Winning Hearts and (Dirty) Minds in Afghanistan

The Washington Post this morning brings humor to the discussion of the Afghanistan War, but they also bring a depiction of life in Afghanistan that feeds into stereotypes. Sure, it is interesting to know what the CIA is using to gain influence, but an article about giving away viagra just emphasiszes the notion of the arabic “other,” to our moral detriment.


Commentary By: Steven Reynolds

OK, maybe the guy’s mind isn’t quite so dirty. He’s got a big job at 60+ years old with four wives who are much younger. Think, think. . . how could the CIA appeal to this guy for his help? From the Washington Post:

The Afghan chieftain looked older than his 60-odd years, and his bearded face bore the creases of a man burdened with duties as tribal patriarch and husband to four younger women. His visitor, a CIA officer, saw an opportunity, and reached into his bag for a small gift.

Four blue pills. Viagra.

“Take one of these. You’ll love it,” the officer said. Compliments of Uncle Sam.

The enticement worked. The officer, who described the encounter, returned four days later to an enthusiastic reception. The grinning chief offered up a bonanza of information about Taliban movements and supply routes – followed by a request for more pills.

For U.S. intelligence officials, this is how some crucial battles in Afghanistan are fought and won. While the CIA has a long history of buying information with cash, the growing Taliban insurgency has prompted the use of novel incentives and creative bargaining to gain support in some of the country’s roughest neighborhoods, according to officials directly involved in such operations.

I’m not complaining about this practice by the CIA of handing out the little blue pill in exchange for valuable information. Oh, I suppose the guy wasn’t prescribed the drug, and if he dies from the pill, he’s not going to be much use. Hey, and if he gets one of those four hour boners it might be a long way to his doctor.

I suppose that’s what’s got me going this morning. This is a topic that just invites jokes rather than a serious discussion of the lengths to which we will go in gathering intelligence. The WaPo article is full of double intendres, so much so that this feels like a “feel good” magazine section piece. OK, it IS a “feel good” piece, at least from one point of view, but. . . just look at this wry comment from the second page of the article in the WaPo:

Two veteran officers familiar with such practices said Viagra was offered rarely, and only to older tribal officials for whom the drug would hold special appeal. While such sexual performance drugs are generally unavailable in the remote areas where the agency’s teams operated, they have been sold in some Kabul street markets since at least 2003 and were known by reputation elsewhere.

“You didn’t hand it out to younger guys, but it could be a silver bullet to make connections to the older ones,” said one retired operative familiar with the drug’s use in Afghanistan. Afghan tribal leaders often had four wives – the maximum number allowed by the Koran – and aging village patriarchs were easily sold on the utility of a pill that could “put them back in an authoritative position,” the official said.

Maybe we can call this the dumbing down of journalism, now designed to appeal to a 7th grader’s intellectual level and not to someone serious about the situation in Afghanistan and about learning how we’re solving that situation. Oh, I know this is a small example, and that the article contains far more information than that the CIA uses boner medicine as a way of inducing cooperation. Certainly, though, the viagra is the focus of the long article, when the focus should be the analysis of what’s going right and wrong with CIA tactics in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is, after all, going to be the focus again in the War on Terror very soon.

Perhaps even more troubling is what this story does to depict the exotic (now erotic) life of the Afghan Chieftain. I am reminded of Edward Said’s Orientalism, his chronicle of the history of the depiction of asian people’s in western culture, a depiction as culturally “other,” and a depiction that often used differing sexual practices as a way of emphasizing oriental “otherness.” Said uses a painting of Jean-Leon Gerome on the cover of his book, so I daresay you can find examples of late 19th century orientalism. I think the harm pictures most instructive in this discussion.

Sure, the little blue pill may certainly help in the gathering of intelligence in Afghanistan. But this is a battle for hearts and minds both in Afghanistan and in this country, and if the media keeps consciously depicting the people of central asia as so extremely “other,” that does little for our sense, I suspect, that these people are just as deserving as us to live a full and prosperous life. The more we depict the Afghanis (or the Khazakhs or the Iraqis or the Iranians) as so extremely “other,” the less likely we are to have an American populace willing to do the job right over there without torture and with far more care towards the lives of innocent civilians.

Friday, December 26th, 2008 by Steven Reynolds |
Category: Afghanistan,Media

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