Stillwater News Press

February 11, 2010

From Afghanistan: A dichotomy of a modern ancient society

Stillwater native Col. Gregory Breazile shares stories of his tour in Afghanistan

By Col. Gregory Breazile
Stillwater NewsPress

KABUL, Afghanistan — As I rode through Kabul, Afghanistan, the other day it struck me that I was viewing signs of a modern society creeping into this ancient environment.

I was passing some very modern apartments being built in the distance. These apartments were about six stories tall and looked like something you would see in any city. While I was staring at these buildings we passed a man wrapped in his winter garb, riding on a wooden cart pulled by a single horse. It appeared he was bringing a harvest of lettuce to sell in the city.

At that moment the realization came to me that the people of this country live in two different worlds - one world where the modern conveniences of plumbing, electricity, television and radio are available and another where they live in mud huts with no running water or electricity.

This contrast of cultures was striking and made me think these people have a long road ahead. Imagine the fact there are more than 28 million people in Afghanistan and only a quarter of them live in urban areas. 

This means roughly 21 million Afghans live in the rural communities. I realized the vast majority of Afghans may never have access to such modern comforts as I watched cranes lifting heavy beams to build these apartments for the privileged few.

This dichotomy between what we might call the ancient Afghanistan and the modern Afghanistan is nothing new to many underdeveloped nations around the globe. 

The difference here is this country is embroiled in a counterinsurgency where the insurgents want to move the people backward and not forward into the modern era. The insurgents want to take the country back to a time where the people were less educated, had fewer opportunities and could be easily manipulated through coercion and force. 

According to Esmatullah Ameen, an interpreter supporting the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan, “the Taliban are really bad people.”  He said, “they put the educated people in jail … my father spent two years in jail during the Taliban years.” 

He explained that education is a threat to the Taliban because educated people know better than to accept the conditions imposed by the insurgents.

“Literacy is also a big problem … some people don't know anything about the world,” Ameen said. “My father is from Badakhshan Province and one time when a car drove into a nearby village people came out and put food on the ground in front of the vehicle thinking it must be hungry from the trip.” 

He explained without a school or place to gain knowledge that most Afghans only know what they are told by those around them. This is why the Taliban want to keep them uneducated so they will not know any better and support their cause.

My simple assessment of the Afghan society is that they want progress but war, lack of education and corruption have held them back. In my perspective the lack of education is probably the major limiting factor to their development.

These people appear to be very hard working and are no doubt as capable as any other culture in the world but due to their own lack of knowledge they have been held back.  When asked why these communities have not modernized, Ameen said “there is still some corruption that keeps the money to build schools from making it to the right people in these villages. If we can stop the corruption and get the money to the right people then we can change the situation for those communities.” 

There are efforts by the Afghan government to stop these corrupt officials and this past year many have been jailed for their actions but they still have a long way to go before this is not a major issue.

I am somewhat optimistic about the future of Afghanistan since institutions like the Afghan National Security Forces are focusing not only on developing enduring institutions but also on developing literacy programs that will provide even more educated people back into their society.  

Additionally, since the coalition forces arrived in Afghanistan they have built many schools, roads, bridges and other aspects of modern life to improve the overall conditions on the ground. 

Those serving in Afghanistan feel the momentum shifting and each day there are positive signs of change within this country. Only time will tell if these people can defeat the insurgents and move the population from ancient conditions to a modern society.

Col. Gregory Breazile is the director of communication, NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan/Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan. Breazile is a combat veteran with 26 years of Marine Corps service. He lives in Stillwater.