The Bin Laden “hero” problem

One US embassy cable released on WikiLeaks raises more questions about the Afghan war strategy.

The United States has often been accused, sometimes unfairly, of not understanding the culture of other nations and people. Following the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, these misunderstandings (or should that be "misunderestimations"?) appeared even more pronounced. The very idea that the US military would be greeted as liberators seems laughable. How could Americans have believed that? 

Well, according to one of the recently (Wiki-)leaked US embassy cables: they didn't. The cable in question, from 1999, shows that US diplomats were discussing the fact that Osama Bin Laden had the potential to be regarded as a folk hero in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The cable states that:

We frequently hear reports that some in the lower-middle and lower classes, both urban and rural, consider [Bin Laden] an Islamic hero because the US has named him "Public Enemy Number One". That said, it's our impression that the majority of Muslims, at least in Pakistan, do not necessarily support this view. The pending [US government] distribution of [Bin Laden] "Wanted" posters and matchbooks in Pakistan may increase [Bin Laden]'s stature as a kind of folk hero.

It appears the US government had no delusions that they would be heralded as heroes, should they pursue Bin Laden in the region. The January 2009 cable admits that the Taliban had done a better job of communicating their image of Bin Laden than the US had, stating that "the Taliban have pre-empted us consistently since August", while the US response was "muted and delayed".

This raises some rather interesting questions. First, if the US government was aware of this problem more than two years before the invasion, what made officials think that reshaping Afghanistan (already referred to by some as the Graveyard of Empires) would be successful? They were hunting Bin Laden with renewed vigour now, after all. 

Second, was the US government naive enough to believe that the events of 9/11 were enough to secure the sympathy of the Afghan and Pakistani people? Surely bombing their country would negate that sympathy if it did exist. 

Third, supposing that the US was completely realistic about the realities of opinions among the Afghan and Pakistani populations and had taken on board the points made in this cable, why was there not a better, more comprehensive plan put into effect for the aftermath of driving out the Taliban? Whether you support the war in Afghanistan or not, you have to admit that it has been handled appallingly in terms of winning over the hearts and minds of the people.

The cable suggests a number of measures to convince the Afghans and Pakistanis that Bin Laden is not the Islamic crusader that the Taliban have made him out to be. These measures make sense, but there is no evidence that any of them was ever implemented. This leads to the fourth question: why not? 

Given a realistic idea of how Bin Laden was perceived locally, the tactics of the invasion seem even more woefully inadequate than they would have been if the US had gone in blind.

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Why do the words “soup, swoop, loop de loop” come to mind every time I lift a spoon to my lips?

It’s all thanks to Barry and Anita.

A while ago I was lending a friend the keys to our house. We keep spare keys in a ceramic pot I was given years ago by someone who made it while on an art-school pottery course. “That’s er . . . quite challenging,” the friend said of the pot.

“Is it?” I replied. “I’d stopped noticing how ugly it is.”

“Then it’s a grunty,” she said.

“A what?” I asked.

“A grunty. It’s something you have in your house that’s hideous and useless but you’ve stopped noticing it completely, so it’s effectively invisible.”

I was much taken with this idea and realised that as well as “grunties” there are also “gruntyisms”: things you say or do, though the reason why you say or do them has long since been forgotten. For example, every time we drink soup my wife and I say the same thing, uttered in a strange monotone: we say, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop.” How we came to say “soup, swoop, loop de loop” came about like this.

For a married couple, the years between your mid-thirties and your late forties might be seen as the decade of the bad dinner party. You’re no longer looking for a partner, so the hormonal urge to visit crowded bars has receded, but you are still full of energy so you don’t want to stay in at night, either. Instead, you go to dinner parties attended by other couples you don’t necessarily like that much.

One such couple were called Barry and Anita. Every time we ate at their house Barry would make soup, and when serving it he would invariably say, “There we are: soup, swoop, loop de loop.” After the dinner party, as soon as we were in the minicab going home, me and Linda would start drunkenly talking about what an arse Barry was, saying to each other, in a high-pitched, mocking imitation of his voice: “Please do have some more of this delicious soup, swoop, loop de loop.” Then we’d collapse against each other laughing, convincing the Algerian or Bengali taxi driver once again of the impenetrability and corruption of Western society.

Pretty soon whenever we had soup at home, Linda and I would say to each other, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop,” at first still ridiculing Barry, but eventually we forgot why we were saying it and it became part of the private language every couple develop, employed long after we’d gratefully ceased having soupy dinners with Barry and Anita.

In the early Nineties we had an exchange student staying with us for a year, a Maori girl from the Cook Islands in the southern Pacific. When she returned home she took the expression “soup, swoop, loop de loop” with her and spread it among her extended family, until finally the phrase appeared in an anthropological dissertation: “ ‘Soup swoop, loop de loop.’ Shamanistic Incantations in Rarotongan Food Preparation Rituals” – University of Topeka, 2001. 

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt