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Afghanistan: Which Fairy Tale Tells the Truth?

October 29, 2009

If President Obama wants to understand the problem of U.S. policy in Afghanistan, he might do well to turn to a fairy tale.  I suggest that he take his top civilian and military advisors to the Family Theater at the White House to watch Walt Disney’s 1940 film Fantasia. It tells the story of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” It’s not just for kids, anymore.

“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is the English name for a 1797 poem by Goethe, Der Zauberlehrling.

You remember from your childhood days the story of the hapless apprentice.  Wikipedia provides a concise synopsis:

“The poem begins as an old sorcerer departs his workshop, leaving his apprentice with chores to perform. Tired of fetching water by pail, the apprentice enchants a broom to do the work for him — using magic he is not yet fully trained in. The floor is soon awash with water, and the apprentice realizes that he cannot stop the broom because he does not know how.

Not knowing how to control the enchanted broom, the apprentice splits it in two with an axe, but each of the pieces becomes a new broom and takes up a pail and continues fetching water, now at twice the speed. When all seems lost, the old sorcerer returns, quickly breaks the spell and saves the day. The poem finishes with the old sorcerer’s statement that powerful spirits should only be called by the master himself.”

Wikipedia tells me that Goethe’s poem can be traced back to a Greek short story, Philopseudes (Greek for “Lovers of lies”) by Lucian, written c. AD 150.  So, the story encapsulates the wisdom of the ages.

Serious policy makers, Afghan families, and friends and family of U.S. military personnel may take offense.  They might ask indignantly, “What possible relevance could this fairy tale have to the tough decisions that President Obama must make about U.S. policy in Afghanistan?  How dare anyone be so shallow as to bring up fairy tales, when so many Afghan civilians are dying and suffering and when so many U.S. military personnel risk their lives daily to make America safe from terrorism?!  Can you really be that insensitive and shallow?!”

No, I take very seriously the deaths, the suffering, and the grief of the survivors.  I want to find a way to free our elected officials from the other fairy tale, the one that tells again and again the story that “when bad people threaten the U.S., only the god of war can protect us.”  That fairy tale promises safety but produces suffering, killing, and quagmires.

The “god of war will save us” fairy tale got us into Afghanistan.  The U.S. and allied forces invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and deposed its Taliban government.  Today, eight years of war later, the Taliban has regained control of an estimated 70% of the territory of Afghanistan.  The Taliban forces have grown like those multiplying enchanted brooms.  Where did that Taliban broom come from? Who enchanted that Taliban broom to multiply?  What old sorcerer can President Obama call on to break the spell?

To answer those questions, you might take time to read Ahmed Rashid’s Taliban: Islam, oil and the new great game in central Asia (2002) and Stephen Coll’s Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (2004).  Today’s problem of the Taliban and al Qa’eda in Afghanistan grew from yesterday’s U.S. solution to Soviet dominance in Afghanistan.

Today’s Taliban broom, in a sense, got its start when the Carter administration settled on a “secret” military strategy to bog down the Soviets in a Vietnam-type war in Afghanistan.  That broom was enchanted into splitting into multiple brooms by the Reagan administration’s recruiting an Arab contingent for the mujahideen to help fight the Soviets there.  Reagan’s CIA chief William O. Casey worked with Prince Faisal Turki of the Saudi intelligence agency and with Pakistan’s intelligence outfit, the “ISI,” to recruit, among others, Osama bin Laden.  With congressional conservatives like Charlie Wilson (TX) and Dana Rohrabacher (CA)—we might call them the “sorcerer’s apprentices”—stoking the CIA budget to train, arm, and equip the mujahideen (Islamic fighters) the brooms multiplied.  The U.S. victory came when the Soviets fled and their client regime fell.  That was supposed to be the end of the story.

Contrary to Wilson and Rohrabacher’s wishes the mujahideen didn’t disarm and didn’t go quietly into the night.  The CIA never thought to collect all the weapons, explosives, communications equipment, and to destroy the reinforced caves and tunnels; in fact, they couldn’t.  Stinger missiles?  Still out there.

Perhaps worse, the “brooms” turned out to have their own agenda!  Who knew “brooms” could think?  They did think: “Hey, if we could defeat the Soviet superpower, then we can defeat the U.S. superpower; we can bog the U.S. down in a war of attrition; we can bankrupt them; we can destabilize their allies; the more they fight us the higher our status; the higher our status the more we recruit to our cause.”

Guess what?  The Bush administration obliged them in every way.  The Bush administration gave them war with the one remaining superpower.  The Bush administration validated their claim that the U.S. is not really a democracy and not really humane: torture, bombing civilians, detaining children for years, supporting a corrupt Afghan government.  Bush handed them their victory, and he called it getting tough on terrorists.

What now? Will Obama have the wisdom and skill of the old sorcerer to be able to dispel these enchanted brooms and stop the killing?  Or will he start the process all over again by enchanting other brooms to split into yet larger armies to continue the war, continue the killing?

Obama has plenty of sorcerer’s apprentices in Congress and at his side.  They are making the magic of military might sound like the best way to mop up the mess in Afghanistan.  I hope he sees the wisdom of the ages and dispels that notion before it is too late.

8 Comments
  1. November 10, 2009 7:44 pm

    Volk, whose name means “People” in German, has brought this deft analogy to the People in a fable that everyone knows. This story applies equally well to the Vietnam war, the War on Drugs, and all aspects of the War on Terror wherever it is being fought. Why Obama, a brilliant leader, doesn’t get it is alarming. Eisenhower well understood the war merchants when he wrote in his 1961 farewell speech of the dangers of the “Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex.” When it came to actually giving his speech, even Eisenhower bowed to their power and dropped the word “Congressional.” Is this what Obama is doing?

    Michael E. Arth

  2. Elizabeth Lockyear permalink
    November 10, 2009 7:52 pm

    Thank you so much for writing this. I am going to send a link to all my family and friends. I pray that President Obama reads it and takes it to heart. Bless you.

  3. joseph p bell permalink
    November 10, 2009 10:41 pm

    how can i send this wonderful article by E-MAil ..? I DO NOT HAVE ANY OF THE OTHER FANCY GADGETS . thank you … and not every one knows about Fantasia ,or knew .. i did not and i am 75 .

  4. Larry Arsenault permalink
    November 11, 2009 3:21 am

    When President Obama was running for office he spoke with and for the people when he recognized that our military presence in the Middle East is the best recruiting poster our enemies could ask for and pledged to get us out of the Iraq war ASAP. Before the economic collapse, ending the war was the main issue and he had a very clear opposition to Senator McCain’s position to fight the war to victory no matter how long it takes.

    The war hawks employed by President Bush and now President Obama, are clammering for a bigger war in Afghanistan even while our hand picked Afghan President Karzai is in negotiation with the Taliban and we’re reeling from our economic meltdown. NowPresident Obama will be truly tested. If he fails this test, he will have failed himself, the people who placed their faith, dollars and votes in him and the tragic “Fairy tale” will move into the realm of insanity with no exit in sight.

  5. Isabel Best permalink
    November 11, 2009 12:06 pm

    The people I see on the news who know Afghanistan best (they live there, no escape for them) say the US/Nato war there can never succeed. The Taliban has time on its side. The march of the brooms will only continue. People we are working with in Kabul want us to stay, of course, and protect them. But ask, best of all, an ordinary man in a village who has seen our troops come and go over the years. He says, “How can more fighting ever bring peace?” Indeed.

    In the fairy tale there is a sorcerer, but not in real life. President Obama knows this, and we must support him in speaking the truth to the powers around him in Washington. He has the ability to sit down with the Muslim-majority nations, to whom he has already extended his hand, and LISTEN and put everything on the table. If we do not stand solidly behind him in doing this, and stand up to the wealthy interests that are blocking his way, we shall have only more Vietnams, more marching brooms, in our future.

  6. joseph p bell permalink
    November 11, 2009 1:13 pm

    OUT OF AFGHANISTAN (CHARLIE WILSONS WAR”. OUT OF IRAQ (GHW BUSH AND GW BUSHS WAR ) OILY OILY ,END FREE

  7. david sitomer permalink
    November 11, 2009 4:15 pm

    Gore has all wise little chickens and the little red hen better have the rest, because there’s an aweful lot of work to do.

  8. V P permalink
    November 11, 2009 5:14 pm

    There is only one sorcerer for the job. But he only appears when asked.
    As long as the US government keeps posing as head sorcerer of the planet, our country and our populous must bear that burden. It’s going to take a lot of individuals to change their own thinking and in turn be the change they want to see happen because it is obviously not going to come from Obama. Sustainability and a new focus on how to maintain a planetary balance between humanity and nature is in order. Without an evolution of America’s collective consciousness, we are all brooms flooding our beautiful home and workspace. We need to consume less and educate our people more. We need to break the old ideals and look to uncharted territory such as a world economy that can benefit everyone, not just a select few.
    War takes too long and hurts to many. We need intelligence and accountability. Most of all, we need a renewed sense of Love and appreciation for all that we have.

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