May 07, 2021

A welcome becoming outworn

On Maine’s coast, 10 years ago, no-questions-asked hospitality saved a friend’s life.

Heading east, we had rounded Small Point in two single kayaks the previous afternoon. My partner, new to sea kayaking, hesitated at the breakers off Popham Beach, but we crossed in style and then paddled north up the Kennebec. Camp that night was two tents by a lighthouse across the river from Parker Head. Sam felt funny at breakfast. An hour later, in mid-stream, he had a heart attack.

But for June Scott of Georgetown, Sam would have died. Once we’d gotten ashore (a tricky maneuver, but too marine for this column on landlocked Afghanistan), I ran to the only house in view. June opened the door and – no questions asked – responded to a stranger’s emergency. An hour later Sam was in the Bath hospital.

In some parts of the world June’s door would have stayed shut. Bred deep in the human psyche, suspicion of strangers remains the norm worldwide. Two national cultures stand as exceptions – oddly at opposite ends of the cosmopolitan spectrum. Worldly America, thanks to a heritage of geographical mobility, is deservedly famous for its welcomes. Only one other nation is in the same hospitality league: otherworldly Afghanistan.

Americans think of hospitality as virtuous but optional. For Afghans it’s the nearest thing to cultural obligation. Go anywhere in the country and – unless you’re an invader – you’ll be offered tea, then dinner, then lodging. True, the invitations are often perfunctory and meant to be politely refused, but they speak to an age-old tradition of generosity towards strangers. Rich and poor alike take great pride in having guests, mentioning them in much the same tone as we name-drop prize possessions.

How to explain this extraordinary open-handedness? Regional history suggests the value of reciprocity. In good times (Silk Route travel) and bad (violent invasion), people must often shelter under strange roofs. Status competition is also at work; the more prestigious one’s guest, the more he’s name-dropped. But, as with Americans, there’s also the factor of essential good-heartedness. Our two peoples have that quality in common. Gender issues aside, June Scott would be made to feel at home by folks in Jalalabad.

Thus the Afghan ideal (male) includes hospitality as well as physical courage, religious piety, and moral probity. Pashtuns in the southern tribal belt (in many ways analogous to our own southern Bible belt) take things further and feature hospitality as part of their deeply held code called Pashtunwali. Sub-themes of this ethic include not only generosity to guests but also refuge to strangers, even enemies, and an honor-bound commitment to defend them with the host’s own life. Taliban spokesmen invoked this principle in their refusal to evict Osama bin Laden. He was, no matter what the cost, their guest. (In fact, Osama’s financial contributions over the years had more than paid for room and board. His own generosity, albeit addressed against us, is legendary.)

But never until last fall was a welcome extended to outside military forces, especially armed non-Muslims. Alexander’s Macedonians, 19th-century Englishmen, 20th-century Soviets – all were implacably opposed. Only since October have alien troops been tolerated, let alone appreciated. It was then that the first American soldier-strangers arrived. At issue now, nine months into our stay, is how long this unprecedented Afghan welcome will last. Or, more precisely, whether we’re outwearing it and how to avoid doing so.

Ignored for years until 9/11, the northern alliance held the door wide open for U.S. special forces one month later. Together, we and our new allies routed the Taliban from northern strongholds (where they had been perceived as invaders) and pushed them back beyond Kabul and deep into the Pashtun South. Press accounts told of “Jason” or “Dan” (no last names) bonding in derring-do circumstances with Tajik field commanders. This U.S.-Tajik friendship remains essentially intact. Many Afghans of different ethnic groups, including de-tribalized Pashtuns, regard current Western presence as helpful, indeed essential. As one Kabul resident put it to me in April, “Stay as long as you like. The longer the better. Afghanistan’s best bet is to be like South Korea.” (Here’s a Bush fear: That Afghans will become eternally dependent on outside peacekeepers. Do they seem the helpless, passive type? Read on.)

Kabul, as the world slowly realizes, is not Afghanistan. Elsewhere – especially in the Pashtun South – our welcome is getting complicated. Cooperation with American forces has dwindled. U.S. troops are increasingly targeted by sniper fire. Afghan commander “allies” are directing U.S. power against each other instead of supposed al-Qaida remnants. And now the governors of six Pashtun provinces, furious over U.S. bombing of an Afghan wedding two weeks ago, have claimed the right of prior approval over American military might. South Korea was never like this.

Loyally American, my heart cannot but gladden at the gubernatorial demand. Part of patriotism, most important when it’s least popular, entails saying so when you think your government’s wrong. Our government’s arrogance – quite distinct from firmness – has been manneristically wrong ever since Bush was inaugurated. Time after time, far more than in prior administrations, we’ve simply gone our own way and told the world where to get off. Outgunned, the world has had to lump it. And now a half dozen Afghan chieftains have given us a taste our own medicine. “Without prior consultation,” they’re telling us where they stand, what they’ll tolerate and what they won’t.

Arrogance typically accompanies unilateralism. These terms describe Bush policy on a host of issues: recalcitrance on global warming (Kyoto Conference) and racism (Durban Conference), self-exemption from an International Criminal Court, presumptuous and lopsided support in the Middle East for one popularly chosen leader (Ariel Sharon) at the expense of another (Yasser Arafat). Likewise our response to the July 1 wedding bombing in Afghanistan’s Uruzgan province. Little or no acknowledgement of responsibility. No hint of apology. Avoidance, even, of the numbers: 48 dead thus far, 117 wounded. The best Bush could do in a phone call to President Karzai: “Any time innocent life is lost, we’re sad.” Meanwhile, another U.S. “mission” had been sent to “investigate.”

But Kandahar governor Gul Agha gives as good as he gets: “We [he and five fellow governors] have already decided the matter. In the future, the Americans cannot conduct their operations without the approval of the council.” How does that medicine taste?

Not well, and we’ve already indicated our refusal to swallow it. But Gul Agha and his council, not Karzai, run the area. Without their support and cooperation, how can our military proceed? Only the locals know who’s who in the hills of Uruzgan, home territory of second most wanted man Mullah Omar. And they – Gul Agha & Co. – seem quite prepared to be like Bushites and go it alone. They’ve proposed their own 500-man rapid reaction force and a 3,000-man border control force.

Would these new forces work with Americans in pursuit of remaining Mullah Omars? Maybe, but only if American guests mind their manners and share some degree of operational control. Would these new forces gladly be integrated into a Karzai-responsive Afghan National Army, the Bush panacea for Afghanistan security? Don’t bet on it.

Afghans, most of them, are glad we came. Most would like us to stay a while longer. But events of the past few weeks remind us that, even among Afghans, hospitality has its limits. And that American guests, as well as Afghan hosts, have obligations. Let’s hope that our arrogance doesn’t outwear their welcome.

Dr. Whitney Azoy, a cultural anthropologist and former U.S. diplomat in Kabul, has worked for 30 years with Afghanistan and the Muslim world. He was last in Afghanistan in May on a U.S. government contract.

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