Thursday, July 14, 2016

America's Shocking Ignorance of Afghanistan - The National Interest

In 1815, Mountstuart Elphinstone, the first British ambassador dispatched to the court of the Afghan shah in 1809, published an abridged version of his eighty-eight volumes of notes from the mission. The result was the two-volume An Account of the Kingdom of Caubul.  Two hundred years later, foreign understandings of the modern Afghan state and its inhabitants have been largely molded by this book. Western policy has largely failed the Afghans and the international community because its current (mis)understandings of Afghanistan remain uncritically and often unconsciously shaped by this vision from the past.

Despite the intervening two hundred years, our understandings and views of the Afghans remain beholden to the image Elphinstone originally authored. The U.S. military’s ethnolinguistic map of Afghanistan today is little more than an updated version of that included in the 1815 edition of An Account. The vision of a rural “tribal society” bound by ancient customs and traditions such as the “Pashtunwali,” the so-called Pashtun tribal code, remains deeply embedded in policy prescriptions. Serious international players—from the U.S. military and their Human Terrain System to the International Crisis Group’s reporting on the country—frame their analyses around such tropes.

For a decade and a half, Washington has failed to provide a strategic and political framework for success in the longest war in American history. The basic debate regarding whether U.S. efforts in the country should be focused on counter-insurgency or counter-terrorism has always framed the Afghan state as incidental to Western aims and efforts. Why? A basic ignorance about Afghanistan and a profound unwillingness on the part of policymakers to address this intellectual illiteracy lie at the core of any answer.

From the very start of the Western intervention in Afghanistan in October 2001, little effort was expended at anything more than a cursory understanding of the country. The trope of the “Great Game”—the 19th Century Anglo-Russian rivalry over Central Asia—re-emerged, with a new “Great Game” being played between regional powers, international jihadis, and the West. As in the original game, Afghanistan and its people were nothing but pawns, wholly denuded of agency. The West believed it had to construct the country de novo with the Bonn Agreement, which set up a constitutional structure largely drafted by Afghan exiles. When that constitution did not fit the political exigencies of the 2014 presidential election, John Kerry led the negotiations which unceremoniously scrapped it as quickly as it had been ceremoniously enacted.

The entire approach was based upon a dated vision of Afghanistan, which accounted neither for the fact a third of the population had been refugees since 1979, nor the integration of the populace, if not the country, into a globalized economy. The United States entered the war with one academic center dedicated to the study of Afghanistan—the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha—run by a handful of ex-CIA employees. The U.S. government had few staff members with linguistic competence in the languages of the region and virtually no understanding of the country prior to 1979, or at best President Eisenhower’s visit twenty years earlier. “Experts” on Afghanistan in Washington and elsewhere, who seemed to surreptitiously spawn out of the ether following the American invasion, were overwhelmingly repurposed “terrorism experts” with little to no background on the ›- Read More at the Hopkins

America's Shocking Ignorance of Afghanistan | The National Inter


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