AT the age of 23, Jeffrey E Stern went to Afghanistan as a freelance writer. His book The Last Thousand explores the existential dilemma of a progressive Hazara school in Kabul, as the US withdraws from the country. In an interview to Riyaz Wani, Stern says long-term US presence in Afghanistan would be protective, and more productive than destructive. But that obviously was not happening, as the US was basically out. Edited Excerpts from an interview.
How did you get the idea to write Last One Thousand on Afghanistan?
For a while, I had in my mind that photograph of the helicopter lifting off a roof during the fall of Saigon, and a line of South Vietnamese trying to get on, as the North Vietnamese close in. Ive always wondered, what happened to those people on that roof? What happens to the people who take our side, after we leave? This book is me trying to tell the story of my generations version of that, the people on the roof, as the last helicopter leaves because Ive begun to think this situation plays out once a generation.
What makes the school so important as to be advocated as a factor that America should consider in its geopolitical decisions on Afghanistan?
I see it two ways. One symbolic and ethical, one pragmatic. The symbolic and ethical answer is, we made a deal. Both explicitly, in the form of disarmament programs. And implicitly, if you take our side, disarm, and build institutions for yourself, we will protect you. The school represents a community of people who said ok, well take that deal. So they are unarmed and vulnerable, not despite us, but precisely because of us. We have put them at risk. Is a moral obligation enough to dictate geopolitical decisions? And what about moral obligations to Americas servicemen and women, and taxpayers? I struggle with this a lot. I really do not know the answer, and a big reason I wrote the book was to ask that question.
The more pragmatic reason is, even though the book uses just one school to stand in for a much bigger theme, this one school has had a huge impact on civil society in Afghanistan. We went into Afghanistan for national security, because our leaders believed an unstable Afghanistan might again be a safe haven for international terrorists while a functioning democracy would be a bulwark against violent extremism. The school is helping to realize those goals. A few thousand students at a time, perhaps better than any other institution we or anyone else built. The school is doing what we were there to do and doing it really effectively. Without us there, Im not sure how long they can keep it up.
But what happens in situations of the conflict is that even some really good initiatives are seen as backed by either one or the other side which undermines their credibility and hence the long-term impact of their work?
Thats a really good point. But I wonder if youre seen as compromised because others believe youre supported by one interest or another, does that mean you cant still have a long-term impact? Or just that its harder too? Of course, other countries have spent a lot of money and tried to wield influence in Afghanistan through political parties, armies, and ethnic groups in Afghanistan. Sometimes subtly, sometimes not at all subtly. Ive seen institutions able to impact the community even though everyone knows theyre being funded by this or that country. I dont think it helps, but sometimes the stigma doesnt seem to prevent those institutions from influencing people.
In the case of this school, the most maddening thing is, theyre not backed by anyone. They could really use the help, but theyre getting almost none. And yet, youre exactly right. Theyre often perceived to be lackeys of the Americans, even of Iran. It doesnt help, and it puts them at risk. I hope that the perception doesnt completely undermine them now.
You wrote in the book that when we launch our foreign wars, do we inevitably raise in people the desire for things they cannot have forever? This is what some people would argue is an uncomfortably salutary spin on what was basically a war, an invasion. Something that brings untold miseries in its wake for the people of the invaded country?
I see your point. And youre certainly right that it was a war, an invasion. We killed many people, including many innocent ones. I appreciate your checking me here. I do not want to put a salutary spin on war. I think youre right. Thats uncomfortable, and maybe even dangerous. So let me make a specific observation, and a general one. We put a lot of blood and treasure into a country that had very little to offer us in terms of resources. We built some institutions, and we broke a lot of them. I have struggled a lot with this. Some people are very clearly interventionists. If there is a threat to your security or injustice happening abroad that you have the power to stop, you do. Then, there are very good reasons not to intervene there is hubris involved in believing you can fix a country. And, we have poverty, inequality, gun violence, and failing infrastructure at home, problems that could use the resources were devoting to fighting wars. Theres an argument thats very convincing to me. We should let others fight it out and use our resources to fix our own country.
The general observation is this: I feel really confident saying that in any war, and any invasion, there are people waiting on the shores for whom the invaders arrival is welcome. I think there are always people, however, few, who prefer the values and the way of life represented by the foreigners to the authority theyre living under. In most cases, its probably a very small minority. In the case of Afghanistan, it was not. It was a really sizeable proportion of the population who no longer wanted to live under Taliban.
In the case of this school the book is about, for our all our missteps, and all our blunders, we allowed this school to exist, and we cultivated the sense that we would be in the country to protect them until the country was safe. This is not to suggest that by dropping bombs on countries, we magically create wonderful institutions. Here, a wonderful institution was allowed to flourish because of our intervention. If you weigh up all the good we allowed to happen and subtract all the damage we did, Im not certain what the final tally is. Im just certain that this school is in that former category.
What kind of institutionalized oppression do Hazaras face in Afghanistan? And why are they called The Last One Thousand?
In the 1800s, the Emir of Afghanistan launched a campaign to subdue Hazaras. Hazaras consider this period to be no less than a genocide, and the historical record is clear (the Emirs own palace historian and his memoirs confirm) that Hazaras were killed en masse, driven from their homes, and enslaved. In later years, they were banned from higher education, the military and various positions in government, and have long been considered an underclass. There is still debate about where the term Hazara comes from, but the most prominent theory, and the one the book title alludes to comes from the fact that the Persian word for thousand is Hazara. The theory comes from the story which may or may not be true, and is at least almost certainly oversimplified that Mongol invaders came to Afghanistan and left behind a unit of 1,000 people to hold the valley; its from this 1,000 that an Asiatic looking people called Hazaras, according to legend, descended. Its an origin story thats been ascribed to, rather than celebrated by, Hazaras, but its the dominant one.
As someone who has witnessed the conflict in Afghanistan from close quarters, what will it take to calm the country? Is long-term US presence important? Or do you see the role of the regional powers like India and Pakistan?
I believe just for the sake of the school, long-term US presence would be protective, and more productive than destructive. Thats obviously not happening, though, were basically out. And again, the book comes from me being personally conflicted. Im not generally comfortable celebrating war, or advocating for a long-term US troop presence anywhere. Here, I do so with a lot of discomforts, but its also at this point academic, because that discussion has been had, and is over. I do think a new kind of South Asian coalition is important for Afghanistan, both for its security and also for its economy. Afghanistan doesnt produce a lot, but it once was, and could be again, a poor but functioning agricultural-based economy, and its young men and woman could also contribute to the services and tech sector. But Afghanistan is, of course, landlocked and many of its overland routes are very insecure. It needs good relations with Pakistan to get anything out. It also needs good relations with India to buy and sell.
How far is the India-Pakistan rivalry a cause of the instability in Afghanistan? Interests of the two countries in Afghanistan arent aligned?
I think the India-Pakistan rivalry has leaked into Afghanistan in an extremely destructive way. I dont think its just India-Pakistan, I think Iran, Saudi Arabia, the US, and others have also contributed by arming, funding, and supporting various groups. There is a lot of violence in Afghanistan though that is only a few degrees removed from Pakistani intelligence, a lot of violence that is assumed to be directed from Pakistan, and a lot of provocative steps India has taken. Even just the number of consulates the two countries have in Afghanistan is an illustration of the proxy contest going on there for influence.
I think partially because of the controversial Durand line between Pakistan and Afghanistan, the complex relationship between Pashtuns in Pakistan and in Afghanistan, and the fact that Afghanistan is so important to Pakistans Strategic Depth, Afghanistan has become a really bloody playing field between the two countries in particular. Indias presence in Afghanistan is threatening to Pakistan because the closer India and Afghanistan are, the more reason Pakistan has to feel surrounded by hostile powers. And I think Pakistan has played a much longer game than the US has. The ISI knew we wouldnt be in Afghanistan forever. And their inroads to various insurgent groups I think is partially an insurance policy, an attempt to secure some influence in the Post-American Afghanistan.
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