Saturday, August 1, 2009

It's Not About Us

I was reading about tribal politics in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the border cuts right through the middle of the region populated by the Pashtun ethnic group. It's one of those sad situations where Europeans long ago drew up the borders in a way that would make life difficult for anyone trying to establish a government that wouldn't be riven by ethnic strife (see: Africa).

The article underscored the way that the dominant political dynamics in lots of places don't connect very tightly to American interests, and how difficult it often is for us to see this. The Taliban - Northern Alliance conflict, to most Americans, is between ultra-conservative Muslims who support al-Qaeda and moderates who don't. But to a lot of people there, it's a conflict between the Uzbeks and Tajiks in the north and Pashtuns in the south. A lot of Pashtuns who are going to step on the battlefield for the Taliban side may not particularly like Taliban social policy, but they don't want to end up being second-class citizens in an Uzbek- and Tajik-ruled country.

There's a natural tendency for American news outlets to present things in terms of American interests, but this often leaves us unable to understand what foreign political actors are doing. I remember reading stuff from the Duelfer Report where they said that the biggest reason Saddam was being shady about weapons inspections was that he eventually wanted to rebuild his WMD capacity to deter Iran. He thought those weapons had served him very well in the Iran-Iraq War, and he was hoping that sometime in the future, he'd be able to get them back just in case a similar war broke out again. (I even remember reading something according to which his resistance to inspections was part of a bluff against Iran -- whatever trouble it brought him from the international community, he thought it was worthwhile if it might make Iran think he had some Sarin in his pocket.) Meanwhile, the American media was helping Bush terrify us into thinking that Saddam wanted nothing more than to kill Americans with his poison gases.

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