October 14, 2011

Afghanistan Narrative, Still Wrong, but Reparable

Earlier this month, Benjamin Hopkins and Magnus Marsden, authors of the forthcoming Fragments of the Afghan Frontier, argued strenuously in a New York Times Op Ed that the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is as culturally inept as it was when we went to war a decade ago. The American obsession with viewing Afghanistan though the lens of tribal tradition is borrowed from 19th century Brits, whose understanding tribal mores was in large part composed of fanciful inventions of their own. Above all:

Afghanistan is not a country of primitive tribes cut off from the modern world. The singular focus on tribes, the Taliban, and ethnicity as the keys to understanding and resolving the conflict misses the nuances of the region’s past and present. Rather than fanatical tribesmen or poor victims in need of aid, many of these people are active and capable participants in a globalized economy.

The U.S. military addresses cultural issues, even in how to dress**

Why does this profound institutional failure persist? I read it and hear versions of the premise that Afghans don’t live in the same globalized world as Americans all the time in defense contexts. The fact that it does persist  should give us deep pause about how resources have been expended to create a more ‘culturally aware’ national security community.

It is problematic that no resources have gone to helping the defense community gain a greater consciousness of the interpretive lens with which we approach Afghanistan (among other places in Central Asia and the Middle East). This is a narrative issue.  If we Americans do not understand their own role in constructing the meaning–the story–of what we see in Afghanistan, we will never gain access to a more nuanced or accurate view. The overarching narrative about Afghanistan is that it is a land that lives in the past, that it is bound by religion, tradition, kinship. When we see evidence that impinges on this overarching story, it is as an outlier or we manage to fold it back into the larger story (women’s successes in business or government become proof that they have succeeded against the odds of religion, tradition and kin, for example).

Psychologist Jerome Bruner observed that here is no way to prove or verify in a scientific sense that the meaning we assign a narrative is true. The only thing we can do  is to make sense of each of its parts, the scenes and events that make up the story. In Afghanistan, these scenes and events are what Americans can observe of how Afghans behave in their lives as citizens, businesspeople, members of the new security forces.   If these pieces of what we see seem to add up to a sensible whole, we feel we’re on the right track. Paradoxically, in order for the different parts to make sense, we have to check to make sure they seem to fit logically inside the larger narrative that contains them. Bruner calls this characteristic of narrative in which “a story can only be ‘realized’ when its parts and whole can, as it were, be made to live together,” hermeneutic composability. (You can get a PDF of the essay in which he discusses it here.)

In other words, whether we are telling a story or hearing it (since both require putting the story together so it makes sense), we are always in the process of interpreting. Bruner points out that we don’t generally notice our interpretive efforts—we don’t feel that muscle in our brain working—unless we’re faced with ambiguous or puzzling events. Then we feel ourselves working. But when the world seems to make sense, that doesn’t mean that the story we believe is empirically true, but rather that we are interpreting according to received narratives that make for easy lifting.  This idea that Afghans are a society of primitive tribes is just that sort of easy received knowledge, the kind we believe is true just because it has been repeated in authoritative ways over time.

It seems intuitively true to me (though I cannot prove it of course) that the story of the persistent American failure to grasp Afghanistan stems from a lack of examination, at the institutional level, of the meta-narrative guiding our interpretation of events. It is a tragedy (especially since it follows on a similar lack of examination in Iraq), but it is not a situation that is impossible to change for the future.  We need a different kind of approach to cultural education in the defense community, however–one that alerts its members to how their own interpretive processes shape what they see.

**The photo above is courtesy of the NavyLive blog.  You can find LT Sarah Higgins discussing her decision to veil while deployed in Afghanistan at the October 19, 2010 blog.



0 thoughts on “Afghanistan Narrative, Still Wrong, but Reparable

  1. I could not agree more with the sentiment and message of the narrative article. As someone who has been involved in the crafting and dissemination of strategic messaging for most of my career, I still have to take a moment to ask myself why more outreach in favor of is normally shadowed by information against? Bottom line, to me, is that understanding is based on a distilled but relevant positioning of one’s message, and it should not be held captive by forum or venue.

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