Far from helping me find an answer to this question, however, I found that the hero of this picaresque science fiction tale suffered if anything more intensely from the same doubts as I. As he explains, he inherited his anxiety from a long line of Pessoptimists:
That's the way our family is and why we bear the name Pessoptimist. For this word combines two qualities, pessimism and optimism, that have been blended perfectly in the character of all members of our family since our first divorced mother, the Cypriot. It is said that the first to so name us was Tamerlane, following the second massacre of Baghdad. This was when it was reported to him that my first ancestor, Abjar son of Abjar, mounted on his horse outside the city walls, had stared back at the tongues of flame and shouted, "After me, the deluge!"
Take me, for example. I don't differentiate between optimism and pessimism and am quite at a loss to which of the two characterizes me. When I awake each morning I thank the Lord he did not take my soul during the night. If harm befalls me during the day, I thank Him it was no worse. So which am I, a pessimist or an optimist?
But Saeed was lucky compared to me (as he would be the first to admit). He asked himself this question in the privacy of his own home.... Actually Saeed had neither privacy nor a home. But he did have a self, whose attitude toward the future he found difficult to define.
I, however, must answer this question at cocktail parties, on lecture stages, at conferences and seminars, not only in private (or, as we say, in "off-the-record" briefings) but to members of the press with cameras and microphones: "Professor Rubin, Are you optimistic or pessimistic about Afghanistan?"
First of all, I am not a professor. My job title is "senior research scientist." There are some doubts in the NYU Politics Department as to whether I am qualified to instruct PhD students. I understand these doubts as well as my unfortunate cousin Saeed would have. I do not profess anything. But I do try to be worthy of the title "senior research scientist."
I am as prone as anyone to make judgments based on superficial impressions, wishful thinking, or a bad mood. But I sought training as a social scientist to help overcome my mood swings, not use them as a guide to public life. As a result, I try to rely on information (limited as it is), data (faulty as they are), research results (contradictory and subject to revision as they may be) and unceasing questioning. I know that there is a Romantic school of thought that disdains such "reality-based" thinking (you know who I mean). But I remain a fallen classicist.
There are a few things we know about Afghanistan with a great deal of certainty, and there are a few pretty robust research results. We know that Afghanistan is the poorest country in the world outside of sub-Saharan Africa and that it has been at war for almost 30 years. We know that the great and also some rather mediocre powers have spent billions and billions of dollars sending weapons to anyone in the country who asked for them -- and some others as well. Actually, the value of these weapons has exceeded several multiples of Afghanistan's economy. Perhaps that's why some people are optimistic about Afghanistan -- it has attracted a lot of attention.
I say, "we know" these things, but I feel a Saeedian puzzlement. Who are "we?" Apparently many people - even people wielding history's most deadly weapons and budgets of billions of dollars -- have not bothered to acquaint themselves with these facts. Recently I attended an off-the-record meeting outside of Washington. At this meeting officials from many parts of the US government (but not the Department of Agriculture) met to discuss counter-narcotics policy in Afghanistan. I learned many things. I learned that Afghan farmers are too secure and are making too much money. That is why it is necessary to eradicate their crops. But no one at this meeting mentioned that 40 percent of the families in rural Afghanistan do not have enough food to eat, though they can easily find someone with an automatic weapon to "protect" them. I suggested that maybe Afghan farmers needed more rather than less security, but no one wants to reward bad behavior like growing opium poppies.
It's pretty clear that very poor countries with a lot of weapons, high unemployment, and insurgents and terrorists based in neighboring countries and remote, mountainous regions have, shall we way, a "high risk" for armed conflict. By the way, I also read a few history books. They disagree about a lot of things. But it does seem that foreign military interventions in Afghanistan have a poor track record.
So am I pessimistic? Look at the facts. What are the chances that Afghanistan will become a stable, prosperous, democratic, gender-sensitive country? But as I sometimes say, being pessimistic about Afghanistan is not an intellectual challenge. I didn't become a "senior research scientist" just to assert the obvious. Perhaps this is why I am no longer a professor.
In the past several years I have become a practicing pessoptimist, not just a theoretician. In October 2001 I stated on television that, even though the US and other countries should help Afghanistan rebuild, there was no chance that the country could become a stable democracy in two years. Then I went to Bonn as part of the UN team, and at the end we produced an agreement saying that Afghanistan should become a stable (and gender-sensitive!) Islamic democracy in.... two and a half years.
I guess the Bonn Agreement has provided a lot of the water to fill up that glass (more on how thirsty Afghanistan is in later posts). I guess I should boast about it like the other things I have been involved in -- the Afghan Constitution, the Afghanistan National Development Strategy, the Afghanistan Compact.... Of course people call me an "adviser," meaning someone who gives advice. They never call themselves "advisees," meaning someone who takes advice. There is a reason for this, but it is a professional secret. It is known only to other "senior research scientists."
I even did something stranger. I invested my own money in Afghanistan. With some Afghan and French investors I started Gulestan Ltd., to manufacture essential oils for the fragrance and personal care industries. It's easy to register a business with the Afghanistan Investment Support Agency, but just try to operate it once you leave the AISA compound! My business is just like opium, but the flowers are different. Also it's legal. And Afghanistan is not really set up for legal businesses. According to the World Bank Investment Climate Survey, Afghanistan is, more or less, the worst place in the world to invest. Maybe I will start a new fund: Pessoptimist Venture Capital.
I know a senior diplomat who says that there should be a time limit for work on Afghanistan, because it warps your mind. But this same person, who supposedly retired several years ago, has just signed up for another year in Kabul. Those of us who have been around for a while get used to the new faces telling us how they will fix everything. Their optimism will soon turn to pessimism, and then they will leave.
Except for a few of us. Just like Saeed, every morning we thank the Lord that he did not destroy Afghanistan during the night. And if harm befalls Afghanistan during the day, we thank the Lord it was not worse.
And then we get to work.
As Saeed's mother used to say, "And why should we not praise God?"