Archive for April, 2009

[Originally published in the Barre Times-Argus and Rutland Herald.  Published with a few minor changes in the Herald of Randolph, April 30, 2009.]

American and other western media have learned recently of the existence of a new marriage law in Afghanistan that they have characterized as legalizing rape within marriage and forbidding married women from leaving the house without permission.

It has made good copy and, in playing on the “backward and anti-human rights” aspects of the bill, the media, at last count, have managed to incite protests from the British, United States, French, New Zealand and Canadian governments, as well as the United Nations and numerous feminine rights organizations. All have responded with righteous condemnation, a completely understandable reaction.

But this melodrama is interesting not just because of its inflammatory allegations of legalized rape, or for discussions of the appropriateness of the Western response to the story. It is far more interesting in the way it illuminates the problems that exist for the West in general and the United States in particular, in formulating and implementing foreign policies for the Muslim world.

Mohammad Asif Mohseni, a senior Afghan cleric and a main drafter of the law, has said that a woman must have sex on demand with her husband at least every four days, unless she is ill or would be harmed by intercourse. He amplified, saying, “it is essential for the woman to submit to the man’s sexual desire”.

In addition, he has said that the legislation cannot be revoked or changed because it was enacted through the bi-cameral legislative process and signed by President Karzai.

However, Mohseni’s most interesting and telling comment was that “The Westerners claim that they have brought democracy to Afghanistan. What does democracy mean? It means government by the people for the people. They should let the people use these democratic rights”. He further condemned the western outcry saying that Western countries were trying to thwart democracy because the results did not please them.

In our culture, forced sex in or out of marriage is equated with rape. It is therefore at least inappropriate and probably illegal.

In Afghanistan, the law that in our eyes “legalizes rape”, was drafted after three years of debate by Islamic scholars and Afghan legislators and is supported by hundreds of women who affixed their signatures or thumbprints to it.

Looking at the new law through our cultural filter, the American Government and most Americans roundly condemn such legislation as at least unethical or immoral, probably as illegal and certainly as unacceptable.

The Afghan government as well as most Afghan men and significant numbers of Afghan women, accept it as reflecting the Koran, Shariya law and tradition, the bases of Islamic law.

The 1948 U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR) was passed in 1948. No matter how appropriate and universal it seems to us, it has never been universally accepted. Quite the opposite, it has precipitated a nagging debate that has persisted over the last 60 years. Muslim countries have always objected, saying that the document was written in the Judeo-Christian tradition and as such, failed to acknowledge the cultural and religious differences of Islamic countries, thus denying Muslims the freedom and right to a dignified life under their universally accepted Shariya law.

How could anyone possibly object to such fundamental truths as those in the UNDHR, we ask?

Much as we would like to think that our laws are a perfect reflection of mankind, there are plenty of other humans who would argue that point. Those differences are greatest where the belief systems are farthest apart.

All human beings are victims or beneficiaries of their own ethnocentric cultural environments and biases. Laws exist as contemporary forms of cultural traditions and when one culture begins to tell another very different culture what is right and wrong, there is bound to be friction and conflict.

For a major world power like America, this often translates into a form of cultural imperialism which seems to compel us to export our philosophy of life and system of government. One of the many problems this brings on is that when America decides to export democracy an Islamic country, for example, we are heading for trouble. The extraordinary cultural differences between the regions, coupled with a curious inability of our leaders to understand those differences, lead us into situations we might better avoid and which we have great difficulty understanding.

Who are we to say that our culture is right and theirs is wrong? And yet, that is invariably the problem when we start to tell disparate parts of the world how to run their lives.

Absent a real understanding of Islam and the differences between us, it is incredibly difficult, as we have seen over the past seven years, to conceive and implement a successful foreign policy based on American cultural values for a region with wildly different cultural biases.

The best way for America to handle these differences is to show our way of life by example, not by preaching or by force. When we get to the point where we can do that consistently, people will admire our values and seek our systems and there will be no reason for us to try to export them. There is truth in the premise of John Winthrop’s “shining city on the hill.”

Haviland Smith is a former CIA station chief.

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[Originally published in the Randolph Herald.]

It is absolutely amazing and to his infinite credit that President Obama, faced with critical economic and political problems at home, can, at the same time keep multiple foreign policy balls juggled happily in the air. Yet, he has done so and for someone denigrated as a foreign policy neophyte, he hasn’t made a real substantive  mistake.

Obama broke precedent when he decided to visit a Muslim country rather than Israel on his first trip to the Middle East. That was risky enough, but in the course of the visit, he got into an exceedingly delicate area where few Americans have ventured before him.  He entered the fray on the issue of the Armenian genocide.

This issue centers on the deaths of over 500,000 Turkish Armenians at the hands of the Turkish government between 1915-1918. The deaths have never been acknowledged as genocide by succeeding Turkish governments and that denial has become an issue for the European countries which hold sway over the entry of Turkey into the European Union.

It is, to say the very least, an extraordinarily delicate subject for the Turks. Yet Obama did broach the topic and did so in a way that was helpful and, quite remarkably, relatively inoffensive to both Turks and Armenians. His words are thought to have had a positive effect and we absolutely need to keep Turkey as a friend.

In addition, it has been most gratifying to hear the President finally put some perspective in the issue of our struggle with fundamentalist Muslim terrorism and al Qaida. He has recognized it as an irritant and as an ancillary problem, particularly in Afghanistan, not as the existential problem it was portrayed to be under President Bush where the greater the problem he painted terrorism, the greater problem it became.

In further comments, the President appears to have somehow put a dying two-state solution for Palestine back in play. In an environment which has just seen a new Israeli government in the person of its Prime Minister Netanyahu and it’s Foreign Minister Liebermann totally reject consideration of such a two state solution, that solution, the old nemesis of right wing Israelis and left wing Palestinians, is at least once again open for discussion.

From Israel’s point of view, this solution would mean that they would have to give up any hope of retaining the vast majority of their settlements on Palestinian soil, while the Palestinians and their most radical supporters would have to recognize the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state at peace with its neighbors.

More to the point, before Obama’s support of this solution, it was felt by many that it was finally dead in the water, having been killed by both Palestinian and Israeli radicals.  It would now appear to have some life and since that particular solution is the only one that will satisfy any of the needs of both sides, its resuscitation has to be considered a good thing.

In addition to these good things, the President has made two very important additional breaks with the old Bush Administration Middle East  policies.  He has said he will treat Muslims with respect and that America is not at war with Islam. That may not seem like much, but when you consider that the Bush Administration’s policies were the exact opposite and that Muslims around the world believed Bush, the change really is important.

Due respect in Islam is extremely important. It provides the basis for all human relations.  When it is not employed, it is viewed as a hostile act.  Thus, the Bush Administration really was at war with Islam for they showed that hostility every day with their jingoistic language and macho, good vs. evil  rhetoric – “Axis of Evil”, “rogue states”, “outposts of tyranny”, “enemies of freedom”, dead or alive”, “bring ‘em on” to name but a few.  And all of this to create and support, through fomenting fear at home and hatred abroad, the Neoconservative goal of the ”long war”.

A return to due respect and civility will be absolutely critical if we are to rediscover purposeful and successful negotiations around our Middle East issues with states like Israel, Syria, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.  The President has taken the first step in that process, a step without which any such approach would never get off the ground, for It is an unfortunate fact that many Muslims have, for the last seven years, viewed America and its troops as the new Crusaders.  That furthers none of our goals in the region.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief who served in East and West Europe, the Middle East and as Chief of the Counterterrorism Staff.  A longtime resident of Brookfield, he now lives in Williston.

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[Originally published in the Barre Times-Argus and Rutland Herald.]

As often as not, newly elected U.S. administrations, Republican and Democrat alike, turn right around and continue some of the exact same failed policies for which they properly castigated their opponents during the campaign, or implement policies previously rejected by their predecessors for good reason.

Any man who has just been elected president of the United States probably has an inclination to think pretty highly of himself. Let’s say he looks at Iraq or Afghanistan and says to himself, “My predecessor fouled up big time in that country, but then, he was pretty stupid and did all the wrong things. I am smart, really smart and I won’t make the same mistakes that he made. So I will do it right and succeed.”

So, the new President goes ahead, as George Bush did after looking over what he and his advisors considered his father’s failed Iraq policy in the First Gulf War and as Barack Obama apparently has done after examining George Bush’s failed policy in Afghanistan. George Bush made a critical mistake in invading Iraq, one his father was smart enough to avoid. Given what he has done in the last few weeks, Barack Obama is in the process of doing the same in Afghanistan by beefing up our military commitment there.

There are some differences. The Bush White House knew it wanted to invade Iraq even before 9/11. 9/11 provided the excuse, so the White House, looking for “objective” support for its plans, bullied the intelligence community into providing analyses that supported the plan.

That is not the case with President Obama and Afghanistan. Absent presidential arrogance, the only thing that can explain upgrading the war is that it has been pushed incredibly hard by the US military establishment. Obama, after all, follows a President who said constantly he would “do what his generals recommended.” With the surge counted as a military success, Obama is stuck with the realities left behind by Bush policy. Would he be the president who “lost” the Middle East? The pressure is really on.

But that really isn’t the issue and there are a couple of points that need to be made over and over.

First, the contemporary reality of Afghanistan: Afghanistan is a very large country currently uncontrolled by its central government. Its people are brave, bellicose, fiercely proud, loyal to their clan, tribe or family, wildly independent, and have a highly developed sense of honor. They are generally corrupt, normally armed to the teeth, ready to fight and good at it, having spent millennia fighting each other and endless numbers of invaders. They see all foreigners as potential enemies and occupiers. And all of this is wildly complicated by Afghanistan’s shared ethnicity with the Pashtun people of Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

Second, the inescapable historical reality of Afghanistan: Greeks, Persians, Mongols, Indians, British, and Russians have all tried over the centuries to pacify Afghanistan. None has ever succeeded for any appreciable length of time. Is America prepared to join this list?

Throughout its history, the United States has been blessed with large numbers of citizen experts, who really know a great deal about the complicated realities of the Middle East. Many of those experts, as long as they are unencumbered with dreams of American Empire, which, God knows, Bush’s neocon advisors were not, have spoken unequivocally about the dangers of involvement, first in Iraq and now in Afghanistan.

What they have said about Iraq, despite the military success of the surge, is that it is not really a country, has very little hope for political reconciliation and that it will probably devolve into sectarian and ethnic conflict once the calming hand of US forces has left, irrespective of when that happens. This leaves the President with the inescapable Hobson’s choice of “staying the course”, or being tagged with the ultimate “defeat” when it all falls apart.

What our experts say further is that Iraq looks easy compared to the realities of Afghanistan and that it has always been that way.

So, we have a new administration that has committed us to deeper and longer military involvement in both Iraq and Afghanistan in the face of centuries of reality that teach us that we are highly unlikely to find ultimate success in either country, whatever definition we give to “success”.

Viable, non-military strategies do exist. It is high time to consider them as alternatives to the unpromising “long war” foisted on us by the Bush administration and apparently to be continued under President Obama.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in East and West Europe, the Middle East and as chief of the counterterrorism staff.

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