Afghanistan is in the news today ..…again. Today it is an Afghan soldier who attacked his American allies, killing three of them and wounding others. Again, it is a sad example of what can happen in that fractured nation which cannot seem to move past dysfunction, despite years of assistance from the International Community. This time, however, it comes amidst a maelstrom of controversy and division within our own country that is profound. Many people on both sides of the aisle in the US may be forgiven for saying that we should take care of our own backyard first because of our problems. That sentiment may be even more forgivable when one considers that most of the time, the Afghans are not taking the responsibility for their own destinies. Let me explain.
When I first arrived in Afghanistan in early 2003, many Afghans were bewildered and unsure about what might be happening in their country and what part they should be playing. It was understandable and the International Community, like all good allies, took up a large bit of the slack and began to do things for the Afghans in areas like security, defense and reconstruction. For the Afghans, this was might have been a good thing if it had been combined with a systematic approach to giving the Afghans the kind of insights and training that was not only relevant to them, but that helped them see beyond their years or war and devastation. The International Community didn’t do that.
Instead, the community of allies, while continuing to be well meaning, began to lose sight of its more altruistic intentions, and began instead to focus on the large amounts of money that were being spent in Afghanistan and the growing number of their ex-pats who were coming to Afghanistan to take jobs that paid better than any they could have found back home.
This was not necessarily a bad thing. It would have been impossible to get people with the expertise needed to build that country after so many years of neglect without offering them more than adequate compensation. It takes an expert to build an electricity infrastructure or to build roads that will last, and those people could work in any part of the world. They accomplished minor miracles under great duress in that terribly broken place. I, too, was well compensated for my time in Afghanistan, will forever be grateful for that financial shot in the am. It must also be said that for the great majority of us who were so well paid, there was also hard, difficult work done for the money. We were making a positive difference and Afghanistan began to improve, if even a little.
What went wrong was that in doing so, we often did not bring our Afghan counterparts along at the rate they need to be brought along. Often, Afghans remained as ignorant of what was happening around them as they had been at the beginning of this wild experiment in nation building.
This was not entirely because the opportunities for progress and change were not made available by dedicated engineers and experts in such fields as construction or electricity. Often it was because the Afghan themselves could never be a cohesive group focused on making life better. They often chose instead to focus on divisive issues like whether the Dari or the Pashto word for university should be used in the national dialogue, or how the controversial Durand Line could be done away with. The betterment of their children’s lives through education, improved healthcare or a modern national infrastructure was not as important as these tribal issues. They were increasingly thought of by many Afghans as Western values being imposed upon them, values they did not treasure as did their allies. Thus, they often acted as though they were enemies rather than allies.
So, as the discussions about Afghanistan are raised again, maybe this time we should also be talking about exactly what the responsibility of Afghans to make their own destiny is and how can we make them take it on their shoulders instead of ours.