As the news of Abdullah Abdullah’s withdrawal from the run-off election in Afghanistan broke, I was watching Penny Flame talk about her intimacy issues on Sex Rehab with Dr. Drew. I was surprised to see Flame on the show. I immediately recognized her, but didn’t realize internet porn had made her famous enough to land on a cable series. I realize this is the haven of Vern Troyer, CC DeVille, and Bronson Pinchot, but I confess, without much pride, that my estimation of porn actors was even less than that.
I knew Flame ‘s work mostly from a series she did on BangBros in which three or four women would target random men in malls and auto repair shops then have sex with them. It was like Vaudeville, celebrating total randomness and the simplest mechanisms of physiology. I especially like the scattershot selection of men in the videos, many of whom were doughy convenience store clerks with small-ish penises and the occasional bought of impotence. There is something both heartless and completely satisfying in watching a chubby man with a small nub of penis berated by four naked porn stars. Call me a masochist.
Flame was always the most aggressive of the bunch. Her voice sounded raw from cigarette smoke and her eyes would bulge out in giant white spheres to punctuate some bragging-point about how much dick she was hoping to get. I felt something violent and confrontational when I watched her, as if sex with her was an act of scorn for the pathetically single-minded man and his even more single-minded penis.
Seeing her on Sex Rehab, with all its attendant staging and self-promotion, I felt a sort of relief to see that there was a normal human being underneath the hormonal sex-Nosferatu in her videos. A plodding and ego-centric Jennifer Ketchum operating the oiled joints and sliding gears of Penny Flame. Both are media constructs, but one points away from a real person and the other points back towards her.
In reading about Afghanistan, I am reminded of that scornful writhing on top of one extreme or the other. The eye-bulging bravura of either side, arguing about what should be done with US troops and whom they should be targeting (as if so many people could even pick a Taliban from a taxi driver—I could not). There is an undertone of failure in every argument surrounding Afghanistan, and the debate is typically binary and militaristic. Do we stay and fight the Taliban, or do we concede that the fight with the Taliban wasn’t ours in the first place and shouldn’t have been taken up.
There’s a dire narrative in this framing of what’s happening in Afghanistan, and I think any argument about foreign policy that hangs on drama, or even makes sense as a story, deserves mistrust. Narratives tend to require villains, and villains necessitate fighting, and that has come to dominate much of the popular understanding of the US presence in Afghanistan. We’re there to fight, and after 8 years, it appears fighting has not produced any profoundly positive results, so it’s time to leave.
A few weeks ago, Peter Galbraith, the aide to the UN’s Special Representative in Afghanistan, wrote about how he was fired for pushing to postpone the election in Afghanistan as evidence mounted throughout the spring and summer of the Independent Election Committee fraudulence. Rather than face the serious corruption of the championed administration of a barely coherent national unity movement, the UN chose to ignore Galbraith’s reports and, instead, fired him to preserve the “best interest of the mission.”
Democratic elections make better stories than do false starts and willful corruption of an administration upon which American interests have desperately hung their hopes of success. We want to race towards the third act of this story, and so the means of getting there become expedient to the ends, an Afghanistan that we can leave in the same obscurity in which we found it in 2001. We want a narrative, tragic or heroic, that justifies the forgetting of that place. We gave you democracy, and democracy gave you another despot. None of our business, you take it from here.
The granular stories of trying to build roads that connect the capital to the desolate mountain regions to the North, a precondition for any functional economy, are not important. It doesn’t matter that polling stations were put on record without anyone to work them so long as a winner could be declared in the end. It doesn’t matter that the president of the country, whose authority is said by many to reside only in Kabul, has now ensured himself another term as head of a local fiefdom, in a country made up of scattered fiefdoms.
According to this view, we are then de facto army fighting against the regional leaders that oppose the one the US has sanctioned in his tiny bubble of influence. On these terms, to ask the question of whether or not US forces should be lessened is to answer one’s own question: of course. Ironically, Obama has said he won’t significantly reduce troop levels in Afghanistan, even if he chooses to ignore General McChrystal’s request for an increase.
Which leaves another series of questions in between the “yes” and “no” of withdrawal: what needs to be done beyond military strategy to make Afghanistan a more stable and prosperous place? There are the terrible and mundane arguments that are much less scintillating to think about. Where should the next road be built? Who should pay for it? How to transition Afghani farmers away from poppy? Is there an emerging political class among the Taliban that can be tolerated in a participatory democracy?
News of Mr. Abdullah’s withdrawal also coincided with an asterisk of a news story from Radio Free Asia about six Uyghur men who had just been released from Guantanamo after seven years of detainment. The men were refugees from China, where Uyghurs have had a long and contentious history with the Han. They had fled into Afghanistan and were picked up for possible terrorists. Now they’re sitting in Palau without a country to return to. Like two other Uyghurs released earlier this year, they may wind up settling this new and unexpected tropical home on which they find themselves, far away from the frigid dust and hardscrabble rocks of their home territories.
It’s easy to forget that in the midst of all the high-level talk of strategy and realpolitik, individual human beings are affected by all this, on both sides. Whatever solutions await, they deserve to be left better off that when we started.
I don’t know how Sex Rehab will wind up for Jennifer Ketchum, but I suspect the struggle to manage her compulsions will be a lifelong journey. I hope it’s an ascendant one.