Archive for December, 2008

Pulling Afghanistan from Poverty

Monday, December 29th, 2008

If we can treat ghetto culture in the U.S., we can do it elsewhere, too.

Afghanistan is a ghetto.

If you can see beyond the exotic clothes, the mountains and the overwhelmingly rural aspect of the country, it’s obvious. No, Afghanistan doesn’t look like an inner-city slum. But over the course of 11 visits of a month or so each, I’ve come to believe that Afghans in many respects act like people trapped in “the culture of poverty.” Yes, they are a warm, hospitable, vastly social people, but they are crippled by a dysfunctional culture.

By and large, Afghans are relentlessly present-oriented, unable to delay gratification, macho, authoritarian, fatalistic, passive, disorganized and feckless when it comes to responsibilities. They spend time almost exclusively with relatives, have few affiliations with civil society and mistrust others outside their family groups. There is little to no privacy in an Afghan family, and little individuation.

The majority of Afghans are illiterate, but even most of those who are educated are oriented to oral rather than written culture. Learning in schools is by rote memorization; class sizes are huge, dropout rates high. Religion is practically the only activity that unites Afghans who aren’t blood relatives. Independent thinking and critical reasoning are not much in evidence, and very few Afghans seem to have internalized moral codes, even based on religion. Fewer still are able to stand up to peer pressure and do the right thing when called for.

While Afghans aren’t nearly as violent as Americans on an individual basis, as a group, they have had trouble figuring out ways of working out their differences through discussion rather than warfare. Very few of their rulers in the last hundred years have peacefully relinquished power to a successor. Tribes operate more or less like gangs, albeit white-bearded gangs.

And so we Westerners (and Indians and Japanese)–and more particularly, we Americans–are engaged in the business of what is euphemistically called “reconstruction,” though there was nearly nothing in the way of human or physical capital in Afghanistan when we arrived. (I will leave aside for the moment the question of why a country that had world-class architecture, poetry and art from the ninth to the 15th centuries was reduced to a basket case by the 20th.)

What the U.S. and its allies are really trying to do in Afghanistan is social engineering on a grand scale, scarcely seen in the whole history of the world, and the most wonderful good luck for the Afghans. We are bringing to the ghettos of the Islamic world the same conviction that we brought to our own slums: that the cycle of poverty is breakable. (more…)

Policing Afghanistan

Monday, December 15th, 2008

Too few good men and too many bad ones make for a grueling, uphill struggle

Khost and Kandahar Provinces
Like most of the rest of Khost Province in eastern Afghanistan, Gorbuz District is a floodplain where wheat, corn, and other crops are grown by ancient methods in small plots running up to the base of 9,000-foot mountains. Stone or mudbrick-walled qalats–fortified family compounds of half an acre or an acre–dot the countryside, often built on elevated ground.

Some qalats have a de Chirico aspect, precise brown rectangles against a big, brilliant blue sky. Others cluster in villages that, like Italian hill towns, take on the appearance of a single walled compound.

Over the course of the last two years, a few jarring notes have intruded into this timeless landscape: a smoothly paved road, a huge solar-powered street light in the bazaar, a satellite dish on the district center complex. Nearly all of these are the work of the U.S. Army, which is attempting to bring Gorbuz and the rest of Khost from the Middle Ages to modernity. Until this year, Gorbuz had no schools; now its 80,000 people have 14.

The infrastructure projects are intended to improve the lives of ordinary Afghans and motivate them to rally behind their national government. People are voting with their feet, as refugees return from Pakistan. Firm numbers are hard to come by in Afghanistan, but the best there are–those provided by U.S. forces–suggest that Gorbuz had a population of 66,000 in 2007. Now, people are starting to find conditions here better than in Pakistan’s neighboring Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

But while most Afghans embrace at least the tangible benefits of modernization, the small opposition remains violent. And for the Afghan National Police (ANP) in Gorbuz and much of the rest of Khost, this apparently tranquil, age-old landscape is a minefield. (more…)