There are things you can fix, and things you can’t. There are things you have a moral obligation to try to fix even if you can’t possibly fix them. There are things you believe need to be fixed, but aren’t actually broken. There are fixable things you believe you understand, but you’re wrong. There are fixable things that are none of your fucking business regardless of what you think about them. And when you’re in the middle of things, it’s hard–probably impossible–to know which things are which.
There’s a movie about that. Chinatown. Released in 1974. (I’m going to ignore the legitimate issues about the director, Roman Polanski, because for once I’m going to try to stay tangent-free.) Here’s the backstory of one of the main characters, and a short precis of the film’s plot (and yes, that means there are spoilers).
The backstory–Jake Gittes has a small private investigator business in Los Angeles. He’s a former police detective who worked in the notoriously corrupt Chinatown neighborhood. He became disillusioned (all movie PIs are disillusioned; it’s the law) partly because he was working in a culture whose norms and rules he didn’t understand, partly because of the endemic corruption, and partly because the actions and motivations of the Powers That Be (in both the Chinese and political communities) were concealed from him and inscrutable to him. When his client, Evelyn Mulwray learns he’d been a detective in Chinatown, she asks:
Evelyn Mulwray: What were you doing there?
Jake Gittes: Working for the District Attorney.
Evelyn: Doing what?
Jake: As little as possible.
Evelyn: The District Attorney gives his men advice like that?
Jake: They do in Chinatown.
As little as possible. Jake’s disillusionment was compounded when he attempted to help a Chinese woman. He says, “I thought I was keeping someone from being hurt and actually I ended up making sure she was hurt.” That same scenario plays out in the main plot, much of which is taken up with a long, brilliant McGuffin. It draws Jake into a situation in which he feels an obligation to rescue his client, Evelyn, and her daughter from an ugly situation involving Evelyn’s father–a multimillionaire developer. Once again, Jake finds himself in a situation in which the rules/laws aren’t clear to him, in which he doesn’t understand the motives or actions of the people involved, and where his attempts to help result in more harm. Had he done ‘as little as possible’ things may have worked out better, even if the situation itself remained awful.
In the final scene, his client is dead, the bad guys win, and Jake is not only helpless, he’s also partly responsible. He sees her body, mutters “…as little as possible” and is ordered away from the scene by his former Chinatown detective partner. As he’s being led away, one of Jake’s current employees tells him, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
This scenario is being played out with President Uncle Joe and the decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan. It’s a culture–actually, a number of inter-related ancient tribal cultures–we don’t understand, cultures that operate on traditional rules and norms unknown to us, with values and ethics that are often alien to us, with goals that are foreign to us. The US and our Western allies have been attempting to resolve our involvement relying on OUR cultural norms and OUR values to achieve OUR goals. Forget it, Joe. It’s Afghanistan.
We had a valid reason (at least in my opinion) to intrude militarily in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda had used that nation as a training ground and recruitment center for the 9/11 attacks. We had a legit reason to go after al Qaeda. After that, things got…loose.
The fact is, no foreign adventure has ever succeeded in Afghanistan. Alexander the Great, whose Macedonian army basically walked over every army they’d fought, got caught up in a long guerrilla-style war in Afghanistan. He never fully succeeded in pacifying the various Afghan tribes. Before he died, Alexander said, “May God keep you away from the venom of the cobra, the teeth of the tiger, and the revenge of the Afghans.” Various Muslim invasions succeeded in converting most Afghan tribes to Islam, but never completely controlled the area. The Mongols, under Genghis Khan, occupied much of the area for quite a long time, but their empire also fell apart. Nobody held the area as long as Timur the Great–but it’s worth noting that Timur was known as Timur the Lame (or ‘Tamerlane’ as he was called by Europeans) because of wounds he received fighting Afghan tribes. After Timur’s empire failed, the Sikhs attempt to invade Afghan territories several times without much success. The British invaded three times in the 19th and early 20th centuries–and got their asses kicked each time. Russia invaded three times–in 1929, 1930, and finally in 1979–and got their asses kicked each time.
And, of course, the US (and NATO) invaded in 2001. We know how that worked out.
But here’s the thing the Afghan tribes have always known and the thing foreign invaders never seem to figure out: the Afghans don’t have to win any wars; they only have to keep fighting at some level, and eventually the invaders–no matter who they are, or where they’re from, and how powerful they are–will leave. The various Afghan tribes are unconcerned about foreign military deadlines or the domestic political necessities of foreign powers or the costs those powers incur; they’re operating on God’s time, and they measure cost on a different scale.
President Uncle Joe’s decision to pull out troops is just an acknowledgment that Afghanistan is Chinatown. Doesn’t matter if we had a legit reason for being there, doesn’t matter if our long low-level war of occupation was a genuine attempt to help the Afghan peoples (and I’m not convinced it was), doesn’t matter what our motives were. Like every other invasion force in Afghan history, we’ve almost certainly done more harm than good.
There’s a scene in Chinatown in which Jake Gittes speaks with Noah Cross, the millionaire developer behind all the misery that’s taking place. Cross inhabits a world where laws and rules of ordinary decency don’t seem to apply–a world that’s as ambiguous and perplexing to Jake as that of Chinatown, a world that’s just as baffling and complex as our involvement in Afghanistan.
Jake Gittes: How much are you worth?
Noah Cross: I have no idea. How much do you want?
Jake: I just wanna know what you’re worth. More than 10 million?
Noah: Oh my, yes!
Jake: Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What could you buy that you can’t already afford?
Noah: The future, Mr. Gittes! The future.
That’s why we’re in Afghanistan. The future. Their future, our future–we think we can make it better. We think we have the means and the power and the right to make it better. We think we know what ‘better’ means.
We don’t. We just don’t.
Forget it, Joe. It’s Afghanistan.
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