[ by Charles Cameron — a post in my importance of form in intelligence series — Afghanistan, the complexity — also a Blackfoot Tale from Grinnell ]
One of my favorite tales of all time is the Blackfoot legend of The Bull Band, which begins thus in Grinnell‘s telling:
The people had built a great pis’kun, very high and strong, so that no buffalo could escape; but somehow the buffalo would not jump over the cliff. When driven toward it, they would run nearly to the edge, and then, swerving to the right or left, they would go down the sloping hills and cross the valley in safety. So the people were hungry, and began to starve.
Somehow I’d come by a sense that the pis’kun was a sort of funnel – perhaps from Joseph Campbell, whom I once heard tell this tale in his own words – and today I looked around my foolscap-sized screen and discovered that John Canfield Ewers reports what he calls a “buffalo fall” pretty much how I’d imagined the thing, in his Indian Life on the Upper Missouri:
The Piegan band called Never Laughs was camped on the Teton River a few miles north of the present town of Choteau. Their chief announced, “Now we are going to make a buffalo fall.” They built a corral below the cliff and piled rocks in a great V-shape on the slope above the fall. Then they chose a man to lead the buffalo to the fall. But each time he lured them in between the lines of rocks they broke away before they reached the cliff edge. After this had happened three times, young Many Tail Feathers became angry…
So that’s the shape I’m thinking of here: “a great V shape” – let’s call it a funnel.
I want to use the funnel to illustrate a movement in time, an imperative in intelligence, and a loss in nuance.
First, some background.
We are in a tricky situation here, because our minds would like to grasp a problematic reality (which resembles a landscape) by means of a thought (which resembles a road sign).
What’s up in Afghanistan?
Drought, and a huge humanitarian catastrophe, say those whose eyes are focused on human beings as fellow creatures in need of food, water and shelter. Preparations for getting the oil in Khazakstan to market, say those who focus on geology, resources, economics. The start of a strategic corridor that also includes Tibet and Kashmir, contested by India and Pakistan, the nuclear locals, and Russia and China, the nuclear regionals, in a four-sided tug of war. Islam itself, the religion of God, or a perverse and puritanical variant thereof. Or one man, Osama bin Laden.
Clearly a complex landscape – and we would like, depending which road sign we follow, to bomb the shit out of them, bring in truckloads of food and medicines, establish a stable government with which to ink a pipeline deal, export their Wahabi brand of Islam to the world — or discreetly support the US in its mission to extirpate the terrorists of Al-Qaida without rousing the more fundamentalist and simplistic of our citizens to topple the government and institute a radical Islamist state.
So much depends on whether we are in Peshawar or the Pentagon, in poverty or power. So much depends on our perspective, and the parallax it brings with it.
Because no matter what point of view we choose to consider the landscape from, some parts of the terrain will seem so close together as to be indistinguishable which we can understand to be worlds apart if we can only view them from another angle, in a different perspective.
I am not arguing for moral relativism. I am arguing for a recognition of complexity, and for an admission that sound bites and white papers cannot handle this style of problem. I have painted a highly impressionistic portrait of the complexities at work here, where China touches the tip of the eastwards panhandle of Afghanistan, where Kandahar can stand proxy for Jerusalem, where the national sport is a sort of polo with a goat’s head for a ball, and the tea served in thin, curved glasses is green and sweet.
I have checked Google and Dogpile, and as far as I can tell from poor memory, my sense of my own style, and the absence of the same text in the search engines, the above is my own work — the text of the bulk of which I found somewhat haphazardly on my hard drive while working on Part 2 of this post. If anyone else claims copyright, count me an admirer and let me know. I believe it’s “mine” for whatever that concept may be worth, I’m skeptical about solo creativity in any case, myself.
In part 2 of this post, which is definitely almost all borrowed from bright other beings, I’ll try to illustrate the funnel as it applies to America, Afghanistan, Obama and Osama, in a series of “zeroing in” quotes illustrating the complexity of the situation and analysis as contrasted with the “yes” of a kill-decision…