Check out my review of Ken Wilber's latest book Finding Radical Wholeness

Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

Jeff MeyerhoffBald AmbitionJeff Meyerhoff, M.A., L.S.W. is the author of "Bald Ambition: A Critique of Ken Wilber's Theory of Everything" and other essays on integral theory. He majored in economics and sociology and has studied philosophy, psychology, politics and spirituality. He's been employed as a social worker for the last 25 years. His weekly radio show, "The Ruminator," is archived at His blog is and his email is [email protected].


Transcending Complexity
and the Pakistani Bomb

A Response to Gregory Desilet

Jeff Meyerhoff

US war-mongering in Afghanistan and Pakistan will not make us or the world safer.

Gregory Desilet has two main criticisms of my response "The Personal, the Political and the Integral" to Elliot Benjamin's initial defense of President Obama's recently announced increase of US troops in Afghanistan. First, he says I don't appreciate that the complexity of the situation requires that I and others be more cautious and less certain in our views. And second, I do not consider the dire consequences for the US were the Pakistani government to be overthrown by Islamic fundamentalists who would then have control of Pakistan's nuclear weapons.


Desilet asserts that “the complexity of the forces in the region and the extraordinary number of variables in the equation for stability in the region are such that no human being can say with persuasive confidence that Obama's choices thus far are not without justifiable warrant.”

The point about the complexity of the situation is tricky. Certainly many situations in life are complicated, but what are we to do with this fact? I agree that the Afghanistan/Pakistan situation is complex, but given this we still have to make the best case we can. The only role that the complicatedness of the situation plays is a cautionary one. We need to be aware of the limits of our knowledge. Regarding the US in Afghanistan and Pakistan something has to be done, a decision and action have to be taken, whether we have a low or high degree of sureness we need to act. But whether any given situation is too complicated or whether our degree of sureness should be tempered, we still have to use rational argumentation to assert our views and respond to counterarguments. One tempers another's incautiousness by presenting arguments and evidence that cause them to pause.


One passage condenses a number of Desilet's criticisms and is revealing when upacked. He writes:

Should events NOT go well as viewed from an historical perspective of looking back on Obama's decision, it need not be assumed that he lacked wisdom or that the decision was obviously wrong. If such turned out to be the case, again, given the complexity of what he faced, it would be more integral and more advisably humble to assume that the outcome was sadly tragic and, for all we know, could have been more tragic had another choice been made. In other words, let's give Obama his due and not claim to know more than we can know. Like the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan is already a tragedy from every point of view. It is certainly understandable and defensible to disagree with Obama's decision, but given the complexity involved we cannot here claim that he is rash, unwise, or incompetent. We can only claim that he is a human being facing an awesome decision and pray that he has made a decision that will result in the least tragic of outcomes.

While seemingly reasonable I think there are a number of significant problems with this passage. First, it focuses too much on the person of Obama. As my response to Elliot Benjamin's initial defense of Obama's escalation emphasized, Obama only matters as an instrument of US foreign policy. His character, his self-presentation and his personal intentions don't matter for the question of deciding what America should do. His personal psychology and his decision-making process can be interesting to ponder, but the focus on individual decision-makers generally functions in the US media and academia to divert attention from more important considerations such as past US actions in the region, the interests of the relevant social actors (including the media), the perspective of our so-called enemies, the differences between elite interests and mass interests (usually referred to as “our national interest”), and the material interests that are at stake: oil, land, control, power, image.

Let's not focus on Obama and the drama of Obama's Afghanistan escalation decision as the US media did – “He took a long time deciding because he's thoughtful.” “He took a long time deciding because he's weak.” – and instead understand the decision he made within the context of the history of US foreign policy and patterns of behavior of any dominant world power.

The use of the word “tragedy” in the passage above is very problematic because it is often used as a rationalization for the abdication of responsibility. What do we mean by “tragedy”? If “tragedy” just means a terrible human event, then of course, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are tragic. But if “tragedy” means a terrible human event that happened due to the moral weakness of the people involved then we need to assign responsibility for the tragic event. In Iraq and Afghanistan many individuals acted wrongly – Bush, Cheney, (now Obama?) – to cause bad things to occur. In relieving Obama of some moral responsibility for his actions because of the complicatedness of the situation I hope that Desilet is not implying that Bush, Cheney and others can't be held responsible for the tragedy they caused in Iraq. Describing something as a “tragedy” shouldn't obscure the evil actions of a Bush, Cheney or Rumsfeld.

Finally, I'm not arguing that Obama's view is irrational or that it has no justification. I'm saying it is wrong, a bad way to go based on what evidence I can muster for an alternative perspective of the current situation and past US actions.


Desilet is right about his other main point: the place of Pakistan was left out of my response to Benjamin and it should be included. But I think that when it is included we get a fuller critique of Obama's escalation. Since we don't want the fact that situations such as these are complex to serve as an abdication of responsibility I will make the best case for my view.

Desilet believes that the crucial issue regarding Pakistan is that they have nuclear weapons and that if the Pakistani Taliban and Al-Qaeda overthrow the Pakistani government this will be a disaster for the US and others because they are likely to use nuclear weapons.

I agree with Desilet that the situation in Pakistan is volatile and a change of regime is possible. But how likely is it to be an Islamic fundamentalist takeover? Perhaps the most respected reporter on the western Pakistani tribal areas is Rahimullah Yousufzai. [1]

Reporter Muhammad Idrees Ahmad, in an article for Le Monde Diplomatique, quotes Yousufzai regarding the possibility of a Taliban overthrow in Pakistan:

Yousufzai dismisses the idea that the militants were a threat to the country or its nuclear assets. “The government itself is saying that there were no more than 5,000 Taliban; they were controlling Swat, they had entered Buner — how many men could they have spared to march on the capital?” Pakistan is a country of 173 million, with a million under arms and an advanced air force. “The Taliban had neither the capacity nor the intention to invade the capital. They were only interested in the Malakand division, and even there their influence was limited to three of its seven districts.”[2]

Regarding the 173 million Pakistanis, according to polling, the bulk of the population does not support the prospect of a fundamentalist Islamic regime.[3]

Long-time Pakistani scholar Tariq Ali suggests that potential splits in the Pakistani military are of greater concern. “The only danger in Pakistan's nuclear weapons is if the Pakistani military splits. And the only reason for it to be split is if the Americans put massive pressure on it, which became so unacceptable that the high command split and said we can't do this. Were that to happen then the situation would be serious”[4]

The US has been pressuring the Pakistani military to root out Islamic militants in the western tribal areas with predictable results. Rahimullah Yousufzai describes the recent history:

Many tribal militant groups were tolerated by the Pakistan army when they took refuge in the tribal areas as they were attacking foreign troops in Afghanistan and not the Pakistani forces. Such arrangements began changing in early 2004 when the Taliban started fighting inside Pakistan. In January 2004, the army launched military operations in Waziristan. That was the turning point. The operation was conducted under the American pressure, hoping to dislodge al Qaeda. It was a shock, the fighting was very tough and the army lost many men. Since then the Taliban's influence has been spreading. Instead of being controlled, it has spread. After every military operation we have seen that the Taliban presence has expanded - from South Waziristan to North Waziristan and then to Bajaur, Mohmand and Swat. The Taliban is spreading in Pakistan largely because the army is using heavy weapons against the people.[5]

These attacks in Pakistan's tribal region have created an estimated 2-3 million refugees, the deaths of hundreds of civilians and the attendant hatreds that fuel insurgencies. How does the killing of civilians by the US drone attacks and the Pakistani military and the creation of over 2 million refugees help to create stability in the region? The recent suicide bombings in Peshawar are an inevitable result of the cycle of violence that now intertwines the Taliban, the Pakistani military and the US.[6]

Historically the overall effects of US actions in Pakistan have been negative and do not bode well for positive interventions now, especially since the US is relying on the same kinds of actions that have led to this dangerous situation.[7] The existence of the former mujahedeen and Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan and Pakistan are largely due to the US and the billions we spent in Pakistan during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The US has a horrible record of supporting Pakistani dictators and lavishing billions on the Pakistani military. We have played an important part in the creation of the culture of corruption that rules Pakistan through its political-military apparatus. The ruling political- military alliance that the US has been backing has been and remains at odds with the needs of the Pakistani people.

Desilet writes as if the US policy options in Pakistan are all or nothing; either the US engages with aggression or it withdraws completely and does nothing. “To suppose that a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and the withdrawal of special forces and drones from Pakistan would likely result in greater stability in the region is not compelling and presents a rather credulous and simplistic kind of thinking.”

But there are options for the US beyond aggression or nothing. Tariq Ali suggests the quite reasonable approach of involving regional powers in a “strategic withdrawal” from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Well, they [the US] need to pull out, and they need to pull out sensibly, not like they did the last time, after defeating the Russians. And, as I've argued consistently now, for the last so many years, there needs to be an exit strategy that needs to involve the local regional powers. I think it would be wrong if the United States essentially handed Afghanistan over to the Pakistani military, like they did the last time, when they said "It's your problem. Deal with it." I think the Iranians, the Russians and the Chinese have to be involved. And if the Americans don't involve them, Pakistan should, because it certainly is not capable of handling the situation on its own, economically or politically or militarily. So it needs to do that. And were that to happen, it would be something positive. As to what the United States can do, I mean its record in Pakistan has, so far, been abysmal. So, I think a period of withdrawal from Pakistani politics, once a strategic withdrawal has taken place, if it takes place, would be positive.[8]

And regarding the short-run policy of pressuring the Pakistani military to use violence in western Pakistan, Muhammad Ahmad quotes 'Roedad Khan, a former federal secretary and political commentator, [who] queries whether all political options had been exhausted. “There never was a more unnecessary war... a war more difficult to justify and harder to win. No one can be bombed into moderation and, given the unconventional methods of the insurgents, force alone has a slim chance of success since the militant doesn't have to win, he just has to keep fighting.'

Amad continues: 'Everybody recognised that it was imperative to counter militancy and criminality in [the Pakstani district of] Malakand but not all agreed that force was the only way to do it. “I think [the war] was avoidable,” said Rahimullah Yusufzai, a veteran journalist and the most respected analyst of frontier politics, “but Pakistan is not a free and independent player. There was much pressure from the US and other countries, and for a variety of reasons the government couldn't resist.'[9]


Debates like these hide taken-for-granted assumptions. Regarding the danger of nuclear weapons some perspective is necessary. Desilet writes that “there will be a price no matter which way the United States turns and the effort to prevent nuclear escalation should not be abandoned without an adequate assessment of all that is at stake.”

But is the US trying to “prevent nuclear escalation.” It is if one endorses a fairy tale view of US intentions that takes US government and mainstream media rhetoric for fact. But the record shows that for all the US's talk of the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons its actions have made the world a more dangerous place. For many years the US has provided diplomatic and, in some cases, technical support for Pakistan, India and Israel to develop their nuclear weapons.[10] The dangers posed by these countries' actions are much greater than Iran. Unlike Iran, the US and Israel have invaded other countries quite recently, making the world more dangerous. Pakistan and India have been on the brink of nuclear war and refuse to even sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, yet the US focuses world attention on Iran, a country that hasn't invaded anyone in hundreds of years and by our best intelligence doesn't even have nuclear weapons. The subtle indoctrinating effects of an aura of US good intentions so pervades the mainstream discussion that Obama can threaten nuclear annihilation and be lauded for it. In reference to Iran, like his predecessor, he uses the current euphemism for threatening nuclear attack: “all options are on the table.”[11]


In writing about creating an integral perspective Desilet writes that “While it would be difficult, if not impossible, to include ALL perspectives, facts, and history, it would be hoped that all the highly RELEVANT perspectives, facts, and history would be included.”

This raises a difficult philosophical issue for any integral theory: What criteria will be used for judging the value and relevance of differing perspectives, facts and history? By what means do we determine which perspectives are relevant and so should be included in our integration? And once we have the perspectives deemed relevant how do we determine what parts of them are true? There's nothing about integral theory per se that tells one what should be included.


It is not what a politician says that is important for evaluating their actions, except as their rhetoric affects policy. We have to train ourselves to disregard a politician's rhetoric and ask: What have they or will they do? People listen to Obama and feel satisfied when he says something they like to hear. But what he says he did, is doing or will do may have little relation to what he did, is doing or will do. It always has to be checked. Too often the public feels soothed by a politician's rhetoric without asking whether the words have any relationship to reality.

The complexity of such situations plays less of a role in debates about what to do than Desilet seems to think. Whether we say we appreciate the complexity of such situations or not we still have to assert our best understanding, defend it in discussion with others and take action.

US war-mongering in Afghanistan and Pakistan will not make us or the world safer. Abiding by international law, using law enforcement to combat non-state terrorism, opposing state terrorism, making the UN more democratic, distributing the world's resources in a more equitable way and working with regional powers to find non-military solutions to national differences will.


  1. Rahimullah Yousufzai is the Peshawar editor of The News International and has been covering Afghanistan and Pakistan for the past thirty years. He has served as a correspondent for Time Magazine, BBC World Service, BBC Pashto, BBC Urdu, Geo-TV, and ABC News. He has interviewed Osama bin Ladin, Mullah Omar, and a range of other militants across the tribal areas of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
  2. Muhammad Idrees Ahmad, “Pakistan Creates its Own Enemy,” Le Monde Diplomatique, Nov. 2009.
  3. Al Jazeera-Gallup Pakistan Survey, Aug. 13, 2009,
  4. Mara Ahmed and Judith Bello, “Pakistan and the Global War on Terror: An Interview with Tariq Ali,”, Nov. 30, 2009,
  5. Kaustav Chakrabarti, “Links Between the Taliban and Al Qaeda Have Grown Stronger: An Interview with Rahimullah Yusufzai, Nov, 24, 2009,
  6. Stewart J. Lawrence, “Pakistan's Refugee Disaster,” Dec. 18-20, 2009,
  7. Derrick Z. Jackson, “US Aid to Pakistan a Shell Game,” The Boston Globe, Oct. 6, 2009.
  8. Ahmed, Bello, “Interview with Tariq Ali.”
  9. Ahmad, “Pakistan.”
  10. Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark, Deception: Pakistan, the United States, and the Secret Trade in Nuclear Weapons, Walker & Company, 2007. Eli Lake, “Secret U.S.-Israel Nuclear Accord in Jeopardy,” The Washington Times, May 6, 2009. Thomas Graham Jr, et al., “Think Again: U.S.-India Nuclear Deal,” Foreign Policy, July, 2006. Andrew Cockburn, “How the U.S. Has Secretly Backed Pakistan's Nuclear Program from Day One,” June 24, 2009,
  11. See George Lakoff, “The words None Dare Say: Nuclear War,” 2/28/07,

Comment Form is loading comments...