in Afghan Civilians

Some Thoughts on Afghanistan. From Afghans. Or “What Horsemen of the Kabulocalypse?”

Greetings from Kabul, where the Seventh Seal seems to be intact, and I was not roused from sleep by the pounding hooves of the Four Horsemen. Of the Apocalypse. Not the security company. ‘Cuz those guys could wake the dead.

Snooki: The Mayans Knew

I know, one doesn’t normally wake up expecting the end of the world to have arrived. Unless you’re a Mayan. And you somehow saw that Snooki would bring forth progeny, therefore rendering the further existence of the planet irrelevant.

But, this being Afghanistan, some days are like that, since, apparently there’s been a shooting in Kandahar.

Well, not so much a shooting as the senseless slaughter of 16 Afghan civilians by an American soldier.

Based on much of the reporting on the event, and the alarmist hand-wringing and standard-issue vapid talking head opining in the wake of this event, I firmly expected to wake up to a smoldering wreck of a city this morning. I didn’t, which wasn’t terribly surprising. Turns out I wasn’t the only one who expected that, since understandably these kinds of things make people tense:

But while the mood in the south and in the capital, Kabul, was tense, there was less of the outright fury that brought thousands onto the streets after Koran burnings last month.

After all, with the exception of some protests in Jalalabad, which by any standard were pretty peaceful, the country as a whole has been pretty quiet. There were reports of an attack on the Afghan government delegation that visited the site to investigate, resulting in the death of at least one ANA soldier, but again, nothing on the scale that I think some expected.

Since I have the chance to talk to Afghans now and then, I figured I’d ask them what they thought of all this. So I sat down with a couple of the “good” ones (the ones that learn English…thanks, David Ignatius) and asked them why they thought there weren’t more widespread demonstrations taking place like there were after the burning of the Koran by NATO troops at Bagram Air Base. They came up with two reasons why they felt that Afghans weren’t taking to the streets in the same numbers that they were after the burning of the Koran.

What Happens in Kandahar

Their first theory centered around the ethnic divisions that partition Afghanistan. I know, for us Americans that unite behind everything from the Patriot Act to the Kardashians, it might be hard for us to comprehend that people who live within the borders of the same country might not get along with each other, but apparently, it’s sort of a thing here.

Basically, one of them kind of shrugged his shoulders and made the comment that it’s a Kandahari problem. That even though he knows a lot of his friends who changed their Facebook profiles (yeah, they do that here) to reflect some of their personal outrage over the shootings, that none of them had any plans to take to the streets in protest.

He then went on to explain to me that if it had happened in a different province, like Bamiyan, that he as an Hazara might feel the need to take to the streets in protest. He said it upset him, but that it didn’t really affect him the same way as the Koran incident had.

I asked him if that was due to the importance he put on the Koran, and he told me that was part of it, but that the larger issue was that something like the Koran was a point of national pride. That yes, as a Muslim it offended him, but of nearly equal importance for him was the fact that this was a book that most people in Afghanistan held in the same high regard. Consequently, something like its desecration by foreign troops would be something that would resonate on a national level, provoking the kind of response that it did.

Don’t Drive Angry

At this point the other Afghan (an older gentlemen with some serious cred in this country pre-Taliban) chimed in with his theory, which was that it’s possible that there will be some violent reactions, and that the longer it took for those to occur, the worse they would be.

I asked him why that was, and he explained that, as an Afghan, if he got angry quickly, then he would be angry and be done with it. But, if he waited, and let that anger simmer, when it finally erupted, what resulted would be much worse than if he’d reacted quickly in the first place.

I asked him if he thought that was the case here. He said that he wasn’t sure, but that he would give it another week before there was some kind of event that the Taliban tied directly to the Kandahar shootings.


After talking to them, I read this from Joshua Foust:

Sunday’s mass killing is still shocking and upsetting — but it is no longer surprising.

Sunday’s mass murder, in other words, is not a game-changing event. The game has already changed, and many Afghans are not surprised when the U.S. kills a bunch of civilians.

In Foust’s estimation, there won’t be a reaction because, sadly, the Afghans have grown somewhat accustomed to the killing of civilians by NATO forces over the last 10 years. Granted, that doesn’t mean that NATO is rampaging across the landscape killing babies with bayonets, but it is a documented fact that NATO and Afghan forces have been responsible for dead civilians from time to time.

Foust actually managed to spend quite a bit of time here in Afghanistan, and has spent more than a few minutes of his professional life writing about the place, so I’d give his theory just as much credibility as the Afghans I spoke with earlier.

What’s missing from other analysis of the possible fallout of this place is the understanding particularly of the cultural issues at play here in Afghanistan.

“Afghanistan” is still very much an artificial construct, and a “national identity” is so far beyond the grasp of even the most educated of Afghans here that continuing to promote a narrative of “national unity,” especially in tribally-dominated areas in provinces like Kandahar demonstrates a lethal lack of understanding in dealing with the forces at work in this “country.”

Take Me Back to Old Baghdad

Lots of quotes, I know.

Where ISAF/NATO and the international community continue to err is attempting to apply blanket solutions that worked in other places to the next intervention. I’ve lost count of the times that well-meaning development professionals have said with a straight face, “Well, when I was in Iraq, this worked.” Or statements about what it’s like here in the “Middle East.” Finally, my personal favorite? “These Arab countries are all alike.”

No lie.

By trying to hammer the square peg of previous “success” into the current round hole, the situation fails to improve, and the end result is something less…great.

What’s worked in Iraq won’t work in Afghanistan.

What works in Bamiyan won’t work in Kandahar.

Unfortunately, right now it’s not clear what’s working anywhere.

Of course, all this could change tomorrow and this country could be torn apart by protests that make the Koran reactions look like a bad night on the Jersey Shore. So, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to listen for some hoofbeats.