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Ear to the Ground

Updated: Aug 25, 2021

My thanks to all of you for taking the time to read these posts, and to those who sent comments. Your words are a solace. Several of you recounted your own experiences, adding further light to the picture I laid out in "The Ides of August." In these days of social media frenzy, I had received as of Monday exactly two pieces of spam -- from the same person. It is a testament to the quality of our exchange.

A number of questions came up. I will address them as best I can in my next post. Please be patient, there is a lot going on. I will also try to gather ways and reliable organizations to help.

But for now, a quick update on what I am hearing from Afghanistan, and what it may portend.

Again, I will filter the anguish, the sense of “helplessness, dismay and despair,” as one friend put it. People like him can't bear to see Taliban striding the streets of the Kabul they love. Some are mourning lost relatives and colleagues. All are in turmoil. As for the villages around Kandahar, where the pomegranates and the black cumin grow, “I couldn’t look people in the eye, if I went. All those people who were bragging: ‘If the U.S. leaves, this government won’t last for a month.’ I used to insist that’s not true, this is a real government. Now they’re laughing.”

Such hurt.

But I want to dwell on something different here.

Even before this this week, I had been pondering crisis — and how without it, transformation is rarely possible. Consider again recent events in the United States. Gradual change is not how the world moves. The world moves in pulses.

For background, here are a few vignettes. Please bear in mind, I am not there. I can not personally vouch for the accuracy of what I write. But I've schooled my friends to question their information.

Punjabis. I have heard reports from Kandahar, Herat, and Mazar-i-Sherif, of Punjabis among the Taliban. They look different from Afghans, wear their hair and beards differently, which may help explain the oversized turbans that conceal so many Taliban faces. From two different cities come separate accounts of how hard it is to make out their unintelligible Pashtu. Punjabis comprise over half of Pakistan's population and almost all its military leadership.

Boorishness. An understatement. But picture a government conference room in Kabul. The new Taliban minister is being introduced. A department head says a few words. “Shut up!” barks the minister, cutting him off. “We know what you did. You were taking airplanes to swank hotels and drinking and messing with women. You just shut up.” It is these department heads and civil servants the Taliban are begging to come back to work, to keep the machinery of government running.

Two decades matter. And not just for Afghan women. “These aren’t the Taliban of the 1990s,” says a friend. The fighters who flooded across the border from Quetta back then may not have been the meek religious students they were made out to be, but the post 9/11 tsunami of cash had not yet crashed into Afghanistan and Iraq. Now it has. “They’ve been watching no-account people become millionaires. They’re saying, ‘Why are we not part of this?’”

This money-compulsion — the “Midas Disease” as I describe it in my book On Corruption in America — largely explains the Taliban’s mollifying public pronouncements. It helps explain why Kalashnikov-toting toughs have been scarce on the Kabul streets for the last few days. But, “when money is the purpose," notes my friend, "there will be infighting.” least, I have learned, at first.

Infighting. Indeed, there may be a reason no new Afghan president has been named, more than a week after the fall of Kabul. A clash has reportedly erupted between different Taliban factions. Members of the Doha group, acclimatized to the luxurious hospitality lavished on them by their Gulf state hosts, are said to favor a “moderate” facade, in hopes of wooing international diplomats and development organizations to re-engage — bringing their money. But the field commanders balk. Those who have lived hard in the hills, those who committed the atrocities, shredding their souls as they shredded the bodies of their victims, seem to think that yet more revenge against those who stood up to them will bring some psychic relief.

If this picture is close to true, it raises a question: Can such a “government” long survive? The Pakistani military intelligence agency may be brilliant at mounting an armed insurgency. But governing is different. Is Pakistan well-governed? Can even the ISI fully control the monster it has unleashed?

And so to the main point of this post -- a thought that flashed into my mind during the conversation with my heartbroken friend. I got to know him in 2005, at the funeral of his relative, the chief of the Kabul police and the most constructive Afghan official I had encountered. Muhammad Akrem Khakrezwal had been blown up in a mosque by a remote-controlled bomb. How kindly this young man nursed my broken heart, as we picked our way to the gravesite across the baking hills. For the next fifteen years, nearly half his life, he threw himself into the project of a new Afghanistan, accountable to its people.

As we spoke, amidst the smoking debris of this much larger explosion, I felt the arrow-blow of an incongruous idea. What if it took this calamity?

Calamities expose the irreconcilable contradictions of old systems and bring them down. I explore that historical pattern in On Corruption. What if history doesn't stop here? What if a total collapse was necessary for this friend and the rest of the generation of young Afghans you’ve been hearing about finally to take charge of the country their elders have ruined? What if there was just no fixing this thing we Americans helped concoct — stitched together of aging war criminals and born-again kleptocrats and their enablers at home and abroad. Perhaps they were just too entrenched, too reinforced by an often well-meaning but always outmatched international community. Maybe it took this abject humiliation to scatter those failed leaders at last.

And what about us? Afghanistan holds up a mirror. Will we dare look at the reflection?

The Biden team’s handling of the total withdrawal he and they so desired is just part of the picture we would see. It comes after two decades of feckless policy across four administrations, developed by senior officials, including some of them. Many of these decision-makers kept an eye welded to their personal or political fortunes or their next promotion. What did we Americans really expect?

But a great many others, not now or perhaps ever in government, have been reaping vast fortunes from these policy failures. Just look at the current stock prices and dividends of the top defense contractors. Every one of that select group of companies is a repeat offender, guilty of multiple violations of U.S. law and regulations, and their own contracts.

Is the Midas Disease not surging through our own country? How much damage has it done -- especially to the irreplaceable earth we inhabit? Have we even begun working on a vaccine?

Young Afghans: this humiliation, this “miserable defeat,” is not yours. It is your opportunity. Seize it. But don’t be too hasty. Take a breath. Take a long view. Root your plans in your truest values. Be an example for the rest of us.

For those who asked questions in response to "The Ides of August," please read "Failing States" for some answers.

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