After more than a decade of nation-building in Afghanistan, with at best mixed results, perhaps it is time to take an opposite tack: "deconstructing" that sad land. This would entail some very bold policy shifts, beginning with a willingness to see our very "structures of thought come undone," as Jacques Derrida, the great philosopher of deconstruction, once described the first step in the process. In practical terms, this would mean challenging the guiding notion of democratization that has, thus far, cost us and our allies several thousand casualties and about a trillion dollars -- to little effect.
The key to deconstruction is to search out the inherent contradiction that lies at the heart of virtually every strong belief. As another leading theorist of deconstruction, Paul de Man, once put the matter, the central task is to "undo assertions...by means of their very own elements." For example, Derrida thought deeply about Ernest Hemingway's conclusion, in his Death in the Afternoon, that bullfighting is the ultimate sport. Derrida then formulated a key question, "How often does the bull win?" He concluded that any sport in which one side lost almost every time -- for centuries -- was no sport at all.
It doesn't take too much reflection to see that beliefs about Afghanistan fit the deconstructionist pattern of being "undone by their very own elements." Starting from the beginning, there is the belief that Afghanistan is an isolated land filled with xenophobic people. Yet from ancient times, this "land of the high flags," as Zoroaster labeled it, was a crossroads of rich commerce, its peoples drawn from an admixture of Aryans, Chinese, Indians, and Mongols -- among others.
Another long-held belief, that Afghanistan is the "graveyard of empires," has been misleading from the beginning. Alexander the Great conquered Afghanistan with a relative handful of troops, and the Greeks stayed for a few centuries. Indeed, "Kandahar" is but a variant of "Alexander." And for many centuries after the adventurous Greeks, outsiders often ruled for long periods. The remarkable work of Boston University anthropologist Thomas Barfield makes quite clear that difficulty in exerting external control over Afghanistan is, in historical terms, a quite recent phenomenon.
Taking the deconstruction process up to the current situation, the single most telling contradiction lies at the heart of the Western "democracy project" in Afghanistan. If I may channel Derrida briefly -- he passed away in 2004 -- I think he would observe our efforts and ask: "If you are trying to nurture democracy, why is it that you regularly embrace the results of fraudulent elections? If your goal is the emergence of a civic culture, why, after all your efforts, is Afghanistan rated the most corrupt country in the world?"
There are other long-held assertions that seem to come undone by their very own elements as well. One is the idea that peace and security will come to the country from the center in Kabul and spread outward. This belief flies in the face of a long history of decentralized governance, with power widely distributed outward, toward the edges of the society. Even Alexander found it useful to cultivate and develop alliances with local tribes.