The 72-Hour Expert
Everything you always wanted to know about Afghanistan . . .
Aug 30, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 47 • By P.J. O'ROURKE
But not far enough outside. The Turkmen have their heartland in Turkmenistan, the Uzbeks in Uzbekistan, the Tajiks in Tajikistan and Iran. Even the Pashtuns, who are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, comprising about 40 percent of the population, count Peshawar in the Northwest Territories of Pakistan as their cultural capital. And the language spoken by most educated Afghans, Dari, is a dialect of Persian.
It is as if, around the time Emma Lazarus was penning “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” Dublin and Naples and Warsaw and Minsk had been moved—complete with every palace, slum, monument, gutter, priest, princeling, bum, thug, and man-at-arms—to Ellis Island, and all of America’s schools had started teaching their lessons in French.
Nonetheless Afghan patriotism obtains. Maybe because, as the Turkmen tribal leader pointed out, every “old country” to which an Afghan ethnic might turn manages—somewhat extraordinarily—to be a worse place than Afghanistan.
There’s that and what the Pashtun tribal leader had to say: “If Afghanistan is divided why do we keep defeating outsiders?” He went on in that vein, like Lincoln but with a thousand more years of history to go on, dating back to the 12th-century outsider-defeating Afghan empire of Alauddin Husain, known as “the World-Burner.” In the Pashtun’s words, “A divided country cannot win.”
Earlier in the day I’d heard a mullah become heated on the subject of ethnocentric politics. He accused a politician in the Karzai government of being a “national traitor” for doing what might be called playing the Charlie Rangel card.
The politician is a member of the Hazara tribe (the Afghan politician that is, though I’m sure Charlie Rangel would be glad to claim Hazara blood if it got him a tribal casino in New York’s 15th congressional district). “Why I called him a national traitor,” said the mullah, “is because he said he would shed his blood in favor of Hazaras. Instead of saying this was a judicial matter, he said it was a fighting matter. He broke his constitutional obligation.”
The mullah represents another thing that makes Afghanistan hard to understand for Americans, although only for elite Americans who’ve had prestigious schooling and hold advanced opinions about everything. We ordinary Americans, far from such centers of heathen unbelief as the Brookings Institution, get the drift of a deeply religious polity.
I interviewed two mullahs at once, which might have been awkward as they were opposite types, but they seemed fond of each other and the quieter mullah even took a few notes while the more voluble mullah was talking.
The quiet mullah was quietly dressed and modestly bearded, his close-cut hair topped with a simple turban. He was immediately recognizable as “mainstream.” I don’t mean he was hopelessly mainstream to the post-religious point like some American clergy. I’d compare him to a solid Methodist or Presbyterian or picket fence Baptist, not unwilling to make his sermons socially relevant but no Kumbaya singing.
“Preaching isn’t limited to the mosque,” he said and told me how he spends time sitting with shopkeepers, listening to complaints about price gouging and talking about the Islamic view of these matters.
It is, by the way, things like price gouging that the Taliban casts itself as a defender against—the free market being one more of modernity’s villains.
The quiet mullah talked about peace, not harping on its somewhat obvious convenience for individuals, but speaking of “the importance of peace to Islam.” There’s something more than mortal men at stake in peace—God demands it.
Along with peace, the mullah said, one of the most frequent topics of his sermons is leadership. Two of the criteria that the quiet mullah gave for political leadership would eliminate most U.S. politicians, “Be educated. Know the society.” But the first criterion was to be Muslim.
The more voluble mullah explained, “Since the time of Adam until now there are four books from God.” (Muslims, like Jews, divide the Pentateuch from the rest of the Old Testament.) “This is our constitution.”
It’s a little long, I suppose—even longer than the proposed EU constitution. But there are worse documents by which to live and govern—the proposed EU constitution for example.
Being a person who believes in God-given rights, I don’t find a God-given constitution very disturbing. But some Americans—Americans involved in Afghan policy—apparently do. The next night I had dinner with the governor of a province that has its share of Taliban troubles. Talking about the hindrances he faces in getting assistance from the United States, the governor protested against something that he must have been told by some American, that there is a “ban on religion” in the U.S. Constitution.
“Disarm the Taliban,” the governor said. “Take the Islamic weapon away from them.” He wasn’t talking about secularization.
This more voluble mullah was a splendid figure, a big man in a bright white shalwar kameez with a magnificence of beard in elaborate curls and a turban that looked as if it would take all night to unwind and all day to wind up again. He was an evangelical. I say that in the original complimentary Gospel way. (I’m low church Protestant on my mother’s side.) I was swept up with his eloquence before its translation arrived. He was concerned that I’d only made it three-quarters of the way through the four books from God since the time of Adam. I was concerned that if I spent another 20 minutes with him I’d be in trouble with my parish priest.
I asked both mullahs about the idea of a “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West. The quiet mullah thought there might be some truth in the notion, arising from three things: inappropriate behavior of Muslims, materialism (in the metaphysical sense) of non-Muslims, and mutual ignorance.
“Maybe,” I volunteered, “the real clash of civilizations is between people who believe in God and people who don’t.”
The voluble mullah said, “There are those who don’t believe in God. Fortunately neither Muslims or Afghans or Americans are among them.” I hope he’s not being too optimistic about the last-named. (Later I would get a more dismissive answer to the clash of civilizations question from a member of the Afghan parliament. He said, “Chinese, Muslims, Jews, Europeans—they work together in international finance markets every day.”)
As the mullahs were departing an Afghan journalist gestured toward the more prepossessing of the two. “He’s a drone problem,” said the journalist. “They see the clothes and the turban from up in the air and they think, ‘Taliban!’ And he is like Taliban, but on the good side.”
Yet someone in Afghanistan must think the Taliban on the other side are good for something too. Otherwise there wouldn’t be an “Afghan issue.”
The Taliban offers bad law—chopping off hands, stoning desperate housewives, the usual things. Perhaps you have to live in a place that has had no law for a long time—since the Soviets invaded 31 years ago—before you welcome bad law as an improvement.
An Afghan civil society activist, whose work has put him under threat from the Taliban, admitted, “People picked Taliban as the lesser of evils.” He explained that lesser of evils with one word, “stability.”
A woman member of the Afghan parliament said that it was simply a fact that the Taliban insurgency was strongest “where the government is not providing services.” Rule of law being the first service a government must provide.
The member of parliament who laughed at the clash of civilizations laughed as well at what had passed for rule of law in Afghanistan. “Sure Afghanistan is unruly,” he said. “Afghans don’t like rules. No one likes rules. And that is what we have been—ruled. We have been ruled, not governed.”
A journalist for Radio Azadi said, “Afghans were happy in principle that Americans brought peace and democracy. But when rival tribes began to use the U.S. to crush each other, the attitude of the Afghan people changed.”
Afghans think Americans have sided with the wrong people. It’s not that Afghans think Americans have sided with the wrong people in a systematic, strategic, or calculated way. It’s just that we came to a place that we didn’t know much about, where there are a lot of sides to be on, and we started siding with this side and that side and the other side. We were bound to wind up on the wrong side sometimes.
We’re outsiders in Afghanistan, and this is Occam’s razor for explaining the Taliban. Imagine if America were a country beset with all sorts of intractable difficulties. Or don’t imagine it—America is a country beset with all sorts of intractable difficulties. Our government is out of control, wantonly interfering in every aspect of our private lives and heedlessly squandering our national treasure at a time when Americans are suffering grave economic woes. Meanwhile vicious tribal conflicts are being fought for control of America’s culture and way of life. (I’ve been watching Fox News.)
What if some friendly, well-meaning, but very foreign power, with incomprehensible lingo and outrageous clothes, were to arrive on our shores to set things right? What if it were Highland Scots? There they go marching around wearing skirts and purses and ugly plaids, playing their hideous bagpipe music, handing out haggis to our kiddies and offending our sensibilities with a lack of BVDs under their kilts. Maybe they do cut taxes, lower the federal deficit, eliminate the Department of Health and Human Services, and the EPA, give people jobs at their tartan factories and launch a manhunt for Harry Reid and the UC Berkeley faculty. We still wouldn’t like them.
The Pashtun tribal leader said, “I tell my own tribesmen to not support the Taliban, but they don’t listen. They see the Taliban as fighting invaders.”
The Radio Azadi journalist said, “When people felt they were dishonored, they needed revenge. The Taliban gave them revenge.”
To fully sympathize with the dishonor an Afghan might feel, foreign government, U.N. and NGO aid agencies must be considered. Myriad of them operate in Afghanistan, staffed by people from around the globe. So it’s not just that you’ve got Highland Scots marching in hairy-kneed formations up and down your cul-de-sac. Many of the most ordinary functions of your society have been taken over by weird strangers. When you need a flu shot or a dog license or a permit to burn leaves, you have to go see Bulgarians and Bolivians and Nigerians and Fiji Islanders.
Afghanistan’s minister of education, Farooq Wardak, is no friend of the Taliban, but he did sound like he might be a recruit for the Tea Party. “I am absolutely unhappy with the U.S. role in Afghan education,” he said. “Zero percent of U.S. aid to Afghan education is spent through the Afghan government.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because the Ministry of Education is not certified by USAID because no one from USAID has evaluated me or my ministry in the two years that I’ve held the job.” Without the evaluation he can’t get the certification.
He said that the U.S. government wanted to spend money on a program called “Community-Based Education.” But that was a program the ministry had developed when the Taliban was attacking girls’ schools across Afghanistan. It was a way to provide, he said, “covert education for girls. Now we need overt schools.”
The U.S. government also wants to spend money, he complained, on “accelerated teacher training” when what Afghanistan needs is just plain teacher training. “This accelerated training leaves no bricks and mortar behind. You are spending U.S. tax dollars building something taxpayers can’t see.” His pocket critique of U.S. aid: “Everything is air, nothing is on the ground.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him about No Child Left Behind.
But the Taliban isn’t winning much love either—otherwise we and our NATO allies would have already gone the way of the Soviets. The civil society activist had a very Afghan insult for the Taliban: “The Taliban has the power to kill and people still don’t like them.”
Radio Liberty’s Pakistan bureau, which broadcasts in Pashto, had just run a story about the Taliban being as clumsy as the United States in dealing with tribalism—as clumsy but much more brutal. Unable to penetrate Pashtun tribal hierarchies the Taliban had, according to the report, begun killing tribal elders, with more than a thousand murdered so far.
“The older tribal leaders are everyone’s target,” the woman MP said. She also described how the Taliban, in areas under its control, go to villagers and demand, “Son or money.” This insistence on either payoff or cannon fodder (drone fodder, I suppose) must undercut the Taliban’s reputation for incorruptibility. But corruption in the Afghan government remains a raw material of insurgency.
As I mentioned, there’s a lot of security in Kabul. The only place I saw that lacked any security—not a gun or a goon to be seen—was at the office of Ramazan Bashardost, a Shia MP running for reelection to parliament. He has a reputation for fanatical opposition to corruption. And, actually, he doesn’t have an office, he refuses to have an office. Instead he has a tent pitched across the street from the parliament building, a large, simple nomad’s tent staked in an empty lot and without so much as a carpet on the stony ground.
Bashardost has something of the look of a young Ralph Nader, with that Nader gleam of indignation in his eyes and that Nader tendency to pull out thick sheaves of documentation concerning each subject he’s indignant about.
He had been in parliament before. He quit over what might seem a fine point. “I left parliament because Karzai said salaries should run through September when parliament had ended in May.”
He had also been minister of planning. “I left the Ministry of Planning for my values,” he said. He pointed to the pavement between his tent and the fortified parliament building. The four-lane avenue was completely torn up, littered in construction machinery and nearly impassable. “We are three years into a six-month road project.”
Asked to summarize corruption in Afghanistan, he said, “It is a mafia economy disguised as a market economy.”
Not that Bashardost is at all like Ralph Nader in his attitude toward a market economy. He has a Ph.D. in economics and believes Afghanistan should be using private investment for development rather than international aid.
But, he said, “Afghans hate a ‘market economy’ because it equals corruption.” (Being fluent in English he put market economy into phonetic quotation marks. He did the same with democracy.) “Afghans hate ‘democracy’ because democracy equals power of the warlords, equals power of corruption, equals no rule of law.”
If Americans claim not to understand Afghan corruption, we’re lying. Bribery has been a dominant part of our foreign policy in Afghanistan, the way it’s been a dominant part of everyone’s foreign policy in Afghanistan including al Qaeda’s. What we Americans don’t understand about Afghan corruption is why it’s so transparent, just a matter of openly taking money. Don’t the Afghans know that you should take bribes indirectly—by collecting publicity, popularity, public recognition, prestige, influence, and, most of all, power? Then big corporations put you on their boards of directors and that’s when you get the money. Meanwhile you’ve been riding in government cars, flying on government planes, eating out of the government pork barrel (lamb barrel in Afghanistan), so why worry about payoffs up front?
Afghans have failed to move their corruption from the Rod Blagojevich model, which we all deplore, to the Barack Obama model, which we all admire.
How can we know what America should do in Afghanistan? I’ve returned fully informed on this subject as well. We should stay. The member of parliament who dismissed the clash of civilizations said, “It’s like buying a beautiful home somewhere and letting your neighborhood deteriorate.”
Really, seriously, we should stay. Otherwise, Ramazan Bashardost said, “You’ll see Chinese soldiers in the street. We have a border with China. They’re a very rich country. We’re very poor people—in a most strategic region.”
We should leave. The Pashtun tribal leader said, “We don’t have war. What we have is instability. Armies create instability. If you try this for 20 more years you’ll never succeed.”
We should do both. One of the Radio Azadi journalists said, “There’s the same feeling in Afghanistan as there is in the U.S. We worry about the U.S. staying, and we worry about the U.S. leaving.”
The Afghan people are pro-American. The woman MP said, “We say, ‘Our enemy is their enemy.’ ”
The Afghan people are anti-American. Ramazan Bashardost said, “Frankly, people are generally against the U.S.” But he tries to argue with them. “I say U.S. troops are in Afghanistan for values, not for oil—there is not enough of it.”
We should talk to the Taliban. The Pashtun tribal leader said, “Accept the fact that we cannot eliminate all Taliban from Afghanistan.”
We shouldn’t talk to the Taliban. The governor said, “Talks further strengthen the enemy’s position.”
The Afghan government can be reformed from within. The governor said, “Blaming corruption is just a way to put blame on others for our own shortcomings. Internal strategies are needed to strengthen military and civil society.”
The Afghan government can’t be reformed from within. Bashardost proposed something like General MacArthur did in Japan after World War II.
Poverty is the root of Afghanistan’s problems. Bashardost said, “We are ready to support you for three hundred years. If we have electricity. If we have a life.”
Poverty is not the root of Afghanistan’s problems. “Or Haiti would be the most terroristic country in the world,” the governor said.
There must be something in Afghanistan that we’ve got right. There is. Radio Azadi, the Afghan bureau of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, is on the air 12 hours a day, seven days a week, half the time in Pashto, half the time in Dari. What Radio Azadi does is known as “surrogate broadcasting,” meaning the content is Afghan-produced as a way for Afghans to get news and views in a place where otherwise they have to be delivered mostly face-to-face. And there is no agenda except to be factual (although facts are an agenda item if you care about freedom, which is what Azadi means in Dari).
Radio Azadi’s bureau chief, and my host in Kabul, Amin Mudaqiq, has 120 staff members and freelancers. They produce news bulletins, news in depth, and features on social, political, and economic topics plus a couple of hours a day of Afghan music and even some comedy: “Police announced today that all the people who have passed their driver’s license test must now learn to drive.”
A missing persons program, “In Search of a Loved One,” tries to reunite families separated by decades of chaos. A medical program is hosted by doctors with eminent specialists, often from overseas, as guests. “Azadi and Listeners” is devoted to getting individuals individual responses from government ministries.
The call-in shows are popular. On a day when I was in the studio Afghanistan’s minister of communications and minister of the interior were taking random phoners, trying to clear up confusion about a confusing-sounding system of national ID cards. I don’t think it’s likely that the head of the FCC and a member of President Obama’s cabinet would spend two hours in a Spartan, airless broadcast booth talking with people who are unable to read through a form-filling process and suggesting work-arounds when local government corruption is encountered.
The quiet mullah told me that the day before an elderly religious scholar had asked for help buying a radio so that Azadi could be listened to in his mosque.
The Pashtun tribal leader said, “Azadi is doing very well because they are telling the facts.” He griped that other media were insensitive to religion and culture.
The civil society activist thought that wisdom and social relationships were best established in person, but second best was radio. “Radio can pass wisdom,” he said.
The woman MP told me about how, after the fall of the Taliban, Radio Azadi had conducted four hours a week of open political debate. “The Afghans got it,” she said. She praised Azadi’s “diversity of opinion” and the fact that it sometimes has “the government getting upset.”
“Even the U.S. ambassador is afraid of our show,” an Azadi journalist told me with a big smile.
“Any feeling of censorship from the U.S.?” I asked Amin.
“We haven’t felt any,” he said.
“A good channel,” the minister of education called it. “An important institution. I’ve never had the feeling it was unnecessarily taking sides in the Afghan conflict. It maintains its impartiality.”
“I wasn’t sure what you’d hear from the minister,” a Radio Azadi journalist told me later. “We’ve been critical of him.”
The MP to whom I’d talked about clashing civilizations and deteriorating neighborhoods was a bit surprised at America’s sponsoring Azadi, the more so, I think, because he’s an American. That is, he lived for a long time in America where he spent ten years as a commercial airline pilot.
“America,” he said, not without pride, “is spending money for you to express your opinions—not to twist your opinions but to express your opinions.”
Ramazan Bashardost’s only complaint about Radio Azadi was that he wasn’t on it often enough. He was reminded that, only recently, he had been named by Radio Azadi “Person of the Year.”
“Yes,” he said and apologized for bringing too much documentation to radio interviews.
“One positive point in Afghanistan is media,” he said. “And the only positive point in Afghanistan is media.”
Even the Taliban calls in to Radio Azadi—to argue with the hosts and guests.
“We know you are funded by the U.S. Congress,” a Taliban spokesman told Amin. “But we judge you by your deeds.”
“The Taliban call to argue—this is good,” said the woman MP.
“The Taliban fights the U.S. militarily,” said the airline pilot MP, “but uses the U.S. [funded] media to express themselves.” He chuckled. “I say to them, ‘If this system is bad, you are using it! When you had your radio, would you let us call in?’” He saw the Taliban as caught in a trap by the logic of freedom. “This is a format that must be expanded.”
The governor thought the Taliban itself might accidentally expand it. He recalled the days before Radio Azadi, during Taliban rule, when the only outside media was the BBC Afghan service. “The Taliban told people that they would go to hell if they listened to the BBC. Then everyone listened.”
There was one other point that people in Kabul agreed on. Whatever it is that America does in Afghanistan, America should proceed with wisdom. The governor told a story about wisdom.
There was a student who had been studying for many years at a madrassa. He had memorized the Koran and learned all the lessons his teacher taught. One day he went to his teacher and said, “I am ready to leave and go be a mullah.”
His teacher said, “I think you should stay here for a few more years.”
“Why?” asked the student. “Is there some additional degree or higher certificate that I will get?”
“No,” said the teacher, “all you will get is wisdom.”
“But I’m ready to be a mullah now,” said the student. And he left the madrassa and wandered from village to village looking for a mosque where he could be the prayer-leader.
Finally the student came to a village where a corrupt old mullah was using the mosque as a stall for his cow. The student was outraged. He gathered the villagers together and told them, “I have studied at a madrassa. I have memorized the Koran. It is a great sacrilege for your mullah to use the mosque as a stall for his cow.”
The villagers beat him up.
The student limped back to the madrassa and told his teacher what had happened. The teacher said, “Follow me.” They went back to the village where the mullah was using the mosque as a stall.
The teacher gathered the villagers together and told them, “I see you have a beautiful cow being kept in your mosque. It must be a very blessed animal. And I hear the cow belongs to your mullah. He must be a very holy man. In fact, I think that this cow is so blessed and your mullah is so holy that if you were to take one hair from the cow’s hide and one hair from the mullah’s beard and rub them together, you would be assured of paradise.”
The villagers ran into the mosque and began plucking hairs from the cow’s hide. The cow started to buck and kick and it bolted from the mosque and disappeared. Then the villagers ran to the mullah’s house and began plucking hairs from the corrupt old mullah’s beard. And they tugged and they yanked so hard at the mullah’s beard that he had a heart attack and died.
“You see,” said the teacher to the student, “no cow in the mosque and a need for a new mullah—that is wisdom.”
P.J. O’Rourke is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.
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