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Author's Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. Government. The author wishes to thank Helena Malikyar, Ludwig Adamec, Paul Fishtein, Roy Herrmann, John Lister and Imre Lipping for their comments and suggestions. The author is not the same person as the author with the same name of the article, “Reforming the Village War: The Afghanistan Conflict,” Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2011, pp. 17-30.
My direct involvement with Afghanistan spanning more than 35 years informs the following. For two years in the mid-1970s I conducted ethnographic field research in a remote Hindu Kush mountain valley. I subsequently returned as a diplomat during the Soviet occupation and most recently as a participant in our intervention both in the hinterlands and in Kabul. These considerations which I have formed over that time shape my approach to Afghanistan particularly with respect to our current efforts. Much of what is offered here can be applied equally to approaching any other foreign society. Nothing about Afghans makes them more (or less) perplexing or inscrutable than any other people, ourselves included. The challenges we face in comprehending Afghanistan rest with us, not the Afghans. My intent here is not to offer a specific right knowledge set. Rather, my aim is to highlight what I have found to be some important topics that are distorted by flawed assumptions and misunderstandings or are not being given adequate attention. Persons seeking to play a constructive role in Afghanistan, even at this late stage in our exertions there, may find these approaches useful.
Behold the experts: Many dedicated researchers have spent decades learning and teaching about Afghanistan. Few are working for the U.S. Government. These committed specialists produce outstanding, informative material, much of it in obscure journals and publications that takes digging to locate. Three knowledge resources merit special recognition: the “Afghanistan Analyst Bibliography” is a unique reference thoughtfully organized that catalogs much of this material; the Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU) offers peer-reviewed studies based on some of the best current field research on Afghanistan and also its indispensable “A to Z Guide to Afghanistan Assistance;” and the Afghan Analysts Network (AAN) supplies well-informed, grounded analyses and assessments of breaking events.
Beware the “experts”: Conflicts and crises in distant lands understandably prompt our civilian and military officials to seek detailed information to further their missions. They often contract this out to companies and persons adept at winning contracts and skilled at supplying material in familiar and digestible formats. These camp followers flock to troubled lands while taking great pains to repackage themselves as experts on the region. Much of their product is shallow and formulaic when it is not simply wrong. Nonetheless, it cannot be ignored if only because those who commission this stuff mistake it for serious research and analysis and apply it in their planning. When evaluating information on Afghanistan, scrutinize the credentials of the authors, mindful that credential inflation, distortion and outright deception are common. Look for work done by persons and organizations that have dedicated years, not months, to the region, and which document their sources and research methods including actual time spent in the field, not just on bases or in Kabul.
Expatriates too: The list of victims of purported expatriate expertise is long: recall the unfortunate Maximilian in Mexico, hijacked by supposed experts of the diaspora. Nor should we forget how we allowed ourselves to be bamboozled by those Iraqi expatriates guaranteeing a cakewalk to Baghdad and beyond. It stands to reason then that Afghan nationals or persons originally from Afghanistan may not know or understand their country any better than someone from our own country can be relied on to provide cogent analysis of our society. Individuals with Afghan roots may have biases, jaundiced understandings and bitter experiences that shape the lens through which they view and interpret Afghanistan. Financial and political interests can similarly color their perceptions. Expertise is not a birthright.
Urban Afghans can be unreliable guides to rural life: Be careful in relying on the characterizations and assessments of urban Afghans about the Afghan countryside. Many city-dwelling Afghans look down on rural Afghans, seeing them as ignorant, backward, stubborn in their refusal to better themselves and thus to blame for their misery and poverty. Afghans who themselves grew up in the countryside and then moved to the city can be among the harshest and most unsympathetic critics of their rural kin.
Words can be tricky to translate, concepts even trickier: Trained interpreters struggle to convey nuance and complexity from one language to another. Unless a foreigner has immersed himself among Dari or Pashtu speakers and endured the frustrations of exchanging thoughts back and forth, it is unlikely that he will recognize the delicacy and subtlety involved. It is not only a matter of finding comparable words but also trying to communicate complex, idiomatic shadings and meanings of the words.
No matter how conscientious and professional they are, native interpreters have opinions and attitudes regarding the material discussed. Those opinions and attitudes may color their translations and can affect the way that Afghans perceive you and how you perceive them. Working with interpreters demands an active and continued dialog with them in order to address the inherent difficulties communicating in another language and devising procedures to illuminate and bridge gaps in language and comprehension.
Our thinking about Afghans and their identity misleads us: Outsiders tend to identify Afghans through their supposed membership in a specific ‘tribe,’ ‘village,’ or ‘ethnic group,’ convinced that these are the enduring and essential bases for indigenous identity. When asked about their identity, especially by foreigners, Afghans may respond by mentioning affiliations in line with what they think the foreigners expect to hear. The foreigners then take these identities for granted without investigating whether these identities are important for (or even used by) the Afghans themselves.
Field researchers with the language skills, experience and commitment to empirical study have found that the labels that outsiders use to identify Afghan groups and categories are misleading. They cite evidence that Afghans, like people everywhere manage their identities in ways that they change depending on the situation they find themselves in. Afghans emphasize commonalities and unity when it is in their interest to do so or they highlight differences and boundaries when that is their goal. The static depictions of Afghan identities on maps of ethnicity, tribe or even villages impose a rigid, often misleading and simplistic picture that misses the essence of Afghan social and political life: a person’s identity is a managed attribute that is varied and contingent, not fixed and immutable.
Afghans don’t organize into groups without a good reason: We cannot assume that Afghans who live near one another constitute a community where the members cooperate and share anything beyond their proximity. Neighbors may cooperate or they may be bitter and hateful rivals who avoid every opportunity for joint effort or even casual interactions. Competition tied to eking out a living in a harsh environment with limited resources can feed animosity among neighbors, even those who are close relatives. We cannot take for granted that physical proximity equates with social and political unity. While cooperation and joint endeavors may yield benefits, costs and compromises are inevitably involved and may be seen as significant enough to forestall cooperation.
In rural Afghanistan, no unit smaller than the government’s administrative district (woluswali) has any legal status. Afghans and foreigners alike refer to rural clustered populations as ‘villages.’ So, too, does the Afghan government although there are no standard, consistent criteria for defining what is and is not a village and what are the rights and responsibilities for such a unit. In the face of this lack of clarity, determining which local people will jointly deliberate, decide and cooperate for a particular matter rests on criteria that change from situation to situation. Because a group acts jointly for one or several issues does not mean that it will always act in harmony. It is an empirical question to determine whether and how a population organizes itself, for what purposes and how that organization manifests itself. We cannot direct a population of people to act jointly because it suits our purposes or makes sense to us that they should do so. (Outsiders often face added barriers to learning the nature of cooperation and conflict in rural settings since the residents, who agree on little else may consider such information as inappropriate to share with outsiders.)
Shuras are not a tradition for Afghans: Foreigners love the idea of shuras. We assume Afghan communities have traditionally relied on these councils usually comprised of elders to represent and lead them. For us, finding a group of Afghans who appear empowered to speak for and decide on behalf of a larger group is attractive, because such representative arrangements are the way that we operate. We are also drawn to shuras out of our wish to avoid imposing alien structures on the Afghans. But 35 years ago Afghans seldom used the word ‘shura’ or formed such representative councils in their communities. In Afghanistan, shura is a term that came into common use during the anti-Soviet Jihad in the 1980s in part due to its Islamic religious connotations – it is the means by which a Muslim leader should consult with his advisors or the people before he makes a decision – and also because foreign donors viewed councils (shuras) as a expedient way to deal with communities or other groups that could circumvent or counter powerful local elites, typically leaders of armed groups who claimed for themselves the right to speak for the group.
Compared to our enthusiasm for shuras and our mistaken assumption that they are traditional, many Afghans see today’s representative shuras as an alien imposition and even destructive. For many Afghans a guiding principle is that all men affected by a matter are entitled to participate directly in the process through which the matter is discussed, agreement reached and a decision taken. That a council consisting of a number of representatives could be empowered to deliberate and decide for the entire community without the opportunity for all interested community members to participate is seen as humiliating and at odds with community spirit. Americans may be able to appreciate Afghan antipathy to the donor-endorsed representative councils at various levels by reflecting on the dogged determination of many New England communities to preserve their general town meeting deliberations as a cherished form of direct participatory democracy.
Despite their downsides, members of representative shuras are often eager to assume the role, particularly if they sense a chance to insert themselves between their community and the rich, powerful outsiders. This role may bring members material benefits and strengthen their authority and control over others, even if the process itself is alien and destabilizing.
Recognize the importance of consensus and the threat from arrangements that produce winners and losers: In Afghan society where one’s autonomy and freedom of action are highly valued, instances of one person or group winning and another losing can make it difficult for people to cooperate and act jointly. Circumstances where actions and decisions are based on consensus and where nobody formally prevails over anyone else allow Afghans to maintain their sense of self-respect and honor. Personal dignity is paramount for them. While many Afghans appreciate the potential virtues of formal elections, the elections that have been held have been winner-take-all contests. These can be destabilizing, especially when the other institutions associated with representational democracy that serve to check the power of the victors are not in place.
Whatever means Afghans use for their collective deliberations and decision-making, whether through representative arrangements, direct participation, or even the secret ballot, they are susceptible to being manipulated by the powerful. Consensual deliberation and decision-making through direct participation cannot keep the powerful from wielding undue control. When outsiders press for or show a preference for a specific deliberative process in line with what they see as proper and more democratic, the outsiders become accountable for the outcome and consequences. Allowing the locals to follow their own procedures for deliberation and decision-making, flawed as they may appear to us, removes us from responsibility to redress or control resulting abuses and excesses. It puts the responsibility on the people themselves to deal with the consequences of their own decisions rather than depending on outsiders to do so.
Actions, not words count: When Afghans say that they have agreed to take an action, it does not mean the action will be taken. Many reasons account for this. Most important is the way that Afghans make collective decisions. In many cases, even if a decision is reached at a meeting, action will not be taken if all individuals and interests that are affected by the matter have not been consulted. If, for example, prominent men are absent from the meeting where a decision is taken, then the decision typically will not be implemented until the absent individuals have been consulted and given their agreement.
Commitments and agreements become real in action, not words. Criticisms of the decision-making process and the lack of follow-through should not be made unless the detailed history, personalities and values figuring into them are known. Because we are seldom in a position to have such knowledge, we should be cautious in criticizing or pressing Afghans to deliberate, decide and then act in line with our wishes or expectations.
Reliance on a local population to vet individuals is a fool’s errand: In Afghan communities a person is not just an individual but a member of an extended family and social networks where he has varied roles and responsibilities. To press a local population to make a determination about whether a person is or is not qualified for something has broad consequences that may reverberate far beyond the matter being considered. First is the question of the legitimacy of a particular group to make the determination; second, if a person is deemed unqualified, it disadvantages his entire family and social networks and risks creating a serious rift within that population.
Given these considerations, it often is not appropriate to ask that local populations make such explicit decisions. A request to do so can erode whatever potential for unity exists within a population. And should the people be pressed to do so, they may not make the determination in line with the specified, desired criteria but may base it on other considerations more relevant to them. Recognizing this, when it is deemed necessary to screen individuals, outsiders must consider the strains and harm that such requests can have on a local population and should weigh whether an alternate procedure can be found that does not depend on the local population to vet individuals.
Steer clear of disputes: Conflicts and disputes among Afghans inevitably involve parties whose relationships with one another we, as outsiders, have no way of appreciating in terms of their complexity and history. Whatever we may be told about a dispute, it inevitably involves much more than we are told and that we can understand or evaluate. As outsiders we cannot be involved without becoming entangled in ways that make us a party regardless of our intentions and motives. We should avoid even offering to broker what may seem to be a fair deal. Our only prudent course is to stand aside, refrain from commenting on the dispute except to offer anodyne platitudes about the value of peace and unity. Even being a passive observer to discussions about a dispute can distort and make the situation more complicated. Regardless how trivial they may appear to us, disputes among Afghans are often serious, consequential matters which we should treat with respect and the utmost caution.
Don’t overestimate the destruction: Afghans have survived more than three decades of conflict involving modern weaponry. This attests to their and their society’s resilience, flexibility and adaptability. While much has changed for Afghans over this period, much has remained constant. Avoid assumptions about how much damage has been done to their social, political and cultural fabric. Afghans have ideas and expectations about how their society should be organized that have evolved and endured over generations. That does not mean that they only want to preserve or recreate their past, but it also does not mean that they need to be shown how to organize themselves or told why they should do so.
Because it isn’t bricks and mortar doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist: We tend to equate capacity with structures and institutions. If something doesn’t have an address and a physical presence, then it doesn’t exist. Much about social and political life in Afghanistan exists in people’s understanding and knowledge, not in documents and in formal institutions. We cannot assume that if there is no formal institution it has either been destroyed or that Afghans have nothing to adequately address the purpose and function of such an institution.
For example, for decades Afghans have had their own means to deal with their successive governments. These are familiar and appropriate to them – yet we often act as if Afghanistan in 2001 was a blank slate in need of new ways of doing things. As a result, we ignore and risk destroying informal local governance arrangements that are adequate for the people to connect themselves and their communities to their government. Our misperceptions in this regard have been evident in our zeal to push the formation of new representative bodies (shuras) such as the district development assemblies, the district-level councils set up under the (now defunct) Afghan Social Outreach Program, and the National Solidarity Program’s community development councils. These imposed arrangements are driven by agendas that are not those of the Afghans themselves. They depend on outsiders to guide member selection and their deliberations and our dollars are what induces these councils to meet and act. When the dollars dry up, these councils disband. Our eagerness to set up such bodies with characteristics that fit our agendas but are alien to Afghans can obliterate indigenous arrangements that may be sub-optimal from our perspective but are familiar to the Afghans who see them as good enough.
Be wary of ‘root cause’ seekers: Our planning methods and approaches aimed at finding the root cause or causes of something – such as the insurgency or corruption – as a first step to tackling a problem fail because they do not reflect the nature of causality in human situations. The social sciences treat human societies as complex, dynamic systems where causality is not meaningfully depicted in linear models with one or a few factors that can be isolated and dealt with. If social problems in our society cannot be fit into reductionist approaches based on detecting root causes and then addressing them, why should we expect that we can do so in Afghanistan where our knowledge and experience are so limited? Simplistic approaches to understanding human behavior yield simplistic, misbegotten schemes aimed at solving them.
Scrutinize local explanations: It is important to ask “why?” in order to learn the explanations that the people have for events and situations. But it is also critical to recognize that while the people may accept such explanations as adequate, we must consider other factors that affect behavior and circumstances about which the people may be unaware. It is common, for example, to hear Afghans put blame for their hardships on outsiders, whether it be Pakistanis, ISAF troops or Afghans who are different from them. Usually the reasons are more complicated. Similarly, when a person behaves badly, Afghans often blame this on the person’s character flaws or perhaps his lack of piety. While one’s character may be a factor, typically many considerations and conditions figure in shaping one’s attitudes and behavior. Local explanations offered for complicated situations are no more sufficient by themselves than the local explanations offered for comparable actions in our society.
Scrutinize our explanations: As outsiders, we, too, must subject to resolute scrutiny the explanations we derive for Afghan behavior and the factors that shape their actions. If we think about ourselves, we can appreciate how challenging it is to find satisfactory, straightforward explanations for our behavior. Our experts and common citizens debate endlessly the explanations and reasons for just about everything in our society. We have no reason to expect that Afghans and Afghan society to be more transparent, comprehensible or amenable to simple, direct explanations than ourselves and our own society.
Triangulate on the truth: There are no short-cuts to understanding reality whether it be Afghan or our own. We must talk to many different people and collect different perspectives. We cannot rely on the bright, articulate individual who speaks English and offers explanations that supply what strike us as adequate answers to our questions. We must press on and ask others the same questions, and then rephrase them to see whether and how the responses change and we should also alter the setting in which the questions are asked. Different answers cannot just be written off as wrong. Instead, the reasons they differ must be explored and they must be examined to see whether they are, in fact, different.
It’s ok to not know: Whether for Afghanistan or elsewhere, we must constantly remind ourselves that our quest to understand phenomena has no end. Humility, together with a resolute commitment to continue to deepen our exposure to information and knowledge need not paralyze us as long as we accept that our knowledge and expertise can never be anything but limited and imperfect. They are always subject to being expanded, refined, and even created anew. What we think that we know and understand with a high confidence today may strike us as nonsense tomorrow, not because it has changed, but because we have. We must stand prepared to adjust, to admit our limitations, and to change or even abandon efforts we find to be ill-informed or misguided.