Afghan perceptions of Americans and the United States come from a number of incredible historical tales, Cold War policies, conspiracy theories, and – of course – Hollywood movies, all of which have coalesced into a single image: Superman. But seeing the United States as the comic book epitome of power and invincibility cuts both ways. While it has often worked in its favor, it has also done considerable damage to America’s reputation among Afghans.
The "Superman" image of the United States was first introduced to Afghans in a rather dramatic fashion almost two hundred years ago. In the early 1830s, Pennsylvania-born Josiah Harlan set out to become the king of Afghanistan. Although he ultimately failed to secure the country’s throne, Harlan’s military prowess and personality along the way impressed the Afghans and he was named the prince of Ghor, a province in central Afghanistan that had been the capital of the powerful Ghurid dynasty a few centuries earlier. Harlan returned to the United States 20 years later, but is remembered as the first American in Afghanistan.
For almost a century after Harlan’s visit, Afghan-U.S. interactions remained uneventful. But in the 1950s, to counter the growing Soviet influence in Afghanistan, America came in as a "good warrior" – a Superman – fighting for the development of Afghanistan. As part of this new engagement, hundreds of American advisers, doctors, engineers, and teachers came to the country to build new dams, roads, and schools, enabling Afghans to experience American culture firsthand. During this period, Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province in Afghanistan’s volatile south, even came to be known as "little America."
During this time, many Afghans travelled to the United States on scholarships, some of whom played key leadership roles in the following decades. Hafizullah Amin, for example, the last Afghan communist president prior to the Soviet invasion of the country, received a master’s degree in education from Columbia University in 1958. Although Amin called himself a staunch communist, the Soviets suspected he was secretly pro-American because of his time in New York.
After the Soviet invasion in 1979, the Superman image of the United States grew larger as billions of dollars in aid and arms were sent to the Afghan mujahedeen fighting the communists. This vision of America as a crusader for freedom was reinforced when Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski, then-National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter, stood at the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan and told a group of anti-Soviet fighters that "God is on your side."
But perhaps the most important contributions to this ethos have come from Hollywood. In the late 1980s, the film Rambo III, in particular, embodied the Superman image of America for Afghans. In the movie, Rambo, with his buffed muscles and thirst to kill Soviets, made all of the right moves to win the hearts and minds of Afghans. He braved the towering mountains of Afghanistan on a horseback. He displayed his ghairat (enthusiasm and honor) by accepting an Afghan challenge to play buzkashi, a national sport which is similar to polo. And he impressed Afghans further by effortlessly beating the best and toughest chapandaz (players). He even took up arms and joined a ragtag group of Afghan fighters to blow up a Soviet military base.
The movie was such a big hit in Afghanistan that even high ranking officials in the communist regime loved it, despite having initially banned the film. Thousands of VHS copies of the film were smuggled into Kabul and provided a massive boost to America’s image. Afghans loved seeing the American superhero on their side, sharing their sorrows, and fighting ferociously against the "evil" communists.
But by the early 1990s, the Afghan cause had become a thing of the past. The Soviet Union had collapsed and many Afghans soon realized the world did not want to be bothered with their infighting. Neighboring countries, especially Iran and Pakistan – which many Afghans saw as the Lex Luthors of the region – vied for domination through the armed proxies they had fostered throughout the 1980s, while the United States was nowhere to be seen.
When the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996, rumors spread that the United States was covertly supporting them – speculations the militant group was happy to use as it indirectly strengthened its brutal image. Yet despite America’s absence, its culture was still a touchstone for many Afghans. For example, the Taliban had banned watching movies and listening to music during their five-year rule, but it did not stop Afghans from going to great lengths and taking incredible risks to smuggle pirated copies of James Cameron’s Titanic and watch them secretly in their homes. Realizing its attempts to isolate and "purify" the Afghan culture weren’t working in Kabul and other major cities, the Taliban even used its religious police to check teenage boys for a "Titanic haircut" or fashions resembling those of the movie’s main characters.
It was only after the tragic events of 9/11 that Afghans were finally exposed to the real "hard" powers of the American Superman. In October 2001, Afghans saw B-52 bombers circling high overhead and dropping bombs that shook the country’s tall and seemingly invincible mountains.
With the Supermanimage of the United States in mind, many Afghans initially welcomed the arrival of the U.S.-led coalition forces and saw it as the beginning of a new era of change in the country. However, this did not last very long. The United States failed to deliver on its promises, and Afghan expectations for what the U.S. could achieve after the ousting of the Taliban were too high.
Since then, the failure of the U.S.-led international coalition to defeat the Taliban, a flurry of anti-U.S. propaganda from regional powers, and outbursts by Afghan government officials against the United States during times of tense relations have only served to worsen perceptions of America in the region.
For Afghans, the inability of the United States to get Pakistan to end its ties with the Taliban or to bring about the fundamental changes as it had promised, caused many to wonder "why?" Unable to find satisfactory answers, the people’s high hopes gave way to pervasive conspiracy theories. By 2006, rumors, speculations, and fantastical theories about the United States had become more than an article of faith for many Afghans.
In fact, the current prevailing impression often espoused by the increasingly influential Afghan media and local political pundits is that the United States is nursing a grand plan to dominate the region through its presence in Afghanistan. Afghans have also come to believe that the United States, contrary to its frequently professed commitment to democracy and human rights, will make deals with any violent extremist group that could serve its interests, even if they are diametrically and violently opposed to democratic ideals and women’s rights.
The recent debacle over the opening of the Taliban office in Qatar only strengthened these beliefs. To Afghans, the grand opening of the Taliban’s office, complete with the movement’s white flag and plaque proclaiming "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan," was an affirmation that the United States, in collaboration with Pakistan, is now seeking to restore Mullah Mohammed Omar, the militants’ reclusive leader, to power. At its press conference, the Taliban not only failed to recognize Afghanistan’s constitution and even acknowledge direct talks with the government, but it also clearly stated that the militant’s violent war, which is responsible for over 80 percent of civilian deaths, will continue. The fact that President Obama voiced his support for the Taliban’s office, despite this uncompromising statement, shocked many in Afghanistan.
After 12 years of war, Afghans have learned to lower their expectations and expect contradictory statements from the United States, regardless of what popular Hollywood movies and shows such as 24 suggest. But all of this disillusionment, confusion, and widespread uncertainty has further deteriorated America’s reputation and standing among Afghans.
As coalition troops prepare to leave Afghanistan at the end of 2014, the United States needs to understand the power and importance of its image and Afghan perceptions in the context of Afghan war. If it is serious about fighting extremism and supporting democracy and human rights, it needs to make a clearer commitment to the Afghans actively fighting for democratic ideals, human rights, and women’s rights. It also needs to show that America fully supports next year’s presidential election, and that a peaceful transition of power remains a top priority for everyone invested in the region. Lastly, it needs to ensure that the Afghan security forces will receive the continued technical and financial support they need to succeed.
If it fails to do any of this, and continues with its often opaque and short-term policies, while seeking to desperately treat violent extremists as the inevitable power players in Afghanistan, the terror attacks of the last two decades could look like a sideshow compared to future threats emanating from the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.
While Afghan-U.S. relations have been tense in recent months, and the window of opportunity is narrowing every day, a belief in the image of America as Superman still carries more weight with Afghans than U.S. boots on the ground. After years of "hard" power, the United States needs to understand the value of its "soft" power brand, especially in Afghanistan.
Ahmad Shafi is an Afghan journalist and a former producer for the National Public Radio’s Kabul Bureau.
Najib Sharifi is the Director of Afghanistan New Generation Organization-a youth empowerment body based in Kabul. He is also a founding member of Afghanistan Analysis and Awareness (A3), a Kabul-based Afghan think tank.