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Why Afghan History Matters

As a historian, I am trained to predict the past, and I usually get that right about half the time. One thing, though, that years of reading and travel have engrained in me is the importance of narrative. Every country and culture has its narratives, and these seldom translate well. When I lecture to deploying troops on Afghan history, I often give the example of U.S. election season: Talking heads or anchors on MSNBC might compare President Obama to Abraham Lincoln. Most everyone watching would know immediately that both Obama and Lincoln leaped from Illinois relatively rapidly into the White House.

Someone whose flight is delayed at the airport and watching CNN might hear comparisons between Obama and John F. Kennedy. Whether a critic or a supporter of Obama, it is easy to draw comparisons both to the presidents’ relative youth and to their rhetorical gift. However, commentators on Fox News might compare Obama to Herbert Hoover, an analogy, fair or not, that raises the specter of economic depression. The point for American servicemen is not whether they are fans of Obama or not; neither their job nor mine when I teach is to preach policy. Rather, it is that Lincoln, Kennedy, and Hoover will mean absolutely nothing to the Afghans. Local history matters.

How frustrating it is, then, to see NATO and U.S. forces fall so in love with American and European narratives that they never consider just how the Afghans interpret them. When the British began negotiating with the Taliban (several years before the Americans got on board), British officials cited their talks with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) to justify outreach to the Taliban. The problem was that few Afghans knew about the IRA and fewer cared. Mullah Omar, however, used the British outreach to make an analogy any Afghan would understand: That of the First Anglo-Afghan War.

In December 1841, General William George Keith Elphinstone negotiated with insurgents and struck a deal: The British would leave Kabul for Jalalabad, and in exchange the insurgents would recognize Shah Shuja, a British ally, on the throne. Of the 16,000 British men, women, and children who left Kabul, only one made it to Jalalabad (two, for the Flashman fans out there). It was Britain’s worst military defeat in their history and would remain so until they lost Singapore in 1942. He described himself as Dost Mohammad, the Afghan nationalist king who took the throne upon the British defeat. That would make Hamid Karzai out to be Shah Shuja. All Afghans understood Omar to suggest that the British were again on their way to a historic defeat.

The Americans are just as guilty. The American military hierarchy in Afghanistan justifies their support of the Afghan Local Police (ALP) in the supposed success of the Sahwa Councils in Iraq. Those Sunni groups defected to help push back al-Qaeda inroads during the surge. Afghans know little about the surge in Iraq, and care less. When they see the American military supporting the ALP in Afghanistan, they draw parallels to the Soviet pre-withdrawal strategy of forming local militias. Rather than signaling a commitment to defeat insurgency, then, the American strategy is convincing Afghans about America’s looming defeat. Seldom has American ego-centrism been so self-defeating.

Afghans have never lost a war; they just defect to the winning side. Until Americans convince Afghans that momentum is on the side of the United States and not on the side of the Taliban, then there can be no outcome that will not be severely detrimental to U.S. interests. Alas, until American officials look through the Afghan lens, rather than convince themselves that their own spin matters, we will not win the battle of perception.


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