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Humanities Scholars Consider Contemporary Culture of Afghanistan and Pakistan

Lack of Understanding of Pakistani and Afghanistani Civilians Hinders Progress in the Region

In 2010, as the U.S. government commits more troops to Afghanistan in its efforts to quell insurgent activity in the region, scholars are raising doubts as to whether sufficient attention is being paid to historical precedent, especially in regards to the region's recent history and varied cultural traditions.

“The US administration has tried, in bits, to study previous military incursions into the region, but without attending to how history itself matters to people who live there,” says Stanford history professor, Priya Satia. “People in that part of the world have had a long experience with foreign intervention and occupation--under the British, Russians, Americans and that historical memory necessarily, and rightly, frames their interpretation of current events.

“Grasping the perspective of local people--their experiences at the wrong end of British, Soviet, and American intervention--might help our administration understand the political impossibility of a warmly-welcomed US military presence or of a stable and popular Afghan government backed by the US,” adds Satia.

A lack of understanding of the cultures of the region’s inhabitants is also stymieing progress. “The U.S. administration would rather talk about historical myths - ancient ethnic hatreds and so on - than real, modern historical experience, and the politics of that experience, ” explains Satia.

Associate professor of religious studies and director of Stanford's Abbasi Program in Islamic StudiesShahzad Bashir, agrees. "One of the biggest problems in the U.S. approach to the region is lack of complexity: social, intellectual, political, economic," says Bashir. "In the case of Afghanistan and Pakistan, one issue that keeps coming up is the questions of tribalism. Tribes are represented as solid identities: its is presumed that people belong to them, and they act according to their fixed tribal identities. However, as humanists, we understand that, like other social formations, tribes are arenas for interaction and do not necessarily determine a person's each and every opinion and action. Tribal affiliation can be fluid; you might be born into a tribe, but you can change affiliation based on whom you marry, among other things. Tribalism is a form of dynamic group identity formation and not a static determinant that sits in one's head and makes one act in a certain way."

Thinking Anew About the Border Zone

Another target of humanist criticism is the government’s conception of the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Imposed in 1893 by the British to mark the furthest extent of British Colonial India (now Pakistan), the Durand Line, named after the Foreign Secretary of British India at the time, remains largely unrecognized by Afghanistan. The border dissects the 27,000 square kilometer Pashtun region and is considered to be the operating base for the Taliban.

Bashir suggests that the U.S. policy of focusing on the security of the border is not likely to bear any results. "The tropes that keep on coming up in military and political speeches dwell on the frustration that the border is not firm," says Bashir. "It needs to be realized that the boundary on the map is something quite different from the realities on the ground.  Through the past century, the border is better seen as an instrument open to manipulation by governments as well as local people to advance their agendas.  In political terms, the Taliban's use of the border's ambiguity today is a close parallel to the way the U.S. government used it in collusion with a Pakistani dictator while opposing the Soviet occupation in the 1980s.  In both cases, those who live in the region and were caught up in the crossfire have utilized the situation of war for their regional interests."

He continues: "Strategy, then, is likely to be more productive if it is built on the presumption of the border's flexibility and permeability rather than bemoaning its insecurity."

Without Cultural Context U.S. Military Strategy Could Fail

An important question that looms over U.S. decision-makers is how the country will make its eventual exit from Afghanistan. Although humanists are split how - if, at all - this plan should be executed (at a conference held at Stanford in December on the subject, a panel of humanists varied widely in their views), some doubt the effectiveness of current suggestions of a gradual - or incomplete - exit strategy.

"The current plans for phased withdrawal or incomplete withdrawal - whereby some form of U.S. military presence will remain, particularly in the sky, even after most of our troops are home - are doomed to failure in the long-run," says Satia.  "Long experience with that kind of partial sovereignty (or "covert empire") - where its impossible to tell just how independently your government is acting - is precisely what drove so many people in the region to the kind of paranoia and conspiracy-thinking that led to 9/11."

Instead, Satia suggests a method of “total demilitarization” of engagement with that part of the world and “a shift to humanitarian assistance, economic aid, technocratic expertise, and a police hunt for the remaining members of Al Qaeda - about one hundred individuals, according to official U.S. Military figures."

Whether or not humanists hold the definite answers to such questions is unclear.  However, as Bashir sees it, providing solutions is not necessarily a humanist's most important role.  "Our job is to complicate the narratives that govern discussions and decisions about these places," he says.  "Rather than just providing the answers, it is down to the humanist to question the categories within which the questions are being asked. Different questions bear different answers and we aim to open issues to new ways of conceptualization based on our familiarity with historical and social details."