We must remain optimistic for future of Afghan people

Kate Travers explains why Afghanistan is one of the most challenging places to be a woman.

Kate Travers explains why Afghanistan is one of the most challenging places to be a woman. - Credit: AP

The Afghanistan debacle is both shocking and mystifying to many of us.

Internet research gives a list of more than 14 distinct tribes in Afghanistan, 42% Pashtuns, 27% Tajiks, plus Hazaras, Uzbeks and others. 

The internet has a long article which starts "It is an old cliché that the Pashtun highlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan are highly resistant to state authority, and old masters of the art of not being governed". There are Pashtun people all over the region including Pakistan; countries to the north are named Tajikistan and Uzbekistan which is hardly a coincidence!

North America had over 300 tribes when the Pilgrim Fathers went west. After years of oppression and suppression, Chief Seattle in his famous speech wrote of the US President: "His people are many. They are like the grass that covers vast prairies. My people are few." The United States had been forged into a single unified country. John Wayne and others never really understood how fiercely each tribe guarded its own independence and culture, regarding neighbours as friends, rivals or deadly enemies; unfortunately America did not understand that the same is still true in Afghanistan.

A few thousand US troops were never going to suppress 38 million tribal Afghans in the way the US cavalry suppressed the Sioux and other tribes. But 20 years of US and British courage and perseverance has enabled a current generation of young Afghans in the cities to sample a more equable life than the Taliban imposed in the 1990's. We hope and pray that this investment will pay off in the next few years.

My understanding of the sudden collapse of the Afghan government starts with a comment that General Gates, a former US Secretary of Defense, said that they were trying to build an Afghan army based on the American model. An American interviewee, who spent time in Afghanistan with US forces, went on to say that this "failed to adapt to the strengths and notoriously fierce tribal nature of the Afghan people and maybe America is not well placed to understand other cultures".

My time in the USA included lecturing to businessmen that other countries do not work the American way. Americans assume a uniform world like the one they know; negotiating in Europe is not the same as America; the middle east and Asia are much more different. Historically, the British have been more adaptable around the world; in Japan my staff would quickly warn people that I was English not American! So my own experience resonates with the report. Even in Britain there is tribal rivalry; our armed forces are recruited regionally and there are dialect words in Devon and Cornwall for the others - grockles and emmets!

Looking forward, we can hope that the last 20 years has created a reserve of young Afghans who see a better way forward than primitive Taliban rule. Afghans are fiercely tribal, "old masters of ‘the art of not being governed" to repeat my opening observation, and now include capable and educated women with experience of responsibility.

Optimistically, I hope that the Afghan people will find a way of combining the extremes of the Taliban philosophy with the social justice and equality that comes from moderate Islam and the western idea of democracy. The huge effort and sacrifice on the part of so many people will then have been worthwhile.

If I am wrong, I still think it was right to try.

We certainly need to be welcoming to Afghan refugees.

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