Decoding War and Oral Culture of Afghanistan

Supporters of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at his election rally in Kabul [Omar Sobhani/Reuters]
Supporters of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at his election rally in Kabul [Omar Sobhani/Reuters]

By Krishna Sharma* 14 October 2019

Had President Trump kept his original schedule to meet with the Taliban at Camp David early September and encouraged his hostile guests for the lasting peace process in Afghanistan, life of ordinary Afghans would have started changing for good by now, at the least with ceasefire in place.

Sadly, this will not happen in the near future.

The fact that only 7 percent Afghans showed up at the presidential elections held on September 28 speaks in volume as to how much is Afghan mind affected by the ongoing conflict. A recent BBC study showed that over 80 percent Afghans suffer from stress and anxiety related disorders due to violence and financial hardship.

The collapse of the peace process has not only deepened the anxiety among foreign policy experts, it has also left the question unanswered as to how long can the US sustain the complicated war at the expense of its military and the tax payers’ money.


Noted US diplomats ranging from George Marshall to George Kennan to Henry Kissinger to the incumbent foreign policy wonks at Council on Foreign Relations to RAND Corporation to Brookings Institute to Heritage Foundation to Wilson Center, have been arguing that the overarching agenda of the US foreign policy has been more about the demand of the time for the agile maintenance of the liberal international order than about the national interest or democracy or liberalism.

If Marshall advocated the mantra of avoiding trivia, Kennan upheld the spirit of containment, and Kissinger believed in the easing of hostility with nations while establishing or strengthening the already established foreign relations. Unlike Israel’s foreign policy which champions peace, the stepping stone of the agile US foreign policy pivots around internationalism. While Marshall’s foreign policy of avoiding trivia earned the US with its permanent international allies and Kennan’s grand strategy of containment helped win the cold war, Kissinger’s strategy of easing of hostility through shuttle diplomacy helped neutralize the US loss in wars.

Like in love or sex or politics, fiasco in foreign affairs garners more attention than triumph. United States’ seemingly longest war against terrorism in Afghanistan has been criticized as a ‘forever war’. However, if we look at it from the perspective of ‘liberal international order’ our future generations would term it as a ‘war-worth-waged’ since its logical end would one day be proved beneficial for not only the peace and freedom seeking ordinary Afghans but also for those who have contributed their time, energy or money in the war on terror.

When it comes to implementing the universally accepted and fundamentally tested foreign policies in a country governed, although for the sake of governing only, by democratic leaders but controlled largely by the ethno-centric insurgent groups that are involved in a covert warfare with the US itself for over 18 years since the 9/11/2001, all measures have drained and failed thereby demanding a new approach.


Although we hear people say that the 31,000 (14,000 US forces and 17,000 NATO forces from 39 nations) foreign forces need to leave Afghanistan, the same people remain answerless when asked if the Afghan security forces are strong enough to protect their country on their own.

Before we discuss about the winning strategies in the war against terrorism in Afghanistan (note that the US is not in war on Afghanistan), we need to first know what policies and principles we tried and why they failed and what needs to be realized.

Did the US ever try to fully decode the oral culture that brings the divided Afghans together as a unified force when it comes to defeating the invaders? Did it decode as to why the Afghan society offers asylum to violent groups that promote terrorism? Did it ever try to know the binding factors of the Afghan society which is so diverse in lingua franca, tradition, culture and feudal identity? Did it ever try to know why the Taliban has such a strong ‘will to fight’? Did it ever try to understand why its immediate neighbors, including less immediate India and Russia, want this nation of the horse traders to remain unstable? Did it ever try to connect the Afghan dots that link to the disputed Kashmir for which India and Pakistan are fighting for as long as Pakistan was created?

To answer the questions above and revise the working policy on Afghanistan, we must understand the following three points:

First, Afghanistan is unofficially a country of concrete blocks which are still controlled separately by warlords where there is no blending of mutual harmony, language or culture. There is no mutual sense of unity. However one must not forget that they come together temporarily with the help of unified oral culture when it comes to fighting the foreign forces. History has proved the Afghan tribes uniting themselves to defeat the British three times (1839, 1878 and 1919) and the Soviets in 1989.

Second, the US and NATO have yet to gauge the Taliban will to fight and help prepare the Afghan forces accordingly, if they are to be defeated militarily. A new alternative approach to fighting terrorists is the only key to ending the conflict. General Petraeus’s policy is not enough without supporting it with HUMINT. The US and NATO allies are currently dependent more on SIGINT.

Third, the residual military presence of the US and NATO is engaged in strengthening Afghan government security forces (nicknamed as the warbirds of the warlords) which only serve the political elites of Kabul and a few in other prominent cities of Herat, Kandahar and Mazar-e-Sharif. Part of the problem is also the irredeemably corrupt central Afghan government which has misused billions of dollars in aid and has left the country remain vulnerable to Taliban and other violent forces.

Way Forward

Although its foreign policy has been working well for over 65 years on the basis of the agility of liberal international order, US now needs to be very clear about its strategic goals in Afghanistan at a time when all measures applied have either failed or are proving inefficient. The approach now must focus on education and economy of the rural Afghanistan where terrorism grows. Modern day extremists are not going to be eliminated by boots on the ground or the Ariel strikes. We must learn from history that the Afghans have endured even when the source of their livelihood were destroyed by the Russians.

If the stalled peace talks are resumed with representatives from the US, Afghanistan’s incoming president, and the Taliban and the bottom-up development approach (village to town to city) is implemented, terrorism will find no place to hide. For this to happen the State Department along with USAID needs to be aggressive with more people centered programs focused primarily in rural areas, among others.

The views in this article are the authors personal observations and they do not represent US government.

* Krishna Sharma is Vetting Specialist cum Linguist at RSO at the US Embassy in Kabul.

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