Voices from Afghanistan

Without intending to, Peter Eichstadt makes the case for getting out of Afghanistan.


Above the Din of War: Afghans Speak About Their Lives, Their Country, and Their Future—and Why America Should Listen, by Peter Eichstadt, Chicago Review Press, $26.95, 273 pages.

If Americans are on Afghan land and making decisions about Afghan lives, the least we can do is to make some perfunctory effort to find out what they want for their country. But because of barriers of language and logistics—and because America is just not set up to care very much about people on the other side of the world who don't vote in our elections—even this perfunctory effort often seems like too much trouble.

Peter Eichstadt's new book Above the Din of War is a notable exception. Eichstadt set out to interview Afghanis from all walks of life. He talks to merchants and policemen, video store owners and archeologists, representatives and staunch opponents of the Taliban. He even, in what is perhaps the book's most painful section, listens to girls who have literally set themselves on fire in order to escape abusive marriages. 

What he discovers from all these interviews, mostly, is that Afghanistan is a huge, horrible, brutal, and basically unsolvable mess. This is not exactly a surprise, but the details and extent of the nightmare still have the power to shock. The Taliban are, basically, monsters. Eichstadt talks to several young boys who were less brainwashed than simply bullied into becoming suicide bombers. He also interviews video store owners targeted for violence by the Taliban for selling pop DVDs. The Taliban's influence, he learns, is extensive and possibly growing. In Helmand province, the Taliban threatened to destroy telephone towers unless the companies restricted service to certain hours every day. The companies complied. 

There's no doubt from Eichstadt's interviews that a large number of Afghans hate the Taliban with a passion. Many of the author's interlocutors have had friends and family killed by the religious extremists. A number of them argue—with at least some warrant—that the Taliban aren't even an indigenous force but are controlled by Pakistan and/or Iran.

But that doesn't stop Afghans from loathing their other occupiers. Resentment of the American-led coalition is widespread. The U.S. is blamed for the thoroughgoing corruption of the Kharzai regime, which it helped to install. It is blamed for its seemingly inexplicable inability to defeat the Taliban. And it is blamed for simply being there. As one Taliban sympathizer puts it succinctly, "If we were in your country, would you like us to rule?"

Eichstadt's book, then, documents the gulf between Afghanistan and the West. But it also rather helplessly enacts it. For all his sympathy and all his dedication to chronicling Afghani opinion, Eichstadt can't resist the impulse to make the story about himself. The first line of the book reads, "After a six-year absence, I was back in Kabul, Afghanistan." That first-person voice keeps coming back throughout; if Eichstadt isn't telling us that "I felt somewhat better about the possibilities for Afghanistan," he is announcing solemnly that "I fear for the Afghan future." No doubt Eichstadt's insistent self-references are meant to be there for color, or to give the Western reader a point of identification. I'm sure his emotions are sincere. But isn't there something indecent about thrusting them up to the camera in such a way that they obscure—momentarily but repeatedly—the country?

There are other indications that Eichstadt is as helplessly compromised as the rest of the Westerners in Afghanistan. One mullah he interviews, for example, says that he does not want to discuss suicide bombers because he is afraid that he will become a target. Eichstadt patiently and thoughtfully explains to the reader that the mullah's concerns are entirely justified, and that his life really could be in danger. And then he describes himself continuing to pump the guy for information, apparently under the impression that his interview is more important than the poor man's life. At another point, Eichstadt muses on the cultural causes of Afghani violence, noting in passing that "The people of Afghanistan often seemed more horrified than the outside world as to what was happening to them and around them." Actually experiencing decades of war, trauma, violence, and poverty is, it turns out, more horrifying than watching war, trauma, violence, and poverty on your television. Who knew?

At the end of the book, Eichstadt acknowledges that there may be no way to stabilize Afghanistan or turn it into a functional state. Nonetheless, he argues that the United States and the international community cannot in good conscience abandon the country. If international forces leave, he argues, the Taliban will overrun the country again, with hideous consequences for most of the people Eichstadt talked to. 

Eichstadt's commitment is clearly sincere and admirable. Yet his inescapable blindnesses can't help but undermine his point. Here is a man, after all, who obviously cares passionately about Afghanistan; who has traveled widely in the country; who has spoken (through translators) to its people. And yet for all his time and all his commitment, he still clearly struggles, and not especially successfully, to see the Afghan people as the center of their own story and to see their lives as more important than his sympathy. Eichstadt, for all his good intentions, offers Afghanistan little more than condescension and a portrait of his own self-absorption. It's difficult to see how the U.S., for all its good intentions, is going to do any better than that, no matter how long it stays. Maybe we just need to admit that we really don't care about them much, and that, under those circumstances, the little we can do for them is to leave them alone.

NEXT: Beyond the Pale

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  1. Dude that makes a LOT of sesne. Wow.

    1. Whatever you’re on, Anonabot, I don’t want any.

  2. Nonetheless, he argues that the United States and the international community cannot in good conscience abandon the country. If international forces leave, he argues, the Taliban will overrun the country again…

    There are lots of horrible governments, and very few of them are any of our business. If we feel that some speculative future Taliban government represents a threat to us, they can be squashed again, very quickly. The idiocy lies in doing anything past that.

    1. Our business in Afghanistan was finished shortly after invasion. A good ass-whooping was reasonably inexpensive and effective. After that dumping what in the end will amount to trillions into idiotic “nation building” for people who will hate us no matter what we do is light years beyond stupid.

      1. We’ve “learned” this how many times already?

        I spent about two years there, and earned a ton of money, and also basically got my current job out of there, so it worked out for me pretty well.

        Then again, I’m not an Afghani.

        1. War Is A Racket

          And because I always ask folks with practical experience about this: ACU, Multicam, MARPAT, or A-TACS?

          1. Well, technically ACUs from that list (multicam didn’t exist 2005), but I was AF, assigned to the “Army” as an “ILO” when they ran out of dudes.

            Second time was 5.11s in 2007 after I retired. Well 5.11s and/or manjammies depending on the weather and last time we were near a wash facility.

          2. ACUs were just fine by me.

            1. So do both of you agree that the criticisms of ACU are unfounded or is there something to the criticisms?

              1. I certainly do. Other than a flight suit, the ACU was BY FAR the best uniform I ever wore. The only valid criticisms I had were:

                1. The velcro wore out after around 6 months. So you can sew more in, whoop de do, but was a bit of a pain.
                2. The corners all kind of bend up after a few weeks. I didn’t care, but it gives a slightly shabby look. Solution: keep one set fresh for when you run into a GO.
                3. Everyone E-4 and higher looks like a Lt Col from more than 10 feet away. I don’t have a problem with that 🙂

                1. They also only work as camoflage when they’re filthy, because their natural grey color is only good for blending in with crushed rock parking lots.

                  1. ACU’s have some advantages since they are comfortable, dry quickly, not too thick, the pockets are good and the velcro a decent idea. The pattern sucks unless you are fighting in the sage country of Wyoming (great for speed goat hunting tho). For Iraq I thought the Army got it right with the DCU pattern. The newer patterns used by the Army and Marines are both efficient but WTF with the navy and air force patterns? Am I not supposed to see you on your freaking ship or in the WalMart parking lot in suburban Las Vegas?

      2. “…dumping what in the end will amount to trillions into idiotic “nation building” for people who will hate us no matter what we do is light years beyond stupid.”

        That depends on your definition of stupid. You didnt buy stock in plywood manufacturing companies before the invasion did you? As I recall, Bush and co. did.

  3. “The Taliban are, basically, monsters.”

    “It is blamed for its seemingly inexplicable inability to defeat the Taliban.”

    I remember a couple/three years into the war we captured 300+ Taliban and had them in prison. After a few months they were released when they promised to be good. Within an hour they had overwhelmed the local police, taken over the town and the armory, and were marching on a nearby town.

    Inexplicable my ass.

    First off, we dont need to be there. There is never going to be a pipeline from Turkmenistan to the Arabian sea. Even if we were able to deal with the afghans and pakis, the Turkmenistanians are impossible to deal with. Berdymukhammedov’s nutty cult of personality is beyond anything else in the world.

    Secondly, if you are going to embark on an adventure of this sort, you dont put bureaucratic hacks and desk jockeys in charge. The rules of engagement need to be ‘shoot on sight. You put fucking warriors and killers on the job. You exterminate the enemy, not put them in jail.

    Thirdly….we dont need to be there.

    Bring our people home.

    1. Oh, they’ll be brought home soon(ish), but only when they can provide maximum political advantage.

      In 2014, close enough to the election for people to remember, but not too soon (don’t want everything falling apart before the election), the bulk of the troops will come home. There will still be a sizeable force left in place to keep a lid on things, just in case. Then, I think, another major reduction in early 2015, possibly down to an advisory force or even total withdrawal. Either way I doubt we’ll be fighting the provincial Taliban any more.

      1. Well I, for one, am shocked that anyone would have the temerity to suggest that any American president, let alone his excellency BHO, would base military decisions on political expediency.

    2. The rules of engagement need to be ‘shoot on sight. You put fucking warriors and killers on the job.

      Or you could take a page from the British when they had the same dilemma with the Ghurkas and Sikhs. Basically say, “You’re all sons of bitches, but we like the cut of your jib. You are now our newest shock troops. How does a salary of 10 times the average professional in your country sound?”

      1. We really don’t need mercenaries, we are not Rome.

        There is absolutely no reason whatsoever for us to be there, other than the fear of very nasty pictures on the TV keeping sensitive souls awake at nights fretting over them. It’s a culture with a national sprt that involves whacking a goat’s head around a gravel pitch, so they ain’t playin tennis over there.

        Leave. Now. That is our best option. They don’t want us there, we don’t wanna be there. They don’t like the Taliban, let them pick up arms and shoot at something besides us for a change.

        “Oh it’s too hard or complicated”, my ass. Skippy picks up the phone, calls Chuckie at the Pentagon, tells him to have the Joint Chiefs to cut a re-deploy order, and we just fucking leave. Every American, except non-military free lancers that are into that shit could be gone inside of a month and a half, if the decision were made this morning. But it won’t be.

        1. While I agree with us leaving post haste your 45 day timeline is way too short. The worse hoarder on reality TV has nothing on a military unit. We have 100’s of millions of dollars of stuff we will be leaving anyway. There is no reason to push the losses into the billions. Since the military has already started to retrograde “stuff” we could have a decent chance at getting all we want out in 120 days (plus or minus) and then another 9-12 months being pilfered at Paki ports until the last ship sails.


    When Afghan teenagers are stabbing soldiers to death, maybe we’re not welcome.

    1. Careful, you may start up some “military age” thing!

  5. Or maybe, we could just give up on the idea of a strong central government that everybody hates, and go to the traditional tribal leaders and tell them we will pay them $100 a head for any Taliban heads. It worked for Kurtz, and if any of the leaders prove a little to “enthusiastic” we can cut back on their payments until they give us proof that the poor beggar was really part of the Taliban.

    1. We try to set up a strong government, the kind we think should work (which it doesn’t, not anywhere), and we get the exact result that we should. It isn’t the result that we’re hoping for, but that’s because our premises are wrong.

      So what do we do? Throw more treasure at the problem, maybe now it’ll finally work how we want it to!

  6. Maybe we just need to admit that we really don’t care about them much

    We care a lot.

  7. “and basically unsolvable mess”

    No, it is not unsolvable, there are 3 possible “solutions”

    The first is to become inhuman monsters along the lines of Stalin or Hitler and literally murder the tribal forces to extinction forcing the remaining survivors to abandon the past and unite in hatred of a common enemy. It wouldn’t be pretty and the body count would be quite high but it would work in the sense of forcing the country to become a modernized place.

    The second “solution” is to abandon all those there with a stern warning not to mess with us, and when they inevitably do to bomb the shit out of them and leave them to their own devices.

    The 3rd solution is the Coca-Cola and Blue Jeans solution, we leave them alone, ignore the occasional successful terrorist attack they manage to mount while specifically designing and targeting media and propaganda at their young people showing them a new and better way while making sure that we smuggle in the electronic devices necessary to ensure that every kid in Afghanistan can watch every episode of “Leave it to Achmed” regardless of what the village elders say.

    1. Solution number four, suggested by my mother, is ‘Just sterilise all the females in Afghanistan then you wont have anything to worry about in a few years’.

  8. Relationships between nations should be economical not military. The quality of US products can be welcomed all over the world without any use of force.

  9. Before drawing sweeping conclusions about Afghan views on the Taliban, one would need to know the ethnic makeup of the interviews. Do Pashto really hate the Taliban now? Or are we just talking about the same divide through the country since.. 1990?

  10. The Collective Security Treaty Organization is coming into its own now, so they should take responsibility for their own region. NATO has done as much as it can or ever should.

  11. It has been my view from the beginning that the Afghan operation should have been a punitive expedition directed at 1) capturing OBL and high-level AQ operatives 2) destroying as much AQ infrastructure as possible, including Afghan govt infrastructure that AQ was using and 3) Destroying enough Taliban assets to make clear to them that any future support for AQ would result in more of the same.

    Pursuing such a punitive course would have resulted in a weakened AQ much less able to carry out future attacks as well as a chastened Taliban much more vulnerable to disruption from other factions within the country (though frankly they’re mostly a pretty distasteful bunch and some are even worse than the Taliban*).

    Instead, Bush chose to win support from various liberal factions within the country (notably women’s rights and gay rights groups**) and from our allies (notably the Canadians, Germans and the French***) by engaging in a nation building exercise that has proved costly and largely ineffective.

    Every American, except non-military free lancers that are into that shit could be gone inside of a month and a half…

    And within a month after that a reinvigorated Taliban will march into Kabul ready to give the Afghan people what it thinks they want good and hard. Thus with reference to my ** footnote I have come to the conclusion that any changes will disappear.

    1. *It’s worth recalling that the Taliban originally came to power largely by getting popular support because they promised honest government and an end to the corruption, carnage and disorder that came after the Soviet withdrawal and the collapse of the puppet government.

      **Though, frankly, as much as I sympathize with their plight I remain unconvinced that we have made any enduring improvements in their condition.

      ***None of what I said there is intended to disparage the actual military contributions made by those three countries and the Brits and our other NATO allies plus the Australians and New Zealanders, many of whom have casualty counts that are disproportionate to the size of their contingents.

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  13. Well, technically ACUs from that list (multicam didn’t exist 2005), but I was AF, assigned to the “Army” as an “ILO” when they ran out of dudes.

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