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What Makes Us Think We Can Help "Govern" Afghanistan?

Why do American officials think they have the special ability to teach Afghans to embark on good governance in their country if we can't do it in Washington?

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This is a black comedy of “governance.”  So is the fact that, from the highest administration officials and military men to those in the field, everyone speaks, evidently without the slightest self-consciousness, about putting an “Afghan face” on the Marja campaign.  The phrase is revelatory and oddly blunt. As an image, there's really only one way to understand it (not that the Americans involved would ever stop to do so). After all, what does it mean to "put a face" on something that assumedly already has a face? In this case, it has to mean putting an Afghan  mask over what we know to be the actual "face" of the Afghan War, which is American. 

National Security Adviser James Jones, for instance,  spoke of the Marja campaign having “'a much bigger Afghan face,' with two Afghans for every one U.S. soldier involved.”  And this way of thinking is so common that news reports  regularly use the phrase,  as in a recent Associated Press story: “Military officials say they are learning from past mistakes. The offensive is designed with an 'Afghan face.'"

And here’s something else I’d like explained to me: Why does the U.S. press, at present so fierce about the lack of both “togetherness” and decent governance in Washington, report this sort of thing without comment, even though it reflects the deepest American contempt for putative “allies”? Why, for instance, can those same  Wall Street Journal reporters write without blinking:  “Western officials also are bringing Afghan cabinet members into strategy discussions, allowing them to select the officials who will run Marjah once it is cleared of Taliban, and pushing them before the cameras to emphasize the participation of Afghan troops in the offensive”?  Allow?  Push?  Is this what we mean by “togetherness”?   

Try to imagine all this in reverse -- an Afghan general motoring over to the White House to wake up the president and ask whether an operation, already announced and ready to roll, can leave the starting gate?  But why go on? 

Just explain this to me: Why are the representatives of Washington, civilian and military, always so tone deaf when it comes to other peoples and other cultures?  Why is it so hard for them to imagine what it might be like to be in someone else’s shoes (or boots or sandals)?  Why do they always arrive not just convinced that they have identified the right problems and are asking the right questions, but that they, and only they, have the right answers, when at home they seem to have none at all?

Thinking about this, I wonder what kind of “face” should be put on global governance in Washington?


Tom Engelhardt, editor of, is co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The End of Victory Culture .

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