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Thursday, July 4, 2013

What 'Change' Means in Afghanistan

A mixture of sadness and hope came over me when I first looked at the photo.

Afghan women studying medicine. A beautiful photo personifying the cultural revolution that was sweeping Afghanistan in the 1950s and 60s.
Courtesy: The Atlantic (AFP/Getty Images)

Ismail Jan*, I asked an office mate, isn't this a fascinating photo?

"Yes." Matter-of-fact. Non-emotional.

This was taken in Kabul in 1962.


So what do you think?

"I think it is a nice picture. The women are studying."


"But you see this," he points at the women, "caused this." In front of his finger is another photo, taken from behind, of a turbaned Afghan man with a wooden-handled Kalashnikov slung over his back.


"Yes. Most of us don't mind women getting educated. It's just that we were always a religious country and the revolution [led by the last king's of Afghanistan] to modernize was too drastic. It happened too fast. People were afraid. When people become afraid they become violent."

Hmm... it's a fair point, one I had never fully considered in the Afghan context. Incremental change vs. overnight revolution. Unfortunately that is a much harder 'sell' to those of us from cultures that require a near-immediate return on our investment and that (albeit only within the last 50 years or so) take gender equality as a given.

I picture a group of protesting aid workers in front of the Afghan Embassy in DC:

"What do we want?!" CHANGE!

"When do we want it?!" Incrementally... ideally within a 15-20 year time frame with well-established benchmarks and metrics.

'NOW!' seems like an easier concept for us to understand (and a catchier slogan); regardless of the fact that it took us (enlightened Westerners) centuries to free slaves and even longer to allow women the right to vote.

So what does change mean in Afghanistan? I have to believe that each conversation about celebrating differences, each gender sensitivity training, each new 'capacity building exercise' plants a seed (please excuse the use of an extremely over-used horticultural metaphor). Over time, with sensitivity to Afghan cultural norms and promotion of the more moderate elements of society (they do exist), change can come. Importantly, change has to be embraced and pursued by a critical mass of Afghans. The international community is there to support them in their fight against corruption and in the pursuit of peace; but only if they want, ask for and (dare I say one day) pay for our expertise.

But donors and taxpayers demand to see near immediate results, maybe even dream of revolutionary change? Be careful what you wish for...

Ismail Jan went on to tell me what happened after the modernization revolution led by Mohammad Zair Shah and others after their time spent in Europe: 50 years of protracted, increasingly-conservative-rhetoric-tinged (read: Taliban) armed conflict. It's much more complicated than that (and I'd love to read more about the mid-century 'cultural revolution' and it's impact on the subsequent instability if anyone has any suggestions). I realize that. But I'm having trouble thinking that at least a partial causal relationship doesn't exist.

Realistically, true change in Afghanistan could be a generational phenomenon.

In today's Afghanistan, young people with greater access to the internet and greater interest in prosperity (and modernization) will one day be in power. They are heavily influenced by a strong tribal elder system in which many local leaders undeniably ascribe to extreme or fundamentalist interpretations of Islam and that has been a pervasive part of their culture for centuries. But they also subscribe religiously to contemporary Turkish soap operas, they periodically sport Levi's instead of shalwar kameez and they plug away on iPhones in staggering numbers. Times, they are a-changin'.

As unsatisfying it may be to those of us who are products of the instant gratification generation, change will come slowly to a place where the number of fundamental problems is outweighed only by the tonnage of opium produced each year. Change will be slow. Incremental. Gradual.

And, most importantly, change will only happen on Afghan time.

*name changed