National Geographic is not where one would usually look for insightful political commentary, but that is where I came across one of the most remarkable explanations of why Democracy in much of the world hasn’t and ultimately won’t look like what we here in America expect.
The article in the May 2012 issue is about the current state of affairs in Egypt after the ousting of strong-arm President Hosni Mubarak and Egyptians' hopes -– and fears -- for the future.
The author, Jeffrey Bartholet, asks various people what they think is the next step on that country’s path to Democracy in the aftermath of the revolution. The author quotes Ahmed Saleh, the general director of Antiquities at Abu Simbel.
"Arabs won’t easily accept democracy, partly because it is against the rule of the father in his family or the chief in his tribe.” Abu Simbel says. “How can you change the mentality of the Egyptian in such a short time?”
Egypt is not Afghanistan, but the cultural and religious commonalities between those two countries are far stronger than any similarities between either nation and the United States. The author notes that, “Unlike Eastern European countries that broke free of communism, Egypt is not part of a wider region with a history of democratic practice.”
The same can and should be said of Afghanistan.
After 10 years, many Americans still have unrealistic and unrealizable expectations of what is and is not possible there. This misconception has been fed by our political leaders as well as by the talking heads in the media.
The result has been a disillusionment on the part of some Americans, leading to the questioning of our purpose there and the viability of peace and stability in a country that has historically known neither.
I’ve watched and listened carefully, but it is rare to hear anyone admitting the simple fact that the Jeffersonian model of democracy that we enjoy in this country is simply not a possibility in Afghanistan given the current state of raw materials – the people, history and culture – that exist there at this point in time.
In order to best understand how we ended up where we are today, we have to go back to the realities of Afghanistan on Sept. 11, 2001.
The Taliban was the ruling political party. Al-Qaeda was protected, funded and nourished by the Taliban. This was a nation in name only, whose people counted loyalty to family, clan and tribe above all.
There isn’t even a single Afghans language. The official languages are Dari and Pashto, but there are also more than 30 languages and dialects spoken as the mother tongue of the various tribes and ethnicities. The primary unifying factor was and is religion, but still with significant differences in practice.
After years of fighting against Soviet aggression and inter-tribal wars, the Taliban was able to step into the political void in the name of that religion. Initially, most Afghans supported the Taliban on the promise of a Utopian religious society but quickly learned to regret that decision. As did we here in the U.S.
By then of course the Taliban was firmly entrenched and the mostly illiterate, agrarian society was firmly under their theocratic rule. Religious doctrine became enforced with an AK-47, as did all aspects of daily life. Though uneducated, the people soon understood that the Taliban was about power, and as corrupt as any secular leadership had been in the past.
One of the biggest complaints of rank and file Afghans, even among those who were of the same tribe as the ruling Taliban, was their support of and open border policy to those foreign fighters who called themselves Al-Qaeda.
The people of Afghanistan supported our initial attacks on Al-Qaeda, as evidenced by their toppling of the Taliban. They looked to the U.S. as saviors. We had the strength and the will, fostered by 9/11, to protect them from those foreign fighters and to free them from the Taliban’s stranglehold.
They saw the U.S. as the only power on earth able to shield the people, to give them a chance to form an alliance of clans and tribes with which they could rule themselves, the closest thing to democratic rule possible given the culture, the history and the realities of this traditionally tribal-oriented society. And this is where our politicians failed them and us.
Someone in Washington decided that the American people, though still reeling from the attacks on 9/11, wouldn’t be able to stomach the form of justice we needed to mete out in Afghanistan, so they began the white washing and sugar coating that continues today. What’s worse is that they declared rules of engagement that were certain to fail both the interests of the Afghan people as well as the U.S soldier.
We were sold the idea of "Nation Building." While that may be a lofty and noble endeavor, it is not possible without clear understandings of the culture and history of the people. Providing food and clean water and passing out candy to children are not activities this culture equates with power. This is women’s work, not the deeds of men and leaders, much less of soldiers.
Our soldiers were sent on patrols, but not allowed to ‘engage’, read shoot, at enemy combatants unless that enemy was actively shooting at them. They were not allowed to take enemy combatants into custody even when the sole intent and purpose was to turn them over to the Afghan government, unless and until they were fired upon or otherwise attacked.
The soldiers on the ground knew who the enemy was and who were the local villagers. They saw these people every day. They knew who belonged, and they certainly knew who was a foreigner from Yemen or Saudi Arabia versus who was a local Afghan. Many of the soldiers on those early patrols called themselves bullet bait; they believed their main purpose was to be a walking target. They knew they were at best ineffectual and at worst, by their inaction, playing into the enemy’s propaganda.
The Afghans became disillusioned. The greatest military power in the world was doing nothing to protect them from the foreign fighters who were setting up in their towns, villages and homes. The people had no choice as they, their families and their children were threatened to keep quiet about the presence of these foreign fighters. They were told that the Americans would do nothing, and to prove it, examples were made.
A house was blown up with 40 male guests of a wedding inside as punishment for one village elder’s cooperation with the Americans. A 7-year-old girl was strapped with bombs and made to walk towards an American patrol while guns were held to her family’s heads. The message was received and the lessons were learned.
While the Americans may be the greatest power on earth, they were weak and didn’t really care about the Afghan people. The Americans were there to colonize, Al-Qaeda said. The tide was changing, and with it went the support of the American presence.
Today most Afghanis still say they are glad the Taliban was ousted but years of incomplete and ineffectual American actions make them say that they want the Americans gone, too. It is not because they hate us or even fear us; they simply don’t trust us to protect them from the thousands who pour into their country for the chance to fight the Americans. They feel they are pawns in a global game in which they have no desire to play. Worse, they feel as pawns they are completely disposable to both sides.
Still, they fear what will happen when the Americans do go home. They will still have to fight the Taliban. They will still be struggling with other clans and tribes for political power and supremacy. And they will still have to contend with the thousands of foreign fighters who came to oppose the Americans and who surely won’t be going home peacefully.
I don’t pretend to have all the answers. What I do have is countless hours of conversations with our military men and women, from the rank-and-file to some of the highest in command. They are the ones who have been there, boots on the ground, and who know what can and cannot work, what has and has not worked, and what is the only chance for completing the mission they were sent there for in the first place.
The mission, as they were told -- the one the American public was sold -- was to defeat and dismantle the Taliban so they could never again attack us. There are fringe groups and nations all over the world who have declared war on the United States but it was Al-Qaeda, with the primary support of the Taliban, who attacked us. They brought the fight to our shores.
Bin Laden is dead. The Taliban is no longer the ruling party. Yet, the enemy keeps coming. Those same soldiers told me again and again that it is rare that they faced Afghan fighters. The enemy that sets IEDs, that sends the suicide bombers, are not Afghans.
When faced with an Afghan fighter, our soldiers know even as they pull the trigger that the person they are about to shoot is more often than not shooting at them because somewhere in the next village, his family is being threatened with death if he does not fight.
The answer on how to end our involvement and bring our soldiers home according to these soldiers is pretty straight forward.
First, announce to the world what we are going to do then do it within 24 hours. Give the people a chance to protect themselves, to choose sides, without giving the enemy too much time to prepare.
Seal the border to Pakistan. It is from and through Pakistan that the seemingly endless number of fighters come. The border is an artificial one, being straddled by the traditional homeland of a few tribes, tribes that are nearly autonomous in both countries. Pakistan has admitted they have little or no control over their side of the border, and state that is why they cannot interrupt the flow of men and guns.
So, we must seal the border from the Afghan side and be willing to strike with impunity any attacks from across that border. The statement to Pakistan is simple…you can’t control them, so we will.
Once we have neutralized their ability to menace us anytime in the near, or not too near future, we leave the country to the Afghan people. They now have the schools, roads and infrastructure to begin to build a stable and peaceful future for themselves and their children. If they manage to develop some form of democratic rule in the aftermath, that is good. But, it really doesn’t matter. It is their country, their future, their choice.
It must be acknowledged that the Afghan people won’t initially support us. They simply don’t trust us. They don’t believe the most powerful military force in the history of mankind has the will to finish the job, which means that once we are gone, they will pay the price for whatever help or support they showed us. But, this perception can and will be overcome with reality. When they see the promises of the past decade being honored, we will once again have their full support.
While the soldiers are doing their job, they ask the politicians and the media do theirs. That means report the truth. The next time a bunch of Korans are burnt, tell the American people and the world why, and who is really responsible. The next time there are accusations that American soldiers have killed civilians, report that those civilians were being used as human shields for insurgents and their weapons caches, that their homes were being used as a base from which to fire upon patrols or as a lookout post for remote detonation of IED’s.
These soldiers tell me they know they may die. They simply ask that they be allowed to die doing their job. Finishing the mission is more important to them than their individual lives. I’ve been told more times than I can count that they are fighting our enemy there so we don’t have to fight them here.
They remind me that they knew what they were signing up for, and they did it willingly. They want to ensure that their brothers and sisters in arms, those who went before them in voluntary service to this nation and paid the ultimate sacrifice not be allowed to have died in vain. Then, all they want, all they hope for is to come home to a nation that honors their service and respects their sacrifices.
One final note. In all of the conversations I’ve had with members of our military, past and present, I’ve repeatedly been given the same answer to the question of “How much longer?” The answer, qualified with something on the order of “If we are allowed to do our job,” is months. Months.