Magical Realism in American Foreign Policy


Four concentric circles must come together if the Afghan process is to succeed, writes Willliam Milam

Magical Realism in American Foreign Policy – The Friday Times

The Green Line: From Islamabad to Karachi

by William Milam 3 March 2020

This theme struck me when I attended last week a discussion among three highly respected experts at a Washington think tank of the much-hyped agreement between the US and the Taliban to test the outline of a peace process for Afghanistan with a week-long cessation of violence. This is said to be the much longed-for opening step of a peace process that will begin with a cease fire, lead to a negotiation between the Taliban and the current Afghan government and to discussions with other elements of Afghan society, and to a political settlement that will allow the US to bring home its troops and end the so-called “longest war in our history.” Listening to the discussion closely, I could not help thinking of how “magical realism” has increasingly driven US foreign policy decisions for much of the past 50 years and seems to remain as one of its fundamental elements despite its obvious failings. The official cessation began yesterday (Saturday) and as of when this is written has not yet been violated.

For those readers not fully cognizant of the various genres of fiction, let me first explain briefly “magical realism.” This style of fiction writing was founded, it seems, by South American novelists in the middle of the last century—writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges, and (the only one I have ever read) Isabel Allende. It has been picked up by writers in other languages, including Polish (Nobel Prize winner, Olga Tokarczuk), English (Salman Rushdie), several Bengali writers I have never heard of, as well as Japanese. Reference works define magical realism as “a style of writing that paints a realistic view of the modern world while adding magical elements.” Matthew Strecher, who has written extensively on Japanese magical realism, defines it in a way I prefer: “what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to be believed.”

The discussion on Afghanistan is driving this line of thinking, so I will start there. Less recent history will come later. One of the discussants described the agreement, metaphorically, as four concentric circles that must come together if the process is to succeed. (The metaphor is, I suppose, of Dante’s 9 circles of hell that must be negotiated on the way to paradise.) The inner circle, he said, was the negotiation between the Taliban and the US, which would ultimately set the timetable and the conditions of departure. A clear timetable is, of course, a sine qua non of the Taliban, and takes account of the historic Afghan dislike of foreign invaders on Afghan soil. The conditions might be how to stage the NATO withdrawal—whether some troops will be left until the scourge of ISIS and other terrorist groups is dissipated (and it is said the terrorism specialists believe a number of smaller but no less lethal groups inhabit small areas of Afghanistan).

The second circle is the negotiation that must take place between the Taliban and the Afghan government. The recent victory of President Ghani, though in typical Afghan fashion contested as soon as the results were announced, underlines the importance of this step. It is only the Afghans who can end their civil war and construct a peace that is sustainable, that provides for an inclusive but effective government that protects all its many ethnic and interest groups. The latter includes a number of minorities but my thought run mainly to women’s groups in this context. In addition, both the Taliban and the government must bring these ethnic and interest groups into the discussion of a sustainable peace so that they will see their interests protected in whatever power-sharing arrangement comes out of these talks.

The third and fourth circles are less problematic but also necessary. The third is to ensure through regional support for whatever solution the Afghans work out and an understanding by all that their interests are best served by a stable Afghanistan, and that interference by its neighbours, as all did during some phases of the civil war, must be resisted. This circle would certainly include Pakistan, India, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. Pakistan and Iran have large numbers of Afghan refugees whose lives will be impacted by the outcome; there may be refugees in some of the other neighbours, but I am not aware of which and how many. All were involved in some way in protecting ethnic diasporas during the civil war and in aiding warlords who protected them. Pakistan, of course, has a notorious history of interference in Afghanistan, backing the Taliban in its early days, aiding it in later days, backing other anti-government groups before the Taliban, and now playing, as I understand it, a positive role in the effort to get the Taliban to the negotiating table and pressing them to moderate their belief in a military solution to the war. The fourth circle involves the major powers, the US, Europe, China, Russia, which must assure continued material and financial support to the poorest country in the world, which will need continued support from outside for a decade or two to come.

The discussants at the meeting stressed the interlocking conditionality of this kind of an agreement, but in fact as of the time I write this very little is known about the specific conditionality. It is clear that if there is violence in the next week traceable to the Taliban, it is a signal either that the Taliban is not serious or (more likely) that the leaders can’t control the troops. But after that the vaunted conditions are not clear. It is said that the Taliban have agreed to enter negotiations with the Afghan government, but will negotiations on troop withdrawal proceed before they start those negotiations with the government? Must they be complete before the first tranche of withdrawal? How much time to we give the Taliban and the government to complete those very difficult negotiations? Do we complete all but the last part of withdrawal before there is an agreement between the government and the Taliban? I could go on, but you get the point.

My first thought was that I am glad someone else is doing these negotiations. I arrived in Islamabad in 1998 to take up my post with a good deal of negotiating experience. I had led the US delegation to negotiate Paris Club debt rescheduling for six years in two different positions. I had led the US delegation that negotiated the UN Treaty on Desertification, in which we not only achieved an agreement that still works, but one (the only one until recently) that ever was ratified by the US Senate. I had been in a number of UN North-South negotiations over the years. The latter were always contentious because our interests and those of the South, led always by India and Brazil, were quite different, but I think we understood their mindset even if we could not agree with on objectives. And when I began to negotiate with the Taliban (this is before 9/11), I soon realised that to negotiate with someone whose entire Weltanschauung is totally alien is fraught with difficulties. In every meeting, my interlocutor would listen carefully, and indicate agreement but at the end of the meeting his position was the same as when we started. We never got anywhere.

So, when a member of the audience at the Afghanistan meeting asked how did we know that the Taliban were not lying, the reply was that given all the complex conditionality and cross-conditionality known to the Taliban, it seemed unlikely. The answer seemed to me to be magical realism at its very best. Of course, the question no one dared ask was whether our President also has all that conditionality in mind in this election year.

But magical realism has been the culprit in much of our biggest foreign and security policy mistakes. Think of the invasion of Iraq in 2003; we were going to invade the country, take down its government and governing class, get rid of the army, and then remake it into our mirror image. Magic realism has been a factor in the roller-coaster nature of our relations with Pakistan. But that is a subject for a future article.

The writer is a diplomat, and is Senior Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

The article appeared in The Friday Times on 28 February 2020.


  1. A very good article especially the concluding paragraph where the author concludes, “But magical realism has been the culprit in much of our biggest foreign and security policy mistakes.” Indeed, treating US/Taliban truce a "magical realism" is misleading simply because cracks are already surfacing which demonstrate that the ‘truce’ – the magical realism – is neither "magical" nor much of a "realism." Expecting ‘magic’ in Afghan society, which is complex and is cascaded at multiple levels with multiple authority structures is like finding a needle in a haystack. If we regard, ‘realism’ synonymous to escape and curbing losses, not sure how long the truce would last especially in a fractured society, which thanks to the US/Ally interventions has been fragmented even more. Iraq is a good example where after years of occupation and violence and so-called ‘nation-building’ US withdrawal does not seem to have diminished prospects of future re-engagement. Sadly, US does not seem to have learnt much from Vietnam. Its establishment never did much of a soul searching of the issue of its very intervention. In the face of a defeat, military withdrawal (‘realism’) occupied the centrepiece of its thinking. In other words, in formulation of its foreign policy the question whether military recourse or playing the thug is the most effective way to extend US influence over other countries was never probed that seriously. In the face of defeat or fatigue, the so-called ‘magical realism’ basically translates into cost-cutting and not cutting off the fundamental flaw of its foreign policy – the hugely violent imposition of its ephemeral control over other countries that ends up costing, both in men and material, all parties including the US. Time may have come to reflect and recalibrate!

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