The engineer from Florida seemed the perfect seatmate on that eight-seater Cessna flight from Kabul to Kandahar over the rugged reaches of Afghanistan. It was my first visit, and he’d already been living six months in the former Taliban stronghold, overseeing the construction of highways and schools as part of the effort to rebuild the war-shattered country that America bombed in response to Sept. 11.
“What sights should I see?” I asked as we flew over the Kfar Jar Ghar mountain range. I’d heard of the shrine to the Cloak of the Prophet Mohammed and of Chihil Zina, the forty steps up a hill that lead to a 16th Century memorial.
Tom laughed at my question. “I don’t go anywhere in Kandahar,” he said. “I haven’t seen anything. Guards pick me up at the airport and drive me to my compound. When I need to visit a construction site, they drive me to a helicopter and I fly there wearing a bullet-proof vest.” He leaned toward me and spoke just loudly enough to be heard over the hum of the engines. “The best choice you could make is to follow my example.”
Fear. It has become our closest companion in Afghanistan, even when we are there to “do good.” Doctors Without Borders recently decided to pull out of the country after two dozen years of providing humanitarian assistance there. The United Nations, relief agency is scaling back its operations around Kandahar, and other relief agencies are considering following suit.
U.S. Embassy officials warn against venturing beyond the capital and the bulk of the relief workers, private and public, generally adhere to this advice. There is, in fact, what Afghan-born author Tamim Ansary calls a “shadow nation” on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, peopled by those who actively oppose foreign involvement in their country.
Yet it is a mistake to allow suspicion to dominate our actions there. Human interaction, not simply a military or economic presence, is a critical component if our policies in Afghanistan are to be successful. When the only Americans visible in Kandahar, the country’s second largest city and its spiritual center, are armed soldiers glimpsed inside passing tanks, we create a barrier that breeds mutual distrust and will make forming lasting ties virtually impossible. And in the years to come, we are without doubt going to need every friend in the region we can claim.
The politics of fear have been a favored tool of the Bush administration but they nearly always backfire. Under that influence, we begin to view everyone as “the Other,” alien, incomprehensible creatures of ill intent. And in response here’s the rub we are soon viewed in much the same way, as conquerors out to shame and rob this impoverished country instead of help it rebuild. Without human connection, these perceptions remain even when the U.S. government and private agencies are pumping in dollars.
Abdullah, who goes by only his first name, is an engineer and a devout Moslem in his 40s from a prominent Afghan family. He lived in Kandahar during the Taliban years, when the ignorance and cruelty of the country’s leaders practically paralyzed him. He hated rules that required him to pray at the mosque instead of at home, that regulated the length of his beard, that barred him from listening to music in his house or humming on the street. He hated the undercurrent of dread and violence, the seemingly random beatings and shootings.
“I was so glad to see the Americans at first,” Abdullah told me one night over a late dinner eaten on the floor at a Kandahar guesthouse, moonlight shining in through the large windows, the dust finally settling for the day. “But now they don’t talk to us; they just drive around in armored cars and watch us suspiciously. So now, I’m suspicious of them.”
Afghan tradition says a guest must never be asked to leave. But when a host wants to signal that a visitor has outstayed his welcome, the joke is that he should serve lentils for every meal. “The time has come,” Abdullah said, “to serve lentils to the Americans.”
The truth is, though, that foreign armed presence is necessary for the moment to help maintain the fragile stability. And it could be argued that fear is understandable: after all, over 30 aide workers have been killed in the last 18 months, and more than 130 U.S. soldiers have died since Operation Enduring Freedom was launched. So what is the answer?
The vast majority of Afghans, and Iraqis for that matter, are not terrorists, just as most of us are not sadistic torturers. We know this. So instead of pulling out, foreigners who are contributing to rebuilding the country particularly by funding small start-up businesses need to get to Kandahar, Jalalabad, Herat and other towns and villages. The answer, in other words, lies in more and closer involvement, not less.
“The U.S. is building bastions so Americans can fly in and out safely, but they might be more effective in their war against terrorism if they would instead help Afghanistan become normal,” says Ansary. “If you talk with Afghans on a one-to-one basis, you find that everyone has a scheme. Funding those ideas would make a difference, and that requires direct contact between Americans and Afghans.”
I did not follow Tom’s advice. I visited private homes, met the city’s Taliban-era chief justice, shopped in the local bazaar and posed for a snapshot with a group of grinning, armed Afghans. I encountered curiosity and courtesy. Once, in a village outside Kandahar, a bearded man watched me with suspicion. But when his brother invited me into their home, he followed, removed his turban, and soon was asking questions and telling me stories along with the rest of his family. Turns out he had a great sense of humor.
President Bush often calls Afghanistan an “ally in the war on terror” and describes American policy there as successful. But if we can’t find a way to make authentic human connections where they are needed most, in the southeastern heart of Afghanistan sandwiched between Iran and Pakistan, our alliances can be neither genuine nor lasting.
MASHA HAMILTON worked for 10 years as a foreign correspondent, for the Associated Press in the Middle east and for the Los Angeles Times in Russia. Most recently, she reported from Afghanistan. Her second novel, The Distance Between Us, is available in November 2004 from Unbridled Books.