We all know that the US is no longer fighting a war in Afghanistan and that we have left a couple hundred American passport holders and thousands of Afghans who helped us over our twenty years there behind. Ye Olde Blogge ain’t interested in litigating whether Biden was right or wrong for getting out (he was right) or whether he did a good job or bad job of getting out (he did the best he could with what he had). We are interested in evaluating why the fuck we spent a trillion dollars, took twenty years, and sacrificed thousands of lives and got very little or nothing for it.
Okay, we got a few things. No terrorist attacks were launched against the US from Afghan soil during that time. A generation of Afghan girls got an education. Millions of Afghans lived better lives during those twenty years. Yes, we did damage, but we also did some good things.
But, in the end, Afghanistan fell rapidly to the Taliban. Why? Why did the US “lose” and the Taliban “win?” The short answer is that the Taliban understood the culture they were operating in. They spent a year negotiating with Afghan Army units, officers, and soldiers about giving up. They went village-by-village, town-by-town, and city-by-city. They struck deals with the locals. When the time came, those deals held.
As my Twitter friend, Hussein Ibish, pointed out, “This is the way all Afghan wars end. All Afghan wars.”
Essentially, Ibish is referring to a system of shifting alliances between groups defined by location, ethnicity, and language. When an alliance with a new group offers more advantages than the old alliance did, you make the change. From what I understand, it isn’t unusual for a factions in Afghanistan to literally go from fighting with allies against another faction one day, to fighting against their old allies alongside their old enemy, the next. Why didn’t we know this?
Assimilation and Acculturation
To answer these questions, we have to look to two sociological concepts, assimilation and acculturation. They are used to describe the things that can happen when two cultures come into contact.
In social psychology terms, two cultures came together in the Afghan War, the American and Afghan cultures. What happens when two cultures collide and begin interacting? Each culture influences the other to some degree. The two main terms that are used to describe the process that occur when two cultures intermingle are assimilation and acculturation.
Acculturation refers to the process by which a member of a cultural minority — an immigrant, perhaps — begins to assume parts of the culture of the majority. Often these changes include surface changes: ways of dress, informal interactions, language, and other outwardly recognizable behaviors. The deep culture, the beliefs, values, and assumptions, take much longer to change.
Acculturation can also refer to the sharing of cultural traits between two cultures in which the cultures change each other. You can see the role that a power dynamic might play here with the more powerful culture, more dominate culture being less likely to adopt traits of a weaker or subservient culture.
The changes of deep culture are described as assimilation. The more the values, beliefs, and assumptions of one culture are assumed by another, the greater the assimilation of individuals into the other culture. For immigrants, this is a generational process with some groups never achieving full assimilation, always holding on to some portion of their original culture.
A more vernacular meaning of assimilation refers the process of taking information in. Not learning. More absorption. More osmosis.
The US and Afghanistan
How does this apply to the US in Afghanistan.?
We went into Afghanistan ostensibly to destroy al Qaeda, in general — remember them? — and kill Osama bin Laden — remember him? — in particular. Once we did that, we stuck around for some unknown and ungodly reason and tried to create a liberal centralized law-abiding system in a conservative decentralized custom-following country. What the fuck were we thinking was going to happen? We’d wave some magic US exceptionalism wand and the Afghans would magically see the error of their ways and adopt our magnificent two-party democratic republican system? Really?
We never assimilated in the sense that we didn’t take in information about Afghanistan. We knew the people we were dealing with, our Afghan allies and partners, were corrupt and just taking our millions and billions of dollars hand over fist and socking it away into one helluva 401K plan somewhere. We knew that any and all deliverables like a building built or an army unit recruited and trained were shoddy and practically worthless.
Instead of assimilating or acculturating — adopting some of the surface culture — even a little bit to Afghan culture we found Afghans who would acculturate and assimilate to us. We found translators and other helpers who would adopt our surface culture and even some of our deeper cultural values. That’s great. Those were wonderful people who will pay dearly for not being allowed to escape Afghanistan by the Miller and Trump years ago, but that is another blog post on another blog, altogether.
Our mistake was seeing those people and thinking they were the norm. Thinking that it meant we were making progress. We generalized from a small sample size to an entire population. It was a cardinal error. A rookie mistake.
To win a war in a foreign country, you’ve got to win it on their cultural terms. You have to achieve the goals that their culture recognizes as meaning you’ve won unless, of course, you’re willing to just grind them into dust and commit literal genocide and leaving hulking PTSD’ed wrecks behind. I know, that’s what the conservatives mean when they slobber over turning the sand into glass and bombing them back into the Stone Age. Unless you’re willing to commit that level of crime against humanity, and even then, you might not really win, you have to win in a way that the other side recognizes as winning.
Guess what, in the shifting alliance system of decentralized power centers that is Afghanistan, you can’t ever win. You may garner a bunch of allies, but eventually, they’ll change sides and you’re right back where you started from.
If we had bothered to learn anything about Afghanistan, we might could’ve realized this and saved ourselves a few billion dollars, a few thousand lives, and a decade or so. Do you think we’ve learned this lesson now? Probably not. We made the same mistake in Viet Nam and Iraq. Would’ve made it in Syria and Iran had we ever started wars there.
So, hope for the future, right?
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Categories: Social Psychology