"U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has several times discussed the long history of Afghanistan, referring to the many failed efforts by imperial powers to conquer it. The “tribal” organization of Afghanistan is the bane of empires; they can invade, but they cannot rule. They can disrupt and destroy, but they cannot build anything workable.
Most recently, Gates spoke to Maureen Dowd, the New York Times columnist. She asked what the U.S. should do to avoid the traps and pitfalls of past imperial projects in Afghanistan. Gates’ reply is fascinating. He said, “If we can re-empower the traditional local centers of authority, the tribal shuras and elders and things like that and put an overlay of human rights on that, isn’t that a step in the right direction?”
Amazing. In the 1980s, the U.S. funded jihadist resistance against the Soviet Union; now the U.S. is fighting jihadist resistance against the United States. As Dowd pointed out, the U.S. is caught in a historical contradiction – having created the very mess it is now trying to clean up.
The really fascinating thing about Gates’ comments, however, is how they shed light on another area of U.S. relations with “tribal” societies: The indigenous peoples of the Americas. The parallels are pretty clear, if we want to admit it. First, there is intervention based on using some elements of tribal societies against other elements and against the enemies of the United States. Then, there is the collapse of traditional governing structures. After that, there is the belated awareness that the traditional structures are needed to maintain social coherence and stability."
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Peter d’Errico: Perils of empire-building
(Indian Country Today 12/21)
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