When the Wave Hits Afghanistan
As reports of the riots in the Middle East continue to flood news outlets, I follow with a distance that is rather peculiar considering my history and interests. Having spent nearly seven months of my four years at West Point in Egypt and Tunisia, I hold a special place in my heart for the people of both countries. After all, they helped me learn their language, and thus gave me a conduit to understanding the depths of one of the world’s most misunderstood regions. And while a call for liberation is certainly worthy of praise, it’s difficult for me to feel proportionally excited for my friends in Egypt and Tunisia, because there is a third country close to my heart that few have considered in this equation: Afghanistan.
One of the biggest misconceptions I brought with me to Kandahar in mid-2009 was how disconnected the society would be from events around the world. I knew the major population centers, like Kabul, would have decent connectivity, but I could not imagine a globally aware population springing up from the isolated villages in Zhari and Maiwand. As my relationships with village leaders and Afghan Army officers strengthened over my 12-month tour, I found that the proliferation of cellphones and radios offered a primitive, but effective, means of relaying world information even in the most remote locations of the Afghan deserts. Concurrently, the information flowed in only one direction, and in my experience with village leaders, was restricted as a privilege for the powerful.
What worries me most as a veteran of Afghanistan is how those village elders with whom I drank chai daily will react to the wave of protests and coups in their brother Arab countries. I’m not talking about the more developed areas around Kabul or Kandahar, but the isolated villages where the Taliban roam and intimidate freely. The leaders of these villages were raised in deep-seated and conservative manifestations of Islam. We in the West may have looked upon the governments of Tunisia and Egypt as dictatorships. But let us empathize with these Afghan tribal elders as they listen to their radios today, hearing of coups toppling leaders, using things like Twitter and Facebook for coordination.
If I were a senior tribal elder in Zhari, I’d look upon these countries and see Egyptian and Tunisian women walking freely outside without escort and without burqas. I’d look at these nations’ youthful resistance as a severe sign of disrespect toward elders, and thus a violation of the patriarchal value system our faith honors. If I were an Afghan tribal leader, it would be easy to designate former Presidents Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt as victims of their own leadership philosophies — their failure to instill Islamic discipline in the countries they command. I would view their investments in education and communication as the kindling of their downfall.
It’s hard to tell a tribal elder to liberalize his village and let women go to school when he hears of such threats to power happening in other Muslim countries. If I were a tribal elder wanting to retain an Islamic community, it might even be in my best interest to further isolate my village from the toxins of the Internet and equal gender rights to keep away future threats to what is the true Islamic way of life. But the free flow of information, be it through modern or primitive means, is the key to a successful democracy. If grass-roots Afghan leaders view this information flow as a threat to their authority, what are the implications for our goal to democratize this country and leave it more stable than we found it?
The wave of uprisings may be viewed in the contexts of the individual countries, or in the Arab region as a whole. But the fact is that the entire world, including Afghanistan, is watching very closely. As thrilled as I am to see my Egyptian and Tunisian friends in the streets asserting — and achieving — their right to be heard, I know that there are still American, Afghan and NATO lives in grave danger in the same battlefields from which I returned not so long ago. Those are my brothers fighting to bring democracy to a country that has been tormented by war for centuries. It is an intimidating challenge. The voyage has thus far been painful, and the currents of history continue to work against them. I just hope that this wave of liberalization across the Arab world doesn’t push us farther back to shore.