Toward Afghanistan, Part 2

In a bit of curious synchronicity, I picked up a copy of Greg Mortenson’s Stones into Schools from the free book table. I’ll fit it into the bag somehow. In my last post, I started to talk about how the topic of religion seems curiously diminished in many of the conversations going on today about the interrelated challenges of corruption, violence, education, custom, and gender relations in Afghanistan. Mortenson’s project plays direcly into those conversations, given that his organization’s mission is “[t]o promote and support community-based education, especially for girls, in remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan.” One view that seems to predominate in Western conversations about Afghanistan is that education can serve as at least part of a solution to the persistent problems of misogyny, violence, and corruption, but I haven’t registered many westerners as talking about how Afghanistan’s religious culture might contribute toward that solution, as well: in fact, I more frequently hear Islam rhetorically positioned as a significant component of those problems rather than as an inextricable part of Afghan culture that those who would seek to help Afghanistan move towards some form of self-sustaining democratic modernity might embrace.

Nicholas Kristof’s argument strikes me as usefully representative here:

The conventional wisdom is that education and development are impossible in insecure parts of Afghanistan that the Taliban control. That view is wrong.

An organization set up by Mr. Mortenson and a number of others are showing that it is quite possible to run schools in Taliban-controlled areas. I visited some of Mr. Mortenson’s schools, literacy centers and vocational training centers, and they survive the Taliban not because of military protection (which they eschew) but because local people feel “ownership” rather than “occupation.”

“Aid can be done anywhere, including where Taliban are,” Mr. Mortenson said. “But it’s imperative the elders are consulted, and that the development staff is all local, with no foreigners.”

I haven’t read Mortenson’s book yet, but the stricture against foreigners is both expected — most development literature points toward the need for self-determination, and that’s the end the Army is working toward in Afghanistan, as well — and interesting, because of the problem of what constitutes development, and where it comes from.

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Toward Afghanistan, Part 1

In September 2010, the New York Times illustrated an article about the complex interrelationships among corruption, education, custom, and gender in Afghanistan with a bruising anecdote:

Hundreds of children would gather on the iconic Nader Khan Hill in the capital, Kabul, on a gorgeous Friday in September and fly kites emblazoned with slogans lauding the rule of law and equality for women. The kites, along with copies of the Afghan Constitution and justice-themed comic books, would be gifts of the United States, part of a $35 million effort “to promote the use of Afghanistan’s formal justice system.”

Afghan policemen hijacked the event, stealing dozens of kites for themselves and beating children with sticks when they crowded too close to the kite distribution tent.

Most bore messages about the importance of gender equality, but there was hardly a girl with a kite, although plenty of girls were around. One DPK staff member pushed through the crowd to give 10-year-old Shaqila Nabi a kite; her sister Farzana, 8, had wanted one, too, but a policeman had just swung at her with a stick and she had darted out of harm’s way, and out of sight.

Shaqila raced back to her father, Gul Nabi, a horse wrangler peddling rides. He promptly took the kite and gave it to a boy.

“He is my son and he should get the kite,” he said.

It’s intended to come across as painful, I’m sure, and that’s why the author led with it: the anecdote is full of abject rhetorical appeals to pathos carefully chosen to communicate the challenges the author sees as facing Afghanistan. Still, those appeals to pathos don’t make the article’s representations any less true, and as I’ve processed through the various stations of this CONUS Replacement Center in preparation to go over there, they’ve been on my mind.

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Good Things

Today seems like a good day to again acknowledge that I feel tension about the institution for which I worked as a soldier, from 1992 to 1996, and again work for as a professor, since 2006. When I was a soldier, the Army was the best group of people I’d ever worked with, and after a couple years — first as Corporal Edwards, and then as Sergeant Edwards — the job was the first time I’d ever been genuinely good at something that challenged me. It was also the first time I felt I was doing something important; something bigger than me. I feel the same way now: after graduate study and a few years as a professor, I’m again feeling like I’m getting good at what I do, and again welcoming the feeling that I’m doing something important, serving something bigger than me.

I know the Army does good things sometimes. (Sometimes it doesn’t. We know that. It’s important to acknowledge.) I know it’s full of people who are enormously committed to doing good things, and to doing things that they believe are good. Like the American culture from which it draws its soldiers, it has its share of stupid and vicious people as well — Steven Green, Lynndie England, William Calley, the helicopter pilot identified as Crazy Horse 18 of the 227th Aviation Regiment — but they are the exception to the rule constituted by men and women I served with in the 24th Infantry and the men and women I work with now; people who are good-hearted, caring, massively and intimidatingly competent, and committed to an ideal of voluntary service that many folks can’t imagine.

But I’ve been strongly opposed to the second war in Iraq since its inception, and agree with the argument that basing a decision to go to war in which humans will die upon pretenses that one knows are false can only be characterized as evil. The fact that over 100,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed in that war is an after-the-fact measure of the magnitude of the effects of that evil. Some American soldiers, like Steven Green, Lynndie England, and Crazy Horse 18, bear willing and active complicity in that evil. Worse to me, it seems, is the way that such evil contaminates even those who try to do the right thing: those who serve well in Iraq, who do good deeds, build schools, protect innocents, and even those at home who allowed or promoted the election of a President who made that decision to go to war on premises he knew were false — we’re all brushed by that evil.

I try to do the right thing. I talk to my students about what might and might not constitute the right thing to do when they become officers. The Orientalist gives up lunch hours each month to facilitate discussions among those officers-to-be about ethics in the military. And as wrong as I feel Iraq was (and as strongly as I support those over there trying to put together the pieces so we don’t leave the place even worse than when we went in), I want to believe that we’re doing the right thing in Afghanistan. I’ve just finished Amin Saikal’s Modern Afghanistan, and have begun Neil Moran’s Kipling and Afghanistan and Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea, with Sarah Chayes’s The Punishment of Virtue and Margaret Mills’s Rhetoric and Politics in Afghan Traditional Storytelling on deck. The Taliban’s corrupt medieval thuggery and support of al Qaeda’s vicious tactics, its brutal and hideous misogyny, and its opposition to education, enlightenment, and fundamental human rights seem to me to entirely merit (and, in fact, morally require) the presence of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Afghanistan is a place where 14% of the population is literate, and where soldiers — and civilians — have begun to do good things.

That’s a project to which I hope to contribute. Next year, I deploy to Afghanistan for six months, to help with language and literacy education. I’ll be in tension about it then, perhaps much as I am now. But I’m hopeful.

I think we can do good things.

As with all material on this blog, the opinions in this post are my own, and do not represent those of any institution with which I am associated.