Pashtuns Are People, Too

by Joshua Foust on 10/28/2008 · 2 comments

Bill and Bob’s Excellent Afghan Adventure lays the smack down on the current trends in punditry.

Now the pundits turn their attention to Afghanistan and, being largely unfamiliar, they do their quick study job and come forth with Kiplingesque pronouncements about Afghanistan, Afghans, the tribes, Pashtuns, and the Taliban. Suddenly, everyone’s an expert.

Their nods to Rudyard Kipling, the British Army of the 1800’s, and the Soviets of the 1980’s are gripping tales. They set the Afghan upon a pedestal as some mysterious, unbeaten, somehow invincible foe. Gloomy pronouncements are seized upon by the other voice that had previously used Afghanistan to their purpose in opposing Iraq; the war protester voice. Iraq having lost the limelight for the present, they turn their gaze to Afghanistan as well. Now, it is to bring their ire to bear on this campaign; for there really is no good campaign to them…

Afghanistan is no land of deep and abiding imponderable mystery. Most assuredly, they are a proud people with a long history. The landscape of Afghanistan is dramatic, and the society of Afghanistan is an ancient lifestyle emerging into the 21st Century on crutches. Crippled by ancient practices that are not complicated, the only thing that is difficult to make sense of quickly is the tangled web of relationships in a seemingly undefined mass. Most are boggled by the intermingling of interests and allegiances and just walk away shaking their heads and spouting mysticism.

That’s the easy answer; the intellectually lazy answer… Here’s what I can tell you about Afghans; they are people. They have a culture that is different from ours in many respects, but it is not rocket science to learn their culture and be respectful of it even if we disagree or don’t understand it. Afghans hate arrogance. You can show an Afghan a good way to do something and they will adopt it, if it works better, because they are supremely utilitarian. If you try to force them to do it your way, you are in for a struggle.

Bingo! This is what I’ve seen in my many years of admittedly distant observation: at their very heart, people are people. Basically, as long as we’re not jerks, we’ll probably do fine. The lazy pronouncements now by ambulance-chasing journalists—including, unfortunately, many of the independent blogger-journalists BABEAA laud—don’t help matters, but that’s because they never took the time to understand Afghanistan beyond the platitudes.

Moreover, this is the opinion of one of those embedded teams we hear so little about in the media. This is partly by design: both ETTs (embedded tactical trainers) and PMTs (police mentor teams) spend a lot of time outside the wire, away from where the reporters hang out. They spend that time in person with locals, eating their food, sleeping in their villages, and serving their communities.

This is not easy or safe work. But it is vital—absolutely vital—to the mission in Afghanistan for these programs to continue. ETTs and PMTs have the best advice to give about Afghans of all ethnicities—demystifying them, removing that annoying veil of exoticism that colors all the writing about “mountain fastness” and “omg the british lost a battle.”

Unfortunately, voices like BABEAA are not in the mainstream, not even of military thought. They don’t get heard at the strokey-beard meetings that dream up pea-brained ideas like “exporting Anbar” and whatnot. And they don’t get heard in many prep classes for PRT commanders, Battalion commanders, or even BCT commanders. It’s too bad—they have a lot of good ideas that could seriously turn things around for us.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Rabia October 28, 2008 at 9:57 pm

Great post! It’s actually related to something I read recently in _The Pathan Unarmed_ by Mukulika Banerjee (it’s about the khudai khidmatgar movement) where she was describing the difference between Mountstuart Elphinstone’s account of the Afghans and British accounts after the first Anglo-Afghan war. Basically, Elphinstone was full of praise for the honesty, hospitality, and good governance of the Afghans and the later accounts were all about how the Afghans are an inherently dishonest nation of robbers who would do much better being ruled by someone else. It’s amazing how conflict changes the attitude to an entire ethnicity.

Sallam Khan October 29, 2008 at 1:39 am

Pashtuns are people, too
I am puzzled. What the title makes sense with the content of this article.

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