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The 72-Hour Expert

Everything you always wanted to know about Afghanistan .  .  .

Aug 30, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 47 • By P.J. O'ROURKE
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Then, around the corner from the blast walls, there’s a third Kabul, an ordinary city with stores and restaurants open to the street and parking impossible to find. The architecture is overseas modern in cement and chrome with some leftover Soviet modern in just cement. It’s a bit worn and torn looking but less so than Detroit or Anacostia. 

Security here is merely ubiquitous as opposed to omnipresent. Men, women, and children mingle. Women cover themselves in public but not more than my grandmother did at Mass. An occasional down-to-the-ground burka is seen but not as often as in London. In the malls, clothing shops predominate. Men’s and women’s clothes are shinier and more vividly colored than those seen in a traditional society such as New Hampshire.

Traditionalism being one of the things that makes Afghanistan so hard for Americans to understand. We Americans have so many traditions. For instance our political traditions date back to the 12th-century English Parliament if not to the Roman Senate. Afghans, on the other hand, have had the representative democracy kind of politics for only six years. Afghanistan’s political traditions are just beginning to develop. A Pashtun tribal leader told me that a “problem among Afghan politicians is that they do not tell the truth.” It’s a political system so new that that needed to be said out loud.

The Pashtun tribal leader was one of a number of people that Amin arranged for me to interview. Tribalism is another thing that makes Afghanistan hard to understand. We Americans are probably too tribal to grasp the subtlety of Afghan tribal concepts.

The Pashtun tribal leader was joined by a Turkmen tribal leader who has a Ph.D. in sociology. I asked the Turkmen tribal leader about the socioeconomic, class, and status aspects of Afghan tribalism.

“No tribe is resented for wealth,” he said. So, right off the bat, Afghans show greater tribal sophistication than Americans. There is no Wall Street Tribe upon which the Afghan government can blame everything.

Even the worst of Afghan governments never acquired the special knack of pitting tribe against tribe that is vital to American politics—the Squishy Liberal Tribe vs. the Kick-Butt Tribe; the Indignantly Entitled Tribe vs. the Fed-Up Taxpayer Tribe; the Smug Tribe vs. the Wipe-That-Smirk-Off-Your-Face Tribe.

“We are all one nation,” said the Pashtun tribal leader. “In the name of Afghan is included all the tribes of Afghanistan. Outsiders create divisions to serve their own interests.” Better than having insiders create divisions to serve their own interests, President Obama take note.

“Are there land issues between the tribes?” I asked the Turkmen. He told me there are land issues between everybody. Land titles are a mess in Afghanistan, or, as the Turkmen put it with a nice Ph.D. turn of phrase, “Definition of ownership is originally ambiguous.”

The situation is so confused that the Soviets, of all people, attempted to impose private property in Afghanistan. “They tried to change the law, but the period was too short. Afghanistan,” the Turkmen said and laughed, “did not use the benefits of colonialism.”

The problem in Afghanistan is really not so much land as water. It’s a dry country with ample amounts of water running through it but not to good enough effect. “We have a law to distribute water but not to manage water,” the Turkmen said. This lack of management combines with the age-old conflicts between nomads with their need for watered pastures and farmers with their need for irrigation. “The Turkmen,” said the Turkmen, “settle close to the desert. The Pashtuns settle close to the source of the water.” Downstream and upstream. It’s the plot of Chinatown. If you don’t understand Afghanistan, blame Robert Towne.

Both the Pashtun tribal leader and the Turkmen tribal leader were unenthusiastic about the word “tribal” and felt that “ethnic groups” is a better way to describe the differences among Afghans.

I held forth on American patriotism, how it had to do with our own ethnic groups and the attempt to give American immigrants of the late 19th and early 20th centuries a sense of nationhood. The tribal leaders understood exactly what I meant, which is more than I can say for our NATO allies on the subject of American patriotism.

“Fifty years ago,” the Turkmen said, “things in Afghanistan were going in the same direction as the U.S. growth of patriotism. These systems were disturbed by the events of the last 30 years. Also, the geographical location of Afghanistan is not helpful to building national ideals. The focal points of the tribes are outside the country.”

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