Thursday, March 01, 2012

My friend has a curious ritual in the mornings. I have to put things in my pockets. He has to take things out of his pockets. He takes everything out of his pockets that comes from the 20th century. He is in particular careful that he has no pieces of paper on them with writing on them. He is an official in Afghanistan. His way home includes roads that have Taliban roadblocks at random points. They stop all cars and search all occupants. If any piece of paper is found that has writing on it the person is taken away and decapitated.

"The Taliban can't read so they assume anything that has writing on it is proof that you work for the government."

I have heard this story from many people. In my five years of traveling to Afghanistan to study the attitudes and values of university students and professors there I have heard versions of this story in many variants. One student witnessed a man being taken away by the Taliban for having a bank card. Another for having a piece of paper which advertised the opening of a grocery store. The words civilized and barbaric are liable to be applied with too much ease. They are liable to be dismissed as terms of propaganda, the sort of words that are so loaded that one scarcely credits them. But here we have a set of facts to which they can be justly applied. Indeed, from throwing acid in girls faces for the crime of learning to read to murdering school teachers the word 'barbarism', in its original sense opposition to reading, settling differences amicably and the rule of law and living in a fixed abode, in short, civilization, is the only word that captures the issue of contention in this conflict.

We are now negotiating peace with the leaders of the Taliban. This is called progress. It is if you are a man and have no interest in say, reading books or being able to shave or wear blue jeans or make any of the thousands of decisions great and small that we take for granted as being the birthright of a free human being.

There is a groaning feeling among Americans of all political persuasions that this sort of backwards, medieval fanaticism is representative of the Afghan people. All that Americans see of Afghans are the relatively small but extremely violent crowds that mount attacks against outside our airforce base or against Afghan police and that our press insists on calling “protestors”. Once you throw a grenade surely you are no longer a group of protestors but insurgents using our tolerance and felt obligation to respect freedom of assembly to provide cover.

And so the fact that the Taliban are proving hard to finally defeat because they are supported by the people of Afghanistan. Such an opinion is quite unfounded. In the five years I have been traveling to study the opinions of university students there is no group that is rated lower in esteem than the Taliban save one: al Qaeda. This is not an artifact of the fact that I am studying an uncharacteristic and relatively privileged population (if you can call studying in a university that often lacks electricity and where you must hide your school books and destroy anything you have written if you travel outside the security perimeter of the capital city privilege). In fact, all of the survey data we have shows the the Taliban is deeply unpopular and that the ISAF war against them is widely popular. The complaint that Afghans  whom I have talked to is that we are not dealing roughly enough with the Taliban.

The thing that I have heard most often over the five years I have been traveling to Afghanistan and talking to university students at all universities is that the Americans are pretending to not be able to defeat the Taliban. To the extent I have encountered anger it is at what they perceive as the reluctance we have shown in killing the Taliban. When in am there I constantly hear stories about the Americans or ISAF letting the Taliban go, failing to pursue or even actively supporting the Taliban. On closer inspection these stories are seen to an American to be instances of our legal strictures and applying rules like innocent until proven guilty or not taking risks unless you are absolutely sure or arresting people instead of killing them.

But these legalist rules often make little sense to the Afghans. For the US and its allies the fact that the war has changed from being a war against a foreign enemy and the Taliban being members of a foreign army to being a civil war or internal conflict and the Taliban being citizens accused of crimes and having due process rights. The fact that the Taliban were fighting in uniforms meant they could be killed on sight. The fact that they are now often dressed as civilians means that they often have to be allowed to walk away. This makes sense in terms of international law but it means little to Afghans. They see us destroying the the Taliban wholesale in 2001 when they are 60,000 and we are a few hundred and being bogged down and talking about negotiating when they are perhaps 30,000 and we are 120,000. When bin Laden was killed and many Americans were fretting about the lack of a trial the Afghans were fretting and complaining as well, but to the opposite point. One friend said to me, “If you can kill bin Laden so simply why can’t you take the same sort of decisive action here?”

Once we called the Taliban enemies of humanity and America. We have decided that we would rather not be there so Now we call them partners for peace. Perhaps the Afghan war is un-winnable, at least under the  constraints we have set ourselves. But let us not say that the problem is the Afghans don’t want us and their democratically elected government to win. It is we who are undecided.

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