American troops in Afghanistan: A worthy expression of outrage that is overdone

It’s hard to object to the harsh criticism of the US military in Afghanistan by Malalai Joya Kill Teams in Afghanistan: The Truth, but it is also hard to picture what can reasonably hoped for in Afghanistan, or any of the other countries of the Middle East / Central Asia, if there are no military mechanisms to stand behind social institutions. I agree with her outrage at the behavior of the Americans who intentionally but indifferently murdered several Afghans and then photographed themselves preening over the bodies. But Joya’s blanket condemnation of American troops is excessive; indeed, she seems to feel there is no need for American troops to be there at all. My question is, without them, or at least some military support, how could an orderly, just society ever be developed?

She seems to think that public demonstrations will make it happen. There is a line in her statement in the Guardian that stuck out to me:

[W]e are seeing the growth, under very difficult conditions, of another resistance [movement] led by students, women and the ordinary poor people of Afghanistan. They are taking to the streets to protest against the massacre of civilians and to demand an end to the war. Demonstrations like this were recently held in Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif, Jalalabad and Farah.
This resistance is inspired by the movements in other countries like Egypt and Tunisia – we want to see “people power” in Afghanistan as well. And we need the support and solidarity of people in the Nato countries.

How is “people power” going to work without the help of a viable military institution? — that is, the institutional support that the American/Nato forces are supposed to be providing.

If anyone whose situation demonstrates the need of a society for viable institutions of government — military and police institutions that are subject to just rulership, and an an effective system of adjudication of disputes — Joya herself is the ideal example, for she cannot live in Afghanistan under present conditions because the threats to her life. She directly, and correctly in my opinion, confronted the warlords of the country for their past crimes, and embarrassed them in a Loya Jirga. Good for her, we said. But they, at least someone, will not leave her alone if she dares to live to Afghanistan. She correctly identified the problem, at least one of the problems: Many of the power holders in the country, some of them in the current government, are former warlords with blood on their hands.

My question is how to encourage the establishment and maintenance of just institutions of governance in any society — in our own as well as all the rest. I don’t think it can happen merely by demonstrations in the streets, as much as I welcome them. Effective institutions of governance have to be developed — indeed, as happy as we can be for the progress made in Egypt and Tunisia, and we hope elsewhere, we all know that much remains to be done if those countries are to have a just, open, free society. The demonstrations in Afghanistan mimicking those in Egypt and Tunisia are a good sign, but what is to be done with the warlords? with the Taliban? with the Pakistani ISI that has been supporting the Taliban? Everyone would love to have the Americans and Nato forces out of Afghanistan, but what would happen to the Afghanistan people?

Societies have to be structured — that is, they must have mechanisms of social control and adjudication that are sufficiently effective for the society generally to be in support of it. And such institutional structures can only be established as all sides commit to establishing a working society.

And that entails having everyone with competing interests to seek mutual understanding and agreement, compromise through honesty and mutual respect.

It’s the failure to represent others fairly that I have a problem with in Joya’ critique. Yes, the behavior of American troops who killed several Afghans for sport and then bragged about it is outrageous, an offense to the Afghanistan military and the American people, and it should be punished. At the same time, though, Joya’s blanket condemnation of the American presence in Afghanistan is overstated.

Moreover, she claims that that Afghanistan would be better of without the American/Nato troops. It is hard to envision Afghanistan at this time solving its problems without help in stabilizing the country and controlling the insurgency. In an ideal world none of it should be necessary: the warlords would be tried for criminal behavior, Pakistan and Iran and India would not meddle in Afghanistan affairs, and the Americans would keep their troops home. Tragically, no one lives in an ideal world.

How is the problem of power to be solved in Afghanistan? When mobs can overrun a UN compound and kill several expatriates and a half dozen Afghans because they are offended by another outrageous act [Quran burning by a daft and foolish minister in Florida]; when Malalai Joya herself cannot show herself in Afghanistan for fear of being murdered in the streets — then there remains a fundamental problem of how to establish a functioning society. Mechanisms for the exercise and control of power have to exist in any society. Also, because human beings have differing opinions and perspectives they must practice the courtesies of social life: describing offenses accurately and fairly; also seeking ways of confronting each other with respect. Such conventions seem critical if progress is to be made in establishing institutions of governance that will ensure safe and effective social relations.