Afghanistan’s culture is not like ours — and that’s just one lesson we failed to learn

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On 9/11, I was at the British Ministry of Defence on a one-year detachment from RAND Corporation. My British colleagues and I watched in horror that early afternoon as the planes hit the Twin Towers in New York. Less than two hours later, we were in various meeting rooms, assessing the situation and considering the inevitable U.S. response and the United Kingdom’s role in it. The details of the conversations, 20 years later, are not essential, but what stood out and continues to stand out is the might of American logistics capability — the “combat support” portion of any military deployment and employment. Any country with even a smidgen of military power can drop a bomb or two, but no other country can sustain its operations like the United States, thanks to the super capability of its combat support.

So it’s utterly disappointing to see how horribly wrong the American withdrawal from Afghanistan is taking shape. We are leaving a country where we have deployed U.S. troops for over 20 years and, once again, we appear to be abandoning those who supported us to the mercy of a brutal band of zealots. The U.S. should have moved heaven and earth to rescue the people who have risked everything for a better future, trusting our promises.

Afghanistan is an immensely complex geopolitical quagmire, with U.S. occupation lasting through four U.S. presidents, two Republicans and two Democrats. Within that period, the U.S. mission morphed from capturing 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden to establishing schools to educate girls to the ambitious operations of creating democratic institutions and an Afghan air force to protect them.    

The Taliban’s rapid takeover of the country is disappointing but not surprising. I used to think that the British military, unlike the U.S. military, was profoundly knowledgeable of the geopolitics of the Near East; after all, they had a heavy hand in reshaping the region. However, sitting in those Ministry of Defence meetings, as an Iranian American, it became clear to me that the British were as clueless as their American counterparts. The lack of language skills or even a basic understanding of the differences in cultural traditions and values between the various peoples of the region was shocking, to say the least.  

This dearth of critical cultural understanding enabled the ineptitude that was presented throughout our bungling management of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We conflated religion with ethnicity and mistook those Afghanis who may have been educated in the West as “Westernized.” We don’t appreciate history, so we never tried to learn from it, and we repeat our mistakes over and over again. We looked at Afghanis, and those who spoke English fluently or wore suits and ties were put in a “good” column, and then we relied on these people to guide us through Afghanistan’s labyrinth. Now we are surprised and disappointed that they got us lost along the way and fled when the moment of truth arrived.

When I left RAND to join academia, I tried to take some of RAND’s unique culture with me.  RAND is an extraordinary think tank with over 70 years of success; any organization would benefit from becoming even a little bit like it. But, of course, you can’t impose culture by fiat. I have been on three campuses as a senior administrator, and each of those universities can take pride in its achievements. They are not RAND, but they don’t need to be in order to be successful. This was a simple lesson at a micro level, but it is also applicable at the macro level. We spent over $80 billion to “remake” the Afghan police and military after our image, but we never paused to ask the members of those groups if they wanted to be “more like us.” If we had, we would have received a resounding “No!” as the answer.

Afghanistan, Iraq and every other country that Americans have tried to “rehabilitate” have their own cultures, their ways, and instead of adapting to understand their culture so that we can help rebuild from within, we tried to change them and help from without. 

One only hope can be that today’s Taliban are not the same reprobates as their fathers and grandfathers. We know the Taliban are happy to use Western technology, from our cell phones to machine guns, and now, thanks to our quick withdrawal, U.S. helicopters and Humvees. It’s hypocritical for the same people who want to turn the clock back a thousand years to use the technology invited and paid for by the “infidels.” But we are not sincere either, are we? We promised so much and delivered so little — and we are leaving those who believed in us to fend for themselves.

Newspaper articles have complained about the immense corruption in the Afghan government, but to some degree, this indicates again that we don’t understand other people’s culture and think we are better than they are. Corruption exists everywhere, even in our government. But we have a massive buffer in our system that can withstand even significant turbulence. The developing world, like many working poor, is always on the brink of homelessness and hunger. When my car breaks down, I just have it fixed and use a loaner while waiting for the repair work to finish.  When a poor person’s car breaks down, it can have a cascading effect that may lead to losing a job and even a home. The line between having a functional government and chaos is a small perturbation — and that’s another lesson we have not learned.  

Afghanistan’s neighbor, the Islamic Republic of Iran, will fill the power vacuum the United States has left behind with its departure. And for that reason, Iran thanks you, President Biden, for yet another gift.

Mahyar Amouzegar is provost and senior vice president of academic affairs at the University of New Orleans and a writer. He formerly was a senior analyst at RAND Corporation, researching military policy issues. His latest novel is “The Hubris of an Empty Hand.” 

Tags Afghanistan Joe Biden Near East cultures Taliban War in Afghanistan

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