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Messages from Afghanistan

January 18, 2010


A few weeks ago, over tea and khatai cookies, a senior mullah asked me why the United States was in Afghanistan and what the international community hoped to accomplish there.

The mullah was not ill-informed, and his frank questions were not rhetorical. They reflected the profound lack of trust and understanding that still exists between U.S. officials and their Afghan interlocutors - a problem that must be addressed for any U.S. strategy in Afghanistan to work, with or without 30,000 more troops.

That this mullah and the other tribal elders with whom I shared tea--who were from Khost and provinces in southeastern Afghanistan where the insurgency remains most active--couldn't describe the goals of soldiers and diplomats in their midst, warrants concern by every American official working in Afghanistan. Even after following the U.S. troop activities for eight years and watching recent strategic debates unfold in the press, they remain confused.

Lack of understanding leads too easily to disaffection. As another mullah noted, the Taliban has already convinced many Afghans that the "U.S. is not here to help. They are just after [our] religion and culture."

Misunderstanding prevails, for everyone involved, because Afghans and Americans have talked past one another for years. The head of U.S. intelligence in Afghanistan, Major General Michael Flynn, recently drew similar conclusions for U.S. intelligence officers there, publicly reporting that they had little understanding of the local environment and are "disengaged from the people in the best position to find answers."

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