THE Afghan people want the U.S. to stay. The Afghan people want the U.S. out.
As NATO and the U.S. military prepare for the long-anticipated drawdown of forces in America’s longest war, we hear both sentiments attributed to Afghans.
Like most things in Afghanistan, this question appears simple at first glance, and becomes increasingly complex as the layers are peeled.
Yes, the United States is withdrawing: After peaking at about 101,000 personnel during the 2011
surge, we are now down to about 30,000. But how we go and how we stay makes all the difference. Understanding why Afghans both want and fear our departure can help the U.S. learn from the lessons of the past.
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I’m hardly an expert on the Afghan people, but I have had enough firsthand experience in the country to know there is no single entity or ethnic group in Afghanistan that speaks for them. I was there for nearly a month as an embedded reporter, not with a military unit, but with a family in Kabul.
I did the most mundane of mundane things with them: watched the women do laundry, went shopping, sat in at a girls’ school, visited a local university, attended a 17th birthday party, ate homemade bread in the tent camp of a displaced Kuchi nomad family, traveled to the family’s rural village in Ghazni, milked a cow (not very successfully), met people who had lived for generations with no electricity or running water.
Taking part in these everyday activities, I had many, many conversations with some Afghan people.
Quite a few were old enough to remember well the catastrophic Soviet pullout in 1988, after which the United States ceased to support the anti-communist opposition.
A brutal civil war between anti-Soviet factions followed in this vacuum, which paved the way for the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s. The medieval hellhole that Afghanistan became — largely without the presence of the once-prevalent CIA, American aid organizations and American journalists — provided the perfect hideout and training ground for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida.
Many U.S. pundits look back at these events as a cautionary tale on failed states’ unique ability to incubate terrorism. It could serve as a military strategists’ instruction manual, “How Not to End a War,” as a Washington Post graphic suggested.
But to most of the older Afghans I met, including a Kabul woman in her 60s, the United States was just one more occupier.
“The British. The Soviets. The Americans. The warlords. The Taliban. The Americans again,” the woman said wearily, through an interpreter. (The Seattle Times is not naming the woman because her family was threatened for cooperating with an American journalist.)
“We didn’t ask for any of them,” she said. “All we ask of the Americans is that maybe, this time, you don’t leave things the way the others did.”
What does that mean, I asked her? “Just don’t forget about us,” she said. “Even if you can’t fix us.”
Americans and other superpowers don’t like messy narratives. Contradictions prevent us from declaring victory or conceding defeat, from taking credit or placing blame.
Afghans revel in contradiction. They are proud of and ashamed of their country. They are grateful to and deeply resent the Americans. They embrace progress but fear the loss of traditional values. Americans may have trouble fathoming such oxymoronic thinking, but it is written into the culture of Afghanistan.
Rumi, the 13th-century poet often claimed by Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey alike, said it best:
“The cure for pain is the pain / Good and bad are mixed / If you don’t have both / You don’t belong with us.”
We can heed the Kabul sexagenarian’s words and not let the absence of clear successes, or even of an unequivocal embrace by Afghans, drive us to look the other way.
Even as military operations wind down, let us — the American people — not forget Afghanistan in all its messiness, and its good and bad, despite the heartbreaking and maddening impossibility of fixing the country.
Angie Chuang is an assistant professor at American University School of Communication in Washington, D.C. Her debut memoir, “The Four Words for Home,” was published in March.