Baktash Ahadi, according to his Washington Post bio, “served U.S. and Afghan Special Operations forces as a combat interpreter from 2010 to 2012 and is a former chair of the State Department’s Afghan Familiarization course.” In the Post Tuesday, he asserts that “cultural illiteracy” led to the failure of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, and he has a point. But this is the Washington Post, after all, and so Ahadi doesn’t say a word about what was the flashpoint of the cultural differences between Americans and Afghans, or about the real reason why the Taliban was in control when the U.S. entered Afghanistan and is back in control now that the Americans have left, twenty years later. The reality is far too politically incorrect for the Post to dare to touch.
Ahadi asks, “How could Afghanistan have collapsed so quickly?,” and immediately answers: “As a former combat interpreter who served alongside U.S. and Afghan Special Operations forces, I can tell you part of the answer — one that’s been missing from the conversation: culture.”
This is true. Likewise true is Ahadi’s assertion that “when comparing the Taliban with the United States and its Western allies, the vast majority of Afghans have always viewed the Taliban as the lesser of two evils.” And he is right again when he says: “To many Americans, that may seem an outlandish claim. The coalition, after all, poured billions of dollars into Afghanistan. It built highways. It emancipated Afghan women. It gave millions of people the right to vote for the first time ever. All true. But the Americans also went straight to building roads, schools and governing institutions — in an effort to ‘win hearts and minds’ — without first figuring out what values animate those hearts and what ideas fill those minds. We thus wound up acting in ways that would ultimately alienate everyday Afghans.”
Ahadi goes on to expatiate about how Americans in Afghanistan had very little day-to-day contact with Afghan civilians, but that isn’t really the heart of the matter. He says that the problem was that Americans didn’t understand Afghan culture, but he doesn’t make any mention at all of what drives the cultural differences between Americans and Afghans: religion.
Many Afghans viewed the U.S. with suspicion because the U.S. was not Muslim. The military brass thought that “hearts and minds” initiatives would show the Afghans that the Americans weren’t as bad as jihad propaganda claimed and were ready to be helpful, generous friends. This effort was predicated on the assumption that goodwill gestures would be appreciated and reciprocated.
Yet as The History of Jihad From Muhammad to ISIS shows, these assumptions were wrongheaded from the start and doomed to failure. Throughout the history of Islam, many Muslims have understood “hearts and minds” initiatives as an attempt to entice Afghans away from Islam. This idea is rooted in a verse of the Qur’an: “And the Jews will not be pleased with you, neither will the Christians, until you follow their religion.” (2:120)
A telling example of the suspicion with which attempts to demonstrate kindness have often been received comes from the 830s, when the Byzantine emperor Theophilus addressed the Abbasid caliph al-Ma’mun in conciliatory terms, asking for a peace accord. Instead of responding in kind, as Theophilus likely expected, Al-Ma’mun answered: “I should make the answer to your letter cavalry horses bearing steadfast, courageous and keen-sighted riders, who would contend with you over your destruction, to seek Allah’s favor by spilling your blood.”
A millennium later, after the eruption of Mt. Krakatoa in Indonesia in 1883, according to historian Simon Winchester, “the Dutch made this superhuman effort to bring relief to the area because they were aware of the significance of the event and that the Muslim clerics were quickly making political capital from the event.” But the relief changed no hearts or minds, and Muslims mounted a violent assassination campaign against Dutch officials.
And in 2005, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell explained that U.S. aid to Indonesia after a devastating tsunami was part of U.S. efforts to woo the Islamic world. Speaking from Banda Aceh, Indonesia, on NBC’s Nightly News, he said that he thought American aid to Indonesia would “show to the Muslim world the nature of our society. But we’ve done a lot for the Muslim world. I mean, we rescued the Muslim people from the tyranny of the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan. We rescued them from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein. We rescued Muslims in Kosovo some years ago. So I think if people will look at our actions and look at the subsequent results of those actions, and we see a democracy in Afghanistan and hopefully one in Iraq as well, people will judge us by what we end up accomplishing, and the anti-American feeling that we have seen in various parts of the world over the past year and a half will start to dissipate.”
It didn’t work, obviously, for the same reason that it never works, and in part because that reason can’t even be discussed in the Washington Post, or at the State Department, and it never figures into the analyses of either. And so all future hearts-and-minds initiatives in Islamic countries are foredoomed to failure in the same way.