PARIS, France — Early in 2003, in liberated Basra, traffic blocked my monster GMC so I bumped over a divider to hang a U-turn. My sidekicks, Mohammed and Mohammed, were appalled.
Iraq lay in ruin, with thousands dead. But my friends’ families had taught them civility and social order, even under an evil dictator. I was an alien scofflaw.
After years in an altered reality — survival of the foulest — an impromptu U-turn might explode a booby trap or spark some loony at a checkpoint to open fire.
Basra comes to mind whenever someone far away proposes to exit quagmire by declaring victory and going home.
Going home, eventually, is pretty much inevitable, as it was in Vietnam and will be in Afghanistan. But that is rarely victory.
Outsiders can bust up a place, hand the keys to new masters and skulk out a back door. Yet without regard to human nature, geopolitical theory is only wishful thinking.
The younger Mohammed and his dance-loving sisters were happy in school. Their father’s salary bought an SUV, food and fancy electronics. He cursed Saddam in private so no one troubled him.
The older Mohammed, a petroleum engineer, hurried home from self-exile in Sweden after the invasion. He wanted to help build that better Iraq so many expected at the outset.
Both moved quickly from disillusionment to disgust and then on to despair.
Young Mohammed’s sisters stayed home behind locked doors. Rumor had it that gangs of toughs, masking twisted libido with religious fervor, carried off schoolgirls.
Before long, this was more than rumor, and that was a minuscule sidelight to all the rest. Look around post-surge Iraq today.
No one today can say within the nearest 100,000 how many noncombatants have died needlessly since 2003. Each faction has its army. Corruption is incalculable.
Iraqis have developed those first crude homemade bombs into a global phenomenon, ubiquitous in Afghanistan and now spreading to East Asia, South America and Africa.
During Vietnam, Peter Arnett found an American major in the smoldering remains of a provincial capital. “So,” he asked, “you had to destroy the town in order to save it?”
That Ben Tre logic applies to Basra, Baghdad and most of Iraq. The metaphor is stretched in Kabul, already half-trashed by warring homeboys, but the lesson is dead clear.
The point is not how many foreign troops patrol territory that humbled Genghis Khan and Alexander. Afghans need the opposite of musclebound military thinking.
Massive assault is a useful tactic for body counts and hopeful situation reports. As long-term strategy, it is a heaven-sent recruiting drive for the Taliban and al Qaeda.
Along with that Basra U-turn, I often flash back to Kabul in late 2001, soon after the Taliban was run out of town.
In a quiet neighborhood, I found a man weeping softly near a crater in front of his house. It was where, not long before, his young daughter had been playing hopscotch.
U.S. aircraft had swept in, and a bomb that was not as smart as the Pentagon thought missed Kabul airport by a mile.
War is like that, even when justifiable. If sometimes unavoidable, it is far too blunt an instrument for mending torn societies.
By renting the loyalty of murderous warlords, NATO generals fortify corruption that erodes any sense of justice.
By condoning poppy fields for expediency, they undermine efforts to help farmers to grow food people need and cash crops to bolster a legitimate economy.
And so on.
Ancient nations of dizzying complexity defy any simple description, let alone roadmaps to salvation. Still, a basic principle lies at the heart of it.
Afghanistan needs, as Iraq did, the hard-slogging, slow-return process George W. Bush disparaged: nation-building. More accurately, that is society-stabilizing.
Warlords must be balanced into a sort of controlled chaos so that representative government, a real economy, and non-sectarian schools can begin to take root.
Leaders must demonstrate (as opposed to express) a will to punish corruption and curb privateers who pocket what should be public taxes. Honest elections would help.
“Development” must be designed for, and with, the people it is meant for rather than clueless, overpaid foreign contractors who take the money and run.
Security is paramount, obviously enough. But that depends on reducing the reasons for Afghans in the middle to rally reluctantly to the Taliban.
Police training must begin with tough selection to weed out thugs, partisans and zealots. Foreign instructors need experience in societies far different from their own.
An Afghan army is crucial. L. Paul Bremmer’s order to cashier Iraqis who served under Saddam is the root of much evil. Many professional officers just follow orders.
Broad context is vital. Pakistani forces and factions tug in opposing directions. Russia worries about Tajiks and Uzbeks on its borders. Heroin from Helmand pours into Iran.
The list is long, but any Alcoholics Anonymous knows the drill: Fix what you can, adapt to what you cannot, and have the wisdom to know which is which.
In the end, as Mohammed and Mohammed in Basra learned the hard way, it is best not to destroy a country to save it.