Thinking Like an Afghan

For years now, Washington’s political class has been locked in a hand-wringing debate over what to do about Afghanistan. Should the U.S. continue to plan for an extended military engagement? Can “moderate” Taliban somehow be peeled away from fanatical Taliban? Should the U.S. give up on democracy and focus on killing Al Quad terrorists with Predator drone assassination attacks, regardless of civilian casualties, public outrage or their legal ambiguity?

Although packed with foreign policy experts, the current debate remains largely grounded on what policy best serves Washington’s needs, but in terms of what’s best for Afghans, the answer to all of the above questions is no.

For most of the last 70 years nobody in Washington cared much about Afghanistan.  Generations of Washington diplomats found no resources to value or strategy to gain by befriending it. Kabul’s early requests for military assistance in controlling its wild eastern frontier with Pakistan were first ignored and then outright rejected, leaving Afghanistan to seek aid  from the Soviet Union. Conservative 1980’s Washington found the country endlessly useful as a cold war platform for declarations on freedom and self-determination, but then turned it over to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to determine its fate once the Red Army had left.

Today, every beltway pundit and media talking-head wants to help president Bema finally get Afghanistan right. But if getting Afghanistan right in 2009 boils down to abandoning everything that the U.S. and the west have invested over the last 7 years, then what do they have to lose by abandoning their old misperceptions?

Understanding how to forge a workable strategy  for Afghanistan may be far simpler than anyone to date has considered, if only those with the power to do so in Washington can finally shed their obsolete cold war thinking and start thinking like the Afghans who fought to establish and maintain an independent Afghan nation.

Thinking like an Afghan

From antiquity, Afghan identity has been rooted in the lands surrounding the Hindu Kush bordering the Indus river. Afghan independence began as an uprising led by a mystical Sufi philosopher Bayezid Ansari against Mughal rule in the 16th century.  Beginning  in 1747, an Afghan dynasty ruled from Kashmir to the Arabian Sea and from Central Asia to Delhi and continued to rule Afghanistan until 1978.

Afghan rulers defeated British armies on three separate occasions while masterfully playing Britain’s interests off against imperial Russia’s southward march.  Afghanistan’s late 19th century nation builder, Amir Abdur Rahman Khan faced impossible odds at  keeping Afghanistan independent. Yet, he fought his severest battles against his own relations, his own subjects and his own Pashtun people and he succeeded.

For the decade of the 1920’s, despite severe opposition from rural landowners and powerful Mullahs and destabilization from British India, Amir Amanullah Khan moved the country forward through progressive rule while bringing an unprecedented level of rights to women. And while Iran and India were occupied by allied forces during World War II, Afghanistan’s Royal Prime Minister, Hashim Khan maintained Afghanistan’s independence by staying out of the war and adhering to a strict neutrality.

Following the creation of  the state of Pakistan, Washington’s cold war objectives and Pakistan’s ambitions formed a single mindset. But that mindset now works against both the United States and Afghanistan as Pakistan’s military intelligence works unceasingly to undermine the efforts of Afghan moderates to establish a viable democratic state.

According to a recent Asia Foundation poll, 78 percent of Afghans continue to prefer democracy over any other form of government and despite its shortcomings, 68 percent said they were satisfied with the way democracy was working. An ABC/BBC/ARD National survey of Afghanistan in February found that  58 percent of the population saw the Taliban as the biggest danger while only 4 percent of Afghans support a Taliban government. Yet Washington appears immune from this reality.

If President Obama wishes to bring stability to Afghanistan and the region he must learn to see Afghanistan through Afghan eyes, help the Afghans defend their communities from Taliban terror, and give them the help they need to reestablish a genuine civil society.

In doing so, he may not only solve Afghanistan’s problems, but begin the renewal of Washington as well.

Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould are authors of Invisible History: Afghanistan’s Untold Story, available from City Lights Books  and  Invisiblehistory.com


Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould are authors of “Invisible History: Afghanistan’s Untold Story,” published by City Lights. They can be reached at  www.invisiblehistory.com

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