Afghanistan is a Complex Place

Afghan local points something out to Western soldiers

(photo from Ghosts of Alexander)

Actually, all places are complex. It’s hard to understand what this means if you’ve only spent time in your own culture, especially if it’s a reasonbly functional first-world democracy. The developing world in particular can be phenomally fluid and mystifying, and one of the feelings I associate most intensely with travel there is the sense that not all is as it seems, that I can’t quite grasp the true motivations and power relations of the people around me. In my more paranoic moments I even suspect that my interactions are, to some extent, stage-managed by the locals so as to give me a particular impression.

If a recent article by a sociologist studying Afghanistan is any indication, I was right about all of this: the local socio-political scene is very complex, and it is deliberately hidden from “outsiders” of various types. The implications are dire for any sort of foreigner who wants to try to come in and “help.”

To be completely honest, you would have to be an anthropologist who spent many months in a village to understand well just that one community. The situation will be determined by local conditions. It really seems to be a case by case scenario.

So how to interact with these local authority figures and power/survival structures? Are NGO workers and soldiers to act as an agent of the central government, extending its authority to a more local level? Or are they to give more weight to the needs of locals? Or of local authority figures? And is there a way to conduct oneself that can be acceptable to both the central government, local communities and local authority figures? And how does one reconcile those with the goals and needs of the foreign military and international aid community? How do you avoid pushing the losers of local power struggles onto the insurgents’ side?

The piece raises far more questions than answers, so it won’t be appealing to, say, those whe believe that all true solutions are basically simple. Nonetheless, it beautifully captures the sense of labrynthine complexity I’ve felt so many times on the ground — exactly the sort of complexity that inevitably screws up the planning scenarios of international agencies of any sort.

The full article is highly recommended. It even contains actual survey data on local Afghani power structures, not merely anecdote and speculation!

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