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The Key to Understanding Our Endless Wars Is the Goat Cart Theory

·5 min read
Photo credit: Marcus Yam - Getty Images
Photo credit: Marcus Yam - Getty Images

Regulars here at the shebeen are familiar with our Goat Cart Theory of foreign relations. It has to do with the unintended—or marginally intended—consequences of making our wars in all those places. The scenario involves a terrorist kingpin who is sipping tea at a cafe on a dusty backroad somewhere in West Asia. He is identified as such by our super-secret intelligence network and a drone is dispatched to, well, dispatch the guy.

Meanwhile, minding his own business, a guy with a goat cart—or a Nissan—comes down the road on the way to buy the ingredients for the family bolani. It’s hot and he’s tired and he's ready for a cool glass of dhoog. Just as he passes the cafe, the drone comes in and does its business. The terrorist kingpin is vaporized. So is the guy with the goat cart. In the western press, we wake up and learn that, say, the No. 3 man in the local al Qaeda franchise has been killed and, up next, the latest on what de facto Prime Minister Joe Manchin said today in the Senate.

But what of the goat cart guy? He’s just as dead as the terrorist kingpin. How do you think his family feels about us? His uncles and aunts and nieces and nephews? How about his own kids? Can you think of any reason why they wouldn’t abandon the family farms and go into the business of making war on the people who killed their peaceable paterfamilias? And then, one day, one of the guy’s nephews is the new terrorist kingpin, drinking his tea at the roadside cafe and one of our spy cameras catches him there.

We have had a couple of news stories recently that illustrate the Goat Cart Theory splendidly, if tragically. The first, of course, is the admission by the U.S. government that one of our super-secret intelligence mechanisms was unable to distinguish jugs of water from blocks of C4, and that a drone was dispatched that killed 10 members of an Afghan family, including seven children, who had no more connection to terrorism than did the DeFranco Family. When the original cover story fell apart, the Pentagon was properly chastened; General Kenneth McKenzie offered sincere apologies because this horrible blunder happened on his watch. And I’m sorry, but this isn’t enough. Heads have to roll behind this one. If that means resignations all the way up the chain of command at the Pentagon, so be it. This is the kind of event that resonates through the generations; Zemari Ahmadi, who worked for a US aid group and who was the primary target, has nephews and uncles and nieces and aunts. My biggest fear at the moment is that Ahmadi’s killing will now become grist for American domestic politics, and that I will have to watch conservative politicians shed crocodile tears about Ahmadi and his family, whom they’d otherwise fight to keep out of this country because terrorism, that’s why.

Photo credit: Marcus Yam - Getty Images
Photo credit: Marcus Yam - Getty Images

The other story, this one in the Washington Post, is about the perilous position of the women of Afghanistan. (Again, there is a lot of rending of garments by conservatives, who otherwise aren’t too cool about women’s rights in this country.) The Post interviewed a number of Afghan women who seem admirably clear-eyed about what has happened around them over the past 20 years.

Such was the case with the U.S.-backed peace deal between the Ghani government and Hezb-i-Islami warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, also known as “the Butcher of Kabul.” For Joya, the 2016 agreement set the stage for the 2020 U.S.-led negotiations with the Taliban, which ultimately resulted in the replacement of one dehumanizing force in Afghanistan with another.

As the U.S. mission in Afghanistan shifted from a short-term military operation to a long-term nation-building project, women-led activist groups in the diaspora also became vocal about the war’s ongoing violence, which ended up killing 71,000 civilians and displacing 5.9 million Afghans between 2001 and 2020. Organizations like Afghans for Peace partnered with Veterans Against the War to protest the war’s human fallout. As organizer Suraia Sahar noted in a 2012 protest, “You cannot liberate women through occupation, through war, through violence, through bombs, through tanks.”

I’m sorry, ma’am, but with that kind of attitude, you’ll never be working for the Brookings Institute.

The candy-bars-and-nylons myth of how Americans make war is a pernicious one, and one that has been well-established in the country’s mythology for almost as long as this country has made war anywhere. General William Sherman was at his most accurate when he said that, “War is cruelty. There’s no use trying to reform it.” And the people who know that best are the people caught up in it. On the electric Twitter machine Monday morning, author Tim Shorrock shared a passage about an ill-advised program in Vietnam called “Operation: Toy Drop,” in which the United States dropped toys for children into North Vietnam in the hopes of winning hearts and minds. The Americans interpreted it as a demonstration (once again) of the compassionate way Americans made war. The Vietnamese saw it rather differently.

But the reaction of Asians was bitter. They labeled it "blasphemy." They saw us one day dropping bombs that killed children, then the next showering them with toys, with messages of love, then the following days again dropping the killing bombs. They felt that the Americans were making sport of child slaughter.

The innocence of our arrogance is the truly exceptional part.

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