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.