What is state failure? See my conceptualisation of state failure on the right flank below.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Cooperative kingpins and lilywhite purity

I just ran into this video report, and it is a must-see, even while I have my problems with it (more on these problems later on).
Mark Corcoran is an award-winning journalist who received much praise for his 2002 reporting from Kandahar, where he covered how Haji Bashir Noorzai was a vital king-maker with his 10,000-strong militia behind Gul Agha Shirzai's becoming governor there, right in the wake of the post-9/11 intervention.
In this video which I am just linking to, Corcoran now follows up on his story. Seven years down the road, Haji Bashir Noorzai (of whom I wrote at this blog quite a lot) is in a U.S. prison, sentenced to life for his role in the drugs trade (he was lured to the U.S. with false promises and then trapped there). Gul Agha Shirzai, in contrast, is Nangarhar's governor now, praised for his counternarcotics successes by some. (And, let's not forget, then-presidential candidate Obama visited him first last year, on his trip to Afghanistan, even before he would have met Hamed Karzai.)
I was most interested to hear about Haji Bashir Noorzai. I find his story fascinating for the dilemmas it can be used to illustrate. The Pentagon was working with him, then the DEA and the State Deparment got their way to put him on a wanted list. A key provider of intelligence he was, and yet he ended up arrested in a Manhattan hotel, which of course did nothing to stop the flow of heroin from Afghanistan. Now Corcoran's report delivers some more details regarding the background of the case, making the Pentagon's (or rather its political leadership's) role look more complex, with the Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz duo's role highlighted behind Rosetta Research, a contractor that handled contacts with Haji Bashir Noorzai for a while.
It's all extremely interesting, although the way the Western discourse evolves tends to push my blood pressure a little. Example: What do you think Thomas Schweich (former U.S. ambassador for counternarcotics in Afghanistan) gets wrong when he says "You can't look for lilywhite purity in Afghanistan; it doesn't exist by our standards"? Nearly everything, of course. This statement would need to be modified a little bit: "You can't look for lilywhite purity in Afghanistan, either; it doesn't exist." (And just simply drop the collectively self-glorifying "our standards" from the original phrase.)
My main point of criticism regarding Mark Corcoran's otherwise extremely interesting report is: what's your position, Mark? What should the "U.S.," the unitary actor that it isn't (and your report shows this), have done? You surely can't coherently blame it for everything and its opposite... You say "the wildly swinging moral compass of the U.S.," but it isn't clear what's going on with your compass? You seem to suggest one should work with people like Haji Bashir Noorzai, rather than dupe them, but then what's that score playing all the time in the back, making the spectator feel like "Afghanistan" is shorthand for "the world of despicable, purely evil crime"?
Having criticised so many for so many things, here's some criticism of my own analysis. The other day I was mocking an article in Dawn for talking about "sophisticated front companies" of the Taliban, and their "regional investments." But in the video highlighted above Haji Bashir Noorzai is mentioned as having handled hundreds of millions of dollars for mullah Omar. So...

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