How (some) foreigners see Afghans?

Americans moving their damaged vehicles, Kabul / September 2010

On May 24, last week I was invited to talk about Afghanistan’s development issues  for a small class of graduate students at uOttawa who are being trained to become international development specialists.  The class is actually focused on Afghanistan and is taught by the former director of CIDA in Kabul. My lecture was entitled The “hearts and minds” of Afghans, in which I talked about the history of development aid in Afghanistan, aid dependency, failed state, security issues and how different players since 1880 has been trying to win the hearts and minds of Afghan people by different shapes and sizes of aid carrots. One of the issues I discussed was the colonialistic attitude of some western aid workers in the third world in general and in Afghanistan in particular.

I think one of the reasons why aid strategies in Afghanistan in the past 10 years have been a failure, is the inability of westerners to understand Afghans. The misinformation they had, led them to develop peculiar ideas about Afghanistan, its culture and people. Traditionally the westerners have known the Pashtuns as their partners in all levels of politics, security, development and culture and therefore have this untrue idea that all Afghans are like Pashtuns. Only since 1992 the Tajiks also have been entering their circle, to some extents. The Pashtunwali code of conduct, misogynist beliefs, hatred of others, close-mindedness and religious bigotry are believed to be shared by all Afghans which is not a realistic assumption about the whole Afghan society. I believe only the British and the Soviets had the deepest knowledge of Afghan people and politics as a result of the massive investment they made in understanding Afghans. The British, apart from an army of archaeologist, geographers, linguists, historians, anthropologists and politicians they sent to Afghanistan for fieldwork, they also translated many texts from local languages to English in order to get a sense of how Afghans think about things. Even the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland had a very productive Oriental Translation Fund.

Among the books the British translated is Tabaqat-i Nasiri of Juzjani a key historical text about Afghanistan and the region. The Russians also translated books into their language including all the important works of Faiz Mohammad Kateb (b. 1862-63 – 1931) the court historian who among others, authored Siraj al– tawarikh (Torch of Histories) which is considered to be the authoritative account of Afghan history (this book is translated by Robert D. McChesney a retired NYU professor from Russian into English but no one got interested to publish it, it still remains unpublished). But since the Americans arrived in Afghanistan they have done some things here and there with the high-tech facilities they have, but in terms of understanding Afghans and translating their books, they only have translated one book: My Life with the Taliban a very badly written Pashto dairy by a former Gitmo prisoner Abdul Salam Zaeef into English. Well, one should compare the choice of books made by the British, Russians and Americans, and get a sense of how far Americans go to get the right information about Afghan people.

Anyways, in that lecture, I shared a number of quotes from the international aid workers based in Kabul about Afghan people. These quotes are an example of how much the current army of western aid workers in Afghanistan know about Afghans. These aid workers were interviewed by Jennifer Fluri a geographer in Dartmouth College for one of her academic articles. I just put the quotes here and leave it to you to judge them. I personally agree with most of them, but I don’t think that you can generalize them to all “Afghan people”.

– “It’s extremely conservative, but very welcoming. They respect the fact that I am not Afghan, but [the culture]… well it is kind of crazy. Like the whole Pashtunwali, they will harbor enemies if you ask refuge, and they will turn on you if you screw up (female international development worker, USA, 26).”

– “Afghan culture is a lot about artificial hospitality. People are not very open, though they pretend to be. Afghans don’t appreciate closer interaction with outsiders and always maintain a distance. Hugging and kissing each other is quite superficial as people are not open. Afghans also take refuge in the name of religion and culture when they think that things are not happening the way they would like them to be (male international aid worker, UK, 25).”

– “The best way to describe it [Afghanistan] is Afghans have the emotional level of a 13-year-old. People will not and do not accept responsibility for anything both personally and nationally. It is always someone else’s job to take care of things … expectations are that you (internationals) must take care of things and that you have the capacity because you are a foreigner to take care of things and improve their situation, and now put that in the context of a 13-year-old and you have Afghanistan (female international development consultant, USA, 2006).”

– “They are like children in their capacity. I often think if we can put a man on the moon we should be able to teach an Afghan to think (female international development officer, USA, 2006).”

– “Afghanistan is bereft of skilled workers in almost all sectors, especially management/administration/finance; and what a challenge this presents in trying to help things/people “develop”. And, I would describe behavior and beliefs (to the extent that I understand them) and things that I admire (can’t think of any) and things that I don’t—girls can’t get to school, for example (female international aid worker, France, 2006).”

Fluri, J. (2011). Capitalizing on Bare Life: Sovereignty, Exception, and Gender Politics. Antipode, 43: no. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8330.2010.00835.x



One thought on “How (some) foreigners see Afghans?

  1. I liked this post, it is what I often tell people here in America too. I mostly agree with what most of the international aid workers have said at the end of your post.
    We have a long way to find our way to understand ourselves and introduce to others.
    Could you please send me the books you got, translation of Siraj ul-Tawarikh of Kateb? I would really appreciate that.
    Looking forward to your response,

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