Friday, April 3, 2009


“In this valley, a man without a gun is useless” – Head Elder talking to contracted anthropologist. Was Head Elder referring to the folly of having an unarmed American anthropologist try to work in this close-mouthed part of the world? Or may he in fact have been referring to himself…?

When it comes to dealing with the populace, our intermediaries are the local elders. The elders are a group of old men, usually one or two from each town, who (supposedly) have influence over the people inhabiting those villages. Of course, even if we concluded that the elders had no influence whatsoever, I’m afraid we’d have to deal with them by default - the younger men are invisible in fact if not in influence (they’re the ones in the mountains playing their games with us and won’t voluntarily show themselves to us), and the women maintain the converse position, being invisible in influence if not in fact (and completely off limits to us at any rate)…so we really have no alternative.

We have a weekly shura (translates as ‘consultation’), where the elders, the Army, and the Afghan National Army get together to discuss the issues facing the valley. I usually sit in on these meetings but rarely say anything. My influence comes by discussing beforehand with my Afghan commander things that might be good for him to say if he’s so inclined.

The first order of business in most of the meetings is discussing collateral damage, i.e. which houses, irrigation canals, goats, and door locks have been damaged, killed, or destroyed in the past week. I will probably at some point write a piece on collateral damage, so I won’t expand on this topic now other than to mention some type of agreement is reached and we move on. Occasionally construction projects are discussed (specifically the project to rebuild/improve the road that leads to this place), but since this idea seems to be going nowhere for the time being, the only other real topic of interest is the fighting.

On the subject of fighting, a representative interchange might go something like this:

Elder: “Taliban are outsiders.”

Army rep: “Yes, but we hear them on the radio speaking the language native to, and exclusive to, this valley.”

Elder: “Ok, there are one or two locals involved, but they only shoot from the mountains.”

Army rep: “Yes, but we often see muzzle flashes coming from the houses.”

Elder: “Ok, they shoot at you from the houses in the villages, but they force their way in to those houses; we don’t allow them in.”

What to make of a conversation like that? Since the elder lied in his first two statements, you’d certainly be justified in believing he’s lying in the third statement as well. Or do the elders really lack the power to keep fighters out of their villages? I’m convinced that what happens around here happens with their knowledge – knowledge that they don’t share with us. But I suppose the question is whether the fighting occurs with their encouragement and approval, tacit or otherwise. My opinion is that these men, as the representatives of their community, occupy the unenviable position of being responsible for the safety of a population caught between two warring factions. Undoubtedly, many of the fighters are sons of these same elders, but the financing, training, and many of the fighters come from abroad. And these men that come from abroad are not likely to accept “No” for an answer when it comes to supporting them. Given that supporting the Americans overtly could get you and your family killed, the decision to offer no help to the Americans or resistance to the insurgents seems to correlate highly with their chief self-interest – survival. Even having a son fight against the Americans doesn’t seem like such a bad alternative when everyone else is doing it and non-compliance could bring grisly reprisals.

So while our elder may have not really been telling the truth in that third statement either, the reality is he’s powerless to affect the situation as it is in the valley as a whole, and is nothing more than a man caught up in larger events over which he has no control. This is all assuming of course that the elders and locals don’t just hate us and everything we stand for…a distinct possibility in a country with such a history of antipathy toward foreign invaders. Backward though the Afghans are, I’m satisfied that although our elders might not be able to fully grasp the esoteric concept of liberty that we are expounding (not that we go around proselytizing about ‘liberty’ in the streets or anything…), nevertheless now that we Americans have been here for some time, they can probably digest that our essential makeup and motives are good and rightfully supported by a good portion of the national populace and the Afghan National Army. At the end of the day, our elders might not want the situation in the valley to be as it is, but it is what it is, and until the Coalition shows more of an ability to protect the populace and defeat the enemy in this specific place, then the elders will likely counsel the population to stay safely on the sidelines, offering our enemies tacit support and giving us nothing.

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