Afghanistan: Complicated, Confusing, and Tragic

Kabul, Afghanistan—Malou Innocent and I have been interviewing a range of people in Afghanistan’s capital.  Getting around isn’t easy.  The traffic is horrendous: automobile ownership has grown on roads built for a different era.  Street upkeep is not one of the city government’s strong suits.  Police checkpoints and traffic barriers dot Kabul.

Arriving at your destination is merely the start.  Military bases, government ministries, Western embassies, luxury hotels, and large businesses are fortified with tall walls, barbed wire, concrete barriers, reinforced gates, and guard posts.  Armed personnel man entrances and patrol grounds. 

As so often is the case, it quickly becomes evident on the ground that foreign conflicts are far more complicated than commonly advertised.  Afghanistan is a diverse and complex land.  Parts of it are stable and peaceful.  Ethnic and tribal divisions run deep, but vary around the country.  Although rural illiteracy is high, many urban Afghans are as educated and sophisticated as the Westerners who have flocked to Kabul.  And most everyone evinces a desperate desire for peace and security.

An overwhelming sense of tragedy hangs over this beautiful land.  The evidence of war and instability is everywhere.  The old royal palace still stands, abandoned and wrecked years ago.  The casualties of endless conflict are visible—adults and children hobbling along on only one leg, legless beggars by the road.  “Poppy palaces,” many constructed with drug money, continue to rise while the streets teem with people struggling to find work.  Afghan women covered by burqas walking outside of hotels and restaurants serving alcohol to foreigners.  Westerners abound, fighting the war, running NGOs, advising government ministries, and otherwise attempting to re-engineer Afghan society.

Individual stories remind us how blessed we are to live in America.  As frustrated as we might grow with U.S. government policy, we live in a nation that is prosperous, peaceful, democratic, stable, and still relatively free.  One 27-year-old Afghan, who currently works for a government ministry, told us about how his family decided to flee Kabul after his neighborhood was bombarded as the city was being fought over by various mujahedeen factions.  They returned home from Pakistan after the ouster of the Taliban; now he worries about the future.

The overwhelming message that we have heard so far is that the Afghan government is incompetent and corrupt; as such, it is a poor partner to Western nations seeking to create a functioning state.  Moreover, Western nations, and especially the U.S., are commonly unrealistic in their assumptions, objectives, and tactics.  We have yet to encounter many optimists about allied policy.

Although many foreigners of good intentions are working in Kabul, the flood of money to consultants and NGOs is often wasted or misspent.  Afghans themselves have grown cynical after decades of war; many focus on the short-term and are happy to manipulate Western aid agencies and militaries alike.  At the same time, those who have come forward to idealistically work for a better future are vulnerable and worry about the consequences of an allied retreat.

Every conversation makes it more evident how little we know and hard it is to understand this complex society and conflict.  Malou and I don’t expect our time here to turn us into experts.  But we do hope that we will learn enough to better participate in the Washington debate over U.S. and allied policy towards Afghanistan.