Democracy in Afghanistan, and a response to Nir Rosen

Vanessa Gezari, for the Pulitzer Center

Journalist Vanessa Gezari answers your questions about her story on the Human Terrain program in Afghanistan for The Washington Post Magazine. She writes from Helmand Province, where she is embedded with a Human Terrain team attached to the Marines.

Check back soon for additional responses!

IMG_0674In Iraq, WMD gave validation for our troops in a war. Now Afghanistan has been occupying our troops for too many years with what result? Is this loss of life justified? A lesson learned should be: One cannot impose democracy on a country that in no way demonstrates it ability to carry out this obligation.

Posted by: JB Silberman | August 31, 2009 at 07:05 PM

Weapons of mass destruction were a false premise for the war in Iraq. And to be fair, we haven't exactly modeled pure democratic principals during our engagement in Afghanistan. From the beginning, we've supported people with guns over people without them. US soldiers have made tremendous sacrifices here, but soldiers take their orders from military and civilian leaders, and our Afghanistan policy has been pretty incoherent. When I first got here in 2002, the U.S. soldiers I met seemed to believe that all Afghans were Taliban. They knew little about this country, and weren't eager to learn. After a while, commanders started saying that since Afghan girls were back at school, we were winning. While I'm a huge supporter of female education, this wasn't our strategic goal in Afghanistan. You're right that the onus is on Afghans to pull together and make their country work, but we aren't innocent bystanders here. Many Afghans want a voice in their country's affairs, and there's nothing that makes them constitutionally unable to take part in a democratic system. But for many years, might has made right in Afghanistan, and we've so far done little to change that.


Karl Slaikeu is a psychologist and conflict resolution specialist from Texas. It seems as though he has no knowledge of Afghanistan's culture, politics or language, no experience in the country, no experience at war or aid work, no experience in the Muslim world or in occupations and insurgencies, so even if the Human Terrain program was a good idea, why would someone like him be chosen? At least give him six months of intensive training in Pushtu, the dominant language in the south, and training in post conflict reconstruction, or Afghan social structures. Otherwise what purpose does he serve?

The conflict in Afghanistan is not one a mere conflict resolution specialist from America can approach based on his own experiences. It cannot be reconciled if both sides sit at a table and talk it through. There is a foreign occupation in Afghanistan and a large group of people there oppose it, and many choose to oppose it violently. The Americans and their allies are unwanted guests, and even if its usual by accident, their presence makes life worse for many Afghans, and their goal of extending the reach of a corrupt and weak and often oppressive government scares many Afghans so much that they choose to side with the Taliban. What does Slaikeu bring to the table that an officer with common sense cant figure out? The grievances of Afghans do not require a psychologist to be understood. Most people reject foreign occupiers. Most people reject outsiders with guns patrolling their towns, blocking their roads, searching their homes and vehicles, installing
their government, eradicating their crops and otherwise interfering in their lives.

By associating himself with the soldiers of a foreign occupation, Slaikeu is implicating himself in their offenses against the civilian population as well. He is no longer a psychologist, he too is part of the occupation, which systematically imposes violence on the population, and introduces it into villages which might otherwise not have to worry about insurgents, Americans, suicide bombers or bombs dropping from planes. An additional problem with Slaikeu's approach is that it assumes jobs and development can solve an insurgency, when there is no evidence that this is the case and this approach also ignores the ideological aspects of the war. Many Taliban and their supporters view this as a war of national liberation, even if its discourse is also an Islamist one.

Nir Rosen Fellow at New York University's Center on Law and Security

Editor's note: Nir Rosen recently returned from Helmand Province, Afghanistan, where he reported on the counter-insurgency program on a Pulitzer Center grant.

Posted by: Nir Rosen | August 31, 2009 at 07:11 PM

I can't disagree with what you say about Karl's knowledge of Afghanistan. Although he went through months of HTS training, his understanding of Afghan culture and politics was limited when he arrived in Maiwand. In fact, I haven't met many Human Terrain team members who speak highly of their training. You're also right that Karl had never been to Afghanistan before. I agree that the project would benefit from training its people intensively in Dari and/or Pashto, depending where in the country they're going to be deployed. More than one Human Terrain team member has told me the same thing.

There's a prevailing confusion about what the Human Terrain project actually provides to soldiers, and the project itself has contributed to the murkiness. HTS came under fire in the press early on for staffing its teams with people who might have a background in anthropology or another social science, but who didn't know much about Iraqi or Afghan culture. Although the project billed itself as providing cultural expertise to soldiers, its creators now say that their aim isn't so much to provide cultural experts as to train people in interviewing skills and basic ethnography so that they can answer questions the soldiers might have about Afghans living in their areas. Those questions might be about the importance of a particular holiday and how US forces should celebrate it; about how Afghan humor works and how coalition forces might use it in their information campaigns against the insurgents; or about how much poppy farmers are paid for their crops and what they do with the money. The ability to gather this information is useful, but it's not the same thing as cultural expertise.

While Karl isn't remotely an expert in Afghanistan, he and Banger did bring something to the front lines that young soldiers in their unit didn't. The training of young infantrymen is still so focused on conventional battle skills that the 18- to 23-year-old men who took part in most of the patrols in Maiwand didn't have the capacity or desire to engage in any kind of real conversation with the Afghans they met. This made it extremely difficult for them to gather meaningful information or intelligence, and almost impossible to build relationships that could help isolate the insurgents. It may not seem like much, but simply by being older, more thoughtful and not steeped in military culture, civilians on the Human Terrain teams can break through with some Afghans and show them that Americans aren't just trigger-happy kids. It may be too late in the day for this to have much impact, but it's not an inherently bad idea.

I think your summation of the way Afghans view Americans and other international forces lacks subtlety. Afghanistan isn't Iraq. While you're right to note that Afghans in general deplore foreigners meddling in their affairs – and that goes for Pakistanis and Arabs as much as for Americans – many Afghans also see the presence of coalition forces as a bulwark against the violence and depravity of warlords, militia commanders and drug lords and the increasingly indiscriminate violence wrought by insurgents. I haven't heard many Afghans not aligned with the Taliban speak of coalition forces as a "foreign occupation," though I have heard them rage against coalition bombings that have killed many civilians and against the aggressive tactics historically favored by American troops here. I'd be relieved if I thought that by simply leaving Afghanistan, international forces could end the conflict. Unfortunately, it's more complicated than that. Afghans don't yet have the capacity to protect themselves from each other. I think this is what the U.S. is trying to give them by strengthening the police and army, though other non-military institution building is badly needed, particularly improving the justice system and cutting government corruption.