by Milo Clark
(Swans - November 6, 2006) With so little being what it may seem at any given time, where to turn for a sense of balance? Or a sense that accurate or even useful information is out there? That statement is a macro-perception rolling onward into American mid-term elections and stumbling over persistent sore points worldwide.
Over the last few years, I have read and studied and pondered to little avail about the great swath from Balkans to Bering Strait. I have only known, to any extent, two Pashtun people, part of the largest segment of Afghan population. From my conversations with them, I am left with a profound sense that Westerners, especially Americans, rarely, very rarely, have any meaningful sense of these peoples.
And "peoples" is the proper word since the tribal and ethnic mixes of the regions defy counting unless one has been brought up among them.
Sarah Chayes, once NPR correspondent and more recently a worker within Afghanistan, writes with more understanding and compassion than commonly on display. The Punishment of Virtue, inside Afghanistan after the Taliban (Penguin, New York, 2006, ISBN 1-59420-096-3) documents her personal transitions from observer to participant. One by one she first questions and then walks her readers through her many hard lessons as she moves toward grokking Afghan peoples, places and events.
Focused on Kandahar, the ancient Afghan capital to the South and West of Kabul, we learn the critical importance of the old and still few roads linking the Mid-East through Iran with the Indian subcontinent and up into central Asia. For centuries Kandahar was a common point of transit for trade routes, the famous Silk Road being only one. Robbery and harassment of traders has long been a major economic force in the region.
The key families or tribes anchored around Kandahar maintain their control of actualities in the region. One of those families, the Popalzai, links the titular 1700s founder of Afghanistan, Ahmad Shah Durrani, with today's president, Hamid Karzai. Thus, for the last 250 years, the tribal rivalries between the descendants of Ahmad Shah Durrani (Popalzai) and Hajii Jamal Khan, chief of the Barakzai, have run unabated. Today, the governor of Kandahar, Gul Agha Shirzai, pushed into place by American special forces officers and advisers, contends strongly and regularly with Hamid Karzai, president in Kabul.
When the Taliban moved out in 2001, Karzai's representative in negotiations to resume control of Kandahar was Mullah Naqib. With American dollars and direct support, Mullah Naqib was pushed aside by Shirzai. That very unaware and bullying approach now comes home with renewed Taliban attacks.
Sarah Chayes carefully explains the interactions of roads and rivalries that shape and shaped Afghanistan. She makes it exceptionally clear than neither American media, especially NPR, nor American politicians have the slightest inkling of what makes Afghanistan tick.
With her hard won perspectives, the resurgent Taliban of Southern Afghanistan now bedeviling NATO forces may be seen as a manifestation, in part, of Gul Agha Shirzai's rivalry with Hamid Karzai. Kandahar sits astride the main roads linking Eastern and Western areas of Afghanistan.
Also, as shown throughout Afghan history and most recently in the seeming collapse of the Taliban in the post-9/11 campaigns, when strongly confronted, patterned tribal behavior is to melt into the countryside and patiently await new opportunities to exploit.
I won't bother to go into her lengthy listings of American boorishness powered by major capacity to bomb, which fuel exactly opposite outcomes than sought by American political leadership.
My strongest sense of Afghan future is that it will be much like Afghan past. History shows, and Westerners continue to ignore, that every invading force from Moghul and now, probably, to American has been beaten out of Afghanistan over time.
And, wailing as voice-over we hear the refrain, When Will They Ever Learn?
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