Time – history, culture, memories and borders (Part 2)

Time: borders, culture, history and Alizai memories

How long is your memory?

A case study from Afghanistan (Helmand province)

“There are memories that time does not erase… forever does not make loss forgettable, only bearable.”― Cassandra Clare

With a goal to provide security, safety and self-determination while ‘winning over’ the hearts and minds of Afghans, the task for American, NATO and other allied military forces, between 2001–2014 Operation Enduring Freedom was always going to be difficult in Afghanistan.pic 1

The benefit of hindsight now shows us that being equipped with broad and deep cultural insight are critical in hyper-complicated conflict. Using mainstream ‘Us and Them’ military thinking, not to mention excellent ‘top military brains’ foresight, failed to warn against seriously impaired analysis and application in such a socio-cultural, political, economic and military quagmire. The influences and effects, even today, can still be viewed as ‘on-going’.

Deep and broad understanding

Historically speaking, Afghanistan was  then, as it is now, driven by local factionalism, tribal interests, Jihadism (ISIS, Taliban, al Qaeda) and other cultural nuances, which most ‘westerners’ find both difficult to explain and understand, and moreover, existentially threatening.

Geographically, sociologically, psychologically and physically Afghanistan is in an area of the World with a history of internecine warfare, group allegiances and local feuds over natural resources, such as; division of water, land ownership, regional drugs trade and illegal smuggling of high value timber, etc. Without detailed and critical understanding, analysing details and linking all the interpersonal connections, clarification of situations and ultimately designing strategies, become redundant and can  generate or exacerbate tensions.

Paying attention to history is a start to getting a clearer cultural picture and broader perspective. As the German philosopher Georg Hegel said, ‘if the lessons of history teach us anything, ihegelt is that nobody learns the lessons that history teaches us.’

In Afghanistan there have been many years of turmoil, insurrections, civil unrest and invasions, including the Anglo-Afghanistan wars between 1839 and 1842, 1878-1880 and in 1919. Civil unrest between 1926 and 1929, and a facto state of war (civil war, tribal struggles, etc.) since, at least, the Soviet invasion of 1979. There has been the influence of the Mujahideen and the Taliban, and then the American-NATO operations. All have provided opportunities for Helmandis (in Helmand province) to manipulate the situation to fit their own interests and needs.

In fact, historical events and present-day rivalries need to be viewed holistically and micro-analysed to gain better insight into how local tribal groups think, operate and influence each other. According to Dr Mike Martin, in his book An Intimate War, the length of the historical narrative needs to be understood. As he says, ‘what the locals (Alizai) view as a historical enemy can go back a very long way’. Moreover, he stresses that ignorance of what has really been going on means that most foreigners do not realise that defining the challenges as ‘insurgency’ was a cover-all word obscuring the crucial details of a historical and ‘continuing civil war’.

Alizai memories

The Alizai tribesmen in Helmand province are generally illiterate* Pashto speakers. In their culture, traditional stories are passed down verbally from generation to generation. So, present day old men can remember the stories told to them by their grandparents about the past Anglo-Indian influence on their lives. What they are aware of, and forgotten by the British, is that in the 1840’s and 1880’s the British burned villages and executed tribal leaders.

afghan group160 years later, during the period 2001-2014, British forces, without an education including  socio-political, historical and cultural knowledge of Afghanistan between 1860 and 2006 and unaware of any historical legacy, insisted on the removal of a local provincial governor. This, together with the areas decimated, innocents killed and so on, supported the local understanding and reinforced their historical animosity, that the British have a problem with the Alizai and the Brits wanted payback for previous Anglo-Afghan wars.

Reflection – Lack of understanding and variations in time/memory

What we should be aware of from these observations is not just an awareness of historical and imperial overconfidence, political incompetence and belief in technical superiority, but the lack of comprehensive understanding of local culture, attitudes and beliefs, which can have extremely serious consequences.

We need to be aware of and think critically about our own bellicose superiority, cultural righteousness and national superiority, and very specifically here, the interconnection between time (past and present) and the relevance of stories and memories passed through the generations.

Rather surprisingly, in spite of having a very a long history themselves, the Brits failed to understand these important ‘cultural strands’. Their relevant knowledge and time frames appear to have contracted into the present, while the past is more detached, and the more distant past, constipated. For the Alizai on the other hand, the past is not a distant memory, especially when connected to the emotions associated with wrong-doing, resentment and death of loved ones. It is relevant now and it can be full of retribution and vengeance.

Cultural advisers

Having a cultural advisor (cultural expert) is crucial for military personnel operating in an ‘alien’ environment, but so too is a cultural expert vital for explaining and training an international organisation’s employees to work globally.

Cultural advisors and experts are not just for building intercultural and interpersonal relationships, but helping to clarify the real, on-the-ground situations, including the sometimes extremely difficult to understand complexities of religions, culture and other social entanglements.afghan map

There is a general tendency in a country’s history books to tell the story from their side, without attempting to see it from another side, e.g the enemy. Additionally, many of us have may have forgotten how to perceive long and short time periods. We may have forgotten what a ‘long war of attrition’ means, especially if the war may have started during the Crusades of 1096!

Reflection and questions

  1. Taliban quote, ‘ You may have the watches, but we have the time.’ How should we change our perceptions to see time, not necessarily as a sprint, but more as a marathon?
  1. What should we realise and utilise in our cross-border relationships regarding past-present-future orientations.
  1. What do we need to understand and realise regarding time, history, memories and relationships when working across-borders and in diverse teams.