An Afghan who served as an interpreter for the US during the war in Afghanistan in a Washington Post op-ed said America’s lack of knowledge about the culture of the country contributed heavily to its failures there.
“Many Americans have been asking … how could Afghanistan have collapsed so quickly? As a former combat interpreter who served alongside U.S. and Afghan Special Operations forces, I can tell you part of the answer – one that’s been missing from the conversation: culture,” wrote Baktash Ahadi, who served U.S. and Afghan special operations troops as a combat interpreter from 2010 to 2012.
“When comparing the Taliban with the United States and its Western allies, the vast majority of Afghans have always viewed the Taliban as the lesser of two evils. To many Americans, that may seem an outlandish claim,” Ahadi went on to say. “But the Americans also went straight to building roads, schools and governing institutions – in an effort to ‘win hearts and minds’ – without first figuring out what values animate those hearts and what ideas fill those minds. We thus wound up acting in ways that would ultimately alienate everyday Afghans.”
The Taliban terrorized Afghanistan for years as it waged a brutal insurgency in the country after being knocked from power via the US invasion in 2001. The militant Islamist group is now back in control of the country, and the US military has fully withdrawn.
Ahadi emphasized that in most cases the only interactions Afghans had with the US and its allies “came via heavily armed and armored combat troops.”
He said the US mistook the Afghan countryside for a “theater of war” as opposed to a place where people “actually lived.”
Ahadi said America’s failure to take culture into account extends well beyond Afghanistan.
“When it comes to cultural illiteracy, America is a recidivist. We failed to understand Iraqi culture, too, so that now, many Iraqis see Iran as the lesser of two evils,” he said. “Before that, we failed to understand Vietnam. And so on. Wherever our relentless military adventurism takes us next, we must do better.”
Front-line troops were not given any training in “cultural literacy,” Ahadi said, bringing up the example of US Marines “mistaking” his exchange of Koran verses with fellow Afghans as “extremism rather than shared piety.”
Ahadi’s observations about why the US struggled to achieve its goals in Afghanistan have been echoed by experts on the region as well as a watchdog created by Congress to monitor the billions of dollars allocated for reconstruction in the country.
Western powers exhibited “hubris” in viewing “Afghan traditions as an obstacle to be overcome when, it turns out, they were the lifeblood of the country’s political culture … And this left the door open for the slow return of the Taliban,” Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings Institution, recently wrote in the Atlantic.
Correspondingly, an August report on lessons learned from the war in Afghanistan from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), said that the US government’s “misreading of the Afghan social and political environment meant that initiatives designed to stabilize and rehabilitate the country were poorly adapted to the local context.”
The SIGAR report said US officials “rarely” had even a “mediocre understanding of the environment” they were operating in.
President Joe Biden also alluded to these issues in his speech Tuesday focusing on the Afghanistan withdrawal. He framed the decision to pull US troops from Afghanistan as a matter of “ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries.”