Sunday, January 31, 2010

Pashtunwali-- Integral To The Unfolding Tragedy In Afghanistan


When I got to Afghanistan in 1969, the Hippie Trail wasn't all that crowded; there weren't any commercial operators, and there were probably not more than a couple hundred private vehicles a year making the trip from London across Asia to India. There was no train, and in some places of eastern Turkey and western Iran there really wasn't much of a road either. I had my own relatively spacious VW van, which wound up being virtually the only means of transportation for lots of hippie travelers taking time out from the trek to or from India and resting in pre-apocalyptic Kabul.

My van was the way to get to Bamian to see the still unobliterated Buddhas, Bagram, the Paghman Valley, anything beyond the brand-spankin'-new Salang Tunnel, Shahr-i-Zahak, and beautiful Chaharikar. One evening I filled it up with a happy bunch of hippies and we drove up into the mountains above the city to get high and look down at the city lights. Most of us were smoking incredibly powerful opiated Mazar-i-Sharif hash (Balkh shirak). A barefoot Australian couple, hitching their way back to Oz from London, were on acid they had brought with them. We bumped along the unmarked road trying to get as high as we could.

Eventually we came to a flat place overlooking Kabul and piled out. Within seconds we were surrounded by angry-looking men with angry-looking weapons... pointed at us. They were screaming in Dari, some of which I could make out since I semi-spoke Farsi, which is like a modern version of Dari. But they weren't speaking slowly or carefully enough and didn't seem to care if I understood or not. They didn't ask us for anything, just demanded we keep our arms over our heads. We did that for around half an hour while they carried on, and then the Australians started laughing and took down their arms. The Afs started screaming, but the Australians laughed louder. Then all the Afs put their guns down, started laughing and hugging us and invited us for tea and hash.

Americans don't understand Afghans. That was the first thing that popped into my mind today when I read how two young American soldiers were shot at pointblank range by their angry Afghan interpreter in Wardek, just west of our little encounter, where people tend to speak more Pashto than Dari. Other soldiers then shot the interpreter. The military described him as a "disgruntled employee," rather than a terrorist or militant. No doubt-- but, believe me, it was surely the Americans who didn't understand Pashtunwali, the traditional code the Pashtuns live by. Their entire mindset is based on it, and it's virtually impossible to deal with them intelligently without comprehending it.

For example, one of the values most highly regarded among Pashtuns pertains to namuz, what we might call "honor." Its defense, even in the face of certain death, is absolutely obligatory. The "disgruntled employee" might have felt his honor as a man had been insulted by these two soldiers, probably unschooled in the local customs. Boom, boom, boom. Three more dead men in a place where the U.S. military does not belong.

Eventually Obama, or whoever follows him in 2013, will probably understand that the simple-- and far cheaper-- way out of the mess in Afghanistan is another venerable old custom: baksheesh, something we all learned about on the Hippie Trail. But it has to be done right. As Ron Moreau pointed out in Newseek yesterday, the way NATO has been going about it so far just doesn't hit the right chords at all. And it's not going to work with the hard-core Taliban leaders.

One of the problems is that Karzai and his government, widely viewed as Western puppets if not quislings, have no credibility at all.
No one trusts his promises, and they regard his government as an evil thing, a heretical, apostate regime... Karzai is hopeless. He reads from a script he knows will please his Western patrons: new drives for good governance, transparency, narcotics suppression, the building of the Afghan security forces, economic development, etc. Nevertheless, for the past eight years he and his appointees have been incapable of delivering a fraction of what he has promised, and there's no reason to think the next year or two will be any different. He's a nice guy, is not corrupt, and doubtless means well. But he is not a leader or a judge of men, and he has no vision. He promises everything to everyone, as he did in the last election, but nothing comes of it. No one in his administration gets fired or jailed for egregious behavior.

That's who Obama has thrown his lot in with. It's absolutely hopeless-- and replacing him with another puppet (as we did in Vietnam, and the Russians did right there in Afghanistan) will be equally unfruitful. Sooner or later Obama and the ruling Establishment here in America are going to realize that the solution in Afghanistan is withdrawal and leaving those people alone.
Most Taliban seem genuinely convinced that they are carrying out the will of God. One sign of that faith is the apparently endless supply of suicide bombers. The Americans still seem not to have grasped the full import of this. The Taliban are not fighting for a share of power; they want to restore Islamic law throughout the country, with no talk of compromise. They despise their nominal ally Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who has said that suicide bombings are not justified under Islam and who talks of possible power-sharing deals with Karzai. A "son of dollars," they call him: someone who cannot be trusted, someone who does not share their goal of reimposing Sharia over all of Afghanistan. . . "You can't buy my ideology, my religion. It's an insult."

Not even the Russians were willing to just completely obliterate the country, which is really what it would take to "pacify" the place. Do you think Obama or the American people will go for that? Me neither. I think I heard Hillary Clinton saying she won't accept a second appointment as Secretary of State if, somehow, the Republicans manage to defeat themselves in 2012. In that case Obama should go all out to appoint Alan Grayson to the job. His explanation of what to do in Afghanistan is still the best one I've ever heard: Just leave people alone:
I think that the aid program is a fig leaf trying to make Congress and the American people feel better about the war and about killing. I think that diplomacy in the areas of fig leaf to try to make the American people think that there is some constructive alternative to the war when the war itself is destructive and not constructive.

I think that the basic premise that we can alter Afghan society is greatly flawed. Afghanistan is simply the part of Asia that was never occupied by the Russians or the English in the Great Game. It’s not a country; it’s not even a place. It’s just an empty place on the map. It’s terra incognita. People who live there are a welter of different tribes, different language groups, different religious beliefs.

All over the country you find different people who have nothing to do with each other except for the fact that we call them Afghans, who don’t even call themselves Afghans. They’re Tajiks, or they’re Pashtuns, or they’re Hazzaras or someone else. The things that hold them together are simply the things that we try to create artificially.

The idea that we could transform that society or any other society through aid, I think, is entirely questionable. I’ve never seen it happen; probably never will happen. If you go to the Stan countries north of Afghanistan, and I’ve been to all of them, what you find is that the way that the Russians altered that society was by crushing it. Stalin killed half a million Muslims in Kazakhstan, in Turkmenistan, in Kyrgyzstan, in Uzbekistan.

He simply sliced off the head of that society in order to remake it in the image that he wanted. And I think that we would have to do no less if we wanted to remake Afghanistan in our image. We’d have to destroy it in order to save it, and I don’t think the American people are ever going to do that to anybody. So I think that the underlying premise is simply wrong.

I’ve been to 175 countries all around the world, including Afghanistan and every country in that region, and what I’ve seen everywhere I went is that there are some commonalities. Everywhere you go, people want to fall in love. Everywhere you go, people love children. Everywhere, they love children. Everywhere you go, there’s a taboo against violence. Every single place you go. And everywhere you go, people want to be left alone. And that’s the best foreign policy of all. Just to leave people alone.

Grayson was one of the 32 members of Congress who stood up on June 16 and said "NO!" to more war funding. It's more than a promise; it's something he did. Blue America is hosting a page, No Means No!, seeking to encourage members of Congress to put their feet down and help end the occupation of Afghanistan. Please visit the page and consider making a contribution to Grayson or any of the other courageous members of Congress on the list.

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At 11:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What you are missing with the old Alan Grayson argument, believe me its old, is that the Soviets tried their classic methods in Afghanistan as well.. the results? The Soviets were slaughtered, all they managed to do was to kill a few civilians but they never killed enough Mujaheddin. I don't understand why you people cannot face facts, there is a reason why over the years Alexander onwards to the Americans now, no one has been able to make any headway in to Afghanistan, the Pashtuns will never tolerate it. Most Pashtuns are modern day Spartans, trained as warriors since infancy, they rarely fight for religion and mostly fight for honor and the land of their forefathers. In order to defeat them you must kill every single Pashtun in Pakistan and Afghanistan and that is inconceivable. Pashtunwali has survived for thousands of years, they have beaten back greater empires than yours, for instance Mongols. To post anything approaching a victory in Afghanistan is simply a wet dream for every major empire that has ever existed. You cannot beat an entire nation of warriors and they won't let you steal their resources either. Best thing to do would be to go home and admit defeat like hundreds before you.


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