March 26, 2007
Name: Capt Mike Toomer, USAF
Posting date: 3/26/07
Stationed in: Kabul Afghanistan
Hometown: Saco, ME
I have been in country for over nine months, spending just about every day with Afghans, either the ANA or interpreters. I spent six weeks "down range" in the Gardez area training the ANA on logistics, and had the opportunity to interact with other ANA soldiers and mentors. I shared my observations with them and listened to them, and from this experience (purely anecdotal, this isn't a research article) I have come to the conclusion that Afghanistan is eerily similar to medieval Europe.
A majority of the population -- about 60% overall -- is illiterate. Once you get out of the bigger cities (Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif, Harat) the percentage is significantly higher. Afghan society is very simple. Out in the hinterland most people are subsistence farmers, and even the vast majority of those living in the cities spend their days just trying to survive. The simplicity of the society, along with little to no education, results in a society of people who, for the most part, cannot think abstractly or conceptually.
As in medieval Europe, the most literate and sophisticated segment of society is the clergy, and they use this to their advantage. Because most of the population is merely attempting to survive, with little comfort, religion plays a central part in their lives. It is necessary that there be a reward at the end for all the suffering people are going through. The problem is that the Qu’ran is written in Arabic, a language that the vast majority do not understand, let alone read. And the services here, which really consist of a recitation of the Qu’ran, are also in Arabic. In medieval Europe, services were given in Latin, which the masses could not understand. In both cases, the only thing most people know about the religion so central to their lives is what the clergy tells them -- what the clergy wants them to know. This gives the clergy an incredible amount of power, and it is they, not the government, who control the people. In Europe, kings derived their authority from God, supported by the clergy. It isn't much different here, in that Afghanistan is an "Islamic" republic, based on the religion and Islamic law.
All this is a way of explaining why people support the Taliban, and Osama bin Laden, and are willing to strap explosive vests to their bodies in order to kill Americans. It also gives us an idea about how to proceed in an attempt to moderate this part of the world (not just Afghanistan...). If your life sucks and the clergy tells you that the surest way to heaven is to kill infidels, chances are you will take that course. Why would the clergy send so many to death? Power. I am sure they believe that the Qu’ran reads the way they preach it, but also, if there is an Islamic state, who runs it? The clergy become the ruling class.
Another factor in all this, as I said, is the lack of education and the inability to think conceptually or abstractly. They can't take the principles of a thirteen-hundred-year-old religion and apply them to a modern society. The vast majority of Afghans think concretely, in black and white, and are unable to determine the principles that underly the religion. What the Qu’ran says, or what the mullah tells them, must be taken literally, and applied the same way. If the interpretation of Islam is that everyone other then Muslims are infidels and must be converted or killed, then this is what the majority will believe. If the Mullah says that the Americans and Coalition forces are occupiers, here to wage war against Islam, then the call to Jihad is believed and acted on -- despite the fact that most of those who end up being killed in the name of Jihad are Muslims. Instead of taking the principles that underlie the religion and applying them to a modern society, they are attempting to make a modern society fit a thirteen-hundred-year-old religion. Examples are the burka (yes, most women still wear them), women as second class citizens, and a strong suspicion of all things not Muslim -- like our assistance and attempts to bring them into the 21st century.
The $64,000 question: What will it take to moderate this religion and bring some sanity to this part of the world? The answer: time. Yes, time is the most important element, and we need to face this fact and understand that we are going to need to be here a long time, a generation at least. We need to educate the population, as we are currently doing. We are opening many schools and the number of people receiving an education is up dramatically. But it will take time before those we are currently educating are able to rise to positions in which they can make a difference. Understand, too, that just about 40% of the population here is under the age of 15, which means that if we concentrate our efforts on them the timeline for change shrinks. Time, and commerce, will bring sophistication to the society in general, which will help the population in their ability to adapt to the modern world.
Well, I have come to the end of this lecture. It may have been simplistic, but I've been working with the Afghans for nine months, and perhaps they are rubbing off on me as much as I am on them. It is what it is -- my attempt to explain what I have seen and experienced. My hope is that you find it helpful in trying to understand why this part of the world is a crazy as it seems.