Afghanistan and the Valley Between Us

June 1, 2011

Martin Scott Catino, Ph.D.

23 May 2011

The comforts of Safi Airways disappeared rapidly in the anxious steps that led me to down the ramp and across the tarmac of Kabul International Airport. I had arrived in Afghanistan in mid-January, and the mountain peaks capped with snow competed with the pungent smell of burning tires to win my attention. My POC (point of contact) met me in the “Land of the Brave,” shaking my hand and welcoming me to my second counterinsurgency effort. “Hello, Dr. Catino, how was your trip?” “I am fine, Sir, and am looking forward to serving here.” “Have served in Iraq and am happy to be here for this ride, ” I replied. He responded, “Forget Iraq.” “This is nothing like Iraq.”

Indeed, as I approach mid-tour, I could not agree more. There is much more here than differences in language, landscape, history, and culture. Even the mixing of French, Italian, Croatian, Mongolian, and Turkish armed forces in our camps is not the defining difference in this experience from other conflicts I have seen—including Iraq. The War in Afghanistan pits the United States and our allies against an insurgent culture that extols nearly all human passions and behaviors condemned by my American upbringing, and the longer I serve here the more apparent that becomes. Although there are similarities to Iraq, the issues here are deeper, more severe, and more prevalent. The differences that separate our sides—Coalition Forces versus the Insurgency—is wider than the deep and vast valleys that separate this rugged mountainous terrain.

First, this war is a religious war—not ours but theirs. The Taliban and other insurgent groups openly declare their hatred for “Jews and Christians” and work hard to make this a religious war. Target killings by the enemy focus on “avoid[ing] agents who are the servants of the Crusaders and begin first with the Jews and Crusaders and confront the Ummah with its foreign enemy who invaded the land and replaced the sharia.” (Al Qaida’s Doctrine for Insurgency,109). Their messages manipulating Islam, fomenting religious hate, and vilifying Christianity and Jews bellow from mosques and markets and find too many ready ears. The message of religious bigotry is the insurgent’s most potent weapon, measured by the fact that they rely on it most often and use it to achieve their most cherished objectives.

Second, this is a war against crime. On another level, Islam has nothing to do with this conflict, that is to say, the honest and dedicated agenda of Muslims to uphold Islamic values. The insurgents care nothing about Islam outside of its ability to achieve their aims: power, money, subjugation of their enemies, and dominance of women. Behind the cloak of Islam lurks the real life of the insurgency: control of the drug trade in Afghanistan; control of the people through murder and intimidation, (note this week’s attack on the military hospital); kidnapping; extortion; sexual enslavement of children (Bacha bazi); control of the lucrative trucking routes from Pakistan; and a variety of black market trades and networks that cover the region like a spider web.

Third, economic warfare is at the basis of the insurgent’s fight. In the United States, when a new and creative business enters one’s town, others are forced to compete, change, and adapt, otherwise they perish. In Afghanistan, when another business enters the market, there is no competition as envisioned by Adam Smith’s model of capitalism. Warlords and powerbrokers use their militias and the insurgents to kill the competitor and destroy (literally) the venture. Economic competition is settled often by violence, and the insurgency is part and parcel of this solution. Our efforts to establish the rule of law, fair business practices, and market capitalism are directly opposed to the business practices of the insurgency; and they will fight to maintain their way.

Fourth, this is a war for civility. Our American sentiments that glamorize “the people” are useless in Afghanistan. Corruption, deceit, duplicity, and treachery are rife in Afghanistan and that at the local level. Everything in the average American does not want to believe that. Our political and cultural values taught to us from childhood have conditioned us to lionize the average human, believe we are equal culturally (in moral and social development), and thus we are victimized by our own ideology. Cultural relativism wreaks a foul odor in the valleys of truth, and how much more in the valleys found here in Afghanistan, where acts of charity are often viewed as a sign of weakness, and billions of dollars of aid have created as many enemies as friends, or at least, created instability and not the reverse.

Let me be clear on this subject: there are plenty of Afghans who can make the difference and carry the torch of progress. There are plenty of Afghans ready to take charge of their country. But alongside this heroic nationalism is a public bent running counter to the progress, a problem that must be addressed. And the insurgency feeds off of the corruption, the lying, the duplicity, and the treachery found in abundance. The goals of transparency and good governance are at the heart of the mission of Coalition Forces. That mission runs roughshod over that of the enemy.

Finally, this is a race war, not ours but theirs. The Taliban and their fellow thugs are working hard to make this a Pashto war against other races (call them ethnics if you like). This is a land where Tajiks, Hazaras, and others have been slaughtered by Pashtuns. And Pashtuns have been slaughtered in a cycle of revenge and counter-revenge that baffles pundits who get lost in philosophical inquiries into who started the strife. The main aim of Coalition Forces is to stop the racially motivated hate that leads to ethnic cleansing and retributions—no small feat.

So at the end of the day I remember that this war in Afghanistan is for a cause for more than the noble goal of creating regional and international security. It is that, and much more. I end my days looking across the valleys that divide us from the enemy, and know the efforts are worth it.

“And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence.” Luke 16:26


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