As the United States and other NATO member countries gradually withdraw their troops from Afghanistan, a discussion is taking place on how to support the country after 2014. But the most important voice is missing: that of the Afghan people.
More than a decade of Western involvement has created an enormous industry of alleged experts who claim to have studied Afghanistan from top to bottom. But their authority belies a simple truth: these experts often have a surprisingly limited understanding of this complicated country. This is because even when these experts make it to the country they are writing about, they are sequestered to secure areas with limited access to ordinary Afghans, have little opportunity to travel outside Kabul, and are rarely given the time or resources to study the local languages beyond a few words. Put another way, the majority of the experts we rely on for advice in crafting policy and spending hundreds of millions of dollars have rarely had the experience of simply walking down the street and buying a piece of bread at a local bakery.
This has created a closed conversation loop, which has driven countless millions of dollars into research and initiatives designed to help Afghanistan, but is far removed from the realities of Afghan life and the needs of the country.
This may appear counterintuitive given the reams of literature prompted by this war. Since 2001, sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists, economists, historians, and even retired civil servants have made the trek to Afghanistan in large numbers to work and write. Hundreds of books and countless reports have emerged on a myriad of topics intended to benefit reconstruction, along with reprints of every text ever written by any military that has engaged Afghanistan, going all the way back to Alexander the Great.
This research has been aided by an unlikely partner: the military. Academia and the application of violence have rarely mixed well, but in the name of applied research to support reconstruction efforts, they joined forces in Afghanistan. In striking contrast to the Iraq War, academics were flown in to inform the decisions and actions of operations personnel. Suddenly anthropologists and sociologists were thrust to the forefront of a gargantuan military effort, led for a time by an Ivy League, PhD-wielding general who encouraged them at every turn. On the civilian side, funding by USAID alone for initiatives and research related to democracy, governance and elections skyrocketed, with spending reaching more than one billion dollars between 2007 and 2011.
Yet this cadre of experts was increasingly called upon to explain a country they were rarely able to see and experience, and therefore understand. The literature that followed, published overwhelmingly only in English and consumed and discussed by peers in similarly restrictive environments or overseas, slowly began to pull away from reality. Afghans watched as unfathomable amounts of money were spent on projects intended for their benefit, but about which they had rarely been consulted.
Now, as Afghanistan moves toward its post-2014 existence with fewer resources, it is more essential than ever that rigorous research be conducted to support achievable policy objectives that will benefit Afghanistan for years to come. But for this to happen, the Afghan voice must re-enter the discussion in a meaningful way. A few steps would go long way in ensuring they are heard.
First, donor agencies and other funding bodies should consider funding for the findings of any unclassified research to be published and disseminated through various media in the languages of Afghanistan, Dari and Pashtu. This inexpensive gesture would provide a steady stream of material to the local media, which, with more than 50 TV channels and 100 radio stations, is well suited to launch any discussion about what is good for the country.
Second, letting the researchers head out into the field would have an immediate impact, grounding them by exposing them to the ways Afghans live. With this, a more honest security assessment, rather than perpetual paranoia, would do wonders. But if we cannot let the researchers out, presumably because of security concerns, we must invite key elements of Afghan society in. Instead of listening to the Afghan diaspora who often serve as advisors but who are not intimately tied to the fate of Afghanistan, we should call on the increasingly educated and eloquent youth, whose relatively unexamined views on the future are remarkably different from the ruling elite.
Perhaps most importantly, ask Afghans what kinds of changes they would like to see in their country beyond 2014. In the hundreds of focus group and panel discussions our organization has conducted with thousands of Afghans from all walks of life over the years, we have been struck by their pragmatic interests in maintaining newly constructed infrastructure, ensuring continued access to education and health services — even for their daughters — and in pursuing some sort of viable peace agreement with insurgents. We sometimes do not get the answers we would like to hear: Afghanistan remains deeply traditional, patrimonial and skeptical of change. But this makes asking Afghans – and sharing what we learn – all the more important: to ensure funds are spent on programs and initiatives that Afghans have concluded are beneficial, and not wasted on projects Westerners assume they should appreciate.
With foreign forces drawing down, Afghans are preparing to once again shoulder the burden of running their country. By seriously engaging Afghan society and working with them to create policy to help them achieve their own goals, we can support the gains that have been made over the last decade and ensure that the missing Afghan voice is brought back into the debate over the direction of the country.