Obama’s “la mission civilisatrice”

(noon. – promoted by ek hornbeck)


In a fascinating article, Thomas Fuller an International Herald Tribune reporter, writes of Antoine Fayard, his maternal great-grandfather and a French colonial engineer “who built and designed roads, dams and canals across colonial Indochina.”

Fuller writes of his journey through Laos and Vietnam where he visited the locations his great-grandfather had been in the 1900s.

I knew where Fayard had traveled because our family had preserved his letters to his mother, photographs he took and a large and minutely detailed, hand-drawn silk map of what is now southern Laos.

Since reading Fuller’s article, “100 Years on, Tracing an Engineer’s Legacy“, I’ve mulled over the idea that maybe Americans have another lesson to learn from European colonialism when it comes to President Barack Obama’s ‘new’ strategy for Afghanistan.

Lessons from history are not always obvious. While Afghanistan is not Vietnam, I found some interesting parallels in the “civilian surge” part of Obama’s strategy with the efforts of French colonialists.

Part of Obama’s plan is for the U.S. State Department to “significantly expand its presence in regional capitals” in the western and northern provinces.

“Hundreds of U.S. civilian officials” will be sent to Afghanistan “increasing the size of the embassy and its outposts by about 50 percent — to about 900 personnel.” In addition, 14 new Foreign Service positions will be created in Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif.

The seemingly open-ended goal of this U.S. “civilian surge” is to “to build Afghan civilian capacity around the country.” Where “sorely needed civilian agricultural specialists, engineers and political advisers would… roam the country and work on crucial projects.” “Americans with wide-ranging expertise” will help Afghanistan “build its civilian institutions, which are largely inefficient or nonexistent.”

Obama explained in an interview this past Sunday that “both in Afghanistan and Pakistan” his “comprehensive strategy… doesn’t just rely on bullets or bombs but also relies on agricultural specialists on doctors, on engineers, to help create an environment in which people recognize that they have much more at stake in partnering with us and the international community than giving into some of these extremist ideologies.”

Obama’s plan is to have the increased U.S. military presence protect the agricultural specialists, doctors, and engineers working there. In the interview, when asked if additional soldiers in Afghanistan may just “inflame the situation”, Obama answered:

Well, I’m very mindful of that. Look, you know, I’m enough of a student of history to know that the United States in Vietnam and other countries, other epics of history have overextended to the point where they were severely weakened. And the history in Afghanistan obviously shows that that country has not been very favorably disposed towards foreign intervention.

He went on to describe the plan to train the Afghan National Army so Afghanistan would “increasingly to deal with extremists in their area”.

Myself, I wonder if the United States isn’t already “overextended to the point where the country is “severely weakened”? Obviously, Obama does not believe the country is “severely weakened”. I’m certain that Obama has read or been advised about the Soviets experience in Afghanistan, but the Soviets knew their history too:

The Soviets also were convinced that superior numbers, firepower and training would make it possible to avoid the mistakes that the British and others had committed stretching back to Alexander the Great, former Ambassador [Fikryat] Tabeyev said.

“History didn’t listen to us,” said Tabeyev, who’s now 81. “All our efforts to restore peace in the country … this was a flop in the end.”

And based on the “civilian surge” aspect of his strategy, it almost seems as if Obama has taken the advice of Retired Soviet Gen. Pavel Grachev: “post soldiers to guard road projects and irrigation systems, and send in an army of engineers, doctors, mining experts and construction advisers.”

Fuller’s great-grandfather was a French colonial engineer. He explains:

Colonialism is a malevolent concept in this part of the world, where Europeans drew many of the modern-day borders. The European conquerors are remembered for their postwar defeats and retreats, their often-racist policies and their economic self-interest. This trip offered a look at the beneficial legacies of the colonial empires, some of which are well appreciated today: the roads, railways and dams, the obscure villages that became prosperous trading centers, and the anonymous troves of engineers who carried out the work…

As a reporter based in Southeast Asia, I viewed my great-grandfather through a historical and political lens: He was an engineer who, in a small way, helped consolidate French control over Indochina. One of the roads he traced through the jungle connected modern-day Laos to what is now Vietnam. This was part of a broad effort by the French to pry Laos from the influence of the Siamese kings in Bangkok…

His sojourn here was not the history-book version of colonialism: the wars, treaties and “la mission civilisatrice.” He was an everyday French civil servant recruited by a government that at the time was desperate to send more officers to its colonies. Fayard had inquired about postings in Indochina and received an unexpected reply: Thank you for volunteering; your ship leaves Feb. 23.

Fayard was an “everyday French civil servant” much like the probable “everyday” American civil servants that Obama will send to Afghanistan. Obama goals could be described as an effort to “pry” Afghanistan away from the “influence” of extremists like the Taliban or al-Qaeda.

One of Fayard’s projects was to design a large irrigation system. Fayard “drew up plans for a dam on the Ba River that would feed two winding canals, one on each side of the river. Although he was skeptical that the project would go forward – it was too ‘huge’ for such a poor country, he wrote his mother – the dam was completed around 1930, after he had moved to Morocco, where he designed the port of Tangiers and raised his family.” The dam today provides irrigation water for 73 square miles of rice fields.

During his journey, Fuller asked people who lived by the dam his great-grandfather designed what they remembered of the French.

Nguyen Dinh Sum, an 85-year-old rice farmer, described how the completion of the dam and canal system had changed the lives of villagers, because they no longer needed to forage in the mountains for wild animals and edible roots.

What about the humiliation of being ruled by foreigners? I asked.

“To be honest, many people didn’t feel comfortable being under the authority of the French,” Mr. Nguyen said, “but they admired them for what they did.”

He glanced over at the canal. “The French built this,” he said, “and it brought us prosperity.”

I believe it is a mistake to conflate Southeast Asia of the 1900s to the Afghanistan-Pakistan region of today, but still there are some echoes of history. I suspect that American engineers, doctors, and agricultural specialists will do some good and help create public works that may improve the lives of Afghans. But, I also feel that no matter how generous Americans are and how wonderful the “civilian surge” projects will be, Afghans won’t “feel comfortable” with being under U.S. authority. I think as Americans, we must not forget that “good works” do not undo injustices and civilian deaths that happen during the American occupation.

As Fuller notes:

Alas, if only the entirety of France’s colonial history had been written in this valley. It was not, of course. At the time that the dam was being completed, the French authorities were suppressing uprisings in the northern provinces partly brought on by famine. Fayard’s pictures offer a measure of the brutality of the time: he photographed an execution by sword. Another photo shows a man’s decapitated head placed on a pike with a sign detailing his crime.

I think Obama means well. I think he’d like to help Afghans and sees such help as the way to defeat the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other extremists in the region. However, Americans cannot expect to help Afghans civilians with public works at the same time killing Afghan civilians in crossfire or “collateral damage” when fighting with the Taliban. These tactical successes become a strategic defeat.

“We are afraid of the Taliban, but we are more afraid of the Americans now,” said Abdul Ghaffar, a truck driver in the raided village. “The foreign forces are killing innocent people. We don’t want them in Afghanistan. If they stay, one day we will stand against them, just like we stood against the Russians.”

In the end, Obama’s goal for the United States in Afghanistan is, as he explained, “to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.”

The president didn’t say how many years this goal will take to achieve. “It’s not going to be an open-ended commitment of infinite resources”, he said in the interview this past Sunday. But Obama has explained what happens if his plan doesn’t work only saying America has no choice but to succeed.

The Soviets were forced out of Afghanistan after 10 years. The French were forced out of Indochina after more than 65 years. While neither scenario is exactly the same situation the U.S. faces today in Afghanistan, there still may be lessons yet to be learned from history. In 100 years time, will the great-grandson of an everyday American engineer visit Afghanistan? Or, will he be part of another “surge” that America has no choice but to make succeed?

The big problem that I see is that the president hasn’t shared with us how this ‘new’ Afghanistan strategy, this “civilian surge” ever ends even if it ‘succeeds’.



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  1. from my cluttered mind. I’m really just have been procrastinating on doing real work all day… this essay is the result.

    • Edger on April 1, 2009 at 03:08

    One of the most thought provoking on Afghanistan I think I’ve seen yet.

    Afghanistan, as you note Omama saying “has not been very favorably disposed towards foreign intervention”.

    The seemingly open-ended goal of this U.S. “civilian surge” is to “to build Afghan civilian capacity around the country.” Where “sorely needed civilian agricultural specialists, engineers and political advisers would… roam the country and work on crucial projects.” “Americans with wide-ranging expertise” will help Afghanistan “build its civilian institutions, which are largely inefficient or nonexistent.”

    Perhaps the types of institutions Obama is thinking of for Afghanistan only appear largely inefficient or nonexistent in the country to an American Exceptionalism mindset of knowing what’s best for the world and assuming that the world is just itching to be Americanized, because Afghans don’t want them but instead preferred and prefer the Afghan way of life?

  2. but I think I’d be more comfortable with this same policy if the goal was to build up the Afghanistan that we helped destroy rather than as a way to defeat the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

    It seems to me that if that was what drove us, it would be more of an effort to join with the Afghan people rather than carry out our own agenda.

    It doesn’t sound to me like the Afghan people have much of anyone on their side. There’s the battle between the US and Al Qaeda and then there’s a terribly corrupt government. Ultimately, the only positive thing that can correct all of that is if someone sides with the people to try and help them repair what has been so destroyed.

    • Viet71 on April 1, 2009 at 19:31

    through a mix of soldiers, doctors, engineers, and State Department employees — why not do the same in Mexico, for example, which has terrible problems with drug cartels?

    Or in Sudan?

    The list goes on and on.

    I mean, if Americans are good at fixing up other countries (April fools’ day), where is the logical place to stop?

    With countries we’ve fucked up?  If so, I’d say Mexico and many other countries qualify.

  3. Afghanistan was, as with Iraq, another war of aggression.  It was a target long before 9/11.  

    The Afghans do not want us there.   They are sick of having their people killed and they are sick of the killing.  

    This whole new effort for Afghanistan is sooo reminiscent of our efforts in Saudi Arabia long ago.  Boosting their electricity, roads, adequate water, sewage, etc., with the real objectives being:

    maximizing payouts to U.S. firms and making Saudi Arabia increasingly dependent on the United States.  [This would require] long-term service and management agreements.  MAIN, Bechtel, Brown & Root (now KBR), Halliburton, Stone & Webster, and many other U.S. engineers and contractors would profit handsomely for decades to come.    From “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man ,” by John Perkins


    And, of course, ensuring access to Saudi Arabia’s oil.

    This same effort to “upgrade” Iraq was attempted, but Saddam Hussein was not interested in the proposition.  Thus, we had to bomb the shit out of Iraq, a country that was already vulnerable because of having endured sanctions for years.   And, of course, we have to stay until certain “benchmarks” are met, i.e., the Iraq hydro-carbon law has yet to be signed.

    And all such efforts have been made in other countries, particularly, Latin American.

    From, Sherwood Ross,

    President-elect Obama should drop his plans to escalate the war in Afghanistan, a country that never attacked America, out of pity for a helpless civilian population that will only suffer increasing misery from an expanded fight against the Taliban and its allies. . . . .

    Little known to most Americans is that Afghanistan likely was invaded because its Taliban government refused to okay pipelines sought by Union Oil Co. of California (UNOCAL).

    “Since Central Asia is landlocked, the United States government wanted to find a way to get the oil and natural gas out, while avoiding Iran, Russia, and China,” Boyle said. “The easiest way to do that was to construct a pipeline south through Afghanistan, into Pakistan and right out to the Arabian Sea. UNOCAL had been negotiating with the Taliban government of Afghanistan for quite some time, still with the full support of the U.S. government into the summer of 2001, but their negotiations had failed. The U.S….then rendered a proverbial offer that could not be refused to the Taliban government.”  . . . .

    Hasn’t Afghanistan suffered enough? The U.S. would be far better off if instead of pouring tens of thousands of troops into Afghanistan it sent in a like number of unarmed Peace Corps volunteers with a comparable budget. Time to give non-violence a chance. C’mon, guys, show a little imagination, huh?

    And, from Pepe Escobar,

    All geopolitical junkies need a fix. Since the second half of the 1990s, I’ve been hooked on pipelines. I’ve crossed the Caspian in an Azeri cargo ship just to follow the $4 billion Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan pipeline, better known in this chess game by its acronym, BTC, through the Caucasus. (Oh, by the way, the map of Pipelineistan is chicken-scratched with acronyms, so get used to them!)

    So, hopefully, creating dependence upon us by Afghanistan, we can use this period to “upgrade” Afghanistan, with all the construction, we can also get those pipelines constructed.  Oh, and “benchmarks” are being created for Afghanistan, as well.  Gee, I just wonder what they might be.

    And this, from William S. Lind, at AntiWar

    Ironically, the reported decision duplicates the Bush administration’s error in Iraq, another lost war (the next phase in Iraq’s Sunni-Shi’ite civil war is now ramping up). The error, one that no tactical or operational successes can overcome, is setting unattainable strategic objectives.

    And, this from by Justin Raimondo, at AntiWar,

    They [the Neocons] are ecstatic that Obama is launching a major offensive on the Afghan-Pakistan front, and they are urging him to do more. Their latest campaign is undertaken in cooperation with the “progressives” over at the Center for American Progress and the Center for a New American Security, both conduits for recent and future administration appointees. . . . .

    Having exhausted their previous host, the GOP, the neocons have no qualms about moving on. The Democrats will do just as well. Whoever’s in power is the object of their affection. Their role is to whisper in the ear of the prince, to make sure he gets the “right” information – and then sabotage him if he fails to respond to their ministrations.

    As the neocons hail Obama, their new conquering hero, the irony of all this underscores the difficulties of instituting real change in our foreign policy. The same old faces turn up no matter which party is in power, and the same old ideas – shopworn “internationalist” bromides – dominate a consensus that never questions whether an empire is good for the American people.

    What?  You mean the American people haven’t been considered in this process?  

    And neither have the Afghans been considered.  And Afghanistan is quite vulnerable now, too, so gotta’ strike while the iron is hot.  They will get “our program whether they like it or not, and, then, pay the consequences.  

  4. MSNBC, on Afghanistan!

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