we get to hear from the elite, educated and English-speaking shock troops of the NGO industrial complex (who no doubt live side-by-side with apparatchiks working for coalition forces and the client government in the gated communities of Kabul). These earnest and dewy-eyed types advocate for a different kind of U.S. intervention: the initiation of a nation-building project. It is not just the individual interviewees' opinions that are reflected here. The film's homepage explictly calls for "non-military strategic options," claiming that the "U.S. can play a more constructive role in Afghanistan by engaging civil society than by waging war." "Non-military strategic options," you say? A strategy for what and by whom? One wonders if it's for winning the war by different means, by creating a willing and functional client in Central Asia.
If the U.S. is to make any material contribution to the modernization of Afghanistan, it should be reparations. The ultimate contribution, though, would be immediate withdrawal (and the door will inevitably hit the U.S. Military's ass on its way out). It has been time to let the Afghani people speak for themselves for far too long, and the alternative to endless war that “Rethink Afghanistan” promises in its very title falls short.