We Western-world moderns can each name films that have affected us deeply, even changed our lives. In some ways cinemas have even become sacred places in our avowedly secular world, places where stories of good and evil, praise and blame, triumph and fiasco are set out for examination through the power of metaphor and allegory. Our best-loved movies clearly do more than entertain us. They are a celluloid canon that teaches us things we did not know about other people, about worlds we have never seen or imagined, and even some things about ourselves. This is perhaps why we turn to favorite films when we have to think our way out of a jam. It might not be a scientifically correct method, but it fits too well into human nature to resist.
We’re in a jam in Afghanistan, and I am sticky as can be with it, having earlier served as a political-military adviser in the east and the south, recently returning to direct the Regional Initiatives Group with the 10th Mountain Division in Kandahar. I never set out to use movies to help me understand the complexities of Afghanistan and our equally complex struggle to figure out what to do about them. Somehow it just happened.
You can bet your bottom dollar that what I am about to tell you does not represent the views of the U.S. government or any of its agencies. For better or worse, the cinematic perspective is not how my government colleagues approach their day jobs. Nor do I pretend here to judge the wisdom or folly of our Afghanistan policy, offer a better alternative, forecast the outcome, or anything of the sort. I just know that there are truths about the world that can only be spoken in the fictional tense, much in the same way that humor often releases the insights that earnestness inhibits.
I certainly intend no disrespect to those Americans who are serving with honor, or to Afghanistan’s people. As to the latter, one of the few things I am sure of about this place is that Afghans appreciate metaphor and laughter—at least those free of the grip of the self-righteous Taliban, who suffer the corrosion of war wrapped in their hard and humorless fundamentalist shells. Most Afghans love movies, especially boisterous Bollywood-style ones. As anyone knows who has witnessed children kite-running down the streets of Kabul, Kuchi nomads beginning their spring migrations, tribesmen confronting government officials, or youth bantering on popular radio call-in shows, Afghans take laughter seriously. They possess a deeply wicked humor that they turn as readily on themselves and their plight as they do on us and ours.
How appropriate, then, that both the wicked and the humorous feature prominently in the three films that best illuminate the U.S. situation in Afghanistan. I suppose I could have gone conventional here, turning to films like Gunga Din (1939), based on Kipling’s poem about the misguided superiority of empire, or like The Man Who Would Be King (1975), a parable of the adventurous naiveté of intervention. But one should not choose the movies in a situation like this; they should choose you.
“As Little As Possible”
The first to choose me was Chinatown (1974). In Roman Polanski’s modern film noir set in 1930s Los Angeles, private detective and former policeman Jake Gittes (played by Jack Nicholson), finds himself entangled in a case that twists through multiple layers of corruption and deceit. We follow Gittes as his investigation proceeds from what he thinks is a routine case of marital infidelity to a missing person case, then to a murder case, and finally to a political scandal underlying the whole sordid mess. Hidden within the core of political scandal, we learn as the film circles back on itself, is an even more macabre case of infidelity.
’s unique blend of creeping complexity tinged with the threat of violence feels a lot like Afghanistan. Like us, Jake is both investigator and agent, a tough guy in a tough world who wants to save the good and punish evil. That this aspiration might not be as straightforward as it first seems to Gittes comes across in his interview with corrupt kingpin Noah Cross (John Huston), who has invited him to lunch at the tony Albacore Club:
Cross: You may think you know what you’re dealing with, but believe me, you don’t.
Cross: Why is that funny?
Gittes: It’s what the district attorney used to tell me in Chinatown.
The film is based on a true story from early 20th-century California. William Mulholland, Superintendent of the Los Angeles Water Department, built an aqueduct that brought water from the High Sierras to make the growth of Los Angeles possible. In what became known as the Owens Valley “rape”, Mulholland starved farmers of water and at the same time assembled a group of speculators to grab up cheap land and water rights in the desert around Los Angeles. He made hundred-fold profits when the aqueduct was complete.
If the Chinatown of the film represents both a state of mind and a real place, then Afghanistan, and Kandahar in particular, is Chinatown. In Afghanistan, intelligence can bridge information gaps, but the vessel of knowledge is never filled. More often than not we don’t really know what’s going on, so it’s best to remain wary of what seem to be well-intended efforts—especially your own. Kandahar in particular makes for an uncanny parallel. The center of gravity for both the Taliban and the Karzai regime, Kandahar is built in the desert, just like Los Angeles. And just like Los Angeles, whoever controls Kandahar’s most precious resource, water, has political power over and in it.
About 35 kilometers north of Kandahar City on the Arghandab River sits the second largest dam in Afghanistan, the Dahla Dam. It was built by USAID in the late-1950s. A Canadian project is currently in high gear to rehabilitate as much of the irrigation system below the dam as possible before funding runs out at the end of this year. (The USAID guest house at Tarnack Farms, south of Kandahar City where much of the water flows, was an occasional headquarters for Osama bin Laden during his pre-9/11 Afghanistan sojourn.) To condense a story that is complex even by Afghan standards, President Hamid Karzai’s half-brother, Kandahar’s kingpin Ahmed Wali Karzai, is well positioned through involvement in the Canadian project’s security contract and his role as President of the Provincial Council to influence distribution of the liquid benefits among the Alikozai, Barakzai and his own Popalzai tribe in his family’s political base. The Arghandab River Valley is also a key front for the Taliban, which turns the American troops fighting there, as well as the Canadian construction workers and engineers, into not-always-aware enablers in the middle of tribal tussles.
The movie climaxes in Los Angeles’s Chinatown, where Jake sees the woman he was trying to help (Faye Dunaway) shot dead by police in front of her daughter. He realizes that not only was he powerless to prevent the tragedy; he has unwittingly helped to bring it about. The film’s dénouement recalls The Punishment of Virtue, the title and central theme of Sarah Chayes’s evocative 2006 book about Afghan life after the fall of the Taliban in late 2001. The film ends with a great line, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” It is hard to avoid wondering whether our own entanglement will end with something like, “Forget it, Dave. It’s Afghanistan.”
“Think as People around You Think”
For those who have not re-read their Machiavelli recently, the Godfather screenplays that Mario Puzo adapted with director Francis Ford Coppola from his 1969 book about the Sicilian Mafia could substitute as updates on many matters Afghan. The second installment of the trilogy reflects with particular piquancy the complexity and the dilemmas of this, our own second Afghanistan intervention (the Reagan Doctrine era’s aid to the mujahideen as they fought the Red Army being the first). Godfather, Part II (1974) teaches us how power works in Afghanistan. This is not to suggest that all Afghans are as murderous as 15th-century Italians or contemporary mafia dons. Only some of them are.
In The Godfather, Part II, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) has consolidated his power as heir to the family after his father Vito (Marlin Brando) died famously among the tomato plants in Part I (1972). Michael’s mafia in 1950s America is a world of alliances, conspiracies, betrayals, revenge, violence and corruption. He maintains a barely disguised façade of upstanding citizenship in public while striking bargains and adjudicating territory in private among his criminal competitors. Here the law—represented by consigliere and adoptive brother Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall)—serves the criminal enterprise. Michael’s dream is to go legitimate. He has promised his virtually sequestered wife Kay (Diane Keaton) that he would attain this goal within five years. Seven years on, he has made little headway as family problems mix tragically with business.
In Afghanistan, as in the mafia, family and tribe are the building blocks of social organization. If power in Afghanistan resides with political clans, the Karzai family is currently its principal aristocracy, and the interests of the clan and the state are often indistinguishable. President Hamid Karzai presides over a governing balance of power among Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and his own Pashtuns. This balance operates through a certain pace and character of socially embedded transactions more than by institutional checks and balances. It certainly has nothing to do with any social consensus over Afghanistan’s future as a democratic state. Therein, in those socially embedded transactions, lies the key to grasping much of what happens among the Afghans. The movie says it better than any study, report, textbook or essay that’s ever been written about contemporary Afghanistan. As Michael tells his lawyer Tom:
See, all our people are businessmen. Their loyalty’s based on that. One thing I learned from Pop was to try to think as people around you think. And on that basis, anything’s possible.
“Follow the money” makes a great first rule in Afghanistan, as it does most everywhere else. Money from Afghanistan finds its way to Dubai for the same reasons that the mafia invested in places like Las Vegas and pre-Castro Cuba. Greed disguised as self-help in an unruly environment always creates a powerful undertow, and what differs between Machiavelli’s world and the Afghan’s and our own are the ways that money and power come together. But come together they do, always.
Afghans with access to power make money in countless ways, from opium trafficking to siphoning off foreign aid that couldn’t be productively spent anyway. They make small payoffs to access large bribes as they mix state authority with business. Lacking confidence both in their own system and in the U.S. commitment, and perhaps fearing the Taliban as well, they put their money where they think it will be safe. Today, that means the United Arab Emirates. Similarly in The Godfather Part II, Michael Corleone senses the impending fall of the dictator and U.S. ally Fulgencio Batista and backs out of a pending investment in Cuba at the end of 1958. He realizes that because Castro’s guerrillas—like the Taliban—don’t fight for money, “they could win.” That made Havana as bad a place to keep money then as Kabul is now.
Godfather, Part II is a parable of the limits that reality imposes on states as well as on individuals. The primacy of business is only one of the reasons that we find it so difficult to change the nature of Afghanistan and to achieve our aims of helping to establish a legitimate government strong enough to hold off terrorists so that we can get out with our reputation intact. In an ideal world, we might prefer to mimic Machiavelli’s good prince:
A return to first principles in a republic is sometimes caused by the simple virtues of one man. His example has such an influence that the good men strive to imitate him, and the wicked are ashamed to lead a life so contrary to his example.
Prefer this as we might, it won’t work in Afghanistan.
Since shame cannot transform Afghan governance, some are tempted to believe that removing malignant power brokers offers a direct highway to the right destination. That won’t work either. We may deliberate the pros and cons of getting rid of General Abdul Razziq, the warlord on the southern border who guarantees the safety of allied military supplies coming from Pakistan, just as he reportedly ensures the transit of opium going the other way. This is a situation where pros and cons can effortlessly switch places, which is another way of saying that in the conspiracy of vested interests and complicity that is Afghanistan, where concerns for personal and tribal security necessarily trump aspirations for good governance, we have yet to answer the riddle of how to use our power to clean up corruption even as we remain committed to a deeply flawed government. If promises among mafia chieftains last only as long as do the interests that underlie them, then why should promises made to us (or by us) in Kabul be any different?
In his struggle to go legitimate while retaining authority over the family, Michael Corleone too contends with the extreme perils and uncertainties of reform. Rather than simply trying to set a good example, he calculates in accordance with Machiavelli’s principle that “men will act according to the wickedness of their spirits whenever they have the freedom to do so.” His solution is to ensure that in moving against his adversaries he need never fear their revenge. Thus he has them all killed: Frankie Pentangeli, the mafia soldier who was going to testify against him at a Senate hearing; Hyman Roth, the organized crime financier who was trying to kill him even though they were partners; and ultimately his own brother Fredo, who had betrayed him to Roth out of envy. Even if the business that brought us to Afghanistan was hunting terrorists, such a solution, surely, is beyond our policy pale. We can never be as ruthless as certain key locals expect each other to be. So where does that leave us?
The Godfather, Part II ends with Michael Corleone contemplating the price of his power, that he is feared more than loved. The Godfather, Part III (1990) picks up his quest for legitimacy, but in this final episode his struggle to cleanse the syndicate fails. Other gangsters do not change their natures, so Michael learns that he cannot change his own—a wry lesson in the ways of Fortuna, the Roman goddess of luck and a Machiavelli favortite. Although less compelling than its prequels, The Godfather, Part III may nonetheless be a fitting portent of the U.S. enterprise in Afghanistan. Our saga will end, certainly, without the climax of victory. At best we will achieve an ambiguous success defining a drawdown as a transition to a long-term “strategic partnership”, otherwise known as an exit. Will we have transformed Afghanistan? No, but perhaps the more interesting question is: Will Afghanistan have transformed us?
“I Got You Babe”
Where Chinatown and The Godfather, Part II bear negative lessons from the film noir inferno, Groundhog Day (1993), directed by Harold Ramis, is the divine comedy that could stand in for our pilgrim’s progress in Afghanistan. TV weatherman Phil Conners (Bill Murray) is a disgruntled everyman whose ordeal begins when he is assigned against his will to cover the Groundhog Day Festival in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. After waking to Sonny and Cher singing “I Got You Babe” on his hotel room’s clock radio, Phil snarks his way through a cold and snowy day. When he wakes the next morning, and the next, to the same cloying song, he realizes that he is reliving the same day of banality, insults and seemingly random encounters over and over again, in some kind of cosmic eternal return.
It takes Phil about as long as the international intervention in Afghanistan has lasted to temper his cynicism with skepticism as the same dreary day repeats, until finally he begins to learn from his mistakes and grasps its message of enlightenment and redemption. Buddhists love this movie. So for various and sundry reasons do rabbis and psychoanalysts.
But Phil’s running in place is also instantly recognizable to those of us who have been to Afghanistan. We have lived as wheels within wheels, and to some extent we continue to do so. There is the abbreviated strategy of clear and clear again, where combat troops chase Taliban insurgents from district after district only to have them return after they leave. It was not February 2 in Punxsutawney but close to September 2 in Arghandab, north of Kandahar City, when a young and ambitious Army commander, as good as they get, stood before a shura of tribal elders after two weeks of hard fighting and announced, “You are secure now. We are the Americans, and we are here to stay.”
It was a brave scene, heroic even—almost suitable for a movie. It has been repeated in recognizable versions for years across the villages of Afghanistan. In this case, the oldest and most grizzled of the Afghans stood, aimed his finger and raised his voice to reply, “Yes, but you were here before. And you left.”
He did not specify exactly whether he was referring to 2001, 2003 or 2006, when U.S. forces came and went on previous operations. Maybe he had all of them in mind. Or perhaps, recalling the mujaheddin era after the December 1979 Soviet invasion, when holy warriors enjoyed the backing of the CIA, he could have mistaken the time and nation concerned altogether, as happens in remote areas where villagers occasionally react with puzzlement and fear at the sight of any foreign soldiers, because they thought the Soviets had left long ago.
The insurgency, too, is a kind of Groundhog Day for those on the other side of the conflict. It drinks from its own infinite pool of Islamic extremism, with youth-filled madrassas endlessly replenishing the jihad. As if to illustrate the futility of martyrdom, Phil, convinced of his own immortality but bored with Groundhog Day’s unceasing repetition, reaches his nihilistic nadir by kidnapping the star woodchuck and driving a stolen truck over a cliff to a fiery death. Of course, his next day begins as all the others.
Phil slowly emerges from his self-absorbed funk and begins to correct his errors. At first, he uses the situation to his advantage, adjusting his come-on lines to seduce an unsuspecting woman. Eventually, he learns to recite French poetry and cleanse his selfish character flaws to woo his producer and love interest, Rita (Andie McDowell.) He becomes a better person. We, too, have learned much in nine years in Afghanistan. With the tragic cycle of Vietnam casting its shadow on the body counts of Afghanistan, Special Operations strive with their precise lists of kill or capture targets to defy the impossible arithmetic of a virulent insurgency. It works, almost. It does degrade Taliban and al-Qaeda performance, at least until they replenish themselves or spread to somewhere else. And military units have learned how to sustain themselves and relieve the corroding strain of protracted conflict by training and then deploying on one-year rotations or less. But the price is a collective groundhog day of lost continuity.
As Phil advances in self-knowledge, he flirts with omnipotence; indeed, he nearly confuses having formidable power with being all powerful. This same error plagued the George W. Bush Administration’s neo-conservative notion of using U.S. military force in Iraq to transform the Greater Middle East—an error that contributed much to our current dilemma in Afghanistan. Sitting bemused but triumphant in the restaurant where they share breakfast morning after morning, Phil tries to convince Rita that he is living the same day over and over again by demonstrating his intimate knowledge of every single person in the room. “I’m a god”, he tells her. But faced with her skepticism, he quickly qualifies himself, “I’m not the God…I don’t think.”
This is, hopefully, a fair approximation of where we are now in Afghanistan. We seem finally to have acquired enough self-awareness to break onto the path of enlightenment. We know that our power back in the winter of 2001 and 2002 was not sufficient to solve Afghanistan on the cheap, and we know that focusing on Iraq extracted what turned out to be huge opportunity costs in Afghanistan. We have also absorbed the key lesson of counterinsurgency, that what you clear you must hold, and that it will never be possible to kill and capture our way out of this war. We have also learned—I hope—that our complicity with warlords and corruption makes us part of the problem, and that success depends as much on the nature of our relationship with those villagers in the shura as it does on the accuracy of our firepower and intelligence.
Ultimately, Phil accepts his fate and realizes that while he is far from omnipotent, he does have the power to affect what happens. He learns to play the piano so he can entertain others. He saves a man from choking and a child falling from a tree. Above all, he wins Rita’s love. Acting on this realization ultimately releases him from Groundhog Day, as if to teach that only by progressing spiritually, morally, can our lives break the bonds of meaningless repetition. In Afghanistan, too, it seems sometimes like another ten years and we’ll get this right. But even if we have yet to free ourselves entirely from the Groundhog Day cycle in Afghanistan, we ought by now to know what it will take: a reining in of our self-absorption and ego, a realization of the limits to our power, and a genuine embrace of the people in whose midst we find ourselves.
We Americans prefer our interventions wrapped in the good intentions of changing others for the better. But in Afghanistan, as in Groundhog Day, the more important transformation begins not by changing Afghans—an improbable task at best—but by changing ourselves. Just as Jake Gittes in Chinatown, Michael Corleone in The Godfather, Part II, and Phil Collins in Groundhog Day must struggle with the limits of their own knowledge and power, so must we in Afghanistan.
We also prefer our wars, along with our heroes and villains, in vividly contrasting black and white. But since V-E and V-J Days, our protagonists and antagonists alike have regularly failed to fit the mold—whether in Korea, Vietnam, El Salvador, Angola, Lebanon, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and a few other places we could name, but have probably forgotten. A better shade for the complexities, ambiguities and ambivalence of Afghanistan would be deep gray, splashed now and then with bits of blood red. If we don’t like that color scheme, maybe we should leave the theater.