Friday, November 13, 2009

Worlds Meet

Conrad’s Heart of Afghanistan

When the outlaw leader Hernandez asks the miner Bonafacio why he supports the silver mine in Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, Bonafacio’s answer should be heard as Congress spends $10 billion in Afghanistan. We dare to ask why literature can see an answer that eludes the reality decision makers.

Bonifacio answered that the mine owner, “Senior Gould pays me very well.” Yet the policy makers in DC can’t find a similar group to pay the way they did with the Awakening in Iraq. The situation is different, they say. So the funds go to the military.

While the groups in play are very different between Iraq and Afghanistan, the presence of a group like Bonifacio’s miners does exist in Afghanistan — the poppy growers.

Conrad’s Nostromo shows the political elements in a fictional Latin American country where the English mine owner fights local groups who try to expel all foreigners. The lessons from literature demand we see certain parallels. The miners are the poppy growers. The use of force alone does not work. Respect for the local population is needed.

While it’s easy to see the importance of the miners in Nostromo, our real decision makers can’t see the crucial aspect of the poppy growers. The miners produced the wealth that drove the plot in Conrad’s book. The poppy grower’s wealth supports the Taliban. The real world of Afghanistan is filled with vying groups that seem to dilute the image of those growers in the minds of the decision makers. Control a few warlords, and maybe you can swing some support to the Kabul government…for awhile. But control the livelihood of those growers and suddenly the Taliban loses its fighting ability. Maybe the $10 billion could be used to change the growing patterns of the poppy growers.

The use of force alone doesn’t work. In Nostromo, the Gould character uses the secret police after he becomes dominant. But he still can’t stop the anger of growing resentment and an underground resistance. When he first took possession of the mine, he stopped General Montero’s brother who arrived at the mine with a small army. He stopped them because the workers remained loyal to him because of the fair treatment. Afghanistan could be seen in the same way. Extra force to control the poppy fields means nothing if farmers working those fields require money to live.

This brings us to respect for the local population. The strength of the Taliban comes from the support of the locals. Spend the money on troops or to aid the warlords, and those farmers will still have to grow poppy. They are growing poppy because certain grain fields were destroyed during the ages-long conflict. They have to survive, and poppy gives them a chance. Give them the financial support while they convert their fields to pomegranates and you take away the local support from the Taliban.

Nostromo’s characters showed a lesson for Afghanistan. The miners who supported Gould’s mine against Montero had family members who stood by and watched Gould’s father being killed by a previous revolt. Gould avoided that when he respected the miners in the beginning of the story. He saw other methods were needed than using force, and he recognized the value of the worker. Well, we have $10 billion and we have a choice of spending on the military, the warlords or the growers — hmmm.

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