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Afghanistan: Land of Lies and Illusions

A new film captures some edgy, fearful truths.

| Thu Jul. 16, 2009 1:14 PM EDT

I've elaborated here on Olds's quick history lesson to more fully explain why you may be finding it hard these days to understand how we got into what's already being called "Obama's War" — and how to get out. Think of it this way: everything that happens in Afghanistan is based on (1) a lie, (2) an illusion, or (3) both. Then throw in mass illusion as well, carefully constructed so that each person tells others only what they want to hear.

Which brings us back to Fixer, a film steeped in stories of duplicity and self-delusion that are the personal and political currency of Afghanistan today. In one telling incident, Parenti pushes to observe the famously corrupt Afghan judiciary in action. He's rewarded with a front row seat at a murder trial, only to learn that it has been staged for his edification.

In fact, a court official admits, the production Parenti witnessed didn't depict the way the court really works, but the way "it should work" according to international standards. The judiciary knows those international standards very well, since NGOs and private contractors supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development and other aid agencies have offered them training, and what's called "capacity building," for years. The trainers report success, which of course is what the aid agencies want to hear; and the trainees may be encouraged (as in this case) to perform for the public. If Parenti had played the part assigned to him in this exercise in mass illusion, he'd have reported a glowing story about the success of Afghanistan's new rule of law. (He didn't.)

Afghans have an expression — "pesh pa been" — referring to people who move relentlessly ahead by watching their own feet. Parenti, at least, could see when he was being tripped up. But the incident leaves you wondering: if officials of the Karzai government go this far for a single American reporter, what extravagant performances have they mounted all along for junketing Senators and cabinet members, and the likes of Donald Rumsfeld and Laura Bush, not to mention the recent rounds of Obama era visitors?

Even Ajmal the fixer repeatedly misjudges situations and his own people; and in the end, he proves to have been more of an innocent than Parenti. In an eerie moment captured on screen, Parenti predicts that one day the Taliban will kidnap a Western journalist. No way, says Ajmal, assuming that he and his clients are protected by Pashtunwali, his (and the Taliban's) tribal code of honor. Later, working for the Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo, Ajmal fixes a fatal appointment with Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah. Taken hostage, Ajmal reassures his family in a Taliban video: "These are Muslims. We are in the hands of Islam."

Behind the Hescos Where History Is Being Re-Spun

Illusion and duplicity entrap the fixer, too, and spin his personal story into a political event. The Italians, who notoriously negotiate with hostage takers, persuade Karzai to exchange five Taliban prisoners for Mastrogiacomo and Ajmal. In the excitement of being freed, however, Mastrogiacomo fails to keep track of his fixer. The Taliban see an opportunity to recapture Ajmal and demand the release of two more prisoners. Karzai and his foreign minister, having freed the foreigner, then scramble to the moral high ground, refusing to negotiate with terrorists. Orders come down from Pakistan to kill Ajmal — on April 8, 2007 — to make Karzai look bad in the eyes of his own people. Mullah Dadullah sends a video of the beheading.

Ajmal's stricken father asks, "What kind of government doesn't protect its own citizens?" The answer is: a government that's bought, paid for, and answerable to outsiders, a government that has neither the need nor the inclination to care for its citizens. As Karzai explains the matter, "The Italians built us a road."

That's the government the international community is now spending more than $500 million to reelect. (Most of that money comes from the U.S.) International election officials, of course, are neutral — so neutral that they look the other way as Karzai makes deals with rival warlords to ensure his reelection. One by one they come over to his side, and word leaks out about which ministries they've been promised.

International agencies responsible for mounting the election have already abandoned the goal of a "free and fair" vote. They're aiming for "credible," which is to say, an election that looks pretty good, even if it's not. In the context of accumulated illusions, this goal is called "realistic," and perhaps it is. As the fixer's grieving father says, "Our government is a puppet of foreigners. That is why we expect nothing from it."

As I write, 4,000 newly arrived U.S. Marines are trudging through the blistering heat of Helmand Province to push back the Taliban so local Pashtuns can turn out to vote next month for Karzai, their fellow Pashtun. What's wrong with this new Obama strategy? For one thing, in some areas the local Pashtun population has instead turned out to fight against the foreign invaders, side by side with the Taliban (who, it should be remembered, are mostly local Pashtuns). They're as fed up as anybody with the puppet Karzai. Like millions of other Afghans, they say Karzai has done nothing for the people. But saddled with history, Karzai remains the horse the U.S. rode in on.

Let me make it clear that Olds and Parenti don't draw these comparisons to current affairs in Afghanistan. Fixer is simply and appropriately subtitled The Taking of Ajmal Nashqbandi. It's a tribute to a trusted colleague. But watch the film yourself and you'll be immersed in duplicity: officials manipulate the truth, citizens fear to tell it, Americans can't bear to look it in the face. Watch the film and maybe you'll understand how hard it has become, here behind the Hescos where history is being re-spun, to size anything up, pin anything down, recognize an enemy, or help a friend.

[Note: Fixer will first be shown on HBO on Monday night, August 17th. It will be re-aired on August 20th, 23rd, 25th, 29th, and 31st. Check your local listings for the exact times.]

Ann Jones is the author of Kabul in Winter: Life Without Peace in Afghanistan (Metropolitan Books, 2006). She is in Kabul this summer, working with women's organizations, as she has done intermittently since 2002.

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