Afghanistan at War
Afghanistan is many things. It may – or may not – be a graveyard of empires, depending on which end of the shovel you happen to be on. It is definitely one of the lands that produces more military history than can be consumed locally. Afghanistan is, for its size, one of the most diverse and complex countries on earth. The foreigners that end up waging war there usually do not understand Afghanistan. This applies to neighbors like the late East India Company, the late Soviet Union, or nearby Pakistan, seeing Afghanistan though the prism of their own politics and security concerns. More recently, despite the skill and professionalism of those, military and civilian, deployed there, countries like the US and UK have struggled to turn the experience of individuals on six-month or one year tours of duty into cohesive learning at the institutional level. At the national level, learning, like understanding, often remained elusive.
Conflicts in Afghanistan are, in the end, not about foreigners, but about Afghans and how they and their society have been influenced by outside events and forces, especially those carrying weapons. When, some 35 years ago, I started visiting the Afghans, the first words I heard in Dari were: “You should have been here before the war”, one of the truest, yet saddest phrases in any language. For Afghans, the war that has been ongoing since the 1970s has been a life-defining tumultuous event in unexpected and devastating ways.