What Everyone Should Know About Afghanistan

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

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.

Astronomers find more than 100,000 "stellar nurseries"

Every star we can see, including our sun, was born in one of these violent clouds.

Credit: NASA / ESA via Getty Images
Surprising Science

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

An international team of astronomers has conducted the biggest survey of stellar nurseries to date, charting more than 100,000 star-birthing regions across our corner of the universe.

Stellar nurseries: Outer space is filled with clouds of dust and gas called nebulae. In some of these nebulae, gravity will pull the dust and gas into clumps that eventually get so big, they collapse on themselves — and a star is born.

These star-birthing nebulae are known as stellar nurseries.

The challenge: Stars are a key part of the universe — they lead to the formation of planets and produce the elements needed to create life as we know it. A better understanding of stars, then, means a better understanding of the universe — but there's still a lot we don't know about star formation.

This is partly because it's hard to see what's going on in stellar nurseries — the clouds of dust obscure optical telescopes' view — and also because there are just so many of them that it's hard to know what the average nursery is like.

The survey: The astronomers conducted their survey of stellar nurseries using the massive ALMA telescope array in Chile. Because ALMA is a radio telescope, it captures the radio waves emanating from celestial objects, rather than the light.

"The new thing ... is that we can use ALMA to take pictures of many galaxies, and these pictures are as sharp and detailed as those taken by optical telescopes," Jiayi Sun, an Ohio State University (OSU) researcher, said in a press release.

"This just hasn't been possible before."

Over the course of the five-year survey, the group was able to chart more than 100,000 stellar nurseries across more than 90 nearby galaxies, expanding the amount of available data on the celestial objects tenfold, according to OSU researcher Adam Leroy.

New insights: The survey is already yielding new insights into stellar nurseries, including the fact that they appear to be more diverse than previously thought.

"For a long time, conventional wisdom among astronomers was that all stellar nurseries looked more or less the same," Sun said. "But with this survey we can see that this is really not the case."

"While there are some similarities, the nature and appearance of these nurseries change within and among galaxies," he continued, "just like cities or trees may vary in important ways as you go from place to place across the world."

Astronomers have also learned from the survey that stellar nurseries aren't particularly efficient at producing stars and tend to live for only 10 to 30 million years, which isn't very long on a universal scale.

Looking ahead: Data from the survey is now publicly available, so expect to see other researchers using it to make their own observations about stellar nurseries in the future.

"We have an incredible dataset here that will continue to be useful," Leroy said. "This is really a new view of galaxies and we expect to be learning from it for years to come."

Protecting space stations from deadly space debris

Tiny specks of space debris can move faster than bullets and cause way more damage. Cleaning it up is imperative.

Videos
  • NASA estimates that more than 500,000 pieces of space trash larger than a marble are currently in orbit. Estimates exceed 128 million pieces when factoring in smaller pieces from collisions. At 17,500 MPH, even a paint chip can cause serious damage.
  • To prevent this untrackable space debris from taking out satellites and putting astronauts in danger, scientists have been working on ways to retrieve large objects before they collide and create more problems.
  • The team at Clearspace, in collaboration with the European Space Agency, is on a mission to capture one such object using an autonomous spacecraft with claw-like arms. It's an expensive and very tricky mission, but one that could have a major impact on the future of space exploration.

This is the first episode of Just Might Work, an original series by Freethink, focused on surprising solutions to our biggest problems.

Catch more Just Might Work episodes on their channel:
https://www.freethink.com/shows/just-might-work

Study: Unattractive people far overestimate their looks

The finding is remarkably similar to the Dunning-Kruger effect, which describes how incompetent people tend to overestimate their own competency.

Sex & Relationships
  • Recent studies asked participants to rate the attractiveness of themselves and other participants, who were strangers.
  • The studies kept yielding the same finding: unattractive people overestimate their attractiveness, while attractive people underrate their looks.
  • Why this happens is unclear, but it doesn't seem to be due to a general inability to judge attractiveness.
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Meet the worm with a jaw of metal

Metal-like materials have been discovered in a very strange place.

Credit: Mike Workman/Adobe Stock
Personal Growth
  • Bristle worms are odd-looking, spiky, segmented worms with super-strong jaws.
  • Researchers have discovered that the jaws contain metal.
  • It appears that biological processes could one day be used to manufacture metals.
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