How One Op-ed Explains American Ignorance About Afghanistan

A former National Security Council member under both George W. Bush and President Obama, Douglas A. Ollivant, wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post that is symptomatic of why the US is still not getting its longest war right and how Afghanistan is still misunderstood, even by high-level policymakers. 

Mr. Ollivant contends that the war in Afghanistan is, in essence, three wars: the war against Al-Qaeda and its associated groups, the war to help the Afghan government, and “the least understood but the most enduring” war:

The internal social and cultural battle between the urban modernizers of Afghanistan, mostly based in Kabul, and the rural, tribal, anti-modern peoples who live in the country’s inaccessible mountain regions.

While there is an internal social and cultural struggle going on between progressive Afghans and their more traditional counterparts, it is by no means “mostly” based in Kabul. And by no means are the “anti-modern” segments of Afghan society only based in the “inaccessible mountain regions” – in fact, it’s often the opposite. And, no, “rural” and “tribal” Afghans are not necessarily anti-modern.

The truth is that like any country, Afghanistan has its contradictions and complexities that cannot be easily reduced to convenient generalizations. For example, in Kabul, the heart of Mr. Ollivant’s progressive Afghanistan, there are those who rail against shelters for battered women and those who steadfastly fight back; there are those who are educating Afghan girls and boys in the modern arts and sciences and those who violently oppose them; and there are those who valiantly protest misogynistic laws and those who lodge counter-protests. The contradictions and complexities of these situations are not too different from the American city of Lexington electing its first openly gay mayor in the deeply red, conservative Kentucky, or New Yorkers protesting simultaneously for and against the proposed Park 51 project.

Mr. Ollivant presents the Pech Valley as the only example of his claim that “anti-modern” Afghans are centered in the mountainous, inaccessible regions of Afghanistan. In doing so he completely neglects the mountainous, inaccessible province of Bamiyan with its female governor, the equally mountainous and inaccessible province of Daikundi with its female mayor, or the mountainous and far-flung Badakhshan where incredible work in the areas of public health and education is done by devoted individuals in the face of Sisyphean odds.

Then there is the city of Herat – not Kabul – with its progressive elements and its tough female prosecutor general who made the Time 100.

That these brave women are in positions of power doesn’t mean they don’t have their conservative detractors – they do, like Malalai Kakar in Kandahar did – but there are also those who respect and support them and work under them, highlighting Afghanistan’s contradictions and complexities that defy convenient categorizations.

But Ollivant does not stop there. He writes about Pech and its surrounding valleys:

Well-meaning commanders and their advisers built more than 40 bases there, constructing roads to share the benefits of civilization with the region’s tribes.

And then there’s this line that has the makings of Orientalism, as if someone from the outside is taking his first peek into Afghanistan and marveling at what he finds:

Even traditionalists appreciate some of modernity’s advantages. What isolated chieftain doesn’t like hard currency, and who doesn’t prefer easier export of local products, whether food or gems or timber, to urban centers?

This is the language that countless generations of peoples from Africa to the Middle East to the Indian Subcontinent have heard. And in Afghanistan, it does the exact opposite of what counterinsurgency doctrine, at which Mr. Ollivant is an expert, suggests – it alienates the population. And mere roads are by no means the hallmarks of civilization – it is how a society treats its women and minorities, and its poor, its defenseless and its indignant. Defined this way, Afghanistan is mired in much the same struggle for civilization as the United States and the rest of the world.

Despite all of its flaws, however, Mr. Ollivant’s piece makes one important point – that Afghanistan is still a war worth fighting, albeit in a smarter way. It’s worth fighting for the tangible achievements of the past 10 years wrought by the sacrifices of countless Afghans and their international partners, and to prevent from materializing the trite but true warning that the post-American Afghanistan might become like the post-Soviet one. That is, an Afghanistan mired in proxy wars and functioning as training ground for the world’s most notorious terrorists.