Were Afghans Born to Run?

Regarding yesterday’s post on Afghan roads, Joshua Foust pointed me in the direction of his Columbia Journalism Review article on the life and death of the “road-building” meme, which appeared last September. It focuses on the fallacy of equating road-building with security, but triggered an additional thought for me about the COIN emphasis on narrative.

I’ve already written about the tension that can arise when a narrative meant for domestic consumption plays poorly in-theater, and vice versa. But the road-building meme Foust dissects illustrates the way in which COIN practitioners will inevitably tend to interpret the narrative they’re constructing in-theater through our very culturally determined American lens.

The road has a central place in America’s cultural identity, arguably from before it actually existed (the wagon trails of westward expansion and stage coaches, for instance). Historically, roads have been linked to empire and security on the one hand (the Roman Viae Romanae, the Inca Camino Real), and trade on the other (the Silk Road). America’s road narrative certainly includes significant elements of both, which explains the guiding logic in Afghanistan.

But America’s cultural narrative also includes an enormous emphasis on the road as freedom or escape (again the westward expansion, and more recently Kerouac and Springsteen among many others). And I wonder if that didn’t creep in as an assumption underlying the idea that a road is a universally agreed upon value. Of course, a road represented the potential for salvation to mid- or late-20th century American poets because they felt hemmed in by middle-class suburbia and wanted to get out. But to a pre-modern social group trying to defend a homogeneous identity against the incursions of the outside world, a road represents an existential threat.

Cultural myopia, while inevitable, is also addressable. But historically, in colonial enterprises of authority and values, it was usually a symptom of a more far-reaching flaw in strategic objectives. I’d argue that our action in Afghanistan is a contemporary version of the colonial enterprise, only instead of imposing our authority and values, we’re attempting to graft our modern societal mode onto a largely pre-modern society (with hybrid elements).

The obvious internal contradiction between our method and our objective is that we’re essentially introducing radical societal change in the name of geopolitical stability. Not too hard to spot the error.