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Afghan people just "part of the scenery"

West needs to engage and include the Afghans
Laura R. Standley
Monday 22 March 2010

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First, a story...

Like many American children who grew up in the 1970s, I was familiar with a show called M*A*S*H, which was the acronym for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. The show, which took place in a United States Army medical unit during the Korean War, ran for 11 years. It was very much a show for its time, on the heels of the Viet Nam War; a comedy which played against a background of the various moral ambiguities of war and occupation. Despite being set in Korea, the actors playing the Koreans had few speaking parts and were usually just part of the scenery.

Fast forward the the late 1990s, when I visited South Korea as a United States Army Warrant Officer. I felt fortunate to have the opportunity to visit a place so different from my own, so, phrasebook in hand, I went into the scenery as much as I could. One day, when I was off-duty, some of my colleagues and I took a day trip to the War Memorial of Korea in the Yongsan-gu district of Seoul. My idea of the Korean War from watching M*A*S*H was so ingrained, that I was quite shocked to see the Korean point of view; that the American presence was on the periphery of their war experience. I don’t think I saw a model of one single American in that entire exhibit.

When I reflected on my experience at the War Memorial recently, an essay written by George Orwell came to mind. The essay was titled, "Shooting an Elephant," which was inspired by his service in Burma under the British Raj. The narrator was a British law enforcement officer charged with hunting down and shooting an elephant which had gone rogue and was menacing the villagers and even killed one. Despite George Orwell having been a staunch anti-colonialist, and his sympathies with the Burmese people, in the story, they remained part of the scenery; a single monolithic character. Sadly, those very people that even most sympathetic occupiers want to help simply become part of the background.

Call for Afghans to Approach the West

All the people in history who peacefully won the respect of western cultures shared one trait; whether they were abolitionists, suffragettes, civil rights activists or founders of nations. They asserted their right to respect in articulate, yet impassioned terms. They came forward from the scenery in their speeches and writings that they were indeed people too, deserving of the same rights, sovereignty and worth as those in power. Rather than content themselves to stay in the echo chambers of those who agreed with them, they engaged those who didn’t. Their calm assertions of their own humanity, and the inherent worth of those for whom they were fighting, eventually won over public opinion to the extent that discrimination against them was harder to morally justify. They weren’t part of the scenery, but emerged center stage in the halls of power, in the media and on the book shelf. They faced risks and some even became martyrs for their cause. I am grateful for the sacrifices made for the rights and freedoms I enjoy.

And so it must be with Afghans. Who will emerge from the scenery and take center stage? Who will write to the newspapers in America when the American Congress debates what to do in Afghanistan? Who will explain Afghanistan to America in a way that provides a context and narrative leading to solutions? Who will be that voice to the West of Afghan moral agency and national self-determination? Who will describe the dreams and have a plan for Afghanistan? Who will the West know as the face of Afghanistan? When NATO leaves, they will hand the keys of the nation to one with the hand outstretched to take them.

Photo by Robert Maier

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