by M. Salahuddin Khan

We’ve just passed the 9th anniversary of 9/11 and in lockstep with each passing year’s remembrance of that awful, tragic day, we’re reminded less than a month later of another anniversary, that of the start of America’s longest war—the war in Afghanistan. 

Such as it is, the war has seen progress and setbacks. We failed to capture or kill Osama bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri. Indeed, the $25 million bounty on Osama bin Laden should probably be dropped. It hasn’t worked and only an imbecile would argue that this was due it being too small a figure. Yet in this simple observation surely lies a deeper truth.  Although we might share some aspirations with ordinary Afghans, what we think motivates us in an American cultural setting does not readily apply to the people of Afghanistan or Pakistan. In fact, bounties as a whole have been among the more notable failures of America’s policy in the region, too often proving to be vehicles for acting on local grudges rather than a means to ensnare our enemies.

Similarly, although drone attacks no doubt prove effective at times, their attempts at elimination of enemies generally create disproportionate resentment. Leaving aside their now well documented inaccurate targeting, the underlying resentment has much more to do with the remote-controlled and faceless nature of such attacks rather than their effectiveness or otherwise. Violence is not new to the people of Afghanistan and they pride themselves on their own martial codes. What is new is death-from-a-distance, from an unseen enemy operating from the comfort of an office somewhere in America and dispensing that death with less difficulty than in writing a memo. That resentment has to do with the dishonorable nature of killing without confronting an enemy, without putting one’s own life at risk, sipping a cup of coffee and returning to spouse and family after putting in “a day’s work.”

Mountaineer-turned-author and now deeply committed peace-worker, Greg Mortenson’s two books, Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools, along with his Central Asia Institute’s Pennies for Peace initiative stand on the other side of the chasm separating success from failure. The approach exemplified in his excellent and timely works require more patience and less spectacle. Yet, their successes are spectacular nonetheless and now America’s politicians and generals are paying heed to his words. Through vivid descriptions of his encounters with the people of the region he illustrates their willingness to reciprocate when confronted with (especially face-to-face) gestures of goodwill and efforts to rebuild their homes, schools and clinics.

It may no longer be important to capture or kill bin Laden or al-Zawahiri, and as long as the underlying resentments fester, there’ll be other bin Ladens and his ilk. But if there’s to be an end to this war that makes any kind of sense, we need to build on what works. Cultivating and acting upon a deeper understanding of the people we choose to affect, works. Sadly, however, it’s an understanding which most Americans, including many politicians, seem to lack. This isn’t the same as merely studying the people in the manner of a student or observer. One has to live within that world to embrace its truths. Mortenson’s words provide a graphic reminder of how important it is to take the trouble to do that and achieve a deeper understanding of a people, giving up something of oneself in the process.

And while his work is in the realm of facts and experiences he shares with his reader, other approaches from the world of fiction such as this writer’s own novel, SIKANDER, provide a different vehicle for internalizing how people of a different religious, cultural and ethnic makeup are motivated to think and act. After all, fiction can often provide access to otherwise inaccessible ways of living and experiencing those realities, and do so in as much detail and context as the narrative is able to convey.

After nine long years, simply having a dignified exit strategy is as unlikely to be a winning move as was America’s neglect of the region after the Soviet withdrawal. We need to respect unfamiliar customs, like the jirga system of tribal justice, the right to bear arms, and counter-intuitive customs like the obligation to defend a protection-seeker whether friend or foe, to name just a few examples. We need to avoid demonizing institutions like madrassahs based purely on the superficial imagery of TV sound- and video-bites. We need depth of understanding to equip us to discriminate the good from the bad. In short, we need to help the local people re-establish a functioning society which isn’t alien to their long-standing sensibilities. Only then will an American entry have had any meaning and an American exit be a cause for celebration.

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