I first heard the term “aggressive dependence” from a friend who spent over forty years creating community self-help cooperatives in mostly-rural locations in a dozen developing countries. Haiti was the one country where, in recent years, he expressed resignation rather than his typical ebullient hope. In his expression, aggressive dependence characterizes a society that defeats all attempts at practical outside assistance by insisting that “You owe me this!” and engaging in a counterproductive destruction of any emerging community progress.
My friend did not work in Afghanistan, but I suspect he would put the problems there in this same “aggressive dependence” camp. In this blog I have long defined the essence of an “ethical dilemma” as one where good people disagree (as well as some not-so-good people), and the current American withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan is certainly indicative of this.
Oddly, the cessation of the American military occupation of Afghanistan after twenty years is probably the one issue on which both Donald Trump and President Joe Biden have agreed. And it is perhaps the one issue on which there is vocal “loyal opposition” from respected moderate members of both political parties. In short, my very definition of an ethical dilemma.
What is aggressive dependence?
In my research, I have found relevant uses of this term in psychology, where aggressive dependence is contrasted with (1) instrumental dependence, or an objective interchange of help and response in the assistance offered, and (2) emotional dependence, where affection and support are the primary goals sought by both the giver and the receiver.  Aggressive dependence, on the other hand, is characterized by manipulation and negative behaviors by the dependent party.
As numerous well-intentioned attempts to aid Haiti have demonstrated after environmental, political, and economic crises, the very providers of aid and the most needy receivers of aid are often the first targets of manipulative and even violent sub-groups who extort money and tear down emergent social support systems. The recent murder of the Haitian president in his home underscores how Haiti just seems to lurch from crisis to crisis.
A lot of religious-based charitable assistance to “the third world” over the centuries has been plagued with emotional dependence. Local communities want the aid, and the church wants “the souls.” The NGO for which I volunteered for eight years consciously tried to preserve local autonomy and self-respect, using as many indigenous and other non-American aid workers as possible in their programs, in order to keep the relationships as “instrumental” as possible. While close personal bonds inevitably develop in these communities, emotional dependence can quickly get manipulative from either side.
Back to Afghanistan
For twenty years we have inserted the best and the worst American behaviors into Afghanistan. We have “freed the oppressed,” especially many women, but we have also bombed and droned the hell out of the country, killing tens of thousands of husbands, fathers, and yes, innocent women and children in the process.
We have poured over two trillion dollars into the region, a good portion of that enriching American providers of military hardware and munitions, but also with hundreds of billions spent in the local Afghan economy trying to “do good.” Those programs have been plagued by local corruption and a weak central government that has little control over the provinces. We have been “held hostage” by local warlords who are now switching sides to implement their side of the “aggressive dependence” as the American dollars dry up.
I have long used my own model I call the Moral Conversation to wrap my brain around difficult ethical dilemmas. The idea here is that this disagreement on tough ethical questions starts inside our own heads, where different decision-making parts of our brains are at odds with one another. Indeed, if you can’t see the intrinsic disagreement inside your own brain on the Afghanistan issue, you are not trying very hard. Here is the model:
You can start anywhere here, but for Afghanistan, let’s start with what I think was the primary Biden rationale, which is the red “Teleology” box. Both Presidents Trump and Biden wanted to end the longest war in American history and its military occupation on their watch. “Bring the troops home” is the primary “good end” they have sought.
As the bottom-right arrow suggests, the “fatal flaw” of the “Go for the Good End” ethical approach is that there will be unintended consequences to whatever well-intended action you attempt. The Afghan army has completely collapsed in the provinces and many soldiers are even changing sides. The Taliban is taking regional capitals faster than expected. The atrocities have begun.
Here is where any non-sociopath shifts his or her thinking to the violet “Empathy” box, where our “empathy brain” may literally “feel the pain” of the Afghan civilians who face a horrible future when (likely not if) the Taliban re-takes all or most of the country. I am certainly feeling that pain, and it creates a neurochemical “grip” on my heartstrings (which are really “headstrings”). We will see far too many human “horror stories” and atrocities coming out of Afghanistan in the coming weeks.
The bottom-left arrow demonstrates the primary “fatal flaw” where our “empathy brain” often fails to win the argument: “We can’t save everybody.” In our best intentions, we have tried to “save” the people of Afghanistan for twenty years now. The British and the Soviets have gone before us in this venture, and also failed. The Afghan army won’t defend its own populace, even after twenty years of training and billions of dollars of American armaments, and indeed many soldiers and their leaders are hostile to the most basic democratic ideals to begin with.
I would contend that this is the center of the argument. Where do our best intentions to “save” people run into this reality? President Biden says we are at that point. Others say not. Selfishly, I would not want my own sons patrolling the remote provinces of Afghanistan. Would you? How honest are we with ourselves, and how much personal sacrifice are we prepared to make for the innocent Afghan people who will surely suffer in the months to come? Self-honesty is a bitch.
Who am I?
Which is why that arrow points to the green “Meta-ethics” box. I cannot answer this deeply moral dilemma of intention versus reality without confronting “the real me.” Philosophers and theologians from Eastern and Western cultures have inevitably come to this box for two millennia. They propose “principles” or “values” or “virtues” to focus our “meta-brain” on “the Big Picture.” If you can figure out “the person I ought to be” and really act on it, then maybe you have a decision here. Good luck.
But principles and values are usually too vague for most of us to implement on the ground, and so we get pointed to the last blue box, labeled “Deontology.” In the Afghanistan case, this is, in my view, the least relevant of these four “brain boxes.” Political and religious conservatives often resort to classic detailed “rules and duties” as guides in making tough ethical choices. What does the law say? What do the scriptures say? You can quote Congressional resolutions on Afghanistan here, or even proof-text your favorite Bible verse, but making them rationales for any specific actions on Afghanistan likely misses the point. None of that stuff has worked for the last twenty years.
This is a tough one. We have sometimes acted nobly in Afghanistan, but far too often acted as “ugly Americans.” George W. Bush and Dick Cheney got us in this mess and then pulled the fake-out into Iraq, taking their eye off the ball.
If you want hugs and kisses from the Afghans, it just is not going to happen. A combination of factors, some as recent as perhaps a fouled-up warlord payoff last month, or all the way back to the Islamic Conquest of Afghanistan beginning in CE 642, have put the culture of Afghanistan in the category of “aggressive dependence.” Unless you can think of a strategy to change that reality, then we will have the same “moral conversation,” and the same result, next week, next year, or in another twenty years. I, frankly, cannot think of one myself.
- Bardwick, Judith M. Psychology of Women; a Study of Bio-Cultural Conflicts. Harper & Row, 1971.
- The first ethical dilemma
- Hurricane Michael, F-22 jets and the Report from Iron Mountain
- The moral conversation
- Telos: Seeking the “good end”
- Monday morning quarterbacking and unintended consequences
- Who is my neighbor?
- When you can’t save them all
- The Big Question: Who ought I be?
- King Hammurabi and your “deontology brain”