Record stuck on the same track

I  don’t normally get into political comment in this blog, it is not my passion. But occasionally I read something that deserves a response. I came across such today.

A ‘new’ statement from President Obama ‘has said that the top al-Qaeda leadership is under tremendous pressure and is “hunkered down” in the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan.’

I wonder how long we have to keep taking this stuff. From my perspective (informed by pretty astute language and cultural skills, good contacts and long experience),  I don’t think Al Qaeda is hunkered down and under pressure. In a bit of a squeeze, maybe. Having to draw breath. But not seriously under pressure. It’s like saying the Renaissance is under pressure. Or Medievalism is hunkered down. Marxism is under the pump. Modernism is locked up. Feminism is on the wane.

Wrong language, wrong assumptions, wrong paradigms, wrong understanding. Still thinking that Al Q is a singular force holed up in a certain place. Obama went on to say that they are all still heading for

“…a responsible, conditions-based” withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in July 2011,” while acknowledging that the gains achieved in that country remained “fragile” and “reversible.”

Well, that clears it up. A ‘conditions-based’ withdrawal. Well, what else would it be? condition free? ‘Hey, we’re done. You guys come on it and take what you like, we don’t really care anyway. Never did actually. See ya. Close the door on the way out. Or not.’

Good grief. The psycho-babble doesn’t get much worse than that. Oh, and the gains are ‘fragile, and reversible’. Well, obviously we have come a long way. Sounds like what strategy we have is really working.

This whole thing though, was summed up for me years before, in 2000, in an encounter at the airport at Mazar, where it became clear that what the big powerful men were doing in distant offices really had no connect at all with the lives of ordinary Afghans. Despite all their briefings and backgrounds, something about their position and posture prevented them from real engagement:


I had a two hour wait at the airport, yesterday, waiting for the UN plane to arrive so I could pick up a project evaluator. While we waited I had a long talk with a UN guy I had seen at the meeting the other day. Andres Savino. He pronounced his surname with great delicacy, as though it were an important secret. He firstly had mistaken me for an Afghan, and had nodded a salaam at me and stood at a distance. Then I introduced myself, and though embarrassed, he recovered quickly. He was Spanish and confident, and working on the UN Special Mission, quite a high profile person it seems. Within minutes of meeting him, he suddenly started reaching deep into his too-tight pants pocket. I imagined a centipede crawling in his underpants. He finally extricated a business card, which he pressed upon me with a nodding grin. It is so long since I have seen one of these. We just don’t use them. Who would we give a business card to? The villagers are illiterate, and everyone else knows who we are. I held Andres’ card with my fingertips, staring at the embossed type and I rubbed my thumb over the expensive paper, then tucked it carefully away.

Andres chain smoked Marlboro Lights and was wearing cheap shoes, which gaped at the seams as he rocked back and forth on the muddy ground. He spoke uninvited at length about the political situation, with an expansiveness and knowledge born almost certainly of a total lack of experience. Still, I felt like a country lad beside him; he using sophisticated and knowledgeable terms, and so self-possessed in his role. There I was, working with an organisation he’d never heard of, un-paid, long-term, earnest, persuaded of a higher purpose, my Afghan peron and tonbons flapping in the breeze. I timed my nods correctly to his commentary, attempting to appear a bit more up-to-date than I was. He had no idea what I did, no interest. No idea what was happening developmentally in the North, he had no idea that our agency is the longest serving agency in the country, that we have never left through three wars and ten governments. He never even asked.

We were interrupted at frequent intervals by the passing Talibs, who meandered by at window-shopping pace and stopped to listen, asking me in supercilious, guttural, accusatory Pashto if my friend was English, Tajik or French. I answered tersely in Dari, and they nodded, but stayed around gazing at us in that long assessing way that I have seen in so many places now. Sometimes I stare back, in the hope of inducing self-consciousness, but it never works.

Eventually Andres got onto the question of whether the USA would take retaliatory action against Afghanistan again. He seemed to have the word that it would, just a matter of time. Apparently the FBI have found convincing evidence that Bin Laden was implicated in the bombing on the US warship, and consequently Washington has said it will respond. Andres told me what he knew, lowering his voice: either Cruise missiles, something he called a strike team, or F1-11s or something called A-16s, which I guess are also a type of plane. His personal bet was on another Cruise missile strike.

Anyway, suddenly the plane was there, the big blue UN stencilled on the side and he picked up his guest, no immigration formalities for the UN, and bustled quickly away into the white Landcruiser, mashing his cigarette under his shoe as he left.


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