Guest Post – Analyzing the Current Approach to Change in Afghanistan

One of the benefits of being a third culture kid is enjoying the wide network of people who come into our lives. For many of us who grew up in Pakistan, the network spans generations, countries, occupations and more. We have one thing in common and that is growing up in Pakistan and attending Murree Christian School, but that one thing has too many subplots to count. The wealth of experience and knowledge among this group of third culture kids is nothing less than amazing. Ambassadors, chiefs of party for NGO’s, scholars and more all bring their unique background into their work, providing much needed perspective in a world that tries to find easy answers and oversimplify complex issues.

A week ago, Samuel Lammi, a fellow third culture kid gave me permission to re-post a note he had written on Facebook. It is a thoughtful piece about Afghanistan. Samuel recently held an internship as Assistant to Officer of Political Affairs in the Embassy of Afghanistan. Take a look at the piece and see what you think. Add to the conversation in the comment section!


A few ideas about the current approach to change in Afghanistan and it’s shortcomings by Samuel Lammi

I was raised in the most tumultuous time in Afghanistan’s modern history during brutal civil war of the 1990’s. My primary education happened largely during the Islamic regime of the Taliban in a small expat school. I had to attend a boarding school in neighbouring Pakistan – Murree Christian School – for my secondary schooling. As the result of a terrorist attack on our school, we relocated to Thailand for two years to recover. The last four years until my graduation, I was back in Pakistan – yet it was a completely different Pakistan to the one I had known in the 1990’s.

I believe I have a unique perspective into foreign intervention in Afghanistan as my personal experience in Afghanistan is balanced by “war years” of bitter and ravaging civil war to control the country (1990-2001) and the “coalition years” and the so-called “nation-building process.” (2001-2008). I grew up in the middle of the Afghan war as my parents and their co-workers assisted those in desperate need. We were not only learning about the people we were helping, but also assimilating with the Afghans as we too – though more secure – were victims. Subsequently, we are frequently referred to as “the ones who stayed;” as Afghans who could afford it and had the opportunity, fled the country.

This perspective enables me to see events in Afghanistan from different viewpoints. I see the views of various Afghan ethnic groups, and various foreign interest groups, such as governments, NGOs, and militaries.

About 60 years ago, Afghanistan “opened-up” to the world, and immediately it saw a dangerous influx of foreign influence penetrate this traditional and conservative society. After these years and a few generations later, the society is unchanged yet this warring and proud country is on its knees after 30 years of vicious war. This has resulted in the common belief that Afghanistan is just another “god-forsaken,” tribal, anti-democratic and terrorist failed-state. Contrary to this belief, there is a too-common pattern to be seen with voracious and hegemonic world powers. They simplistically assume they can ravage the natural resources or take advantage of the geopolitics of a country for their own benefit, all under the pretence of bringing “change” to the backward places of the earth making them democratic, egalitarian and educated.

The recurring themes of the recent history of Afghanistan are comparable to the modern history of the Middle-East (1830’s to 1950’s). The pattern starts with the secure Western powers seeing an opportunity to exploit something – natural resources, geography, people – or everything. Next – supposing they have limited opportunity – they enter the desired country rather hastily to seek opportunities. However, with no prior interaction with the country, there is no grassroots knowledge of the local culture and language. This ignorance only affirms “superiority thinking” where the newcomers start to assert themselves through bringing “higher values” to “modernise” the culture. At first, modernisation is welcome, but soon the pace of the transformation is so rapid that the locals start to resist the change. Subsequently the foreigners with their ideologies have lost their “innocence” and come under suspicion from the locals. Upset, the foreigners become slack and their ulterior motives emerge, inhibiting mutual distrust. If the last resort of using force is utilized, the inevitable clashes continue to scar future relations for generations.

In Afghanistan, the generic rhetoric of bringing education, democracy, jobs, economic and political reform – all under the umbrella of “nation-building” – hasn’t delivered on its promises.

Essentially the same problems continue to plague the common people: education is poor and unavailable, real jobs are scarce – even in the cities, and the money that was meant to bring roads, hospitals, schools and jobs has disappeared into the pockets of warlords and corrupt politicians. Most of the young population is grappling with the warlords, crime syndicates and insurgents offering more employment than government services and independent enterprises. In most of Afghanistan – apart from the introduction of mobile phone services – life has hardly changed from 20, 30 or even 50 years ago; from when the “modernisation” of Afghanistan started.

In terms of the present situation in Afghanistan, the “basics” of cultural interaction are not considered important until they are desperately needed. In the place of humility to understand others through knowledge of culture and language – which create sympathy and understanding – this grass-roots work has been outsourced with nearly all other aspects of the “nation-building.”

Development simply cannot be outsourced as it creates irreconcilable distance between the ones bringing “change” and the ones being “changed.” Instead, participatory dialogue is imperative. What has happened is that the dialogue has engaged the already corrupt systems, excluding the common people. This creates the “in-group” who decides, and it supports complacency with the status quo of corrupt warlords and institutions. Subsequently the people become objects of the change coming from outside, through the powerful private-interest groups who exploit age-old tensions and rivalries. Instead, the people must become active, participatory subjects of change which benefits mutual trust and cooperation.

3 thoughts on “Guest Post – Analyzing the Current Approach to Change in Afghanistan

  1. Thanks for posting these good & “spot-on” insights from Samuel. Were there only more such voices inside/behind the wire (well, on top of the 15 ft. reinforced walls!) that were heeded in the process of trying to help in Afghanistan. Voices that have historical perspective & cultural & linguistic insights. It needs to be seriously reflected on why things seem to be heading for a similar conclusion in response to the “help” that the Soviets gave the Afghans 20 years ago…Oh, may it somehow not be so, for the sake of the millions of Afghans who just want to live in a more stable situation (the definition of which is necessarily complex, varied, & different from our normal…).

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    1. Wes – so glad you read this and commented. I was wondering what you thought of the piece. I like your last sentence and the emphasis on complexity and “different from our normal”.

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