The Lilliputians & the Giant

Paul Olson
UNL Emeritus Professor 

Speaking Our Peace Graphic

When Gulliver comes ashore in Lulliputia and immediately goes to sleep from exhaustion, the mite-sized Lilliputians bind him to the ground with tiny ropes, then loose “a shower of above a Hundred Arrows, discharged on my [Gulliver’s] left Hand, which pricked me like so many needles.” The Lilliputians disrupt Gulliver’s life temporarily and cause him pain, but cannot destroy him. They are, I think, a metaphor for modern post-Cold War conflicts: insurgencies waged through small-scale sorties and provocative threats that annoy and create disruption. They cause hurt and upend our sense of security and feelings of control. We respond with modern military assets: smart bombs, surges, drones, counter-insurgencies, bribes, frontal attacks, and efforts to capture the ‘hearts and minds’ of the enemy. As with the Rome’s pax romana, we wish to teach total peace through total control.

By the time this editorial appears, President Obama will probably have made his decision on what to do about Afghanistan — rumored to be some combination of General McChrystal’s call for a counter-insurgency surge and a ramping-up of ‘counter-terror’ drone strikes. This new escalation, we are assured, will quell the Taliban and restore just and democratic rule to Afghanistan. Though we’re seeing both Republicans on the right and Democrats on the left separately advocating various forms of military withdrawal, such proposals (including the one our 2009 Annual Peace Conference Phyllis Bennis speaker describes on the front page of this Nebraska Report issue) are not on the table. We are not going to withdraw, rely on NGOs and the UN to provide needed aid to rebuild Afghanistan, and depend on help from the regional security alliance.

But why not?

We know that our announced ‘enemy’ is al Qaida and not the Afghan villagers we’re daily killing. We know that fewer than one hundred al Qaida live in Afghanistan. We know that Pakistan is in fact the strategic hot spot, with its volatile mix of both al Qaida and nuclear weapons. We know that al Qaida can organize and is organizing in Somali, Yemen, the U.S. (witness the recent Fort Hood killings), and a host of other counties. The powers-that-be know as well as did Matthew Hoh — the recently resigned Obama official working with development in Afghanistan — that the insurgency in Pashtun territory is composed of “multiple, seemingly infinite, local groups… fed by what is perceived by the Pashtun people as a continued and sustained assault, going back centuries, on Pashtun land, culture, traditions and religion by internal and external enemies.” Hoh argues that “The U.S. and NATO presence in Pashtun valleys and villages, as well as Afghan army and police units that are led and composed of non-Pashtun soldiers and police, provide an occupation force against which the insurgency is justified.” We know that we are an occupying power firing the resistance and that the logic of ‘valleyism’ rather than ‘nation-statism’ prevails in predominantly rural Afghanistan.

We also know that the Afghanistan’s current national boundaries and notion of nationhood came about largely from Russian and British imperial decisions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and that rarely has the country operated under a centralized governmental authority. We know that Hamid Karzai’s writ doesn’t run beyond Kabul, that his election was fraudulent, that his brother is a big shot in the heroin trade that enriches both Taliban and Afghan officials. We know we are fighting for Unocal’s long-standing goal of running a pipeline across this vast country to haul Central Asian oil. And yet we are going in — full force. Why?

The military demands it. The Military-Industrial Complex profits from it. Some Republican and moderate Democrats want it. The unemployed need it to get a job. And so on.

But these are not the basic reasons in my view.

Basic is our trust in the modern industrial nation-state’s capacity to control everything — and our failure to understand the forces of culture and history in these remote and sparsely populated valleys. Nothing can prevent dissidents in our own or other countries from disrupting complex technological, communication, transportation, governmental or industrial systems. They are darts in the hand… And they will come. We don’t realize that. We don’t even build much redundancy into our systems to prevent the disruption when it happens. (Remember how all air flights were canceled for two weeks after 9/11 and how much havoc that caused?)

No nation-state or military alliance of nation-states can change the cultures of every valley, tribe, village, and madrasa in Afghanistan or in other countries where al Qaida operates. The Taliban can only exist when they feed on local culture. Their disruptions can be like the arrows in Gulliver’s hand. They hurt. But only we can destroy ourselves through the myth of total control and total expenditure of resources to obtain it.

The 3,000-plus killed on 9/11 constitute a great many people, particularly if you loved one of them. Their deaths though do not justify the 6,000 and more American and allied casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan ( and the hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths there. One death does not pay for another. Nor do a thousand foreign deaths pay for one American one. The only way to pay for these deaths is to counter the culture of death. It is clear from the work of Three Cups of Tea author Greg Mortenson’s in Pakistan and from reports of NGOs still active in Afghanistan that, even in the valleys where the Taliban operate, people want education, health care, food other than poppies, and they want to make for themselves in their own way. They mostly want a little peace and quiet after 30 years of what Matthew Hoh describes as a rural-urban civil war. That, non-partisan NGOs can work to create.

Most NFP members probably voted for Obama. I did. He has done good work in turning to diplomacy, promoting nuclear abolition, stopping torture, withdrawing from Iraq and actually talking with Iran. But we need to challenge the logic of his administration’s position on Afghanistan. This is not change we can believe in. It is the same old changeless imperialism. It’s a black hole of endless destruction… And it will ruin all of the other changes we do believe in.

We need to talk to our senators and representatives (Republican as well as Democrat) about our concerns over this escalating war. Surges and drones will not capture hearts and minds. They will kill people — ours and theirs.

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