I was just six years old when the U.S. entered Afghanistan. Now, more than ever, I worry about the fate of the misunderstood country my parents once proudly called home.
As a Brit with Pashtun heritage, I often look back at my childhood and remember the moment when Afghanistan was globally dubbed a global hot bed of Islamist terrorism in order to fight the “war on terror”.
How could this be? It was a beautiful country, closely linked to the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa along the Afghanistan–Pakistan border. Afghanistan also happens to be closely linked to the city of Peshawar. They share almost the same culture, traditions and values. This is because they are both Pashtun majority cities. I know this well because the area is where some of my distant family are from, and upon visits to the area I was able to observe this orthodox Muslim, Pashtun society first-hand.
The luscious landscape of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is so beautiful that the environmentalist and philanthropist Ben Goldsmith once tweeted “I’ve never been anywhere more beautiful than Pakistan’s mountainous northern areas. I’ve been three times. With the new British Airways flight to Islamabad, and @ImranKhanPTI transforming the country, go. Seriously. Best trip you’ll ever do.”
Despite the area’s unprecedented beauty, it is cursed by radical fundamentalism and Islamic extremism, and
it has one very dangerous thing in common with Afghanistan; The Taliban. Both areas are governed by Pashtunwali, a way of life which the Taliban abide by. It is a harsh rule of law, dating back to ancient pre-Islamic times. The code of conduct is based upon hospitality, community, mercy and shelter to those who may need it; it’s a code of honour which has been the identity of its natives for centuries. However, the plight of the ruthless Taliban means that some of the culture now found in these mountainous regions is rooted in oppressive derogatory practices.
From women being stoned to death to female-led education being forbidden under this regime, it is without a doubt that universal human rights are likely to not be upheld under this system. Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head simply for going to school. There is no doubt that Malala and myself both recognise how evil and inhumane this group can be. Since her near death experience, she has dedicated her life to campaigning against this group, in order to help women and families living under their oppressive system.
Now, with the Taliban back in power, it is clear that young women and Afghan girls are once again finding themselves at the Taliban’s mercy.This strict code of conduct, along with the harshest enforcement of law and order, lies at the heart of Pashtunwali.
“An eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” is said to be the infamous code of the Pashtuns, as they are so fiercely in love with the convictions of their beliefs that they will literally accept death to fight for their cause.
The U.S. never truly understood this mentality of “Pashtunwali”; they naively believed they could impose Western values of democracy and freedom to a society and a group which had a traditionalist, Islamic political culture and worldview. The U.S. also failed to comprehend the tribal divides, tribal loyalties which were present amongst Afghan communities at large.
Afghans wanted to look to figures they could resonate with, which provided them a sense of community and understanding of their culture; Pashtunwali gave them this ancient tribal code of conduct amidst a bloody war; ultimately providing them a greater sense of purpose and community. However, America failed to understand this cultural phenomenon. The belief that liberalism is a universal value, which is adaptable to every culture, tradition and nation state is a naive idea.
For its many faults, the Taliban was smarter than the U.S. — they understood their country better than anyone else. The group was able to establish deeper roots in local communities and provide excellent local connections within the rural areas of Afghanistan.The rural areas have almost no effective government presence. Ultimately it was the area most vulnerable to the Taliban’s control.What is most shocking is that all this was perfectly obvious to a fairly intelligent politician sitting in Washington D.C.
There were many political muddles which made it difficult for American foreign policy experts to fully comprehend where they were headed as a nation, hence why we are witnessing the disaster today.
There are two sides to this: either the withdrawal could have run more strategically, without the loss of innocent Afghans and U.S. soldiers– after all, you cannot aggressively yank out a knife from a person who has been wounded. The other alternative was to stay longer and continue the longest war of US history.
Both options were extremely difficult and promise uncertain outcomes. Sooner rather than later, a decision had to be made.The speed at how fast Afghanistan crumbled displays that Western powers cannot impose democracy externally. There should have been some attempts to try to understand the mentality of Pashtunwali, which is extremely different from what we know and understand in the West.
And yes, it makes sense to consider the fundamental differences between our culture here in the West and the value systems of Muslim majority regions such as Afghanistan.This basic cultural understanding should have been at the heart of America’s foreign policy, yet was nowhere to be found.Instead, the U.S. spent nearly $1 billion on promoting gender equality, and overall, in the past two decades it has been trying to build Afghanistan more than it has ever helped build Europe after World War two.
Fast forward twenty years. We are witnessing a humanitarian disaster after the staggering withdrawal of American and NATO forces. As the world watches over the loss of innocent Afghans and 13 U.S. troops in Kabul, it all finally comes to an end.
Many of us cannot remember a world when Afghanistan has never been at war; and rather than continuing to impose a Western styled civil society, it is high time that a new strategy to counter the threats from and in Afghanistan is formulated. The truth is not every victory needs to happen through war. In fact, as someone who cares about foreign policy, I believe we should never have engaged for twenty long years in the first place.
A realistic approach to fix the devastation in Afghanistan should have been more diplomatic, with cultural understanding lying in the heart of U.S.’s foreign policy. Imposing a Western-styled civil society might have been a dream too ambitious for the U.S. as militant groups like the Taliban make it very difficult for any external government to impose their rules, due to their superior knowledge of the area, having run their tribes for millennia.America’s longest war is over. The last US warplane left Afghan airspace today and all US troops are out of Afghanistan.
The long-term effect of the Taliban being back in power is unknown. However, what is certain is that there should now be a collective effort from the international community to uphold the human rights and safety of the innocent people of Afghanistan, whose fate now lies in the jaws of wolves.
Ramsha Afridi is a conservative of British-Afghan heritage