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War in Afghanistan: What you see when you only look in the mirror

REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic
U.S Marines from Delta Company of 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion patrol near the town of Khan Neshin in Rig district of Helmand province in 2009.

Shortly before noon Thursday, waiting for a friend to show up for lunch, I flipped on MPR and heard the estimable Kerri Miller interviewing author/journalist Anna Badkhen about her book “The World Is a Carpet,” for which Badkhen spent years living in a remote Afghan village watching the women weave carpets, some of which would ultimately sell in the United States for thousands of dollars but for which the weavers earn only pennies an hour.

Badkhen arrived in the brief interval between the attcks of 9/11/2001 and the U.S. bombing/invasion/occupation of Afghanistan, which, of course, is still occurring. Badkhen said that when she asked the villagers about Osama bin Laden, they had never heard of him. But the whole reason the Americans are invading your country is to find Osama bin Laden? So what, they replied, someone is always invading Afghanistan.

Afghanistan had not been at peace since at least 1979, when the Soviets invaded, which turned into a civil war, which turned into Taliban rule, which was, in 2001, apparently going to turn into an invasion by another group of foreigners to drive out the Taliban.

That’s just my summary. The next paragraph is a quote, delivered in a world-weary tone, in slightly Russian-accented English by Badkhen:

Yes, the latest iteration of violence in a country that has been pretty much at war since the beginning of recorded history, which in the case of Afghanistan is the invasion by Alexander the Great in 327 b.c.

“So it’s very interesting and I think poignant, especially for policy makers in the U.S. To understand what the U.S. invasion means for Afghans and how that perception clashes with what Americans think the war is. It’s now the longest military involvement that the U.S. has had. Whereas for Afghans it’s just a blip, or, rather, the continuation of a flow of violence.

The United States is famous for its extraordinarily myopic foreign policy that has not changed over centuries. So we shouldn’t be surprised. I’ve been working as a foreign correspondent or war correspondent for many years. And it seems that every time we here in the United States talk about our engagement in some other country, we’re looking into a mirror and seeing ourselves in that country. But we’re not seeing beyond the looking glass. We’re not seeing into that country.

The country becomes a backdrop for our war. And I think It’s extremely important to see that for 20 million Afghans, it’s not the American war. It’s just another war in Afghanistan.

The full interview is available here.

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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 06/14/2013 - 10:38 am.


    Not 1989

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 06/14/2013 - 12:55 pm.

    Read your Kipling

    Before the Russians, there was the British Raj.
    Like many colonial ‘nations’, Afghanistan in its present form doesn’t have a national history; it was a creation of the British East Indian company. It’s natural boundaries are tribal.
    There are some good maps and a brief history at

    On the ethnic breakdown; from the CIA Worldbook:
    Ethnic groups:
    Pashtun 42%, Tajik 27%, Hazara 9%, Uzbek 9%, Aimak 4%, Turkmen 3%, Baloch 2%, other 4%
    Afghan Persian or Dari (official) 50%, Pashto (official) 35%, Turkic languages (primarily Uzbek and Turkmen) 11%, 30 minor languages (primarily Balochi and Pashai) 4%, much bilingualism, but Dari functions as the lingua franca
    note: the Turkic languages Uzbek and Turkmen, as well as Balochi, Pashai, Nuristani, and Pamiri are the third official languages in areas where the majority speaks them

    So, the question is: where was the village where the author lived, and was she Pashtun (who also inhabit Pakistan), or some other ethnic group,

  3. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 06/14/2013 - 01:01 pm.

    Since (according to her Web site) she was in the north of present day Afghanistan, the tribespeople she was with were probably Turkic, not Pashtun.
    Kandahar and the Pakistani border are on the South, so it is not surprising that her friends had not heard of Bin Laden.

  4. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 06/14/2013 - 04:01 pm.

    It’s a common misconception that the Soviets “invaded” in 1979

    In March 1978, a group of homegrown Marxists overthrew the existing government of Afghanistan and set about trying to modernize the country. For all their faults, Marxist governments are very good at two things: promoting universal literacy and promoting women’s rights, so these were priorities with the coup leaders.

    However, they ran up against the conservatism of some of the tribal men. No daughter of theirs was going to go to school with boys! No son of theirs needed to know anything but the Koran! No wife of theirs was going to go around without a burqa!

    In its shortsighted anti-Communist mindset, the U.S. government saw that arming and encouraging the disgruntled conservative Islamists was a way to make life difficult for the Marxist government. As early as the summer of 1979, long before a single Soviet tank had rolled in, the Islamist forces were causing significant problems.

    The Marxist government asked the Soviet Union to help out. Which it did, sending troops in in December 1979. The Western news media immediately went into overdrive about “Communist aggression” and the military moves into Afghanistan as the Soviets’ first step in taking over Pakistan and gaining a warm water port.

    I was in graduate school at the time, and I knew people who were in Russian and East European Studies and in South and Central Asian Studies, and they both told the same story, that the news media were lying to us.

    Ten years of warfare between the U.S.-backed Mujahedin and the Red Army left Afghanistan in ruins and full of starving refugees and orphans. The Taliban saw the orphans as a terrific source of recruits and took in thousands of boys to raise in a harsh, fanatical, all-male environment.

    The departure of the Red Army after the breakup of the Soviet Union left the factions of the Mujahedin fighting for control. The American CIA actually favored the Taliban, because they were the best organized group. Few outsiders noticed when the Taliban took over all of Afghanistan in 1996. Only leftists and feminists complained about their cruel theocracy and brutal treatment of women–until 2001, when the Bush administration, which had been willing to negotiate an oil pipeline with the Taliban just a few months before, decided that it needed to invade Afghanistan to catch Osama Bin Laden.

    I wish we could turn the clock back to 1979 in Afghanistan and let the Marxist government have its way. Two complete generations of Afghans, male and female, would have grown up literate in a relatively peaceful country. Would there be an opium trade? Most likely not, judging from how China dealt with its opium problem. Would there have been human rights problems? Most likely, but nothing like the theocratic straitjacket that the Taliban imposed.

    Afghanistan is a prime example of why the U.S. should not try to fix other countries.

    • Submitted by Logan Foreman on 06/17/2013 - 09:06 am.

      What is shocking but typical for the US

      We got involved in a civil war in Afganistan less than 10 years after finally getting out of a civil war in Vietnam. And then we added Iraq which became in part another civil war. Simply – beyond extreme stupidity.

      • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 06/17/2013 - 09:54 am.

        And now Syria….


        America’s alliance now includes the wealthiest states of the Arab Gulf, the vast Sunni territories between Egypt and Morocco, as well as Turkey and the fragile British-created monarchy in Jordan. King Abdullah of Jordan – flooded, like so many neighbouring nations, by hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees – may also now find himself at the fulcrum of the Syrian battle. Up to 3,000 American ‘advisers’ are now believed to be in Jordan, and the creation of a southern Syria ‘no-fly zone’ – opposed by Syrian-controlled anti-aircraft batteries – will turn a crisis into a ‘hot’ war. So much for America’s ‘friends’.

        Its enemies include the Lebanese Hizballah, the Alawite Shiite regime in Damascus and, of course, Iran. And Iraq, a largely Shiite nation which America ‘liberated’ from Saddam Hussein’s Sunni minority in the hope of balancing the Shiite power of Iran, has – against all US predictions – itself now largely fallen under Tehran’s influence and power. Iraqi Shiites as well as Hizballah members, have both fought alongside Assad’s forces.

        Washington’s excuse for its new Middle East adventure – that it must arm Assad’s enemies because the Damascus regime has used sarin gas against them – convinces no-one in the Middle East. Final proof of the use of gas by either side in Syria remains almost as nebulous as President George W. Bush’s claim that Saddam’s Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

        (end quote)

        • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 06/17/2013 - 10:45 am.

          The main flaw

          in Obama’s argument is the assumption that killing 150 people using gas is somehow worse that killing tens of thousands of people in other equally unpleasant ways.

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