Afghan humanity missing from our debate

I am the Afghanistan Blogging Fellow for The Seminal and Brave New Foundation. You can read my work on The Seminal or at Rethink Afghanistan. The views expressed below are my own.

Former South Carolina senator Fritz Hollings has an excellent editorial out today calling the US war in Afghanistan “Not Necessary.” It’s always good to see fiscal conservatives sticking to their beliefs and opposing the incredible cost, but Hollings also stakes his reputation and personal experience with Vietnam against the current conflict:

I was “a hard charger” on the war in Vietnam. In fact, the motion for the last $500 million that went into the Vietnam War was made by me on the Senate Appropriations Committee. I thought the Vietnamese were willing to fight and die for democracy. Some were, but a lot more were willing to give up their lives over ten years for communism. Now I have learned that people want other types of government other than democracy. I’ve been to Hanoi; visited John McCain’s prison, and the people of Vietnam are happy.

Clearly he’s not some reckless hippy, he actually supported Vietnam. But he learned the harsh realities of war, the futility and madness of it all. Unfortunately, there’s a downside to Hollings’ piece. He seems to justify part of his opposition with the orientalist smear of Afghans as xenophobic:

The one thing we learned in Charlie Wilson’s War is that Afghans don’t like or trust foreigners. President Karzai in the morning news is campaigning against the UN and all foreigners because he knows this makes him popular with the Afghans.

Yes, apparently the reason our efforts are failing is because the Afghans are just too racist to listen to our ideas. Oh, and that woman who won’t go out with you? Total lesbian. It couldn’t possibly be something we’re doing, right? It has to be those racist Afghans. After all, Americans love foreigners! When Hispanic immigrants come to El Norte, our minuteman militias are there at the border to greet them with candy and job brochures. When our factories are shipped overseas, American workers are happy just to be giving those impoverished foreigners a job. And certainly none of us would think to insult the President by calling him a foreigner. Only Afghans hate foreigners, just like in Charlie Wilson’s War!

So do I think Hollings is that delusional? No way. His remarks are just indicative of how comfortable we’ve become, on all sides of the conflict, with thinking of the Afghans as bizarre, alien creatures instead of the human beings they are. Hollings is taking a highly admirable, principled stand against the war, indeed against war itself, but he still manages to smear the Afghans for the failure of our invasion. Why? Because they “don’t like or trust foreigners.”

Let’s go deeper into this alien Afghan fantasy with Michael Yon, who brings us this tale about his visit to an Afghan village:

With the Battle for Kandahar kicking off, and our troops surging in for the counteroffensive, villages previously beyond the periphery of our effective reach are becoming more accessible. Many of them have been Taliban-controlled. We don’t always know whether these isolated, dusty mud-walled places support, provide sanctuary, or are the native home of Taliban fighters. The Afghanistan government remains absent from most Afghan villages. The central government hidden away in Kabul still offers zero. Not juice, justice or security. The Taliban at least offers justice in some areas.

And so Charlie Company, some Afghan police, and Haji Oboyadulah Popal (the governor of Shah Wali Kot district), headed to the hills.

Just like Hollings’ piece, we’re off to a good start. Yon lays out the facts: The government in Kabul is “hidden away” and “offers zero” while the Taliban does a much better job of providing services to the locals. But that’s not the point of Yon’s post. He’s taking us on a magical mystery tour to meet alien Afghan children.

For the first hour or so, no girls were to be seen, but the boys wanted their photos taken. Many villagers have never had their photos taken. The boys didn’t seem to know what the camera was until they saw their images. Soldiers and Marines sometimes carry Polaroid Cameras to villages. The villagers love to get the shots which often are the only photos they have ever owned.

Finally a lone girl came out. She wandered around for some time and a boy showed her to me, and when I lifted the camera he even shielded her eyes, but a moment too late. This was the first instance I saw anyone care if a young girl was photographed. Even the girl is covering her face. [emphasis added]

Weeeird. The zany Afghan culture seems to forbid strange foreign men taking pictures of little girls. But that’s OK, Yon snapped a picture anyway, Americans know it’s just nonsense. After all, Americans often approach little girls on the street and photograph them without permission. “Don’t worry,” they tell the parents, “it’s just for my blog on the internet that anyone in the world can see.” And Americans are super cool with that. But Yon has made another discovery: fart jokes!

There was a meeting going on with Captain Hanlin and the elders and the boys were well-behaved with them, but they were angling for attention. The boys would have been fun if there were no meeting. We could have started a slingshot competition. But they were getting to be a pain. They magically disappeared and soon were crowded around the mortar team maybe 30 meters away. The crowd of boys began laughing so loudly that the meeting stopped a couple times to see what was up. The British will designate a soldier to be the comedian during missions. When kids disrupt soldiers, the comedian can distract them away from business. Our folks were borrowing that good idea. I walked over and asked our guys how they had lured the kids away. Why were they laughing so loud? A soldier answered that they didn’t try to entertain the boys. He continued, “I just farted and they went crazy.” So he did it again and so on. The soldier boys with the mortars were getting along famously with the village boys. Who knew that public corporeal depressurization is a great taboo in Afghanistan, but incredibly entertaining when done by Americans?

Yeah, crazy, not only is flatulence a “great taboo” to Afghans, but also their young males seem to find it humorous. That’s nothing like American boys, who we know mostly prefer the early Woody Allen catalog and the letters of Oscar Wilde when it comes to comedy, never fart jokes. And a taboo? Americans are constantly farting on each other, to big applause and sincere appreciation. It’s just good manners, like saying “please” and “thank you.”

Of course, I don’t think either Yon or Hollings intended to portray the Afghans in this light, as xenophobic murderers preventing our democracy, or fascinating creatures from an alien culture. We are simply too quick to gloss over the fact that we’re dealing with people, human beings who deserve dignity, respect, and our consideration. When we dismiss their humanity, even unintentionally, it’s actually us who suffers. We lose our humanity. Look at this post from Attackerman:

To get obscure for a second, there’s been a sense in this country for a decade about air strikes on terrorists and insurgent groups that equate them with weakness. Think about the number of times you’ve read permutations about “lobbing cruise missiles” at terrorist training camps or some such. There’s an understandable reason for that: air strikes are what you do when you can’t get close to a target on the ground. So imagine my surprise a couple years ago when I read al-Qaeda theoretician Abu Mus’ab al-Suri‘s almost-mystical bewilderment with U.S. air power. (Seriously, read this book.) Having never been on the receiving end of a cruise missile or a predator missile or a JDAM, it can be easy to lose perspective about the destructive capability of those weapons, and the way they can focus the mind of an enemy. It’s fair to say al-Suri really was shocked and awed. He just wasn’t defeated by air strikes. Maybe that distinction is what’s led some of us perhaps to overcorrect our view of airpower in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency.


I do not know if any of that is happening. I just know that it makes some sense to believe that it could based on past observable behavior. The drone strikes themselves should probably not be viewed just as lethal occurrences, but as events that facilitate reactions in both an enemy cohort and a civilian population caught up in the mix. Any strike that occurs only occurs because an intelligence network allowed it to occur. And that’s the unheralded aspect — and the real determinant factor — of what the CIA’s drone program really is.

According to Ackerman, air strikes should be reconsidered because they scare the hell out of people, and we should try to judge the drone program in that light. Think about that for a moment. He says we should rethink our blasting away at “an enemy cohort and a civilian population” with “a cruise missile or a predator missile or a JDAM” because it effectively “shocked and awed” them, although admittedly it doesn’t actually defeat them. Good point! Now if only there was one simple term we could apply to this strategy of using violence to coerce and frighten a population into accepting your political agenda. Hmm.

Oh right. Terrorism.

Have I exposed Ackerman’s secret desire to promote terrorism? Nope. Just like Hollings and Yon, Ackerman inadvertently forgot that he was talking about real Afghan human beings. Human beings who, just like us, enjoy fart jokes and hate corrupt government and don’t like it when foreigners terrorize them with bombs. If you forget that, it’s easy to think that the CIA using terrorism against xenophobes thousands of miles away is a good idea.

Now these are all pretty harmless examples of seemingly good-intentioned people de-humanizing the Afghans. But as over the top as I’ve been in my characterizations of them, these ideas that they unintentionally proliferate do have real, deadly consequences. My colleague at Rethink Afghanistan Derrick Crowe spent his Easter Sunday putting together this report:

Remember that survivors of the raid said that the special operations forces denied the wounded medical treatment and prevented survivors from going to get medical help for an extended period of time, during which one of the women and one of the men who were mortally wounded died.

That means special operations forces were busy digging bullets out of walls and/or people to cover their asses while the innocent people they shot were bleeding to death.

Those men and pregnant women our soldiers were carving bullets out of, those are the Afghans who “don’t like or don’t trust” foreigners, those are the Afghan boys who just like to have their picture taken, and they’re the ones who are “shocked and awed” by our bloody bombing campaigns. That’s what we get when we deal with them on these orientalist terms. Our military carried out a nauseatingly gruesome massacre of Afghan civilians, covered it up, and then smeared the journalist who tried to report it. And why not? Afghans aren’t people, they’re an alien culture who hates foreigners, and we’ve got to use our awesome shock and awe strategy to defeat them, right? Nonsense.

Respect for Afghans is sorely lacking on all sides of the Afghanistan debate. It’s 2010, nine years into the war, and we’re still talking about Afghanistan in these orientalist terms. Yet it confuses and bewilders us when stories of war crimes and cover-ups like Derrick’s seem to go unnoticed. We know why nobody wants to hear about the massacre. We don’t want to think about them as human. This has to change now.

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  1. While I agree that there is plenty of dehumanization to be found in U.S. foreign policy, as you rightly demonstrate with several of your quotes. But I don’t see Hollings’s comment in that light. Given their history, I would be shocked if Afghans *didn’t* mistrust foreigners. Let’s review the list of foreigners who have tried to “improve” the quality of Afghan life: Greeks, Brits, Russians, Americans– every one of which showed up with an army intent on inflicting (I mean gifting) their way of life on “primitive” Afghan culture. And they’re not alone. The forces of various empires have left many cultures doubting the intentions of foreign supposed benefactors.

    On another note, having heard with my own ears artillery shelling of civilian targets, I would postulate something else: The people who plan the tactics of modern warfare *cannot possibly* see the victims as human. If they did, they couldn’t propose what they propose. There has to be a mental blind spot that protects their psyche or they would go mad.

    I once met an FBI agent whose job it was to calculate the yield of explosive devices, both nuclear and conventional. To him, it was a problem of math and physics. The potential victims of these devices did not– and, I suggest, could not– enter the equation.

  2. I listened to NPR yesterday report on Afghanistan. The general implication was that Afghans were simple-minded if contrary little puppets that were there to do the bidding of the US. How dare Karzai challenge us, that kind of thing.

    Further, the whole attitude was unreal. Karzai was told by the US to clean up corruption. Like he could if he wanted to. But since he’s corrupt himself, he’s obviously not going to.

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