What Everyone Should Know About Afghanistan

Jere Van Dyk, who was imprisoned by the Taliban for 45 days, explains the historical and cultural facts that are crucial for understanding the war-torn country—and why our goals there are so difficult to achieve.
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TRANSCRIPT

Question: What should everyone know about Afghanistan?

Jere Van Dyk:  Afghanistan, which is the size of Texas, is one of the poorest, most isolated countries on Earth.  Until recently, it only had one paved road around the country.  There has never been a railroad in the country.  When I was there in the early 1970s, it was impossible to make a phone call out of the country.  When I was there in the 1980s, the men I was with—the Mujahadeen—had no concept of an elevator, of an ocean, or of a high-rise.  Go from one mountain valley to the next, the dialect is different.

Also, in Afghanistan at that time there was, in the 1970s, no fundamentalism.  Kabul was a city of school girls dressed like Catholic school girls in the U.S. with short skirts and long socks laughing in the streets. There were discoteques, outdoor cafés, restaurants.  There was lightness.  There were movie theaters.  In the afternoon, long camel caravans came slowly through the streets.

But what happened in the 1970s was that the brother-in-law and the first cousin of the king of Afghanistan overthrew his first cousin, establishing a republic.  And a group of young men, twelve young men, influenced by the Islamic faculty, professors in Kabul University, fled to Pakistan.  The Pakistani government took them in, began to train them, and in 1975 they began to call themselves the Mujahadeen and launched attacks inside Afghanistan against the Afghan government backed by Pakistan.

What happened was then was the beginning of fundamentalism.  Today Afghanistan is, after 30 years of war, its soul has been destroyed.  Afghanistan is the only country in the world that I had visited, and I traveled quite a bit, where children did not beg.  Today they beg in the streets.  The soul of Afghanistan has been destroyed, but in the 1970's there was no fundamentalism.  Today fundamentalism is rampant, but at heart it is not a fundamentalist country. 

Next:  Blood is more important than faith.  Afghanistan is a tribal culture.  When I was captured by the Pashtuns the first question they asked me was, “What is your name?”  And the second question was, "Who was your father?" Tribal lineage, tribal culture, count for everything.  What they want is, what tribes want, is to hold onto Pashtunwali, ancient tribal law, the most prominent feature of which is that you protect to the death a guest in your home.  That is why I felt I would be protected, and that is perhaps one reason why I was not killed.  You talk to countless Pashtuns along the Afghan-Pakistani border, to a man, they will tell you: the reason that Mullah Omar did not give up Osama Bin Laden had nothing to do with anything but Pashtunwali, tribal law.  Bin Laden was a member, he was a guest in Afghanistan.  He was willing to destroy his family, his country, his government, in order to protect Bin Laden.  Therefore, blood counts more than faith.  Islam is important, but tribalism is more important. ...

As a result, tribal law, Pashtunwali, is more important than civil law.  The courts do not really count for much in Afghanistan, and today they count for nothing at all.  People... in Islam... people everywhere in the world, people seek justice.  The difference between Christianity and Islam is the essence of Christianity is love.  The essence of Islam is justice.  And in Afghan culture under Sharia, you can kill the – Sharia's more interested in – Tribal law is... there's a conflict in Afghanistan between tribal law, which ultimately takes precedence over Islam. 

But with the rise of the Taliban, and before them the rise of the Mujahadeen in the 1980s. As fundamentalism began to gain hold, a much stronger foothold in Afghanistan, tribal law went down and Sharia or Islamic law rose.  Today there is a battle going on between the two.  Civil law counts for little.  Tribal law counts for more, but there is a battle going on between the two.  Ultimately, fundamentally, at heart, tribal law counts more than Sharia.  The reason—one reason that I was allowed to go free was, and I learned later, that tribal leaders got involved in my case.  They had more power than the Taliban. The tribal laws took precedence over Sharia.

The Taliban have always been an integral part of Afghanistan.  Throughout history, the Taliban—Tali meaning 'student,' of course, a student who goes to a Madrassa—would live in or around a mosque in a village.  They were the poorest people on the social hierarchy.  They would receive in exchange for performing weddings, or officiating at funerals, or at a child's birth, or at a wedding... they would receive corn, or rice, or beef, or mutton.

However, what has changed is that through the influence of Pakistan, through the influence of the Mujahadeen, who became... who went from the lower echelons in society and rose against the tribal leaders.  So did the Taliban, the lowest members of society, backed by Pakistan in the 1990's, grew in power, and today they have political power that they did not have before, and they want to keep it.

But, fundamentally the reason President Karzai talks about, I want—he talks about the other day going and joining the Taliban... Why he calls them, the  Taliban, the sons of the soil of Afghanistan, because he knows.  Even though the West doesn't like this, he knows that every Afghan knows that the Taliban are part of the country.  And every tribal leader will tell you that they know when a man sends his son to a Madrassa, where he becomes a Talib, and perhaps will join the Taliban.  Until such time as we understand that the only way... one way you can stop the Taliban is to stop the father from sending the son.  You have to understand that fundamentally the Taliban are part of the culture, and they have to be kept a part of that culture.  I won't say they have to be kept a part of culture; they are an integral part of the culture.

Recorded June 29. 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller