Saturday, January 29, 2011

Afghanistan: A Grounded Perspective

Everything about my experience in Afghanistan has been instrumental to my personal, spiritual and professional growth. Afghanistan’s chaos, disparity and catastrophe is upsetting to me and I won’t feel satisfied until its people are able to live in peace. I’ve been pondering the situation, and continue to educate myself on what’s happening in the area by following many different media sources, studying Afghanistan’s history and by talking with friends who work there in humanitarian aid and development. When looking for a valid firsthand experience, out of my entire network I think of Peter because he has a clear, empirical perpective on a very confusing and messy situation. I met Peter when I worked for the Parliamentary Election in 2005. He worked in the electoral office of public outreach and was in charge of the film and television campaign for civic education. Upon meeting Peter, his humble sensibility, down to earth perspective, and passion to understand the Afghan people impressed me immediately.

Peter has worked in Afghanistan off and on since his first visit in 2001. What I find most intriguing is that most of his work there has been developing communication strategies for organizations like the UN, USAID, and the Afghan and Pakistani government, in order to reach citizens in both countries, and even to specifically reach the Taliban. Not only is he a friend, but because of his concern for the planet and experience in our shared field of development, he is also a mentor. The following interview took place on the 26th of January 2009.

Liz: Did you specifically work on communication strategies to deal with the Taliban?

Peter: Yes, probably the one that most focused on that was the strategy I developed for the Pakistani government, a USAID funded project to figure out a communications strategy for the tribal area because it’s the tribal part of the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), that is truly the seat of the Taliban’s power. There’s a three percent literacy rate for women and something like seventeen percent for men. It’s very, very underdeveloped and the Taliban are becoming much, much stronger there and it’s basically off limits for international organizations--I mean nobody is really working in there…

All of the strategies I’ve written have touched on issues regarding the Taliban; these strategies all have something in common which is that these organizations, whether it’s a ministry, the UN or USAID, want to communicate with people in order to build a stronger link between citizens and their governments, so that they will support their governments instead of supporting the Taliban or other insurgents. You know the term “the Taliban” I use very broadly, because it’s being used to describe many different groups, other than the traditional Taliban. It’s also including the Kashmiri Mujahedeen, and the followers of Hekmatyar, and all these people who before, were even opposed to the Taliban themselves, but now the way the term “Taliban” is commonly used in the media really includes all those groups. So I’ll use it in the same way they use it, which really means that we’re talking about anti-government Islamic extremists I guess.

If you look at the Taliban that came about in the nineties in the refugee camps around Peshawar, well that was the beginning of the Taliban, and these other groups in the news today are not those Taliban.

Liz: What were some of the greater challenges with your communication strategy that you worked on in Pakistan?

Peter: In order to have a strategy you have to have a place where the strategy is coming from and know where it is you wish to be in the end. In the case of Pakistan, I could not identify the beginning of that strategy, because I could not find the government. The government is a totally fluid concept and so when you’re talking about government, are you talking about the president? Are you talking about the leadership of NWFP? Are you talking about ISI (inter-services intelligence - Pakistan's version of the CIA)? They have strong links to the Taliban and also have been funded largely by the CIA. I mean Pakistan does not have a cohesive government. That’s why you have to invent the concept of what is the government. In the case of this strategy, I really basically just forgot about Pakistan. And I made the beginning point of this strategy the government of the Northwest Frontier Province, and the essential focus of my strategy was around the understanding that all the people living in the tribal area are Pushtun, and they have been marginalized for hundreds of years; first in the British Raj, and then Pakistan continued that. Basically these ruling forces wanted to keep this area undeveloped, and use it as a buffer zone to Afghanistan. There were a few people who benefited greatly in the form of making a lot of money from the trade, but the people who suffered were the people from the tribal area. So they hate the government in Pakistan. They don’t feel very much affiliation at all with other Pakistanis. And so basically the biggest problem on both sides of the border is that the Pushtuns have been marginalized, both in Pakistan and in Afghanistan, and they are turning to the Taliban as a last resort. You could use the analogy of Palestine and Israel. It’s the same thing. I mean when people are desperate, and they have no other way to try to get power, they go to desperate means. And that’s why they’re turning to militant means, in order to push their culture, because they’ve been marginalized on both sides.

One thing that is overlooked a lot is that, ok the Taliban are very extreme. They have very peculiar notions about a lot of things, but the core of the Taliban, their core values, come from the Pushtun culture. And so you can’t totally discount them.

There was another element to my strategy in Pakistan where I talk about the big T Taliban and the little t taliban. The big T Taliban being I guess what we would call terrorists, although I’m not sure that I even agree with that term, but violent extremists who use violent means. Whereas the small t taliban I’m defining as all the people who are supporting the big T Taliban people, but who do not themselves engage in violent activities. Both little t and big T Taliban belong to the Pushtun tribal system and these are the people to whom we need to reach out, because forty percent of the population in Afghanistan, and twenty percent of the people in Pakistan are Pushtun, and it’s my belief that there can be no peace without reaching out to them. And you can understand them in a similar way to looking at Hamas and Hezbollah in Israel and Palestine, which is that you have a marginalized minority that is very impoverished, that is just pushed and pushed and pushed and they are looking for whatever means in order to change their lives. And the solution for the West is to improve their lives, to improve their education and give them opportunity, not to keep pushing them and marginalizing them—that’s never going to work, ever. And of course the complicated part is how you do that; how do you do that now, when you have the Taliban already burning down girl’s schools and all the rest of it?

But of course we lost five years in there where the Bush administration just decided to let Musharraf do whatever he wanted in the tribal area and with a focus just on terrorism, not on development. What the west needs to do is have a long-term strategy of helping to develop that region and not only when it’s just convenient for us.

Liz: What’s the general feeling on the ground in Afghanistan right now? Is the average Afghan on the street getting more fed up with the Taliban?

Peter: Well it’s hard to say. There are a couple of things going on. On one level, the Taliban are growing in influence. And of course that means the efforts have been a strategic failure. And the reason for that failure is, I think, because we’ve been focusing on and giving the most prominent place to, the military. I’m not saying that we don’t need to use the military. You do need a military, just like you need police in big cities. I mean you have to have that element of it, but it should always be subservient to larger goals. I think those larger goals need to be diplomatic and development oriented. But you know that’s been the whole Bush administration. Everything has happened at the point of a gun. And now it’s hard to correct our path because basically we’ve have had years of following this other strategy. It’s not just going to turn around and go away. It’s going to be difficult.

Liz: Do you think that the US should send more troops?

Peter: I don’t think that sending more troops is the answer or not the answer. It depends on what they’re doing there, and I certainly don’t think sending more troops as a sole effort, is the solution. I think if they go there and if they can support a bigger mission and a changed strategy, then they could be useful. The deployment of soldiers is a tool, and if that tool is used strategically in the right way, they can assist in some kind of a bigger mission.

Liz: During your time in Afghanistan, what were some of the positive effects you saw because of the Western military?

Peter: Well, I think that first and foremost, keeping the peace in certain places has been important. Being a presence. Some of the work they’ve done with the PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team - located in all of the provinces in Afghanistan and Iraq and in some cases the safe havens they’ve created are the only secure places for westerners) has been useful, although I believe that it shouldn’t have been driven by the military. I guess I believe, like Hillary Clinton once said,  that development should be development and war fighting should be war fighting. And we shouldn’t have soldiers out there doing development work. When I went to Afghanistan in 2002, I was out in Herat (a province in Western Afghanistan) and I saw these Special Forces guys building bridges out there and I was shocked. I was like, “What are you doing?” The military should be doing the military work and the development people should be doing the development work. And I’m not saying it should be totally isolated, but I think one of the strengths of America has always been that the military is subservient to the civilians. And that is very well defined in our constitution--it needs to be that way out in the field, as well.

Soldiers are soldiers. I’ve met many over the years and I’ve liked many of them. It’s not a question of that. I’m not going to sit here and rail against American soldiers. I was once interviewed by Iranian TV after an incident in Herat, in which many civilians had been killed, and they wanted me to say, “Well, that was a deliberate thing on the part of the American government to go in and kill ninety civilians”, and I just don’t believe that’s the case. I do believe that more care needs to be taken with what the military is doing. I think it’s necessary for the military to be there, but the biggest problem is that they’ve been working outside of their mandate. And USAID in particular needs to come back to being a prominent organization within the US government that has its own separate mandate. That separation was lost under the Bush Administration—it basically came from one place. You know? “ Here we are. This is our mission. Basically we’re out to conquer the world.”

Liz: So you’re saying it was hard to see the line between the US Military and USAID?

Peter: Yeah, the lines were all blurred, and now we sort of accept that. Even as recently as six or seven years ago when that first started happening, all the development organizations were asking, “What is going on? How is that going to work?” First of all, it hurts development organizations because everybody then is looked at as the same. If you’re doing development and you have a shovel in one hand and a rifle in the other hand, you’re not a development worker. You’re a soldier. So now the Afghans look at development workers and see us exactly the same as Americans who are driving around in Humvees. There’s no difference, and that’s a real problem. That makes development very, very difficult. So now everybody, the US, the UN, USAID, the European Union, whatever—everybody is looked at, sort of the same. We need to go back to the military being in their correct place in the structure.

Liz: Yeah... And, correct me if I’m wrong, but I feel like the military presence and its mistake of killing innocent people has been giving the Taliban more fuel for their fire.

Peter: Oh, no question about it. Absolutely. That’s the biggest fuel they have…there’s no great surprise about what needs to happen. The United States became so full of itself and it’s going to be a much more humble country in the future. It needs to be, and we need to approach the situation there and everywhere with humility. We don’t know everything, and we don’t know every way that other people should live. We need to go with the spirit of respect, and I think that comes from the top down.

There still is a lot to be done. It’s not going to be easy turning around the “Talibanization” at the border. That’s a tough situation now because over time they’ve really infiltrated the area. I don’t think we need to look at it so much like a war. Instead of confronting it head on, we just need to integrate ourselves into it. It was a huge mistake after 9/11 when the Bush Administration equated the Taliban and Al-Qaida. As much as the secular liberal west might be vehemently opposed to many of the Taliban’s ideals, especially their views on women, many of their ideas accurately represent the legitimate views of a large portion of the population in Afghanistan. And just like in this country (the US), we have seen with our own divisions that we need to respect the other side. Look, I’m not a Southern Baptist, and I don’t concur with a lot of their views, but they live in the same country and they have the same rights I have. And I need to respect them. The left wing has been just as big a problem as the right by going over there (to Afghanistan) and telling tribal people how they ought to live and how they ought to treat women.

Liz: The left wing of America? Of the West?

Peter: Yeah, of the West. I’ve met so many western, young, well-meaning people who say, “Well, I’m going to liberate this place.” You know you’re not going to liberate this place. It’s not your job. Personally, I’m not saying that I don’t have problems with a lot of the views of the Taliban. I do, and I would be lying if I said I didn’t. But you know what? That’s their world, and I need to go there and first, respect them. And only when they respect me will there be any chance that they might see some wisdom in some of my views. That’s the key right there. Only through mutual respect will anything change. And believe me, we will change as much as they change. I know in my own case, I’ve changed much more in the last ten years going there than I have changed anybody. On the other hand, I know I have wonderful friends there and that will stay with me for my whole life. There is a lot of wisdom for us to gain from that place also. Some of their wisdom about the importance of family and tribe and all that--that has become much more important to me since I’ve been working there and have experienced the way that they live their lives.

I think we need to do a couple of things. We need to, for one thing, make a long-term commitment to being there (in Afghanistan) and not just leave when it’s expedient and pull out all of our money because we don’t think it’s important anymore, politically. So be consistent, stay there and build it from the ground level up. I mean the most important work anybody does over there whether they’re soldiers, aid workers, or whoever, is on the level of being in the villages and getting to know the people, because that spreads exponentially. If one person knew an American once, believe me, their grandchildren are going to learn about Americans from that one experience. They will know that their grandfather once knew an American and whether or not that person was a decent human being. And they’re not going to learn it on television or the radio or anywhere else—there going to learn it only by knowing that person.

Postscript: An update from Peter. January, 2011

My current thinking is that the US effort in Afghanistan is largely self-serving.  Obama moved the troops there from Iraq to get out of that war because he did not want to be viewed as a woosy democrat.  But he gave a timeline to leave Afghanistan.  In the short term, the US military has gained some ground in the south and east, but overall in the country, the Taliban are getting stronger and stronger.  This is because the local population is turning against the US due to the military operations.  Sooner or later a deal will need to be reached with the Taliban and it might as well be sooner.  The US should begin scaling down its military operation now.  Also, foreign armed contractors should be banned.  This also turns the Afghan population away.  In fact, the whole for-profit aid model needs to be rethought.  When everything is about money, very little gets down to helping the people on the street.  Most of the aid money ends up in the hands of high priced western contractors, corrupt politicians – or the Taliban themselves.  This is particularly obscene at a time when America is in dire straights financially and badly needs that money at home.  Let the non-profits, secular and religious, do the good works to benefit the people.

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