Oh Afghanistan!

Staying In, Getting Out, or Doing Neither

October 3, 2010

Santa Fe, NM

Good morning friends and thank you for this invitation to be with you again. The seasons turn, the sun comes up later over the mountain, the cottonwoods along the arroyo are already losing their leaves and time, inexorable time, circles around again, not so much as a line but as a cycle of endless endings and beginnings. Nothing is ever certainly over. Nothing is ever entirely begun.  The separation between seasons is blurry, crisp wind one day and sweaty hot the next, and yet, between the defining words summer and autumn comes the sun moving down the Jemez with or without the hard edges of definition. Every year the sun turns around on December 21st at a certain telephone pole that I see in the distance across my horizon.  And every year I speculate how it is that the telephone pole holds the sun fast in its orbit, bringing it back just before it drops off the southern end of the universe. I am grateful for the long slender pole that has some unknown gravitational pull and brings the golden globe trudging back up the horizon toward spring.

Every December I am right about this. The pole does its job and every December the sun, which has been heading inexorably south, one day finds its precise time to loop around the world’s strongest telephone pole and is pulled back up the Jemez to the north.  Most people where I live would like all those telephone cables to be underground, but I, the only one aware that the pole is the anchor of the earth, will plead with Qwest whenever they ask to keep that pole just where it is.

You thought, of course, that you knew why the earth rotates and the sun changes course because you believe in science and cause and effect and lines and analysis and if you did not believe in those things you would not be a child of the 20th or 21st centuries. We Westerners have these givens, these assumptions now after 150 years of the industrial and scientific revolution and Darwinism and Newton and democracy. We know pretty much how the world works.

Late in September, however, I was in Chicago for four days participating in a seminar for nearly 60 Afghan Fulbright students who have been brought here to study in the United States. Over these four days we spoke about the rule of law and feudalism, village development, corruption, the Taliban, the US military, and their intentions to return to that country to do some good.

I have done seminars over the years with scholars and lawyers from Russia and the Caucuses and north in Central Asia, among Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Tajicks and Khyrghiz.  I can tell you with some surprise that I have never spoken with a more alert group, more dedicated and more willing to put their shoulders to the wheel than these 60 Afghans with whom I met in Chicago.

There is a civil war going on and 100 are killed here and 75 are killed there and the battle for Kandahar has begun and five NATO soldiers are killed here and 20 Taliban killed by a drone in a village of Pakistan, but there are 30 million-plus people in all of Afghanistan and the headlines about war do not say anything about the 30 million who are not killed and are not fighting.

What I learned from my meetings with the Afghans last week was about young people who are pushing forward without reluctance, studying, preparing engineering projects, learning public medicine, examining hydropower, and management skills because they expect to go home and make a country again.

The reason that I began our conversation today with the seasons and the telephone pole and boundaries that are blurred, seasons not entirely one thing or another, and the reason that I described this blurring as more natural than the words that make absolute difference between summer and autumn, is that it would be wise in our political thinking also to be less dogmatic and more nuanced, even a little blurry, concerning Afghanistan.

“Should the Americans just leave?” I asked a 26 year-old engineer who is studying at Duke University.

“The killing is strengthening the Taliban,” he replied, “and the situation is getting worse. Yes, you must stop the killing.  But you should not leave. It would be an absolute disaster if you left suddenly.”

“Those two statements are a contradiction,” I said. “We should leave but we should not leave.”

“You cannot leave in one quick pullout,” he replied. “There would be no one left to govern.  But you must always intend to leave.”

“There is no one to replace Karzai?”  I asked.

He nodded agreement.  No other figure in Afghan politics is recognized throughout the country as is Karzai. Here is what another informed writer added later to what my friend the engineer had told me:

Gul Agha Sherzai, the prominent government of Nangarhar, was hyped last year as a presidential contender… but if Karzai’s relationship to the narcotics industry is a problem, Sherzai is worse (he’s also much more violent, and allegedly has a large harem of “dancing boys” at his mansion — surely not the man the U.S. would want in Kabul). Additionally, Sherzai’s tenure of Kandahar was so bad the Taliban were welcomed in 1994 as liberators from his violent, capricious style of rule. Western pundits also fawned over Dostum and Ashraf Ghani — but neither has been able to secure more than scattered, occasional support from Afghan voters. Each one of these men faces a critical shortcoming: they represent their communities, but not Afghanistan. Only Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah enjoyed broad support in the last election.  (Joshua Foust, In Defense of Karzai.)

Afghanistan is a country in transition between warlords and an elected parliament and presidency. To make it more difficult, democracy, or selection of leaders by secret voting, has never been the source of legitimacy. Seniority, age, clan status, (and maybe money) are more likely to qualify one to be the leader. There is nothing in Afghan history that says that having a secret election and winning the most votes counted by an outsider is as important to your ability to rule as whether you are Pashtun or Tajik or Hazara, or are a tribal leader who received your authority from your father.

All weekend long in Chicago I was expected to enter a room before the younger men.  Respect was simply a matter of age.   All weekend long I was expected to be polite to the women Fulbrighters (and there were nine in total) but they were not expected to smile back to me if I smiled at them. All week long the young men stayed largely away from the young women in their conversations and we were warned not to take pictures of the women in animated conversation with any young man: “The picture could get back home and she would be destroyed,” said one veteran of Afghan rural life.

For the last 30 years Afghanistan has been torn apart by war. Its traditional methods of governance have been disrupted and effectively destroyed. Its villages have been overrun with foreigners, bargains that were traditionally sealed by clan loyalties are now said to be subject to courts that enforce laws that apply the same to other clans. Its women are exposed to education. Its leadership councils, or shuras, are displaced by votes counted from boxes rather than a public show of hands that everyone can see.

The Fulbrighters were asked to form groups of five or six and select values of their home culture from a stack of cards upon each of which was written a value such as “friendship,” or “freedom,” or “equality,” or “independence,” or “family,” or “religion.” They were given 30 or 40 such cards.   From this stack they were asked to select the top five values of Afghan culture.

One of the groups of six women offered the following five:
    Religion and Spirituality
    Developing relationships
    Extended family

Nothing was said by them about advancement, education, speed, prosperity or independence.

Each of the other largely male groups then reported in turn, and each of these groups reported substantially the same as the women had done.  To be sure there was less emphasis on developing relationships and reputation and more on independence but they chose very much the same values as had the women.  At the top of the hierarchy of values in Afghanistan these young men confirmed these five:
    Religion and Spirituality
    Developing relationships
    Extended family

Then the groups were asked to identify the bottom five of the values that had been on the cards. They selected:
    Individual rights
    Law and order
    Self as individuals

The leader of the workshop then provided us a typed page of values drawn from research about Americans.  Among those top American values were:
    Individual rights
    Law and order

For an American, these five are assumptions so taken for granted that we hardly even discuss them.  They are bedrock.

For an Afghan, however, authority comes from religion, tradition, open votes in the shura and reputation and they could hardly be more opposite to those of most Americans. The conflict in Afghanistan today is therefore in some sense defined by these two poles.  Traditional culture is now being challenged by commercial culture, disrespect for clan and elders, and the de-legitimization of male dominance. The Taliban of course represent the old choice.

To restate the point: The fundamental crisis in Afghanistan —and the one that the Taliban seek to answer— is the strategic crisis of legitimacy or authority.

The tactical question therefore is whether legitimacy and authority can be delivered from the top down or must be built from the bottom up.

The Taliban are working from the bottom up which is admirable, but violently, which is not at all attractive to most Afghans. They are not popular. The Americans have been working since 2002 from the top down and also violently which is not so admirable.  In the last 14 months under Obama, Eikenberry and Petraeus, they have been trying to change that and work from the bottom up and less violently. General Petraeus says that the war can only be won politically and that means from the village level up and that means, just as my friend the engineer was saying, with less killing.

If this is to be done Americans will have to work with, and not against, the cultural context set by
    Religion and Spirituality
    Developing relationships
    Extended family

and they will have to understand the degree to which their own working assumptions are diametrically opposite.

The temptation for those of us far removed and feeling ill equipped here in the United States is to throw up our hands and to leap to the conclusion that we should just get out of there.

But then there is the voice of the 26-year-old, handsome, well spoken engineer now studying at Duke who said to me, “If you suddenly leave, it will be a catastrophe.”

In the last of these Chicago sessions on Sunday morning, last week, students were asked to comment on both their opinion of Taliban and of American troops. Everyone wanted to speak. They were not shy. They had not been shy during the seminar at any time about Pakistan, about corruption, about Karzai, about Obama and they were not shy now.

Opinions were divided. Some said, “Stop killing civilians, but don’t leave.” Others said, “Give us time to create our own army and then leave.” Others said: “If you leave quickly, we (people who read and think) will all be forced to leave too or we will be killed and you will lose all that you have invested in us.”

On September 25, I had on my radio show, Our Times, on KSFR, a guest Bill Frej, who was until the end of June 2010, the Director of Development for USAID in Afghanistan. Bill told us that since 2002, USAID had built over 800 schools, trained over 10,000 teachers, engaged more than 40,000 Afghan contractors and workers, and distributed over 68 million text books for elementary school students written in Pashtu and Dari.  That is what is meant by the American investment.  That is part of what the students were claiming we should not give up on. But there is also the human capital represented by these students and the many thousands of contractors and farmers who have worked with us.

The Afghan Fulbrighters in Chicago were asked to design and present a plan for a project that they might do when they returned to their country. They were asked to make the case, explain how it would work and how it would be financed, how they would get local consent. They were given 24 hours to prepare the plan and designate speakers for their groups, give Power Point presentations and persuade judges that they had the goods.

Some of these groups worked late into the night. They met and debated and developed plans for magnetic cards to be used in voting so that votes could not be forged. They had a plan to encourage women to vote and a way to prove voting that did not involve dipping one’s finger in ink which has since become dangerous because the Taliban are cutting off fingers. They developed two plans to develop electricity from falling irrigation waters to supply the more than 85% of the country that does not have electricity. One group of health professionals planned to use two rooms in any village mud hut for an addiction treatment center and to staff it with newly trained social workers that they would train. (Addiction affects at least a million Afghanis: they grow both marijuana and opium.) This plan included a community garden that the addicts would be invited to tend in order to develop cash crops that could be sold to support the center.

There was no assumption in these presentations of failure of the government of Afghanistan or the return of the Taliban. There was no assumption of US pullout. There was no assumption that they could not go back and live their lives at home two years from now.  Many of them—and they ranged from their early 20s to late 30s in age—spoke passionately about the inanity of jobs in the Kabul ministries and at the government level because the central government cannot do anything or get anything done. Therefore these plans were all ones that could be started with a small amount of cash and local Afghan effort. Not one required the involvement of the US or the UN except perhaps for micro financing.  Not one required more training than they would have when they returned home.  Not one of them was cloaked in pessimism or secret cynicism.

One of the most inspiring projects is already underway and was started by Americans. It was started in 2002 by an American lawyer Dana Freyer,, her husband Bruce who is a rabbi, and two Afghan Americans, Economics Professor Ishaq Nadiri and Mohammad Anwarzai – all with deep knowledge of Afghan people and culture.  These four individuals have been hiring and training Afghan farmers to plant trees. These are poplars that grow in six or seven years to become a cash crop for building supplies. They also were planting fruit trees, including nuts, and almonds. In each village they have begun their work by meeting with the local shura, the traditional village assembly.  There they asked the farmers if they would be interested in planting trees. If the shura said yes Dana and Bruce would bring to the village hundreds of young saplings. Then they taught them techniques that they had all known in previous generations but that had been driven out by the Soviet invasion and the subsequent years of war: They taught the ancient craft of grafting trees; how to combine the seedling with the older trees. It was an ancient craft somehow destroyed by the years of war.

This little non-profit is called The Global Partnership for Afghanistan and it now employs over 180 people, only one of whom is not Afghan. GPFA has engaged over 12,000 farmers  who have thriving orchard and woodlot businesses and have succeeded in planting over 8.5 million trees. Yes, you heard that right: over eight million trees since 2004. Over 12,000 farmers have given consent and bought into this program, which provides them with sustainable incomes , started by one small team of  four Americans.

This is a region of the world that is potentially explosive. On one side of Afghanistan is Pakistan. Following the floods in Pakistan we can expect hunger, unrest and a breeding ground for political turmoil. Pakistan is already a teetering state. It is not likely to get stronger before it gets worse and it has nuclear weapons.

On the other side of Afghanistan, Iran is moving toward nuclear weapons and actively seeks to present the world with an alternative to democracy and capitalism.

No American should be sanguine about the intentions or the acts of these players or the potential effects of chaos in the region upon US security.

One could reasonably respond, as Arnold Toynbee once explained in his study of civilizations, that empires that extend too far collapse because of the length of their supply lines. American supply lines are stretched literally to the other end of the planet.  It would be reasonable to simply say, therefore, “Toynbee is right. Let’s get out.”

And the counter to that is that simply washing our hands of Central and South Asia would also be a form of denial, or attempting to greatly simplify a terribly complex equation. Simple solutions for complex problems are often clear, precise, and wrong.

The idea therefore that we could simply turn the region over to the Iranians and the Pakistanis (and the Chinese) is tempting but draws more from military history than is probably appropriate.  The extended supply lines of the US military do not resemble the supply lines of the Roman or Persian or Greek empires about which Toynbee warned us. The attempted dominance of the English and the Russians in Afghanistan does not resemble the ultimate American desire to get out of there and the quicker the better. The hatred of most Afghans for the brutally violent Taliban does not allow them to become popular heroes like the Viet Cong.

“Stop killing civilians but do not leave quickly,” said the well-spoken 26-year-old Afghani engineer.

This is a formula that lacks precision, lacks clarity or the ring of empire or of democracy or the Tea Party or the Bush administration’s war on terror.  Because it lacks that ring, because it does not pretend to be simple, it may be more nearly good advice.

It may be the mark of maturity in the human is to be able to hold difficult and competing facts in the mind at the same time, to allow them to molder and simmer and unfold over time.

In that case, it is not so bad to be complex, or to be able to deal with complexity as if reality is complex and would not even be simple if our leaders were decisive or bold or heroic. More may be needed than decision, or boldness or heroics.  More appropriate may be balance and grace and the constantly enquiring mind.

The change of seasons is complex. Organisms are complex. Families are complex. We are trying to navigate a way forward for the complex human family that leaves the most of us alive and in good health, going to school and marrying, surviving until next autumn.

From my perspective I will depend upon my special telephone pole to grab hold the sun and pull it back when the time comes round in December.   You may conclude that on this subject my vision is limited, my evidence problematic, and that from where you stand it does not look as though the telephone pole is the whole explanation. I suppose now, at my age and time of life, with good grace and wisdom, I will honor your point of view based upon the general proposition that there may still be some things for which I have not yet got the complete solution.

Thank you.