This is what winning looks like

Earlier this week I stumbled on a treasure trove of videos reporting from the ground in the Muslim world on Vice.com. I’ve gobbled up about 5 or 6 hours of video since then on topics such as the political confrontations in Egypt, life in the Gaza strip, and riots in Turkey. Who wouldn’t prefer learning about events in the Muslim world from the mouths of actual residents instead of the same old American partisan peanut gallery?

“This is what winning looks like” is the title of a documentary on Vice about the transition of security responsibilities in Afghanistan from American troops to native police in preparation for a 2014 departure date scheduled for American forces. It’s a fascinating look into the longest running American military campaign of all time.

After the first 10 minutes of video, it’s clear that the American forces face an impossible task. When the US Army crushed the ruling Taliban’s Islamic government in the 2001 invasion, it also drove out all the native governing talent and competence.  What remains is shocking corruption, underscoring the folly of nation building and of forcing Western-style government on people that are not suited to it.

The police stations in Afghanistan are commanded by corrupt officials who are not above lining their pockets by selling their own fortifications for scrap metal. The police commanders use the vehicles and weapons given them by America to harass local rivals and pursue vendettas instead of enforcing anything like a rule of law. In their leisure time, they kidnap local boys and use them as sex slaves, shooting them if they try to run away. The front-line troops are too high on weed and opium to be of much use against armed resistance.

It’s clear that these are the dregs of society, capitalizing on the American security budget to gain a bit of advantage. When the Americans leave, they will not last a month against the Taliban, and few of them will try to do so.

One bright spot of competence comes from the national army. It largely consists of the northern ethnic groups that opposed the Taliban in the civil war of the 90s. Their officers and trained troops were spared in the American invasion. Ethnic groups from southern villages are barely represented in the Northern-dominated army, after all they supported and supplied the Taliban in the civil war.

We witness the army liberating villages from the Taliban, only to find the locals completely apathetic to the change. The army implores them to form a local police force, to resist the Taliban and aid in the construction of a new order for Afghanistan. However, the locals refuse to do so, knowing that the Taliban will be back within an hour after the army leaves. What hope does any local village have to fight the Taliban? Why should they die for nothing?

It’s clear that the new government that America is building is not a native Afghani institution, and that it is unlikely to work when American troops leave. The best that can be hoped for is a colonial government of Northern ethnic groups dominating the South, the reverse of the result of the civil war. A pan-Afghani liberal democracy is not in the cards, and one wonders how any fool thought it would result given how alien it is to local culture.

The American soldiers in the film are sympathetic. A marine (Major Steuber) is interviewed that is fully aware of the impossibility of his task, but he does his best anyway to fulfill his duty. He shows empathy and understanding of the various sides in the conflict, and a burning desire to set things right.

One gets the feeling that if this were a straight up colonial invasion, troops like Major Steuber would have no trouble imposing order. The pedophile base commanders would be put against the wall in the first week, supplies would flow, and corruption would be rooted out. But that is not his mission, and there is no greater torture than binding the hands of a capable man and putting him in the middle of a system that is deeply broken.

American Imperialism never went away, it just changed forms. Its new goal is spreading the American way of life. What America seeks is not physical dominance, but intellectual. It seeks not empire, but conversion; it is an evangelical philosophy of politics. It wants to hear the sweet ideals of Thomas Jefferson and Barack Obama tumbling sincerely out of Afghan lips. So it demands that the locals run the government themselves, blindly assuming that all peoples are compatible with a Western-style government and that they will find it desirable. This is false, of course.

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