Obama's Afghanistan

Afghanistan's Tipping Point

Interview: Expat writer Tamim Ansary on how America blew its best chance for Afghan stability.

In the days following 9/11, Afghan American writer Tamim Ansary made the mistake of tuning in to right-wing talk radio. Distressed by all the banter about bombing Afghanistan back to the Stone Age, Ansary composed a response and emailed it to a handful of friends. It was a prescient warning of the hazards of reengaging with a country America had largely ignored since the late 1980s. Ansary wrote of the need to go after Al Qaeda and the Taliban without causing a humanitarian disaster that might worsen the West's conflict with Islamic extremists, and urged Americans to consider the human costs not simply in Afghans' lives but their own. "It's the belly to die, not kill that's actually on the table," he cautioned. "Americans will die in a land war to get bin Laden."

To his surprise, the email was forwarded and forwarded until it became an Internet sensation, and he a minor celebrity. Now, as tens of thousands of American troops deploy to Afghanistan to fight a resurgent Taliban, Ansary is watching warily. He sees an opportunity squandered, and while he'd like to see the United States take a more grassroots approach to reconstruction, he thinks there's no easy way to turn back the clock.

His concerns are echoed in his new book, Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes, which offers an engaging view of the Muslim world from a non-Western perspective. Ansary believes our mismatched cultures might coexist peacefully if only they could agree to disagree on some key issues, like the meaning of democracy. This more respectful, but less idealistic, approach might work in Afghanistan, he suggests: "You have to adopt a feeling of trust that Afghans are going to move toward democracy if they're not feeling threatened or pushed toward it." Ansary spoke with Mother Jones from his home in San Francisco.

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Mother Jones: When were you last back in Afghanistan?

Tamim Ansary: In 2002, right after the Taliban were ousted. At that time it was a really fabulous time to be in Afghanistan, because there was the illusion that the war had ended and everybody thought that America was going to be pouring money in; there was all this talk of a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan. It was really exhilarating to be there at that point. And of course for me, it was the first time I'd been back in 38 years. I was seeing family for the first time, seeing places where I'd grown up.

MJ: Obviously a lot of that promise hasn't been realized. Do you think that moment can be recaptured?

TA: No, I think we missed an opportunity there. It's really been agonizing to see how it's been slipping away. Up until 2006 there was a balance between things that were good and constructive and things that were going bad. I think a lot of Afghans were waiting to see which side they would jump on. If the whole society's going to collapse, you want to be ready for that and get ready to take care of yourself and whoever you care about. When you make those kinds of preparations, which essentially means stockpiling guns and figuring out who your allies are, you're basically contributing to upcoming chaos. And it takes a leap of faith to say, "I think the government is going to succeed and civil order will prevail, so I'm going to invest money and build a business, or go to school, or do any of those kinds of things that are part of normal life." If enough people make that choice, you really do have a civil society going again. And if enough people don't, things erode again. If during that crucial period there could have been the kind of reconstruction aid that would have promoted the pervasive entrepreneurial energy that was there, then there could have been a tipping point toward order.

MJ: If many Afghans are no longer with the program, what's the best we can hope for?

TA: There are many different Afghans, so you can't just say "Afghans." In the last few years, the character of the insurgency has really changed from a thing that was properly described at one time as Taliban or Al Qaeda, which was the local expression of a global revolutionary Islamist movement. But what is happening in Afghanistan now is that the long-standing impulse to throw out the foreigners and reclaim local Afghan culture is part of the insurgency. I don't think it's exactly correct to say "Taliban" all the time. The Taliban is a movement, an attitude; it's not really an organization. There are a lot of organizations that are Talibanist.

MJ: Are there any groups or parties in Afghanistan that you have faith in?

TA: I know what everybody wants to hear: How do we get out of this? The first thing I have to confess is that I'm better at seeing why it's more complicated than we think. I think the key to the whole thing is to look at how reconstruction occurred during the Bush era. It was pursued through big-ticket items, like $100 million for a highway someplace instead of 10,000 small grants to individual people to put in a well, a village-sized hydroelectric generator. If there's a $100 million project that originates in Washington, the first thing you're going to do is spend $50 million to have consultants and engineers draw up plans, and that's going to happen here. When they go over there, the next thing is to bring technically sophisticated people from the West to manage the project. You can't get them to go over without expensive private bodyguards. By the time you get through, three quarters of the money has been banked back here. And you're doing it through a bureaucratic Afghan apparatus that you've set up. Since there's no economy in that country, the one way any money is to be made is finding some way to siphon it off this development pipeline. And the way to do that is usually called corruption.

MJ: Your new book looks at how complex the Muslim world is and how the West is continually finding that out the hard way. What is it about the Islamic world that Americans just don't get?

TA: It would be useful for Americans to understand the variety of expressions that Islam can take and to understand how the history of what happened in the Islamic world ties into producing this particular brand of politicized Islam that is often thought of as what Islam is. And to understand that there are other strains and movements in the Islamic word that could be promoted. I shouldn't say "promoted," because the problem is that when you have a situation where there is colonial power in the mix, the approval of the colonial power tends to discredit the thing that the colonial power is approving of.

MJ: Given this potential for backlash, how do you present something like democracy in a country like Afghanistan?

TA: You really don't. What you do is identify areas of collaboration and cooperation that are separate from trying to dictate culture or values. You look at clean water, you look at clinics, things like that. You let the cultural ideas filter in as they will. You have to adopt a feeling of trust that Afghans are going to move toward democracy if they're not feeling threatened or pushed toward it. When you take a culture like that and bring in elections for representatives, you're not really going to get democracy or a change in the texture of life that makes life more democratic. What you're going to get is an exercise to choose which of two power holders is going to be the one who gets a particular office and the opportunity to dispense development money and take bribes. Is that democracy? I don't think so.

MJ: You write about why Western democracy is seen as a threat to Islam and in particular how it asks people to step back and choose a party in a way that is separate from their religious or communal identity.

TA: Quite often people ask about the various forces in Afghanistan. The questions they ask indicate that they're assuming these forces represent different policies or different ideas and that people join up with one force or another because they believe in one ideology. I don't think that's usually how it is. I don't think there are any parties in Afghanistan that are like that. There are groupings of personal associations or networks of associations.

MJ: Yet we see the Taliban as embodying a distinct political vision that you can compare to Nazism or communism or fascism, when it fact it doesn't fit into that category?

TA: Right. I am dead certain there are people who aren't Taliban today who will be Taliban tomorrow and won't be the next day. There are whole different levels of people who are involved in Talibanism. There's tribal chieftains who feel crowded out by new young guerrilla commanders and need to stem the power of these guys rising up from nowhere. So they need to take action against the foreign invader. I think there are people who come in from Pakistan, and some of them might in fact be dispatched by people in the intelligence services of Pakistan that originally set up the Taliban. There are also soldier of fortune-type revolutionaries who are devoted to the cause and come into Afghanistan because that's a place where you can actually get involved with the fight. And then there are teenagers with high spirits and no work to do—they're like gangs. There's also clerics who want to assert their authority; one of the forces that erodes their authority are government-funded schools. There is just no end to the people who are Talibanist.

MJ: Do you think there is a way to negotiate with the Taliban you just described, where not everyone is motivated by a die-hard spirit?

TA: There probably are ways to negotiate with those people, and it involves money. It involves being able to get in there to find out what is a cherished dream that people have, and then you can come in and help with that. You have to have an attitude of no strings attached, which is so hard. I was talking to a woman in Berkeley who has a project that I help out with a little bit. It has something to do with an art contest for kids in the refugee camps. There was a possibility that they were going to get some grant money to set up some art instruction. And she said, "We're going to do that but we could only do it if we get a guarantee that girls will come and get this education, too." And I said, "You had some art from girls in the contest?" She said, "Well, they didn't come out; they did the art from home." And I'm going, "You know, I can see how that feels on the other end to the men of that family." They're told, "We're going to give you this money, but the quid pro quo is that we have to be able to have control of your daughters." That's what it sounds like. It's not what we're saying at this end, but it's what they're hearing.

MJ: In your book you write of two worldviews that are constantly talking past each other. You say this isn't a clash of civilizations but a conflict between cultures that have no common language.

TA: The thing about the clash of civilizations, very often you will hear that concept disputed by educated Afghan Americans or people of my general group. The way that is disputed is by saying, "People are just people and there's no difference." I want to say, "Well, that's great, but that's just not true"—there are some differences here. Obviously, we don't have to fight because we're different; that's the part of the clash of civilizations that's arguable. All too often, when people say, "We're all just people," they're not taking the trouble to find out who anybody else is. They don't realize what they're saying is, "We're all just people and all of us are just like me." And that's the thing you have to get outside of.