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Past vs. future in Afghanistan

By Vanessa M. Gezari

General Stanley McChrystal spends a lot of time talking about time.

He needs more of it, he said in Brussels last week. The NATO military campaign in Kandahar, planned for this summer, will take longer than anticipated because “it takes time to convince people.” He also talked about the past, saying that things have gotten better since last year.

He spoke obliquely about the perilous chronological territory that the U.S. military currently occupies in Afghanistan – otherwise known as the present – because, although he’s not technically a politician, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan knows that focusing straightforwardly on the here and now would be political suicide.

But McChrystal’s favorite topic in recent weeks has been the future. By talking about a period that is bright and nebulous and yet to come, he spares himself having to talk about the ugly realities required to get there: bloodshed, hardship, luck.

Afghans “want a better future,” McChrystal said in Brussels. “And I think that we’re setting conditions for them to shape their future.”

Photo: AP Photo/Musadeq Sade

In a 12-minute PBS interview last month, McChrystal mentioned the future 11 times – more often than progress (five times), insurgents (five times), counterinsurgency and the Afghan people (twice each). Asked how he expects to gauge the success of the Kandahar campaign (or “process,” as it’s now being called), he employed a metaphor from free-market capitalism. “It’s really going to be how Kandaharis feel, whether they are willing to invest in the future,” he said. “If they believe that next week is going to be better than this week – it’s almost like investing in the stock market – they will invest in Kandahar.”

All this talk of the future might sound odd to the people of rural southern Afghanistan. Some Afghans, especially those in the conservative south, don’t share the American notion of progress – the concept, almost universal in our culture, that tomorrow will be, indeed must be – better than today. In Kandahar and many other parts of Afghanistan, I’ve met farmers for whom children are future field hands, not avatars of social mobility. The last thing some of them want is for their kids to go to school and become doctors and teachers and move off the farm, leaving their parents to age and die alone.

I’m not making a value judgment here, nor am I generalizing about the whole country. Northern Afghanistan differs from the south and the west. Cities are not the same as villages. Young people generally do not think like their parents. But in western Kandahar province, where I spent a month embedded with an Army unit last spring, a few people may own cell phones, but they are deeply resistant to change. They harbor an abiding mistrust not just of foreigners but of everything modern.

On a warm, hazy afternoon, I joined a patrol to the village of De Kak Chopan, a scattering of compounds on a yellow plain near the Helmand border. The lieutenant in charge was an earnest 23-year-old from Charlottesville, Va., named David Ochs. Ochs had arrived in Afghanistan convinced that if his unit could just build a school and start educating kids, they’d at least begin changing Afghan views about the Taliban and the west. In De Kak Chopan, Ochs pitched the idea to farmers, who listened politely, asking only that he not single them out for special attention. (There could be repercussions, they knew, for anyone seen talking to an American). One farmer who had been friendly to the Americans on earlier visits nodded appreciatively. “I would like to see my kids go to school and get an education and read something, not be like us, getting up at four in the morning to shovel and work,” he said. Elsewhere the response was cooler. An older, bearded man said there weren’t enough children in the village to justify a school. As he spoke, several small boys slipped from a nearby house and stood shyly behind him. Across the plain, a girl and boy appeared herding a flock of young goats.

“There are enough kids here,” Ochs said. “The question is, do you want it?”

“We’d like a school for our children,” the man said. “But we’re scared of the Taliban.”

“After I send my kids to school, they will come and ask me, why did you do that?” added the man’s grown son, who had joined the conversation. “Maybe they will cut my throat.”

The older man wore the beads and long, curling locks of a Sufi. He was a Kuchi, a nomad. Maybe his family would be moving on soon, he said, and his children wouldn’t get to use the school.

Ochs slapped his legs in frustration and turned to his interpreter. “Ask him what he thinks the future of this country will look like?”

The old man stared at Ochs. “I never think about our future in Afghanistan,” he said.

It was a stunning moment, the clash of cultures resounding as powerfully as cymbals. For the U.S. military in Afghanistan, the past is a locus of failure. This is true both in terms of America’s involvement there since 2001 and in terms of the broader history of foreign intervention in a country that routinely frustrates invaders. The future, meanwhile, is open and full of possibility. We have what the military calls a “can do attitude” about it.

Not so for the Afghans who McChrystal is trying to reach. Their culture venerates the past, whose stories are told and retold. The idea that things can and will get measurably better – that change in any way equals progress – requires a monumental act of translation in and around Kandahar. The hopeful brightness that Americans associate with the future is reserved in Afghan villages for the enduring delights of this world: nature, honor, and romantic and filial love. Otherwise there is only the past and what comes after, the slow knocking of intention against reality like water against the hull of a ship. The continual rhythms of hope and disappointment that characterize life in a difficult place.

Vanessa M. Gezari has been reporting on Afghanistan since 2002. She is writing a book about U.S. military efforts to understand Afghan culture.



  • William

    Dear Need To Know,
    My post of 6:07 pm June 19 was written in haste and should be disregarded (preferably deleted, Please).

    Ms Gezari makes an interesting point. The Afghans want a better life, but they do not look to the future. They look to an idealized past and reinforce it by retelling their stories. They do not have a theory of progress.
    Western civilization did not have a theory of progress until the1680′s when Fontenelle wrote “Dialogues of the Dead” 1683 and “Digression on the Ancients and Moderns” 1688. Thereafter, the West had a theory of the progress of knowledge. The theory of progress depends on Motion which was established by Thomas Hobbes after he visited with Galileo.

  • Tom Bellgard

    I have a Kyber Pass medal earned by my father whilst serving as a british army doctor in 1920. Shortly after the end of the second world war several very tall Pathan tribesmen approached me as I was on the way home from school in Cardiff in Britain and asked me if I knew where Dr. Bellgard lived. They had travelled half way around the world to repay a debt of honour and thank him for things he had done for them and their families in Afghanistan.
    I mention this to show that these people have a deep sense of honor and to push my theory that there is another way to win than by force of arms. The Russians were far more ruthless than the British who preceded them, failed to win on the battlefield and it is quite true “that those who fail to learn from history live to repeat it”. Why not spend less money and lose no lives by investing in a propaganda war to give young Afhgans the wish and pride of developing the great modern nation they could become.