March 26, 2007

Name: Capt Mike Toomer, USAF
Posting date: 3/26/07
Stationed in: Kabul Afghanistan
Hometown: Saco, ME
Email: [email protected]

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.


seems like a good observation, going back in time, as it were, to an older society. In a similar vein, I heard a radio commentator talking about his time with the Bushmen, and their primitive existence - and I thought"why research the past - its still alive".

In America we have near 100% literacy yet a large segment of the population still listen and follow preachers like Micheal Savage who advocate killing just about anyone. What difference will education really make on the other side of the world?


You hit the nail on the head with this piece. If we can get money and education into these people's lives, you'll start to see Afghanistan modernize more rapidly. And to answer Big Jim's question: A huge difference. Great piece.

Just a comment from someone who comes from a country that has in the past been occupied.

I feel the way Afghans do about occupation. Their antipathy to the Americans does not stem from Islam, it stems from a foreign nation being there telling them what to do. This is true because in Russia we had very different beliefs, yet we fought against occupiers every time they came to civilize us.

The feeling of hatred of foreigners, whatever their intentions, lives deep in my heart, and, I think, in everyone's. Some people just haven't had to fight for their freedom last couple hundred years.

Agreed. Education does wonders for everyone. So does prosperity. Which is why I just don't understand why the Admin doesn't do more to alleviate poverty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I wonder if the mullahs could be held for war crimes, if they incite muslims to kill themselves and others?

Religious leaders fear that Modern Western Culture will corrupt their followers and weaken the control the exert. This is evident in the rhetoric of the fundamentalists (whether they be Mulsum or Christian). The Muslim Fundamentalists found Afghanistan to be fertile ground for their brand of revolution, because of the lack of education and the level of poverty. It offered them the ability to more easily steer the population toward their aims. The Soviet and now US/Nato Occupation offer another important element, the external or foreign threat.

thanks so much for sharing your observations! this is seriously one of the most insightful things i've EVER read about afghanistan. take care.

Your observations are on target. Education of the population is vital, but getting to 60% literacy rate will take years. Our military presence can help stabilize things, but until there is a substantial increase in the support for education of not only the children, but the adults, we will not see a change in the thinking skills of the population. In many locations here in the states, we can't even agree how to fund and educate our own children.

Very good analogy. One of the things that helped change Europe was the rise of secure private business ventures & the slow spread of wealth outwards. In other words economics. The revival of long-distance trade, which the Afghans are very good at (consider even the opium trade now) will also help. But for that one needs security. People under great stress cannot learn new things and neither can nations. Given a generation or two with food, water, security & a market, Afghanistan could once again resemble the land that drew Alexander the Great, Shahpur the Sasanian kings and many others.

It sounds right on to me, sir.

These people have a very long history of xenophobia, dating back as far as Darius and Alexander. The latter took an Afghan wife to forge an alliance and become the only outsider to conquer Afghanistan.

I don't think anyone can really beat these people militarily - they are too primitive - and the only options they can grasp are "victory" (that is achieved when we get fed up and leave) or oblivion.

But we keep fighting. We cannot allow Afghanistan to become what it was in 2000. We must take up the same cause of Alexander and "civilize" them, because it is the only course open to us. I wish our government was more serious about that. Nobody in America has really been asked to sacrifice anything - we have been directed to go shopping for duct tape.

Thank you for your post - I hate getting my news about the war from anyone but the warriors fighting it - and for your service to our nation.

Capt. Toomer - Very keen observation and a great analogy. I would suggest, however, that the amount of time you indicate - a generation - is probably not enough. The influence of religion on political power structures in Europe was still significant even into the early 19th century when the industrial revolution came into full swing. You are corret, though, on the need for security, trade, and movement toward a market, rather than and agrarian, economy. I think that those are all very possible but I see the competing mission in Iraq siphoning off resources that are vital to making it come to pass.

You're short now. Stay safe and come home in one piece.

Good observations, just translate this into Arabic and it will get to a percentage of the population and maybe talking amongst them about it will get the message further. The mullah have too much influence on the people - your reference to the clergy's use of Latin in history compares very well to that. Thank you for your service, not to your own country, but to the world. Take care

As true as the poster's observations might be, I think anyone other than an Afghan expressing this to an Afghani audience would be met with resistance or hostility.

It seems that Afghans are so mistrustful of outsiders that they probably wouldn't take kindly to outsiders telling them what is wrong with their society.

Let's flip it: do we appreciate when anyone- Europeans, Muslims, Russia or China, tell us Americans what we need to do differently?

I agree that Afghanistan needs to change, but we need to be subtle about it so it isn't perceived as an attack on them and more foreign meddling.

Please read about the reforms instituted by Mustafa Kamal Attaturk when he helped create the nation of Turkey. He solved the $64k question.


What amazes me most is that you seem to be surprised by this. Afghanistan has been a medieval country since medieaval times. They are a clan-based society, who like to fight. To them, you are just a new brand of russians.

It seems us westerners have been so lulled in our own worldview we have forgotten that there are others. The US view of itself as a country anointed by God to bring light to all corners of the world is no less insane than other grandiose plans for ideological world supremacy.

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