Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Voices from Afghanistan

Voices from Afghanistan:

Above the Din of War: Afghans Speak About Their Lives, Their
Country, and Their Future—and Why America Should
Listen
, by Peter Eichstadt, Chicago Review Press,
$26.95, 273 pages.

If Americans are on Afghan land and making decisions about
Afghan lives, the least we can do is to make some perfunctory
effort to find out what they want for their country. But because of
barriers of language and logistics—and because America is just not
set up to care very much about people on the other side of the
world who don't vote in our elections—even this perfunctory effort
often seems like too much trouble.
Peter Eichstadt's new book Above the Din of War is a
notable exception. Eichstadt set out to interview Afghanis from all
walks of life. He talks to merchants and policemen, video store
owners and archeologists, representatives and staunch opponents of
the Taliban. He even, in what is perhaps the book's most painful
section, listens to girls who have literally set themselves on fire
in order to escape abusive marriages.
What he discovers from all these interviews, mostly, is that
Afghanistan is a huge, horrible, brutal, and basically unsolvable
mess. This is not exactly a surprise, but the details and extent of
the nightmare still have the power to shock. The Taliban are,
basically, monsters. Eichstadt talks to several young boys who were
less brainwashed than simply bullied into becoming suicide bombers.
He also interviews video store owners targeted for violence by the
Taliban for selling pop DVDs. The Taliban's influence, he learns,
is extensive and possibly growing. In Helmand province, the Taliban
threatened to destroy telephone towers unless the companies
restricted service to certain hours every day. The companies
complied.
There's no doubt from Eichstadt's interviews that a large number
of Afghans hate the Taliban with a passion. Many of the author's
interlocutors have had friends and family killed by the religious
extremists. A number of them argue—with at least some warrant—that
the Taliban aren't even an indigenous force but are controlled by
Pakistan and/or Iran.
But that doesn't stop
Afghans from loathing their other occupiers. Resentment of the
American-led coalition is widespread. The U.S. is blamed for the
thoroughgoing corruption of the Kharzai regime, which it helped to
install. It is blamed for its seemingly inexplicable inability to
defeat the Taliban. And it is blamed for simply being there. As one
Taliban sympathizer puts it succinctly, "If we were in your
country, would you like us to rule?"
Eichstadt's book, then, documents the gulf between Afghanistan
and the West. But it also rather helplessly enacts it. For all his
sympathy and all his dedication to chronicling Afghani opinion,
Eichstadt can't resist the impulse to make the story about himself.
The first line of the book reads, "After a six-year absence, I was
back in Kabul, Afghanistan." That first-person voice keeps coming
back throughout; if Eichstadt isn't telling us that "I felt
somewhat better about the possibilities for Afghanistan," he is
announcing solemnly that "I fear for the Afghan future." No doubt
Eichstadt's insistent self-references are meant to be there for
color, or to give the Western reader a point of identification. I'm
sure his emotions are sincere. But isn't there something indecent
about thrusting them up to the camera in such a way that they
obscure—momentarily but repeatedly—the country?
There are other indications that Eichstadt is as helplessly
compromised as the rest of the Westerners in Afghanistan. One
mullah he interviews, for example, says that he does not want to
discuss suicide bombers because he is afraid that he will become a
target. Eichstadt patiently and thoughtfully explains to the reader
that the mullah's concerns are entirely justified, and that his
life really could be in danger. And then he describes himself
continuing to pump the guy for information, apparently under the
impression that his interview is more important than the poor man's
life. At another point, Eichstadt muses on the cultural causes of
Afghani violence, noting in passing that "The people of Afghanistan
often seemed more horrified than the outside world as to what was
happening to them and around them." Actually experiencing decades
of war, trauma, violence, and poverty is, it turns out, more
horrifying than watching war, trauma, violence, and poverty on your
television. Who knew?
At the end of the book, Eichstadt acknowledges that there may be
no way to stabilize Afghanistan or turn it into a functional state.
Nonetheless, he argues that the United States and the international
community cannot in good conscience abandon the country. If
international forces leave, he argues, the Taliban will overrun the
country again, with hideous consequences for most of the people
Eichstadt talked to.
Eichstadt's commitment is clearly sincere and admirable. Yet his
inescapable blindnesses can't help but undermine his point. Here is
a man, after all, who obviously cares passionately about
Afghanistan; who has traveled widely in the country; who has spoken
(through translators) to its people. And yet for all his time and
all his commitment, he still clearly struggles, and not especially
successfully, to see the Afghan people as the center of their own
story and to see their lives as more important than his sympathy.
Eichstadt, for all his good intentions, offers Afghanistan little
more than condescension and a portrait of his own self-absorption.
It's difficult to see how the U.S., for all its good intentions, is
going to do any better than that, no matter how long it stays.
Maybe we just need to admit that we really don't care about them
much, and that, under those circumstances, the little we can do for
them is to leave them alone.