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Friday, December 26, 2008

Welcomed With Flowers, Sweets And Prescriptions

by dday

I suppose I shouldn't be alarmed by this, but I have to confess to being a little taken aback by the snickering and high-fiving in the blogosphere over the CIA's attempt to curry favor with Afghan tribal leaders by offering them Viagra.

The Afghan chieftain looked older than his 60-odd years, and his bearded face bore the creases of a man burdened with duties as tribal patriarch and husband to four younger women. His visitor, a CIA officer, saw an opportunity, and reached into his bag for a small gift.

Four blue pills. Viagra.

"Take one of these. You'll love it," the officer said. Compliments of Uncle Sam.

The enticement worked. The officer, who described the encounter, returned four days later to an enthusiastic reception. The grinning chief offered up a bonanza of information about Taliban movements and supply routes -- followed by a request for more pills.

There's a certain logic to using personal items as barter (or bribery, if you prefer) for warlords and tribal leaders to extract information about the Taliban insurgency. At the same time, does anyone credibly think that those four women this guy is married to are entirely willing spouses, and the consequent sex performed as a result of the Viagra entirely consensual? One of the most persistent problems in Afghanistan - indeed, one of the ostensible reasons used by people like Laura Bush to justify the invasion beyond the need to root out al-Qaeda - is the terrible life circumstances for women. I fail to see how use of erectile dysfunction pills created by men and for men improves their quality of life. Megan Carpentier gives the explanation with which I concur:

SPENCER: So what should we understand to be the anticipated effects on Afghan women of this Viagra-based counterinsurgency effort?

MEGAN: Well, one could argue that by supplying the aging warlords with Viagra, you are depriving their wives of a needed and biologically expected semi-permanent respite from performing unwanted sexual acts that would otherwise be forced upon them. In the interests of fairness, I suppose its possible that these warlords attempt to treat their wives with the utmost care and respect and provide them with sexual satisfaction instead of using them as living, visible extensions of their power over people that the warlords can additionally stick their dicks into.

SPENCER: But that's not where we should take this discussion! Are we in a situation where the expected consequence of the CIA Viagra program is marital rape? Should everyone who isn't Dennis Prager find this problematic?

MEGAN: Well, are we in a situation where we would deny that such is a possibility? I don't think we make good policy by ignoring the consequences, nor am I saying that giving the dudes Viagra is not preferable to giving them, say, weapons. But is it possible that we're providing them with the means to force themselves on their wives (who likely had no choice in being their wives) that nature has otherwise denied them? Yes. Plus, I did have to go find a way to relate it to women's issues [...]

SPENCER: Right, but now that we've got that covered: what should we do next? Stop the program?

MEGAN: Well, I'm not exactly one to go around advocating marital rape. Nor are — one assumes — operatives on the ground in any position to survey the wives of the warlords to determine whether the dick pill sex is consensual or wanted. Nor do the women in question have the vocabulary — culturally speaking, that is — to likely describe the sex as coercive or forced. In a society in which wives are expected to submit to their husbands and sex is not intended for their benefit or pleasure, nor are their moods or desires taken into account, they probably wouldn't consider a formerly impotent husband with a handful of Viagra and some impotent time to make up for much more than their unlucky lot in life. And, if the benefit — as you stated above — is not only that the formerly impotent husband doesn't take said impotence out on our troops but also refrains from taking it out physically on the wives, are they substantively better off being unhappily sexed than physically beaten? The fact that women in America have those choices and the freedom to think about them is a great thing, and handing out or not handing out Viagra to impotent warlords doesn't give Afghan women those choices or freedoms. Nor does allowing a Taliban or al Qaeda-led insurgency to win back the government. But that doesn't mean that our choices should remain unexamined.

There's a top-rated diary on Daily Kos right now entitled Dennis Prager Endorses Marital Rape. Somebody explain to me how the CIA isn't doing functionally the same thing.

And there's a larger point. We barge into foreign societies without a coherent understanding of the underlying culture and try to use whatever means to get the locals on our side, and the unintended consequences that result are never examined either before or after the fact. They are considered prices to be paid for "success," whatever that means. I think it's actually fairly impossible for me to determine the full effects of giving Viagra to Afghan warlords, in much the way that introducing a change in where a butterfly flaps its wings in the past can alter the future. But I'm fairly certain that those effects are completely ignored by the elites who think they can control events thousands of miles away through little inducements and bribes. I haven't read all of
Legacy of Ashes but I wonder if I'd find anything if I searched the index for the part where anyone games out the ripple effects of the agency's actions. Probably not.

Maybe what should be considered, instead of the boner pills, is why we're in Afghanistan in the first place. Rather than social engineering, we could use local law enforcement and intelligence sharing to limit or remove the capacity of anyone in the region striking beyond their borders, and we allow local and regional actors to determine their own way forward instead of arrogantly assuming we know what's best for these people, and trying to install a central democracy where none has ever existed. Alternatively, we could figure out what other drugs they might like.