Remind me who had said this 😉 that failure is no option. Or is it? At least the European Parliament thinks so and has said it in a recent resolution – that the international strategy in Afghanistan has failed? Our frequent reader and today’s guest blogger Mario Ragazzi(*) has asked himself what we mean when using the terrible f-word and has tried to define failure in Afghanistan, consulting a couple of dictionaries where he found interesting suggestions about fraud and self-deception.
A cultural association in Bologna asked me recently to participate in an event about Afghanistan. They would screen the documentary ‘Where do I belong?’ by Mahvash Sheikholeslami about the predicament of the children of mixed Afghan (father)-Iranian (mother) couples and asked me to contribute with some context on the current political situation in Afghanistan. For the title of my talk I didn’t come up with a better idea than quoting a recent European Parliament report on the failure of the European Union – and by extension international – strategy in Afghanistan. To my great surprise, the mention of the f-word sparked some controversy, as if the judgment was too hastily bestowed and ill defined. Or even, god-forbid, an expression of ‘defeatism’.
So I took the opportunity to reflect more about the meaning of failure itself. Political and military leaders periodically engage at (re-) defining ‘success’ in Afghanistan, the goals and purpose of the mission, and the conditions for ultimately declaring victory and leave. However, the definition of failure has received far less attention. ‘Failure is not an option’ as the trope would have it. However, I contend we have already experienced a nine years long failure.
Failure and the verb to fail are linked, via the French faillir, to Latin fallĕre – from which also the Italian fallire, Castellano fallar, Portuguese falir etc. are derived. The meaning of failure in all these modern languages – give or take – has to do with being unsuccessful in achieving one’s goal, or neglecting to do something, or breaking down and ceasing to work well. The Latin verbfallĕre left a living legacy in these modern languages through its supine form falsus. A first suggestion that we should not take failure at face value and dig further.
Tapping into the Charlton T. Lewis dictionary on the Perseus server at Tuftsopens up a wonderful semantic palette of treachery and (self-) deception. The f-word is the colourful realm of those who deceive, trick, dupe, cheat, elude, disappoint. Not only they do deceive others and swear falsely, but – in the reflexive form – they err, mistake and deceive themselves. Some even go further on to brutally violate, break, betray. Or, more subtly, they content themselves to lie concealed, be unseen, escape notice, remain undiscovered, elude. After all this pouring of elusion, deception, falsity and treachery, it would not be surprising to trip – yet another meaning – or cause others to fall.
Going further down in time, the Greek sphallo – to deceive, trick, dupe, cheat, disappoint – is not far from the Latin. Beyond this dictionaries venture into the unchartered – for this correspondent – terrain of Sanskrit spahl orsphul – to waver, vacillate, tremble; but also to strike against something. Well, if a semi-serious association is allowed, after a vigorous strike the least we can expect is that someone would waver, tremble and perhaps eventually fall. Or even – jumping to another, Afghanistan-related linguistic branch – aftâdan(**).
Let’s go back to relatively safer and closer linguistic connections. It is tempting to see the Latin root as a semantic reservoir that helps describing the causes and defining the extent of the international failure in Afghanistan.
Facing the difficult task of selling to their taxpayers an Afghan adventure that grows more expensive in blood and treasure by the day, Western governments have been at pain at painting a rosier picture of their successes across the Hindukush. The holding of elections and a fall in theburkometer in the streets of the capital city figure prominently in the narrative of ‘liberation’ and benign nation building. Too bad that virtually all of four election rounds have been marred by abuses and irregularities. In 2009 the fraud was so massive and overt that the EU election monitoring mission could not help but expose it. Spin-doctors at home were at loss. How to make it palatable for puzzled electorates and elected office holders? After years of a failed narrative – i.e. deceiving, eluding – almost everybody thought that most chic man on the planet was a decent fellow and our reliable partner in building a better Afghanistan. And now it surfaces that his re-election is a fraud. Not to mention when the relatives and cronies of the same elegant men were found taking cash out of the country, hundreds of millions of greenbacks stuffed in suitcases. Up to the point of digging an 800 million dollars hole into the biggest private bank, bringing it to the verge of default. But hey, this starts smelling like a conspiracy with all this talk ofde-fallĕre.
Even more worryingly, it seems that a significant part of Western policy-makers, consultants, journalists ended up believing the same narrative of success despite occasional turbulences.
Take the surreal debate in Italy or Germany about the peace mission and the official apparent refusal to accept the reality of war. Another failure – elusion and misrepresentation – perhaps necessary in order to avoid Constitutional restriction on the deployment of the Armed Forces abroad. And yet another example of the same sort of deception that ends up shaping the perceptions of many politicians themselves.
Just as the fallĕre script would have it, this self-deception and rhetorical delusion is leading us straight into mettere un piede in fallo. We ‘trip into one of those ditches’ that line the streets of Kabul, with rather unpleasant consequences. Fair enough, we couldn’t see it, because it was pitch dark at night. Besides we didn’t pay attention. After all, we could be excused for that. We had just enjoyed reading the latest report by that international institution of redoubtable reputation waxing lyrical on the successful completion of a dozen million dollar programme for street lighting and modern waste disposal.
This semi-serious excursion into the semantic legacy of words suggests that failure has it roots with eluding facts on the ground. Or with the periodic regurgitation of old ideas that never worked – ANAP, AP3, ALP anyone? – and deceiving others and ourselves about it. Once the rhetorical machine of (self-)deception is in full gear, classical failure begets modern failure. Including the prosaic and all important financial sense of going bankrupt.
The Italian Parliament has recently approved re-financing the military mission to Afghanistan with 410 million euro for the first six months of 2011. A further financial commitment that comes on top of over 2,7 billion Euros spent in Afghanistan from 2002 up to 2010. It is anybody’s guess if we can afford that while cutting without mercy domestic public spending in education and research.
At the end of this tragic decade of self-deception and outright cheating in Afghanistan, we can imagine this interior monologue. Enter a piqued West/NATO/EU after someone in the background dared to utter the f-word:
— Me, failed?
— Me fallit! [I just don’t get it.]
(*) Mario Ragazzi is an independent consultant on international development based in Bologna, Italy. He has worked in Afghanistan and Pakistan between 2004 and 2008, first with Caritas and later as attaché to the European Commission delegation to Kabul. He can be reached here where this blog also appeared first.
(**) Editor’s post-scriptum: Mario’s article made me look up my dictionaries for Dari and Pashto, of course, both languages from the same Indo-European (formerly a.k.a. Indo-Arian) family of languages, whereas from its eastern branch. The result: no own word for ‘failure’ or ‘to fail’, only composite verbs or nouns. They include the same notions like their Western brother and sister languages of ‘lack of success’ or being unsuccessful (na-kam, in both), ‘being wrong’ (wrustwalai, Pashto) or even to ‘swallow a defeat’ (shekast khordan in Dari). What does that tell us? That for proud Afghans or Persians, defeat even hasn’t been a linguistic option?
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020