Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Nation Building?

The other day, in a post titled Taliban Justice, I noted a Time Magazine story with a rather disturbing cover photo. The story was basically a human-interest piece about the fate of an Afghan girl named Aisha who had been horribly mutilated by the Taliban for fleeing an abusive, arranged marriage.

One commenter (known only as "b") wrote:

The girl was mutilated a year ago. At that time there were some 100,000 NATO troops in country plus lots of contractors. So if a 100,000 troops can't prevent such, what are they doing there? And how would that change with 200,000 troops? Just asking ...

A fair question, but here's the thing: no matter how many troops we have here, Western forces cannot ever put a stop to this sort of thing. The marginalization, diminution and sometimes abuse of women is part and parcel of Afghan culture. Western military force will never put an end to that. Only Afghans can end that, if they so choose.

I've been here nearly 18 months, working closely everyday with a large number of Afghans. In all that time, not once have I met the wives of any of my people, except for The Rug Merchant, and that was in Dubai and only briefly. Even modern-minded, relatively progressive Afghans like the men I work with keep "their" women sequestered. They may object to the depredations of the Taliban, but that doesn't extend to breaking ancient social taboos about women and public life.

So, once we accept that the social structure of this country is not something that can be adjusted by force, the real question becomes two-fold, "Can/should the social structure of this country be changed to a more progressive, modern approach, and if so, what (if anything) can Westerners do to assist that transformation?"

To me, the answer to the first part is fairly obvious. If Afghanistan is ever to be peaceful, prosperous and stable, then some of fundamental underlying principles of Afghan society will have to be cast aside. I'm not saying that will be easy, or even likely, but it is a cold, hard fact. Analysts and pundits like to make long-winded arguments about the Great Game, the Cold War, "strategic depth," etc., all intended to absolve Afghans of responsibility for their plight, but the basic truth is that Afghanistan is the way it is partly because of the atavistic elements present in Afghan culture.

The second part of the question is considerably more difficult. I'm not convinced that there is all that much that Westerners can do to promote the sort of "social adjustment" that I feel is necessary here. People everywhere are notoriously resistant to cultural change, especially when they feel that it is being imposed from outside. That said, I see some small signs of hope among the slowly-emerging Afghan middle class. Thus far, they are concentrated in the major cities, and greatly overshadowed by the oligarchs, warlords, and narco-terrorists who rule much of the countryside. But they do exist, albeit in small numbers, and they almost unanimously desire a society that affords the opportunities that Westerners tend to take for granted. Jobs, security, education, a government that is more protective than predatory, these are the things that this Afghan middle-class desires.

They're not about to give up their cultural identity, nor will they cease being devout Muslims, but they are willing to cast a critical eye on some of the traditions and structures that have given this country over thirty years of war.

And that, I think, is what ISAF can accomplish here: buy the Afghan middle-class the time necessary to make their own changes, and find their own, better way of doing things.

If that's "nation-building" then so be it.


b said...

Thank you very much for picking this up.

I do understand your argument and do a agree to a certain point.

If ISAF is only there to "buy time" for some more open new social class to evolve there are two questions:

1. How much time will be needed? Will the people of those countries that send the soldiers really be ready to sustain the money drag and casualties for another 10, 15, 20 years?

2. While ISAF is buying this time isn't it also, by its pure existence, building up the more radical parts that want the foreigners out?

My answers:
To 1: The "west" is unlikely to sustain the process as long as it is needed. See the Netherlands for what will happen in other ISAF countries during the next months and years.

To 2: On balance ISAF is creating more radicals than it is creating members of the new social class. The mechanism is mostly through the necessity to bribe everyone left and right, especially the warlords, just to make logistics for ISAF possible. This creates a resistance that did and will turn more radical over time.

Your mileage may vary ...

mud poisoned said...

Unfortunately I don't think the majority of civilians here in the US will be happy unless Afghanistan is a free, Democratic, Christian country like they believe we are.

My mother believes we should be fighting for Afghan women to have equal rights and freedoms as the men. I think that is where we get into trouble. When we start imposing our cultural and moral beliefs on other cultures.

That being said, brutal punishment of women for escaping abuse is horrible, but no one other then the Afghan people can stop it. The ISAF would have to put a soldier in every household across the country to prevent it. Afghans need to stand up to stop things like this if it is what they want. It isn't up to us to decide what is right within their culture. We should be there to support the people in the pursuit of the culture and government they want.

Adam said...

Totally unrelated, but the best Afghan news I've heard all week was the story of the Taliban attack that managed to destroy a whopping $70 worth of chain link fence, while losing seven or eight of their guys. Not going to bother looking it up now, but I'm pretty sure it was the Canadian forces who repelled them, too.

Made me smile for a whole day.

dmouse said...

Yeah sorry a bit off topic but LOLOLOL gasp LOLOL dam! sigh.just read Karzai dislikes PSCompanies.He said the afghans that work for there companies to server afghanistan,should join the ANP instead.BAWawhahahlol. you think that will happen.lolol

Anonymous said...

Personally, I'm glad to read your posts about the bigger issues such as Afghan abuse of women, the wikileaks, the Dutch leaving, etc.

It can be difficult to find reporting from Afghanistan that isn't agenda driven or sanitized, so I appreciate your efforts.

Thank you. Please continue.

Anand said...

Why do you emphasize the term "westerners?" Why not say "internationals."

Afghanistan's largest trading, investment and business partner is China, which wields considerable influence inside Afghanistan. There is also substantial trade and investment with India, Iran, Turkey, former USSR countries. The Afghan business community--linked to the international business community--is a large transformation agent inside Afghanistan.

Another large transformation agent are ex-patriot Afghans.

Another question for you, where in the Koran can a husband mutilate his wife? What happened to Aisha was unislamic and against Afghan culture. This is why the Quetta Shura has publicly comdemned Aisha's mutilation and demanded that the perpetrators be punished. The QST was forced to do this by Afghan and Pakistani public opinion.

The Taliban is not natural to Afghanistan. Woman in Iran, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh [until recently the national language of all of them was pharsi and Afghanistan was part of those countries until the 1700s when Afghanistan broke off] are not completely without rights. Neither were Afghan woman when the King was overthrown in 1973.

In my way the two best ways to improve the outlook for Afghan woman are:
1) educate Afghan woman
2) educate Afghan males.

The best ways to operationalize this is:
to accept more woman into 4 year academies for the ANSF [ANSF only accept a small fraction of qualified applicants to 4 year academies because of a funding shortage], offer educational opportunities for woman who already serve in the ANSF. Educate men already serving in the ANSF.


Increase long term international grants for the Afghan education system. Also send an international civilian surge to serve as professors in Afghan universities. Pay a lot of Indian, Chinese, Thai, Turkish, and Indonesian professors to teach in Afghan universities.

Finally commit the international community to fully fund the Afghan education system and ANSF with international grants for 20 years.

These policies would help Afghanistan defeat the Taliban and AQ linked networks and empower woman.

popsiq said...

So what do you think happened to the experiment with socialism? They had a good run, including some highly-published social advancements in the, what, twenty years before the Taliban finally strung them up.

I wouldn't describe a growing middle class in need of private security firms as any sort of cultural development. Just the fact that outfits such as your own are there and 'needed' tells me the situation is whacked and very little can, or will, be done to fix it. No organization exists to put itself out of business and 'peace' would do that to yours.

The women, sad to say, only seem to be 'along for the ride', or not. But that's a different story.

Anonymous said...

The status of Afghan women will improve through internally driven change, primarily by the women themselves. Just 30 years ago, the status of women in the cities was much higher that it is now. What we can do to influence their progress is to support cultural change, using the media, educational opportunities, support for women's services and groups.