America has many virtues; collective memory is not one of them. When history is invoked in the theater of the mass media, it generally appears as either sanitized nostalgia from our civic religion (something about the Founding Fathers), or as a one-sided flashback designed to give some oomph to some -ism (something about Hitler). Pandemic amnesia is a dangerous affliction for a democracy under any circumstances, but when it comes to our current - that is, our continuing - engagement with Afghanistan, the disorder may very well prove fatal.
Fortunately for us, there's still hope. History doesn't repeat itself; we repeat it, and we are only doomed to do so if we don't apprise ourselves of it. For this reason, I strongly recommend Elizabeth Gould and Paul Fitzgerald's new book, "Invisible History: Afghanistan's Untold Story." Thirty years in the making, this deeply researched book is bursting with overlooked facts and unauthorized insights. Through their erudition, prescience and passion, Gould and Fitzgerald have provided us with an urgent and necessary history, one that pierces through the haze of misinformation that has, for far too long, obscured the guiding light of an authentic past.
The timeliness of this book cannot be overstated. As the US government, still without a clearly articulated strategy, calls for a heavily militarized escalation of forces into a conflict that cannot be resolved through military means, we would be well advised to arm ourselves with the wisdom of the historical record. As it now stands, President Obama is being led into the graveyard of empires by the same misguided philosophers of war that helped spawn this disaster in the first place. It's time for new, empowered, alternative voices to rise up from an informed American public and enter the fray.
"Invisible History" is divided into three main sections. The first section, which covers Afghanistan's history from antiquity to 1970, is a bit difficult to keep up with, as it traverses vast expanses of time at a whirlwind pace. Nevertheless, this section explores important historical movements and moments that are essential to understanding Afghanistan's modern condition: the drawing of the Durand Line; the Great Game; the drafting of a 1923 constitution that gave women the right to vote; Afghanistan's Hindu and Buddhist roots and the invasion attempts of Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the Arab armies, the British armies and about a dozen other major intruders.
Some of this stuff is, literally, ancient history, but its reverberations still pulse through the cultures and tensions of Afghanistan today. The aforementioned events, for example, find their expression in the border crisis with Pakistan, the Pashtun nationalism issue and Afghanistan's inveterate disdain for uninvited, imperial guests. Viewing Afghanistan through the wider scope of time prevents us from forming ahistorical flash judgments, and helps to immunize us from the mythology and propaganda that currently dominate public discussions of Afghanistan and its relation to the West.
The second section of "Invisible History" limits its focus to the years between 1970 and 2001. Many readers will find this section more immediately relevant to current events, as it deals almost exclusively with the prelude, battle and aftermath of the Soviet-Afghan war and the shadowed (yet starring) role that the United States played in this tragedy. This is a shameful chapter in US history, and one that remains largely unread. Gould and Fitzgerald provide an almost play-by-play account of the behind-the-scenes machinations of the political figures that helped to orchestrate this most ambitious and expensive of covert operations, whereby the CIA funneled billions of dollars through Pakistan's primary intelligence agency to recruit, arm and indoctrinate the fractious and fanatical militia forces collectively referred to as "the mujahedin."
Working in concert with Saudi financiers and ideologues like Osama bin Laden, and driven by the myopic zealotry of American Cold War hawks, the United States used Afghanistan as a sacrificial arena to, in the words of Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, "give the Soviets their Vietnam." In what would later reveal itself to be the most tragic of ironies in our nation's history, the United States amassed and dispatched an army of international jihadists (we called them "freedom fighters" back then) to storm into Afghanistan and bleed the Russians to death.
Already on the brink of implosion, the USSR collapsed soon after the conflict. But along with its demise came one of the most unfathomable humanitarian catastrophes in modern history. One million Afghans were killed during the war. Five million fled to neighboring countries. Two million were internally displaced. The nation's infrastructure was reduced to rot and rubble, and the landscape was scarred and pockmarked with landmines, many of which still claim victims today. In addition to the dead, over four million Afghans were horribly maimed or disabled.
But this was just the beginning of Afghanistan's nightmare. After the Soviet collapse, a "victorious" United States abandoned the country it had just helped turn into a haven for violent extremism. America's sole objective had been achieved, and it foolishly believed that it had no real strategic interest in a stable Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the mujahedin forces - steroidal with US-supplied military technologies - fought against the Afghan government, and then against one another, until the Taliban finally rolled into Kabul and took power. The Taliban, brainwashed in Pakistani madrassas indirectly constructed with US tax dollars, had more in common with the virulent pan-Islamism of al-Qaeda than with Afghanistan's traditionally moderate society. They brought a brutal, medieval agenda to Afghanistan, and provided sanctuary to a non-native terrorism that would eventually find its way back to American shores.
In this manner, the development and rise of the Taliban was a direct consequence of America's intentional destabilization and radicalization of Afghanistan. Yet, despite the shock-value and enormous pertinence of this story, it remains in the margins of our national narrative, even after the events of 9/11. This gaping hole in our national consciousness, aside from being unfaithful to the past, has set us on a course for disaster in the future. As Sima Wali, Afghan refugee and author of the book's introduction, writes, "the void of accurate historical information on the origin of [the Taliban] has resulted in a succession of dangerous, counterproductive policy initiatives from Washington. The consequences of these initiatives have negated any chance for a successful restoration of an Afghan republic, opened Afghanistan to cross-border raids from Pakistan while at the same time providing a platform for the resurgence of Taliban."
With this is mind, we turn to the third and final section of the book, in which Gould and Fitzgerald highlight the dramatic failures of the war in Afghanistan from 2001 onwards, and then offer prescriptions for an acceptable resolution to the conflict. Not surprisingly, what we have been doing wrong is often the opposite of what we could be doing right. Here are a few of the authors' central recommendations to President Obama:
1.) Stop bombing innocent civilians. It's unconscionable, and it makes terrorists out of the people whose support we need.
2.) Stop destroying the poppy harvest. This also alienates Afghan civilians, as many of their lives depend on the sale of poppies. Create financial incentives for farmers to grow other crops, and consider purchasing the rest of the poppies for the legal manufacture of pain relief medications, of which there is currently a worldwide shortage.
3.) Get serious about reconstruction efforts and the effective deployment of desperately needed humanitarian aid. Gould and Fitzgerald interviewed an aid worker in Afghanistan who said that the US would have been more successful if we had just flown over the countryside and dumped money out of the window. Afghanistan needs schools and streets to function. Apportion more money for these purposes and less for weapons. Fire corrupt and inept private contractors.
4.) Bring fresh voices to the table. There are some disturbingly familiar faces in President Obama's circle of advisers. The very same people who led the crusade to arm terrorists and destabilize Afghanistan 30 years ago should not be in charge of disarming terrorists and stabilizing Afghanistan today. Ditch the coterie of failed thinkers who - through their hegemonic delusions and addiction to war - have led us to this ledge.
5.) Realize that what is good for the people of Afghanistan is also good for the people of the United States. As Gould and Fitzgerald explain: "Cosmopolitan and friendly, [Afghans] are beautiful, funny, proud and smart. Think of them that way and how they can be helped to make the country safe again." All actions should emanate from an understanding of this basic principle.
Finally, after delineating about a half dozen other concrete proposals, the authors call on us to do some deep thinking about our post-9/11 national identity. September 11 did not signal the beginning of a new world; it merely reminded us, savagely, that we live in the real one, which is an interconnected one, where nation affects nation, and where past affects present and future. The authors attune us to this connection because it is only at this locus that we can have a mature and fruitful conversation - free from hysteria and faux-patriotism - about who we are, who we've been and who we want to become.
"Invisible History" shows us that we now have an opportunity to transform ourselves through an honest confrontation with our past: a confrontation that would lead us to reorient our national policies around the tabernacle of our professed moral values. If we choose to ignore this opportunity, and once again turn a blind eye to history and its lessons, then we may find ourselves in grave danger, not just from the threat of terrorist attacks, but from falling victim to the same folly that has toppled empires throughout history. To this point, the authors conclude their book with a word of warning: "If our government has no other purpose than to serve the fantasies of its own defense intellectuals in their desire to create new ways of making endless war, then we are in serious trouble and, like the Soviet Union, Afghanistan will be our final test."
More information about the book, published by City Lights, and its authors is available at www.invisiblehistory.com.