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.

Videos
  • A huge segment of America's population — the Baby Boom generation — is aging and will live longer than any American generation in history.
  • The story we read about in the news? Their drain on social services like Social Security and Medicare.
  • But increased longevity is a cause for celebration, says Ashton Applewhite, not doom and gloom.


Do calories even count? Research counters a longstanding assumption.

The calorie is the basic unit of measure of food — and it might be off.

Tourists enjoy a traditional 'Zapiekanka' at Krakow's Main Square. On Wednesday, March 6, 2019, in Krakow, Poland. (Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Surprising Science
  • In a new article in 1843, Peter Wilson argues that counting calories is an outdated form of weight management.
  • Research shows that labels are up to 20 percent off true caloric totals; 70 percent in frozen processed foods.
  • Not all digestive systems are created equally; humans process foods at different rates under varying conditions.
Keep reading Show less

Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.