Deconstructing Democracy

 

Democracy Deconstructed

 

Let’s turn to something more serious. I’ve been thinking about democracy a lot lately because (along with “freedom”) promoting this concept has been driving our foreign policy over the last decade.

Seems to me, though, the word can use some deconstruction.

 

Dude! The People Rule, Man!

The concept is simple: democracy is the system of government in which the people rule themselves.

Too simple, because ruling means governing, and governing means making decisions every minute of the day. And “the people” can’t do that; they’re busy. Besides, the people can’t make spontaneous mutual decisions because they’re not in telepathic communication. In practice, the people have to pick someone to make decisions for them. Democracy really comes down to people picking their own leaders.

That cat has whiskers, however, which have to be trimmed before it can catch mice. First, “the people” are not some single entity, and they don’t want some single leader. Even if they do, that leader can’t just spontaneously emerge. A process is required, some mechanism for discovering who the leader is. And that mechanism, of course, is voting.

 

The Trouble with Voting

So we’re back to a simple proposition: democracy is a system in which everyone votes for who they think would make the best leader, and whoever gets the most votes becomes the leader.

Ah, but that cat has whiskers too. It works okay if the group is small enough to fit in one room. It works there because people have a biological urge to fit in, to be part of the group. When they’re physically interacting, people have their antennae out, trying to gauge how the group is feeling, so they can feel the same way. A biochemical process moves people toward consensus. Not always, of course, but when it happens, that’s how. I’ve seen it in small groups all my life.

But it can’t happen in groups so large, they have to break up into separate smaller assemblies to meet physically. In a country of millions, if everyone voted for whoever they really wanted as their leader, countless thousands of people would get one or two votes apiece. In any real election, people have choose among some smaller number of candidates.

And that is where the rubber meets the road. Who decides who are in that smaller group?

 

Moving into Contention

What mechanisms reduce the number of possible candidates from the entire legally permissible population to two or three, or even four or five? That’s the question. If there is a democracy, that’s where the democracy is located: in the process that lets any old person move into contention for a leadership position.

Every true democracy has such a process. It’s not formally defined and it mostly goes unnoticed. In the United States (and Europe, I guess) people get into politics at some low rung and then move up. They eager-beaver volunteer to work on somebody else’s campaign. They rally their neighborhood to stop a box-store from going in. They present the grievances of the old people in a senior citizen’s home to the board that manages the home.

Or they join a political party, become a precinct worker, trundle bumper stickers around, and get to know people who know people. Or they get a teaching job, join the union, then represent their fellow teachers in a negotiation. Or they go to a hearing about parking meter rates and complain loudly and publicly.

Or they buy used shoes for a dollar, sell ‘em for two, pile up enough capital to create a start-up company, get some venture capital pouring in, sell the company for a billion dollars without having made a single product, then go into real estate and thus become a story the media loves to hate and therefore won’t stop publicizing.

All these things are part of democracy, if there is a democracy. Elections are important, but they’re only the last piece of the puzzle, not the first. 

 

Bicycle Rider and Cab

Last year, during the presidential campaigns in Afghanistan, I was called for jury duty in San Francisco. I didn’t end up on the jury, but I might have. I did make it into the pool of fifty or so prospective jurors, and we were told what the case was about.

It involved a bicycle rider hit by a cab. The head of the cab company was the defendant, and the guy who’d been hit was suing him. The plaintiff was in the courtroom. He looked fine, but maybe he deserved compensation for his pain and suffering. Who knows? That’s would be decided at the trial. That’s what trials are for.

This was a minor episode amongst the thousands of conflicts that break out every day in a big city, but there we all were in a courtroom. Guided by a judge and driven along by the arguments of lawyers, a whole bunch of us were going to put a lot of time and attention into deciding who was right in this case, and who owed what, if anything, to whom. the whole process cost money. The judge was getting a salary, the building maintenance crew were being paid, the lights, the sound system, the heat—and all this money came from taxes paid by “the people,” after further intricacies of procedure.

 

Kidnapped Girl

During those same several days, when I went home each day, I was reading the news about Afghanistan where an election was under way. In that period, a girl escaped from the house of a man who had an important government position. His name was Fahim, and he was one of several vice presidents. More importantly, he’d been one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of “commanders” (known to outsiders as “warlords”) who had torn the country apart during the 25 years of war between 1978 and 2002. The girl who escaped his house claimed that soldiers in this man’s private militia kidnapped her off the streets, brought her to his house, and brutalized her. She was lucky to have gotten out alive. Maybe she was lying. Who knows? A trial would have to decide.

The police went to Fahim’s compound and told him to come to the courthouse to answer the charges. Fahim’s compound was bristling with his private militia. He, or his spokesperson, told the police officers he was not coming to no stinkin’ courthouse and no one could make him. In that assessment he was correct—no one could make him come to the courthouse. So no trial happened. The matter was forgotten.

 

Yawn. Boring.

In the courtroom where we were going to hear the case of the bicycle rider and the cab driver, many of the potential jurors were scheming to get off the jury because they didn’t want to waste their time.

An enormous infrastructure of social apparatus makes an interaction like that case possible but it’s so thoroughly in place we don’t actively value it much. We take it for granted.

  • There is, first of all, the assumption that when police officers come to door, one can’t tell them to go away, no matter who one is.
  • Then, there is the routine expectation that bunches of ordinary citizens like me can get notes in the mail telling us we have to come to a certain building and hear the argument between two people we don’t know.
  • Then there’s all the volumes of law and precedent that exist to frame this matter.
  • Then too, there are lawyers and judges who know this case law.
  • And there are the schools that have taught these lawyers and judges the law.
  • And there are the rules that prevent discrimination, so that no one is barred from attending these schools just because they’re not from the ruling elite.
  • And there’s a public education system open to every single child in the society, so that everyone has at least a shot, if they want it, to learn what they need to learn … in order to go to one those law schools to learn what they need to learn … to become lawyers, so that they will have a chance to prove themselves enough to become judges…
  • And of course, there’s the assumption, accepted by us all, that whatever the judge and jury decide about the case, the people involved have to accept it.

In short, it strikes me that in a true democracy, the elections that decide who will run the government and write the laws are only the final element. Below the surface there is a vast, largely unnoticed infrastructure of assumptions, roles, rules, traditions, systems, and institutions—schools, libraries, media, professional associations, labor unions, clubs, parties, and so on and so on and so on—that make elections possible and meaningful.

Secret Ballot

In the last decade or so, the policies of the United States government have aimed at turning non-democratic countries such as Afghanistan into democracies. Largely this is done by adding elections to whatever’s already there. Everyone seems to assume that countries are by definition democracies if they hold elections. The caveats come only when someone buys votes or uses intimidation to gain votes. As long as the elections are honest and fair, the country holding them is a democracy.

I dispute this. I say it’s not a democracy unless that vast, underlying infrastructure of social assumptions and institutions are also in place. In countries like Afghanistan and Iraq (and Somalia and Zimbabwe, and on and on) elections settle on top of a whole other system already in progress.

I was interested to learn that in the Afghan parliamentary elections, many voters are at pains to ensure that their votes be publicly known. They don’t want a secret ballot. The whole point of voting is to declare your affiliation with someone who, if elected will be in a position to distribute spoils to his loyal followers.

 Getting to the Trough

Elections are a process the Americans brought to the country. Winning an election means you get to be at the trough where American largesse is flowing. Voting means you get connected to that guy. If he gets to the trough, you want him to know you helped get him there.

But real power is vested in networks of personal connections, tribal connections, marriage alliances, systems of mutual obligation set by custom and in how these are invoked and played. Another whole political system quite unrelated to voting determines who gets into actual leadership positions among Afghans. Guns are a factor, ethnicity plays into it, and deeds count too—those that create obligations, those that frighten people, those that demonstrate resolve, courage, ferocity, cunning, and whatever. The streets are full of events. People hear about them and tell each other. Rumor is the newspaper.

Do not for a moment think that Vice President Fahim lost some clout when he told the police he wasn’t going to come to no stinkin’ courtroom to answer no stinkin’ charges. That was a political move, not just the petulant gesture of a rascal. It was meant to be understood in a certain way. A guy like that, if the world starts crumbling, wouldn’t you want to be on his team?

What exactly do elections mean in an environment like that?

End Game

End Game in Afghanistan?

 

Some journalists say the “end game” in Afghanistan has begun.

And maybe so, if  “end game” is defined as a process that can go on for decades. There is, in any case, lots of chatter now about a negotiated settlement to the war. Karzai has convened 68 “elders” and leaders from around the country to a “High Peace Council” in Kabul, to hammer out a plan for making peace with the Taliban.

Another whole set of negotiations has apparently been under way in Kabul for some time—unofficial, back-channel, informal—oh hell, let’s just go ahead and call them secret—talks between Karzai’s representatives and various “Taliban” elements whoever that label refers to.

Apparently, the secret meetings with “the Taliban” have taken place in Kabul’s fancy four-star hotel, the Serena. Both sides have stoutly denied any such meetings, but recently both sides have aknowledged that, yeah, someone has talked with someone about something. Bottom line: there have been talks.

Also, Taliban spokesmen have now hinted publicly that they might negotiate. As with the early stages of all such negotiations, both sides are stating preconditions that amount to the other side giving up. Taliban agents say talks only after all foreign troops have left and the Shari’a is accepted as basis of the legal code can talks begin. The Karzai government and its foreign sponsors generally say that talks can begin only after the Taliban lay down their arms, accept the Afghan constitution (and all the women’s and ethnic rights and democratic apparatus enshrined therein) and accept the presence of foreign troops.

No one need suppose, however, that talking won’t actually begin without one side’s preconditions being met. All these terms and preconditions are posturing. No one wants to go into talks looking weak.

Afghanistan Without America

The flurry of activity did get me to pondering, however. What would happen if American and NATO troops actually did pull out of Afghanistan completely, soon, and with all due speed?

I don’t say this will or should happen. I only say: “What if?”

[MORE]

Conventional wisdom says a bloodbath will break out the moment foreign troops leave. I think CW is right this time. But will a continued NATO and American presence prevent a bloodbath or only postpone it?  That’s the real question.  And if it is only postponed, will the bloodbath be less bloody or more so?

Some people say the development of women’s right has momentum now and cannot be stopped, even if America leaves. If they favor withdrawal, they have to say this, because the dire straits of Afghan women under the Taliban provided an emotional justification for sending in the troops. It would be very difficult for Americans to support an American withdrawal that amounts to the abandonment of the people we came to save and results in terrible consequences for them. It’s easier to say, right now, “The women will be fine,” and then afterward to say, “Who could have predicted?”

But it’s pointless, I think, to seek refuge in cheering falsehoods. If the Islamist reactionaries take power in Afghanistan, women will suffer grievously, in part because the underlying circumstances for women have not improved. Time Magazine recently ran a cover photo of a girl whose father had cut off her nose to punish her for some disobedience. That man’s attitudes are still rife in rural Afghanistan. What’s more, in the American era, many brave women have taken dangerous public stands. Their names and faces have been recorded. If the reactionaries take power, they will know who to go after and where to find them.

On the Other Hand…

Those who point to the Time magazine cover and say, “Here’s what will happen if America leaves” need to remember. America hasn’t left yet, but this happened anyway. How many crimes like this have gone unreported? We don’t know.  America and NATO have 150,000 troops in Afghanistan,  few would advocate sending more; but Afghanistan has 30 million people, and most of the country is inaccessible.

The only real protection for Afghan women is a positive change in Afghan values and institutions. Is America’s presence promoting such a change or provoking a backlash that retards it?  That’s the real question, and on that question, I think, the jury is still out.

To my mind, a confrontation between Afghans and Afghans is coming. America and NATO can on postpone it but not prevent it. There are many things Americans can do in Afghanistan–garrison troops anywhere, re-supply them, bomb any building or village.

But there are things America can’t do in Afghanistan. Govern the country, for example. That’s a truism, hardly worth mentioning. That’s why America has established an “Afghan” government to govern the country.

What America Can’t Do

The trouble is, whenever Afghans sense a foreign will trying to govern them, they respond by becoming ungovernable. The real question therefore is: “Can America stop Afghans from becoming ungovernable?”

No. That achievement, I think, is beyond American power. In fact, America’s continued presence is only tending to make Afghans less governable. That’s why, over the last four years, the areas under “Taliban control” have increased. More troops has led to more sabotage and more violence in more parts of Afghanistan. The supposed expansion of Taliban “control” is actually an expansion of ungovernability. Of less “control.”  By anyone.

But here’s the thing: someone can govern Afghanistan. Not NATO, not America, but someone–some Afghan. If all foreign forces leave, a battle will break out among the country’s many factions and forces, and out of this turmoil someone will emerge.

Whoever it is, this someone will not be a nice guy. He will be the meanest, toughest pit-bull in the yard. But he will also be an astute politician, a cunning diplomat, and a brilliant strategist–because ruthless, tough, and mean won’t be enough. All the contenders will have that. The winner will have to be all that plus—something more.

Karzai a Goner?

Conventional wisdom says Hamid Karzai will last about nine minutes after foreign forces leave, but I say: do not rule this guy out. Over the last nine years, he’s proved himself a street fighter. People deride him as the mayor of Kabul, but who in Afghanistan is much more? Critics dismiss him too quickly as a leader with no legitimacy. He may not have much legitimacy, but who in Afghanistan has more?

And Karzai, believe it or not, does have some legitimacy. This fact has escaped foreign pundits because his legitimacy is not based on elections. Won or stolen, elections don’t mark people as leaders in Afghanistan. Foreign money and military are undeniable factors and elections are the game Afghans have to play to gain access to those resources. Those are the rules as set by the foreign powers who control the resources. But the legitimacy comes from what the winners do after they’ve gained access to those resources. That’s when the Afghan political processes come into play, and that’s where legitimacy is built or lost.

All these years, Karzai has been preparing for the American departure by playing the Afghan political game right alongside the elections game. The Afghan game consists of building networks of personal connections–through patronage, manipulation, the creation of obligations through favors, strategic marriage alliances, coercion, tribal back channel negotiations, and so on. Much of this is what outsiders call corruption. From to time Karzai appeases his foreign critics with cosmetic maneuvers, but he cannot actually crack down on “corruption” because his political future and very life may depend on continuing to do what he’s been doing. And he has a far-flung network now: how effective it is, we won’t know until the fighting begins.

Could Be Worse

On the other hand, a lot of players have a shot at winning the post-American-withdrawal battle. If I had to bet, I’d put my money on Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and I’d hate to win that bet, because Hekmatyar is the embodiment of not-nice. He is, in fact, one of the darkest figures ever to stalk the country. If I were religious, I’d characterize him as Satan incarnate.  But–in addition to ruthless, tough, and cruel he’s politically savvy, an organizer, and a brilliant strategist.

If he comes out on top, the Taliban era will be remembered as one of the more liberal periods of Afghan history. Yet he or someone like him might be the only sort of force that can pull Afghanistan together and make it governable. The man who forged Afghanistan into a nation-state, the 19th century king Abdu’rahman, was a frightening figure but he … got the job done. 

One thing is certain about any future Abdu’rahman.  He’ll govern from a nativist and Islamic ideology.  But Islamic isn’t necessarily Islamist or Jihadist.  In fact, this future nation-builder might well be content to turn Afghanistan into a fortress and simply rule that castle. He will be Pushtoonist, so the Hazaras will suffer, the Tajiks will be crying, and the Uzbeks will withdraw sullenly to the north and hope to ride it out. Women will be driven back into the compounds to bide their time. It’s a grim picture, but this might be best outcome we can hope for—in the near term.

But only in the near term, because the future ruler of Afghanistan, even if it’s a Hekmatyar, will turn into a developmental modernist once he’s got the throne. He’ll want weapons and roads and factories. For this he’ll need money and protection. He’ll do what all successful Afghan regimes have done: he’ll make a political policy out of non-alignment. He’ll play China against the U.S.  against Iran  against a resurgent Russia. He’ll see what funds he can squeeze out of every side by constantly threatening to tilt this way or that way—and he’ll be as friendly to the United States as to any other power.

Within the fortress state of a sovereign future Afghanistan, change will continue to gather, because the reactionary impulse embodied by people like Hekmatyar and the various Taliban groups is only one strand of Afghan society. Historically, a modernist, progressive impulse is in there too, and it won’t be denied just because one day’s battle has been lost. Even if the West pulls out, the war for the soul of Afghanistan will continue.

Concentration

Concentration Is the Key

 

These days, I notice, many people take pride in their ability to multitask. 

Me?  I just wish I could master mono-tasking. 

Everything I’ve done well in my life, I’ve done in a state of concentration—a state of such focus on one task that no other concern can break in. My only question has been (and remains): how do I get into that zone? 

R.N. Whitehead, director of a Canadian tutoring program called Oxford Learning Centres, speculates that concentration is an ability like any other. People are born with a propensity for it but the skill must then be developed, and the process, he says, begins in childhood. 

In former days, Whitehead says, people learned to read from books that had relatively few pictures and were written in “natural language,” which presented children with lots of vocabulary they didn’t necessarily know. Reading those books demanded—but also built—concentration. 

Today, books for beginning readers tend to have lots of pictures and only a few words, and those words are carefully selected to be reading-level appropriate so that children rarely encounter words they must puzzle out from context. If the material is well sequenced, children emerge into reading naturally without palpable effort, almost without noticing: that’s the theory. 

The theory works. Kids do learn to read from carefully calibrated materials such as these; but building up the power of concentration is a different issue. 

Many elements of modern life may actually erode concentration by involving children in short bursts of interaction that return quick rewards. Take video games for example. What they have to offer, you can get in five seconds (bang! pow! hey, that felt good!)  If you play for ten seconds, you get the same thing twice (and if for 30 seconds, you get it six times.) 

Playing a video game for hours on end (not uncommon—been there/done that) resembles concentration but in actuality, I say, it’s just the opposite. It is to concentration as anti-matter is to matter. It asks the player to be in the moment but doesn’t ask each moment be connected to a moment ago and a moment hence. Attention need not stay in a groove, it can start over fresh, at every moment.  

By contrast, reading or telling stories to young children involves them in a narrative that takes shape over time and offers a payoff only if they’ve stayed with the story throughout. “Staying with” is the essence of concentation. 

Concentration: why bother? 

Concentration is worth building up because it is a foundational skill: it supports almost everything else one might do. In that way it’s like intelligence. In fact, definitions of intelligence often include concentration as a component. Anecdotes about famous achievers of history suggest that one thing they shared was a phenomenal ability to get fully immersed in…something. 

Michelangelo spent two years on his back, two feet from the ceiling, painting the Sistine Chapel. I myself would have spent most of that time idly wondering whether to have pizza that night or soup, but not Michelangelo. 

In fact, according to the stories, only the pope could break the great artist’s concentration. He kept coming in to ask, “How’s it going?” Finally Michelangelo “accidentally” dropped a hammer that landed too close for comfort, and after that the Pope stayed away. 

Most of the advice aimed at students about how to concentrate amounts to Michelangelo’s hammer: eliminate distractions, they say. For example, turn off the TV (duh); turn off the stereo (duh); unplug the iPod (ya’ think?). It’s all true, but it’s purely external advice. It addresses the place where you concentrate, not the “you” who is doing the concentrating. 

Advice about the inner work mostly boils down to health tips masquerading as concentration tips: 

  • You can’t concentrate when you’re drowsy, so get enough sleep.
  • You can’t concentrate when you’re groggy, so don’t sleep too much.
  • You can’t concentrate when you’re starving, so eat right.
  • You can’t concentrate when you’re bloated, so don’t overeat.
  • And get some exercise, for heavens sake! You can’t concentrate if—

I’ll stop there. It’s worthy advice, but generic. The same tips apply to almost anything you might want to do better: ace a test? Memorize the Iliad? Learn juggling tricks? I’ll tell you how: eat right, exercise well, and get enough sleep. Yes, mom. (Ordinarily, you’d get that scret wisdom in a seminar costing $295.99;  you’re getting it here for free, so for heaven’s sake, click on the ads!) 

There’s got to be more to achieving full concentration. I mean, people with phenomenal powers of concentration reveal it most dramatically when the context doesn’t favor them. I’m thinking of a chef I knew years ago when I worked in a gourmet restaurant as a waiter. The dining room at that place was always whisper-quiet, the kitchen always a madhouse. One night, I stepped into that chaos—the ice machine had broken, a fight had broken out between two sous-chefs, someone was waving a knife—and there was June, calmly stirring a sauce. Suddenly a pot of something caught fire. Pandemonium ensued, everybody rushed to douse the flames; but June never took her eyes off her sauce; it wasn’t her pot on fire. Later I asked if she had noticed the fire. She had.  How then could she just ignore it? “I was making hollandaise,” she said. “You have to watch it or it breaks.” 

That, my friends, is concentration on the hoof: it’s not the ability to focus in the absence of distraction, but the ability to focus in spite of distraction. 

Attention Surplus Condition 

Our society has put little effort into devising techniques for building attentiveness. We get interested in concentration mostly when its absence rises to the level of a clinical syndrome. A whole industry has developed, for example, around the disability known as Attention Deficit Disorder (A.D.D.) . 

I don’t doubt that A.D.D. exists, nor that it merits clinical consideration, nor that suitable treatments may help restore people who suffer from this disability to a normal state. I only say: is “normal” as good as it gets? How about moving from normal to extraordinary? 

According to psychologist Richard Davidson, “Attention can be trained, and in a way that is not fundamentally different (from) how physical exercise changes the body.” He zeroes in specifically on meditation, that body of techniques perfected in east Asia for achieving attentive calm. Research by Davidson and his associates at the University of Wisconsin seems to prove that meditation can, in fact, improve one’s ability to shut out distraction. 

The Proof 

In one experiment, people were taught certain basic meditation techniques and then asked to meditate while hooked up to machines that scanned what their brains were doing. In people who attained a deep, meditative state, it turned out, the area of the brain known to be associated with attention became active while other areas—those associated with emotion, for example, or with processing external stimuli—went dormant. 

Researchers then hooked brain scanning equipment to two groups of test subjects: seasoned meditators with thousands of hours of experience and novices. With each group, when the meditators seemed to be fully immersed, the researchers set off various distractions nearby—a blaring TV, a crying baby, a gunshot, stuff like that. 

In the novices, each event triggered brain waves that spread to other parts of their brains and did not die away for a long time. In the experienced meditators, each event set off a brief burst of brain activity in one limited area and then the brain went back to its former state: in short, the input was noticed, registered, and set aside. 

That looks like dead-bang proof that meditation enhances a person’s underlying ability to concentrate. Of course it’s also true that meditation classically aims to detach the meditator from the world and get him or her concentrating essentially on nothing. I, personally, would rather concentrate on something: I don’t want to detach from the world, I want to stay in it and get something done. I don’t know of any definitive proof that the power of concentration developed by meditation can be applied, for example, to flying a plane through a thunderstorm. 

But the broader point seems indisputable. Concentration is a skill, if it isn’t used it can atrophy, if it isn’t trained, it fails to develop past a certain point—but, by the same token, with the proper training and practice, it can be developed to a level of fearsome intensity. 

Preferably this begins in childhood (which is where parents and other elders come in) but it’s never too late. Adults with normal powers of concentration can strengthen those powers with simple exercises such as: 

  • counting backward from a hundred slowly and steadily;
  • then counting backward from a hundred by threes;
  • then simply looking at an object for a set period—say, 15 minutes;
  • then, removing the object and picturing it for that same period.

And if the buzz of distracting thoughts grows intolerable, I say: stop what you’re doing, make a list of everything on your mind at that moment, choose one thing to focus on, and then schedule a time to deal with al the rest. Giving your anxieties appointments, I find, tends to make them stop petitioning for attention NOW. 

In short, I stand with that Zen master who, when asked how he achieved enlightenment, answered: “When I walk, I just walk. When I eat, I just eat.”

Rise of the North

The Rise of Northern Afghanistan

The second most interesting story coming out of Afghanistan these days is the rumor that Taliban leaders are putting out peace feelers and may be interested in talking about a negotiated settlement to the war.  Any truth to these rumors ? That’s the big question.  Taliban spokesmen deride the reports. The Karzai government regularly denies involvement in any secret talks. Denials, however, don’t mean the rumors are false. Let us remember the old saying: “Don’t believe anything until it has been officially denied.”

Personally, I believe the rumors might be true, and not because of anything happening in the south, but because of the most interesting story in Afghanistan, which is developing in the north.   The big story,  to me, is the possible branching of the one country into two–an ever-more integrated, stable, (non-Islamist) and economically viable non-Pushtoon north and a wildly chaotic,  ever-more dysfunctional Pushtoon south.

I call this a “branching,” not a “partition,” because I’m not talking about some political plan being worked behind the scenes by any government, group, or party. I’m talking about an evolutionary development of the sort that happens in history from time to time.   I’m talking about a divergence in the territory called Afghanistan, generated by a confluence of many circumstances and beyond the power of any group to obstruct or promote. You don’t have to be a CIA operative with access to secret information to see this event. You just have to read the newspapers and connect the dots.

Here are some dots to consider.

  • Afghanistan has never had a railroad, but it has one now. A railroad has just been completed from the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif to the Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan. The Chinese are building a second railroad from the northern border of Afghanistan down to Kabul—but not on into the violence-wracked tribal territory of the southern Talibanist Pushtoons. These railroads will link Afghanistan to a transportation network north of the country, which stretches east to China and west through Russia into Europe, as well as west and south across the Black Sea into Turkey. The country will be able to export whatever it has to the world without access to the Indian Ocean ports in the south.
  • Afghanistan has major resources.  Recent discoveries have confirmed that Afghanistan has about a trillion dollars worth of mineral wealth including copper, high-quality iron, uranium, oil, natural gas, lithium, precious gems, and much more. The Chinese have already started developing the copper, the iron is out for bids (which the Chinese will probably win); and Turkmenistan has just signed a deal with Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India to build a natural gas pipeline through Afghanistan to the Indian Ocean, a project to be financed by the Asian Development Bank.
  • Investment is flowing to Balkh. Nine years ago, Tajik commander Noor was locked in a struggle with Uzbek commander Abdul Rashid Dostum, who built his own private army within the national army when he was part of the Communist government of the eighties. Dostum lost the contest with Noor; for unrelated reasons, went into exile in Turkey; but now he’s back, and seems to be more allied than at odds with Noor, and Turkish entrepreneurs have begun investing heavily in the industrial development of Balkh. Coincidence? I don’t think so. I think Dostum has served as a liason between Afghanistan’s Turkic north and Turkey itself.   Turkish money has built factories in Balkh that are producing export goods such as edible oil and pasta, for shipment to the republics of Central Asia and to Turkey itself.  The stability and growing prosperity of Balkh has drawn investment from other parts of Afghanistan. For example, a motorcycle assembly plant from Herat has re-located to Mazar-i-Sharif.
  • An ethnic rift divides south from north.  Afghanistan has long been a multi-ethnic country in which the various groups struck an uneasy equalibrium.  The Pushtoons dominated, but the others had enough autonomy and enjoyed sufficient rights to accept Pushtoon dominance.  But the last thirty years of war destroyed the balance.  Violence exacerbated ethnic rifts and deepened ethnic identities.  The rise of the Taliban polarized Pushtoons and non-Pushtoons. Most dramatically, the Taliban pursued what amounted to a genocidal campaign against the Hazaras of Central Afghanistan, a Turko-Mongol ethnic group.  Right now, it is hard to envision Hazaras as willing, docile citizens of a new Taliban-Pushtoon Afghanistan.  But it’s easy to envision Hazaras, Tajiks, Farsiwans, Uzbeks, and Turkomans as fellow citizens of a single modernist northen nation—especially if that country is peaceful, prosperous, and stable.  Where does Kabul fit into all this?   Everyone has long taken Kabul for granted as the capital of Afghanistan. After all, hasn’t it always been the capital? Actually, no: In the long course of history, Afghanistan has been culturally centered in the north and west.  Balkh and Herat were the great capitals of ancient times. Kabul rose to prominence only after 1500, when it was conquered by the Turko-Mongol warrior Babur, founder of the India’s Moghul dynasty.  If the chaos in the south makes economic development impossible, Afghanistan’s cultural-political center of gravity may, I think,  move north. Kabul will then become a frontier outpost serving as window and a gateway into the turbulent no-man’s-land that the Talibanist insurgents have suicidally made of their homeland.

All of which brings me back to those supposed peace feelers from Taliban big-shots.  Some pundits doubt the Taliban have any interest in negotiations. They’re winning on the battlefield, the argument goes, so why would they settle?  The answer might be—because some Taliban see what’s happening in northern Afghanistan. It has dawned on them that they could drive all foreigners off their soil, gain complete cultural hegemony over their local region, and still end up as left-behind, impoverished losers.  There is a train departing from northern Afghanistan and it might well leave without them.  The famous Great Game of the 19th century was predicated on the absolute importance of those warm water ports on the Indian Ocean. Everyone in the north needed to get to those ports in the south. They Pushtoons straddled the way and could block access to those ports, which gave them strategic power.  But if economic, cultural, and political traffic out of Afghanistan starts flowing north instead of south, the southern Pushtoons won’t matter anymore. And that is very good incentive for the Taliban to want to keep Kabul as the center of the country’s power and to trade a few chips for seats in that center.

My Cat Raoul

A Few Words About My Cat Raoul

 

I’d like to say one or two things about my cat Raoul. And if that makes me sound like an eccentric old lady who also feeds bears, so be it. After all, Jon Carroll does it all the time (writes about cats, I mean: not feed bears) and he’s one of the all-time great columnists. I figure I can get away with it if he can.  (Besides, I am old and eccentric, just not a lady, and I don’t care who knows it.)

Stray Cat Blues

Anyway, here’s what I want to say about Raoul: I appreciate this fellow. It’s not that I don’t also love and appreciate my other cat, poor old aging Smokey—who was a kitten for ten years and middle-aged for a year and a half, and then one morning woke up to find herself a geezer with bad memory, tottering knees, a weak neck, failing eyesight, an alarming tendency to see ghosts, and an interest in nothing but sleeping and eating. I have to appreciate Smokey—she reminds me of me.

But Raoul! That guy gives off a glow because he gets such robust enjoyment out of life. We got him from the pound a year ago when he was tiny enough to stand on my palm. If we hadn’t chosen him that day , he would be dead now. All the kittens in the pound that day were black; they’re always the last to be adopted, I’m told, because people don’t like black cats. One of Raoul’s ears had been clipped to mark that he’d been brought in from the streets, not by a family draining off excess kittens. That was his start in life.

Gimme’  Shelter

He spent his first two weeks with us hiding under a bed and coming out to eat only when no one else was around. But he didn’t know how cruel the world can be. He was too young. And he never learned about life’s cruelties. Nothing happened to teach him.   His caution washed away, he ventured out, he discovered he could boss the old grey cat around, and voila–he was ready to begin his new life as a bon vivant.

I appreciate Raoul because everything delights him. He sees the back door open—how lucky can a cat get? Outa’ my way, dude, I got a world to explore out there.  Two minutes later, he’s lurking in the tall grass in the back yard when he notices—the back door is open! Holy Moly—how lucky can a cat get? Outa’ my way, dude! There’s a whole world of cozy pillows and places to hide behind that door—I’m going in!

You Can Get Some Satisfaction

And upon entering, he spots not one but two bowls, full of different kinds of food. Well, it just doesn’t get any better.  As he crouches there, his face shoved into a bowl, crunching and chomping, his contentment is palpable, and when he walks away you can see his lip-licking satisfaction. Halfway across the cork floor he crashes over sideways and lies there, pleased as hell about his own weight.

And I do mean weight.

One year ago he was no more than a fistful of feline; now he is the biggest cat I’ve ever owned, and proud of it. I’d try to restore my own youthful strength by lifting Raoul in the mornings—except that he’s hard to catch. All day long, he runs, darts, leap and plays. oblivious to the fact that he’s the only one in the game.  A rubber band on the floor? One flick, it’s in the air, and Raoul launches himself to snag it. Despite his weight, he gets serious elevation: this is the Michael Jordon of cats. I’ve never seen the likes of him

Jumping Jack Flash

It’s not always obvious what he’s leaping to catch—but after a particularly spectacular, diving, soaring, twisting, corkscrew rocket-leap he might land in a crouch and spend the next twelve minutes chewing contentedly, as if he caught something. And did he?  I dunno’. Sometimes I suspect him of faking it. Or maybe he did catch a fly or a gnat. Whatever it was evidently tastes delicious. But maybe what he’s relishing is the eyesight and agility that let him nail that morsel in mid-flight.

Here’s what’s so great about living with Raoul. He sees a world full of wonder, pleasure, and joy. Looking out through my own eyes, I don’t see that world. I see stress, annoyance, Twitter-chatter, disappointments, political lies, pain, cruelty, corruption, violence, betrayal and horror. My information net is wide, I catch wind of things that happen all over the planet, and the news from everywhere seems mostly bad.

Don’t Know Much About Geography

But Raoul thinks life is fine. Just fine. And it makes me feel a little better to live with someone who feels that way. It’s true that Raoul is just a cat. What does he know? He doesn’t read the papers. He doesn’t pay much attention to 24/7 cable news (except for those words that crawl across the bottom of the screen, those interest him sometimes.)

No, Raoul doesn’t know much, but what he knows is not necessarily wrong. His world is also real, small though it be.  I’m thinking that perhaps, if you narrow your compass enough,  a lot of the world is actually like Raoul’s.  In most places, at most moments, no one is being murdered or tortured. It’s just hard to hold that parallel truth in one’s awareness for long. And that’s why I’m glad I’ve got Raoul for a roommate.