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When the Wave Hits Afghanistan

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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.


8 responses

  1. Jay

    Interesting thoughts, certainly unlike anything I’ve read elsewhere. Good insight.

    15 February 11 at 22:42

  2. Thought-provoking insights, as usual, my friend. Thanks.

    15 February 11 at 22:58

  3. William Kinzie

    That you make this connection and inference shows you’re
    miles ahead. How ARE we (the US) going to democratize in a few years a country that is so remote in many ways from the 21 st century.

    Yes, the head chiefs have much to fear. But, they also have a
    powerful grip over their constituents and that is TRADITION.
    The only way Afghanistan is going to join the 21st century is
    through education….something that the village elders fear.

    15 February 11 at 22:59

  4. In the past, you’ve written quite plainly the need for mothers to have a bearing on the raising of their sons, and also for education for girls. I think –despite any fears raised that the village elders might raise objections due to recent events, that the key will lie in patient back and forth. I’ve been very impressed with what Greg Mortenson has done –for over 20 years, pre-COIN in some very remote areas of Afghanistan. As with all things, approach is 99% of the determinant of the success of any outcome.

    There’s no doubt that recent events in Egypt, Tunisia, and I predict more will continue to ripple through the social network of even the small remote towns. What I worry about as much is whether or not this war weariness is going to do away with efforts such as hold the shuras that you and so many others have done, and continue to do so. Without those patient back and forths, the willingness to listen in order to gain small steps, will greatly stymie any efforts to help girls gain a foothold and mothers have the status so
    they can have hearsay in raising their own sons.

    I would say that a lot rests on the leadership being created –from NCO’s to Officers, in your generation.

    16 February 11 at 00:52

  5. Maureen

    Having a loved one in the area of which you speak, I cannot help the fear that builds every day as I watch the news in Egypt. Your words spoke to my heart.

    16 February 11 at 02:34

  6. In the end…when all is said and done…God will have His Way! We can worry, we can lack understanding; but it is best to hold unto HOPE for all nations and for all peoples every where. Everything can change all in a moment. Our Security is in God and we will do well to remain close to Him in our personal relationship with Him. Our prayers can turn the tide and lift the oppression from a multitude of people….perhaps not as quickly as we would like; nor in the way that we would like, but change comes…sometimes for the better…sometimes for our hurt. Let good prevail and let evil cease to exist is my prayer. Help everyone find
    the good within themselves and to let that good grow and advance the good within their nation. Freedom calls her people…as they answer that call and gather together…We can hold them in our prayers. We can send our best wishes out to them, ….Let Good prevail! May good people out smart all that is evil….where ever there is a breathing breath may they whisper a prayer for God’s help to know what to do, where to go and how to get it done. All nations need a whole lot of healing! Let it be so. May God hold
    you ever close in the palm of His hand and close to His Heart!

    16 February 11 at 16:52

  7. Meredith

    This is such an insightful post and it’s so interesting to read about what the local perspective among village leaders in Afghanistan would be on these current events. It’s so interesting to think about how people are connected and how they interpret the events in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. I’m looking forward to your next post and future thoughts.

    5 March 11 at 17:44

  8. J

    Great post, Rajiv.

    I have to agree with your perspective about what the local elders would think. You have that nailed.

    I hail from the same part of the world, having grown up a few hundred miles from Kabul. I remember the attitudes my family had then. My grandparent’s generation was only marginally more open-minded than the village elders you speak of.

    In the 50’s, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India consisted of the same people, with pretty much the same socio-economic strata across the borders. We were no better off than they. 50-60 years later, the differences are profound. Why? Was it the political system? The religions? Or did attitudes have something to do with it?

    So I end with a chicken-and-egg question. Did the attitudes shape our progress or did the progress shape our attitudes? I can’t help but feel that if our family hadn’t opened their minds, if my mother hadn’t gone to college and built a career for herself, we would still be living in mud-floor houses and kitchens with no running water.

    But these attitude changes can’t be implanted from the outside. The fact that we (the US) are exhorting the Afghanis to change, by trying to win their hearts and minds, makes the change less likely to succeed.

    And that’s truly tragic.

    6 March 11 at 03:45

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