As I leaned in, brow furrowed with concentration at the rhythmic Farsi-tinted English, I remembered the words of a two-star General I had spoken with in Kabul six months before; “If you really want to know, ask an Afghan.”
“You know, friend,” (young Afghans refer to all westerners as ‘friend’) the young man continued in the singsong narrative, pronouncing each word perfectly as though his mouth held precious jewels, “Tajik’s love Americans.”
He waived his arms in wide strokes taking in the hundreds of local Afghans scrambling past, bent on their appointed daily tasks, “All of us in Afghanistan love Americans.”
I smiled as he reached out and gently clasped my arm. His voice took on a quiet urgency. “We need Americans.”
He released my arm and continued, “I have hopes that one day my children will be able to get an education and make a decent living right here,” he pointed at the ground beneath his feet, “in Northern Afghanistan. America bred that hope into me when you came here more than ten years ago.”
“Yeah,” I responded casually having heard this entreaty many times, from many of the young, mostly westernized Afghans, “but they hate us down south.”
“Screw them,” came the immediate retort, complete with the associated gesture which he subconsciously pointed in the general direction of Kandahar, the former Taliban stronghold and home to most of the countries Pashto population.
I laughed as much at his accent as at the idea that he would actually say that. His frustration at the Southern Afghanistan mindset was obvious. The Pashtun mentality of the south had been an anchor on the country and any progress the country could have made for generations.
Northern Afghans often view their Southern counterparts as an embarrassing younger sibling you are forced to take with you on a date with a girl you really want to impress.
The north and south are separate countries in many ways. The south, populated predominantly by Sunni Pashtuns who cling tightly to their Pashtunwali rules and regulations stands in sharp contrast to their more secular Tajik, Uzbek and Hazarra neighbors in the north. In the north, a peek under the robes and burkas will often reveal Elvis t-shirts and blue jeans worn mostly by the younger generation who envy their Pakistani counterparts, who are allowed to openly wear tight jeans.
Though Bollywood movies and Hindi soap operas are not unheard of in Kandahar, they are prevalent in Mazer e Sharif, Afghanistan’s most densely populated city to the north.
The average income in Afghanistan is around $1000 US per year and most of that is made from agricultural farming. The unemployment rate nationally hovers around 40-50% while Mazer e Sharif and surrounding Balkh Province’s unemployment is somewhere below 35%.
Mazar-e Sharif also serves as the primary trading center for northern Afghanistan, and is the only city to connect itself by rail with a neighboring country. The rail service which began in 2011 is expected to rapidly boost the economy and further reduce the unemployment rate.
Northern Afghanistan also differs from the southern part of the country in its general attitude toward women’s rights. Women in the north have begun operating their own shops and selling handicrafts, cosmetics, and clothing. The unmistakable prevailing attitude of Afghans in the north is one that encourages progress through capitalism and the people clearly understand that this cannot be accomplished by limiting or inhibiting the entrepreneurial spirit of women.
Afghans are innovative and motivated, especially in the north. Younger Afghans are also energetic and excited about learning. They, given the opportunity soak up knowledge like a dry sponge and their thirst for new technology is second to none.
In 2006 there were an estimated 3 million cell phones in use in Afghanistan, mostly in the north and internet usage grew sharply from 2002 to 2006 with almost 600,000 registered users by then, again predominantly in the north.
Another obvious and extremely important distinction between the north and the south is the propensity for fighting. Afghans culturally have for generations inclined toward settling disputes, local or national, with the use of violence, but that mindset has always been more pronounced among the southern Pashtuns. Security today in Afghanistan ranges from highly unstable in Kandahar in the south, to paranoid and skittish in Kabul, and on to somewhat carefree and unconcerned in the north. As a matter of fact, Mazer e Sharif is and always has been somewhere between Chicago (on the down side) and Phoenix when it comes to street violence, and the risk of kidnapping or assault.
In 2003, while a team member with a Special Forces ODA in Mazer-e Sharif, or Mez, (our abbreviated affectionate moniker), walking the streets in semi-secure military gear one day, I was accosted by a gentleman of light complexion in full Kamiz Shalwar, traditional Afghan men’s wear. With his eight year old son in tow, he introduced himself as a physician from Detroit. He and his wife and children had lived in Mazer-e Sharif for two years and were as comfortable as they had ever been in Detroit. I must say I felt a little embarrassed walking around like a member of The Knights of the Round Table.
In short, Afghanistan and particularly Northern Afghanistan is fertile ground for economic growth and has subtly, over the past decade become a virtual Garden of Eden for the entrepreneurial spirit. While the rest of the country is scrambling to predict a post-coalition Afghanistan, in Mazer-e Sharif there is a sense of excitement and optimistic anticipation about the future.
The average Afghan in the north has tasted democracy, is aware of the responsibility of living in a democratic society, and has a clear vision of his future in a democratic, prosperous, violence-free Northern Afghanistan, and he sees America more as an economic partner than a liberator.
The Afghan in the North sees a transition to a more economically viable society after the Americans and their allies have withdrawn, and they look forward with anticipation to the trip. Regardless of the veracity of their vision, they see this transition with America as a partner, as a ‘trip that will be fun’ and prosperous for all.
America must now concentrate on becoming that partner rather than a liberator or mentor. The partnership will be a profitable one but one that requires a total shift in mindset. We can no longer live behind walls. We can no longer separate ourselves from Afghanistan and from the Afghan, with up-armored vehicles and bullet-proof vests, and most important, we cannot tell the Afghan what course to take on their journey to economic prosperity.
Afghans are resistant to partnering with countries that attempt to mold them. A huge mistake we have made in the past and one that other countries continue to make is attempting to push Afghans toward what we see as their best course of action. Afghans, and particularly Afghans in the North, know where they need to go; they need nothing more than partners who are willing to share in the risk and the reward.
Mazar-e Sharif and the surrounding region is one of the most stable places in Afghanistan, and this stability enables visitors to ignore, for the most part, the reality that much of the country is at war. In downtown Mazer-e Sharif, where soldiers are seldom seen, it is easy to forget that Afghanistan is still occupied by 71,000 foreign troops spread over the entire country.
Walking around the city, mingling and shopping are no more a problem than visiting most highly congested areas in most of the busiest cities in America. Shops offer crafted wood, woolen hats, colorful hand-woven Uzbek tapestries, and a huge array of hand-made carpets, some of which depict moments of historical significance for Afghanistan such as the end of the Soviet occupation in 1989, the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11, and the arrival of the U.S.-led coalition forces in 2001.
The changes that have come to Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan’s fourth largest city are so great that in some cases, returning refugees who left during the war, struggle to find not only their bearings, but the streets and houses where they once lived.
Modern glass and concrete buildings have sprung up next to the traditional earthen houses. Many of the roads have been paved and local businesses which fund the construction are allowed to erect plaques, signs and structures in the center to advertise.
The city is in a flux. Signs of Western influence abound—new schools, wells, roads all bear plaques attesting to French, Japanese, and Swedish sponsorship. Billboards along the new roads betray a newfound consumerism: Young, confident professional-looking men and women smile out at passersby while conversing on sleek new mobile phones.
Afghans in the north have always seen America and Europeans as friends and allies rather than occupying superiors. That feeling has grown and has developed into a relationship that lends itself to partnering, economically. In Southern Afghanistan, the more prevalent Pashtun view of America and Europeans is generally that of, subservient and master, though this was never intended. The perception of separation in status generally breeds resentment over time.
Northern Afghans generally welcome the sort of relationship with Americans that can easily grow from an economic standpoint. Though other nations are invested and are investing heavily in the north, the Afghans harbor a greater trust and affinity for Americans. America’s philosophy of fairness and openness fosters more of a positive perception as an economic partner. The young Northern Afghanistan professional sees a bright future for this part of the country and as far as they are concerned, the sky is the limit for them.
America doesn’t have to vociferously compete with other nations for an opportunity to do business in Afghanistan. All we have to do is show up and signal our willingness to take part in the risk and share equally in the rewards.
The Sunni Muslim Tajik and Uzbek Afghans in the north have signaled a willingness to embrace their Shiite Muslim Hazara brothers, in the interest of building an economically sound and exciting future for them and their children in Northern Afghanistan. Everyone recognizes the economic possibilities and all have grown weary of the constant conflict and turmoil that has held the part of the world back for generations. A recent conversation with my friend Sayed Ahmadullah Asghary brought this home for me.
Sayed, or Ahmed as his American friends call him, has been deeply involved with North Afghanistan’s many changes politically, economically, and socially for most of his adult life.
“Formal education and the process of formerly educating our young men and women in Afghanistan are still in their conceptual infancies,” he paused and sipped at a steaming cup of tea as he introduced this profound thought.
“Afghanistan’s youth are like baby birds chirping wildly, mouths open to any tidbits of knowledge we choose to drop. The problem here is,” he shrugged somewhat solemnly, “there are too many chirping birds and not enough teachers. The young potential ‘Massoud s’ (referring to the Ahmed Shah Massoud, Lion of Panjshir and charismatic natural leader of men) are likely never to be recognized, and Afghanistan will lose these treasures if they are not found and polished.”
Sayed is one of many Northern Afghans who have committed themselves to providing a future for these young students and in turn retaining this gift of knowledge for his country. His intent is to launch a group of special schools where young men and women can be given more individualized instruction, but his resources are limited.
“Our future is dependent on the youth and we can’t allow this opportunity to slip away,” he concluded waiving his open palm past his head, as the Afghan will do signifying something that exists no longer.
The Northern Afghanistan entrepreneurial spirit offers a clear way forward for this country; not to simply survive but to prosper. America has a window of opportunity to be involved in this prosperity and to form the basis for a lasting friendship in this part of the world. In this part of Afghanistan, widespread prosperity will generate a more secure democracy that will in turn trump violence, and we can and should embrace and support it.