134 – Of means and ends

Posted on July 5, 2012 by

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In the inanimate world, action leads to an end. The billiard ball falls into the pocket – and that’s it. After the well-aimed shot it stays put. The end is final. In the animate and social world, action leads to another, and then another, and then again. It is without end. This is why we have history, and even if you were to go back and repeat the moves, you’ll never get the same result. Once achieved, the end transmutes into the next means – for moves are enablers – and so forever.

We are used to think in analogies. If there is “end” in the inanimate world, we opine, there must be “end” in social processes. We think that we can bring an end to human action, which is part of the animate world. “Mission accomplished” – bragged the US after conquering Baghdad. Ten years later we know – it was just the end of the beginning.

True, sports events all come to an end: after 90 minutes of football we stop the game. At this point the highest score wins – but this is just a convention. Politics and diplomacy are unlike a game of sports: there is never the “final whistle” – so we better abandon the idea of “winning”. There are no winners, just changes.

I’m driven to this skeptical musing as I read Ahmed RASHID’s recent book on Afghanistan and Pakistan[1]. I strongly recommend it as summer read – clear, gripping, and arresting. It is its content, which elucidates the intricacies of this complex conflict, which in many ways will decide our future. These pages also contain many entertaining tales of human folly: a streetwise diplomat may draw many lessons.

Avowedly the US went into Afghanistan – a war of necessity, it was said then – to avenge 9/11 by destroying Al Qaeda (who has nestled there), and to bring democracy to the country.

What does “bringing democracy” mean? The public tends to take elections as incontrovertible evidence that “the end” of the democratization process is at hand. In a country besotted with sports, it is the “final whistle” that ends the game. Like in marriage, a country is supposed to live happily ever after elections. As the election results roll in the US can call “mission accomplished” and roll out into the sunset. In the words of India’s Foreign Minister, it is time for the face of the general to yield to the face of the entrepreneur.

Elections are only means, however. The true goal is “nation building”. Governance as well as social and economic infrastructure must be in place for a state to be on a sustainable path. Elections are markers in this evolutionary process. They should trail and mirror it. We should not mistake the means for the end.

In its hurry to get out of Afghanistan after 10 years, the US administration transformed means – the 2011 elections – into goal (there is continuity here between G. W. BUSH and B. OBAMA). As if holding elections could “make reality”. Holding elections became the paramount goal – with dire consequences.

Military effort – the “surge” – was hijacked to secure elections, not preconditions for “nation building”. Getting the military decision right took all the attention of the President. RASHID relates: “Richard HOLBROOKE would shake his head and tell me that the election was a huge distraction from what really needed to be done on the ground” (pg. 78).

Elections put also Afghanistan’s President KARZAI on the spot – he felt he needed to win, and win big. Unsure of the support of the US Administration, he resorted to massive vote rigging. In the process irreversible distrust was sown all around.

After the election the next “end” is for the Western coalition to exit in 2014. Meanwhile, only few of the long term political problems have been addressed, and this goes for the country as well as for the region. Afghanistan has – by chance – become the place where geopolitical interests intersect with regional and local ones. North of the Khyber Pass the struggle between the “Islamic world” and the West meets diverse regional conflicts: Pakistan vs. India; regional ambitions of China, Iran, and even Russia. A peace process can only begin when all these external forces have been harnessed to the task of ending civil war in a country that has made of tribal strife part of its identity. Regional stability is precondition for ending civil war.

Even if – by waving the magic wand – one could end civil war and bring peace to Afghanistan, huge tensions would remain – for the conflict has metastasized to Pakistan and beyond. I’d expect this process to accelerate as civil war exhausts itself and radical militants move to other battle grounds. One speaks today of Pakistani Taliban. This is just the beginning.

As each of the Seven Veils is dropped in the eponymous dance we move from titillation to certainty – we have “progress”. That’s a game. We live in a world of enablers: the number of veils is infinite, and succession replaces success. As end turns into means direction fades. What looked like progress, when judged before the choice, looks problematic when revisited after the event in the light of the ensuing opportunities. Life alas is not a football game.


[1]           Ahmed RASHID (2012): Pakistan on the brink. The future of Pakistan, Afghanistan and the West. Penguin, Allen Lane, London.

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