On May 20th, Western heads of state will gather in Chicago for a NATO conference on Afghanistan. The U.S. Government’s choice of May 20th is culturally insensitive and historically dismal. It is the day in 1940 that the first prisoners arrived at Auschwitz; it is the day in 1927 when Britain signed the Treaty of Jedda which recognized the corrupt Saud family as legitimate; it is the day in 1989 that the Communist Party in Beijing declared martial law in response to a march by one million pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square; it is the date of the annual anti-Islamic “Draw Mohammed” protests; and, it is the day in 1802 when Napoleon Bonaparte signed the “Law of May 20" which reinstituted slavery in some French colonies. In addition, it is the date of the next Solar Eclipse, which in many cultures is a day of bad omens linked to misfortune and disaster. It is especially unusual this year as the eclipse begins (can be first seen) in Asia and ends in the United States, which is rare and perhaps prophetic.
On or about the 27th of January 632 there was a solar eclipse visible in the city of Medina. It coincided with the death of Ibrahim, son of the prophet Mohammed. It was said that the eclipse was nature’s way of expressing sadness at the loss of Ibrahim. In the 20th Book of Homer’s Odyssey, during such an eclipse, the sun was said to disappear out of the heavens allowing an evil mist to cover the land. The Samaritan historian Thallus recounted a solar eclipse in 52 A.D. that reportedly coincided with the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. Throughout history eclipses have heralded droughts, deaths and political upheavals.
Not only is May 20th a bad day to commence a major conference, but this year that date falls on a Sunday, which is considered to be an unlucky days in many cultures, including among Hindus.
While much of this might be called superstition in the West, many legends have their basis in fact. Regardless, many peoples believe in these omens and follow their warnings. It is arrogant for any country wishing to partner with the rest of the world to dismiss their beliefs out of hand.
What the selection of May 20th reveals is that the State Department and White House have no sense of history and no cultural sensitivity. Pushing the conference back one day to May 21 would have been a better idea as it is a relatively innocuous day historically. One would think that the Obama Administration would be especially sensitive to hosting the biggest conference in the U.S. of world leaders in years on the day in history when slavery was re-legitimized by the French. That does not bode well for the Afghan people who are facing a return to virtual slavery at the hands of the Taliban as the West begins its retreat.
It is this failure to learn from history that has dogged the U.S. effort in Afghanistan from the beginning. The 2001 U.S. post-invasion plan was to “Americanize” the Afghans with democracy, money, English as a second language, automobiles, cell phones, alcohol and brothels. The democracy effort produced one of the most corrupt parliamentary elections in world history; the uncontrolled influx of money pushed Afghan officials to quit their low-paying government jobs as they could make more money working for the Americans; learning English has not helped because the U.S. has barred most Afghan immigrants from getting American visas; automobiles now clog the Afghan capital; cell phones allow the Taliban and its allies to keep in contact; alcohol is now flowing into Afghanistan (even though officially banned); and brothels came into being in 2001 to service the Western liberators and their wealthy Afghan partners. In summary, Americanization has been a disaster.
The U.S. Government then decided not to act against the revived opium and heroin trade which the Taliban had largely destroyed when they were in power. Pentagon and State Department officials saw and continue to see short-term military advantages in letting drug traffickers flourish, even though such a strategy is immoral, helps to fund the Taliban and has contributed to soaring drug use among Afghan security forces.
A better sense of history might have influenced the U.S. Government to operate with a smaller footprint, a greater dedication to zero civilian casualties and perhaps convinced it to leave its massive publicity machine at home. The U.S. needed armies of engineers, medical doctors and language experts, yet it instead brought armies of spin doctors and media consultants. Counterinsurgency wars are won quietly and with patience, with all credit going to the host government and its forces.
In addition, great care must be exercised not to excessively disrupt national cultures as that invites both a backlash and chaos. It also fuels and legitimizes the opposition. The American effort, while well-meaning, has been clumsy with no lessons learned. As a result, the next U.S. adventure promises to be equally unsuccessful, with the next group of “liberated” people (just like the Iraqis) happy to see the Americans eventually depart.
Another problem with May 20th is that it provides a tempting target for a Taliban “Tet” offensive. Max Boot of the Wall Street Journal wrote on April 18, 2012 that the Taliban are too weak to stage a Tet offensive. In that same article he recounted that Afghan businessmen are already selling their properties and planning for a major exodus in the coming months, an ominous sign of defeat. People do, in fact, vote with their feet. If the rich and middle class are preparing to flee Afghanistan (which numerous sources confirm), then the Western retreat in 2013 may very well see a return of portions of the country to Taliban control.
In 1968, after the stunning Tet Offensive in South Vietnam, U.S. intelligence officials conducted an assessment of their massive intelligence failure. The experts found that American analysts had dismissed rumors of an offensive primarily because they had concluded, applying Western military reasoning, that the Viet Cong lacked the capabilities for such an offensive. These analysts overlooked the fact that the Viet Cong had the intention to launch the offensive, regardless of their seeming lack of capabilities. The same flawed intelligence analyses that led to the 1968 disaster, is evident in Mr. Boot’s article. It is also evident in comments from Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Pentagon officials regarding the suicide bombers attacks across Afghanistan last week. U.S. officials proclaimed the attacks a failure because the attackers did not seize territory and were eventually defeated in every engagement. Pentagon officials do not learn from their mistakes. The latest comments reveal a stunning gulf in comprehension between officials in Washington, D.C. and their adversaries in the Afghan countryside. These U.S. officials display the same bafflement when addressing their enemy’s use of suicide bombers, such tactic simply being beyond their comprehension.
In fact the Taliban may very well choose May 20th as the day to embarrass the U.S. by showing that its “progress” in Afghanistan is illusory, just as the Viet Cong elected to show forty years ago. Fancy speeches in Chicago cannot hide the fact that there is growing insecurity in the Afghan countryside and a lack of faith in the U.S. led effort.
The Taliban have shown themselves to be media savvy. It is unlikely that they will surrender the public stage on May 20-21 to their enemies. This Chicago Conference, which is both unnecessary and poorly advised, is scheduled to produce nothing of significance except self-serving speeches. It is, however, a bright neon sign to the Taliban which reads, “Attack Us Now.”
The stage for the May 20th spectacle is more likely to be in Kabul than in Chicago. The hope is that May 20, 2012 will not be added to the long list of “May 20ths” in history in which tragic events either occur or are set in motion.