Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

How Do Afghans Tick? (in memoriam Bernt Glatzer)

Thomas Ruttig 12 min

The following is the translation of an interview given by late Dr Bernt Glatzer to Berlin daily newspaper Berliner Zeitung in 2008. He talks about how he himself became involved in Afghanistan, gives his opinion about current events and covers the ethics of ethnologists in war. The original interview is by Martina Doering.

More than six years ago, the Taleban regime in Afghanistan was toppled, the war started and is not over still. On the contrary – despite a massive military build-up and billions of aid money for reconstruction, the country runs the risk of falling back to the Taleban again. Now, ethnologists are hired to advise commanders on ‘culturally appropriate measures’ in the war zone. The Pentagon budgets 400,000 dollar per person for such missions, from weapons training to insurance in the case of an abduction. The German ethnologist Bernt Glatzer works on Afghanistan since decades and explains why he would turn down such an arrangement.

Mr. Glatzer, what makes people of your craft so interesting for the Pentagon?

B.G.: The US military has realised by now that the Afghan society is a barely penetrable jungle – with its more than fifty ethnic groups, thousands of tribes, religious groups, mystical brotherhoods, mafia networks, village communities and nomads’ camps, with the clienteles of political actors, the militias of the warlords, bands of robbers and urban neighbourhoods, plus marriage alliances, professional guilds and internationally networked trade and bazaar structures. In such a jungle, even the most gutsy rambo with his high-tech gear is quickly lost. Drones with cameras, GPS systems or Recce Tornados [German military reconnaissance aircraft] are not of much help there – but perhaps the ethnologist who goes into the field armed with a note pad and a pen and who has developed methods to permeate such social undergrowth.

What does the military hope to achieve through them?

Ethnologists are supposed to tell the military about social structures – to put it casually: How do the Afghans tick? And to help them to win the war. Ultimately, they want a magic formula from the ethnologist with the help of which they finally would be able to get a grip on an insubordinate, inapprehensible and therefore elusive population like the Afghan one.

Have you got this formula?

Surely not, but I think that I and other ethnologists at least have got some clue about how this society functions.

Would you work for the Pentagon?

No. I would consider such a request absurd and ethically objectionable. Most colleagues, also in the US, reject this. After all, we ethnologists get to our findings by winning the trust of those people, by living with them, by them sharing their knowledge and history. It is part of the ethnologists‘ professional ethics to tell his informants openly and honestly who their contractor is and what they plan to do with the findings of their research. If an ethnologist wanted to find out where the limits of the proverbial Afghan hospitality lie, he only needs to tell the people that he works for the US Army.

How came you started being interested in Afghanistan?

I studied ethnology in Heidelberg in the 1960s, and I wanted to travel into the area I was interested in during the semester break. In the first year, I went to Tunisia, than with the Orient Express to Turkey. A year later, I visited Iran and in 1968 finally Afghanistan.

What was your first impression?

I admit that my perception was influenced by Karl May [an extremely popular German writer who wrote about the American ‘Indians’ and ‘the Orient’ from within his prison cell without ever having travelled there]. But I immediately felt good. I had the feeling to be welcome and fell in love with Herat first, than a well-preserved medieval oriental city. At the beginning of the modern age, it was considered the Florence of the East. It was the centre of trade, scholarliness and arts. This past was very much alive: People were meditating over a book at the tomb of the poet Jami who had lived in Herat in the 15th century. Traders in the bazaar read Ferdawsi’s ‘Book of Kings’ that was written a thousand years ago. I decided to do research on Afghan nomads.

What did you want to find out from them?

Nomads are not governed by any administration. I was interested to see how they organise themselves, who takes decisions where to rove and where their camps would be built. In those days, there was a strong assumption that tribes have got strong centralised institutions. That perception likely had been shaped by the nomad Jengis Khan whose army would start galloping on a simple signs of him. Nomads, however, belong to those groups who, compared to farmers, are organised in the least hierarchical and centrally organized way. The most important decisions in a nomads’ camp are taken in council assemblies. In 1970, I started my field research in Central Afghanistan.

How does one register with nomads? Does one go there, bid a good day and says: I would like to do research about you?

First, I had to explain my plans to the Foreign Ministry in Kabul. I was assigned an Afghan as a translator who belonged to the Pashtun tribe I wanted to do my research on. This Afghan became the mediator between us and the locals until my then wife and I had developed our own relationship with them.

How and where did you live?

We had a camping tent which we erected next to the big black tent of one member of the tribe who practically had adopted us as a neighbour. The word for neighbour in the local language is hamsaya and means: ‘one who lives in the same shadow’. Our neighbour was responsible for us. If we had fallen ill or into danger he would have been obliged to take care of us. One who is not able to protect one’s neighbours incurs shame on himself, loses face in his own society. We went with the nomads on their migration, helped them with their sheep and goats. In my spare time, I asked them questions for my research.

Was this a romantic life?

Yes, but also a hard one. Most likely, my marriage broke as a result of it. You know, the nomadic life is very monotonous and bland. I had my research but my wife wasn’t an ethnologist and the time became very long for her.

You weren’t the only one who was fascinated by Afghanistan. Many hippies and writers were attracted by the country, as well…

Most of the hippies did not want to go to Afghanistan but to India. There were busses from London to Kathmandu in those days – and one of the most fascinating places en route was Kabul. You could find good cheap hashish, people were friendly, open and cosmopolitan. You could live there comfortably and for not much money. But only few were really interested in the country and went on to India.

Friendly? Open? Cosmopolitan? Do we talk about Afghanistan, the country of the Taleban?

Afghanistan always was a trade and transit country. That has formed the people there. Situated between Central Asia and China, it was a cross roads at the Silk Roads. It had attracted many: Alexander the Great, Chengiz Khan, Timur or Marco Polo.

But did they all get out again unharmed?

No one got out unharmed, even Chengiz Khan had to concede heavy losses. The Afghans allow anyone in easily but it is very difficult to get away again. I experienced the same thing: I am still in the country’s grip. Afghans are open towards all strangers. But when they realise that strangers are not honest, that they want to misuse or even occupy their land, they can get extremely hostile – as the British in the 19th century and the later the Russians had to learn. No one has managed yet to exploit, manipulate or to impose an alien ideology on them.

What makes Afghans so unruly?

Perhaps one should ask why it is so easy in other countries to impose something on their citizens. Shouldn’t the Afghans’ unruliness and scepticism be called normal and the behaviour of others questioned? Why, for example, Germans were so easily indoctrinated by nationalism?

Talking about the Afghans: Do we refer to the majority Pashtunen or also to the minority Uzbeks, Hazara, Baluch…?

There are more similarities between the ethnic groups than differences. But there also is a deep gap in Afghanistan, on one hand there is Kabul – and on the other the rest. But certain characteristics or values are typical for the majority of Afghans. This includes the phenomenal hospitality.

How does this hospitality express itself?

One day, we were working in a nomads’ camp south of Herat. The people were erecting their camp next to the Kabul-Herat highway. My concerned question whether anybody whose car broke down or who simply was thirsty would come to the camp met utter disbelief. That’s exactly what we want, they told me. And it happened exactly so: Coaches stopped, fifty people got out, wanted water – and were treated with butter milk or tea and sweets.

I get the impression that you talk about an absolutely different country, about different people. Afghans did not start fighting each other with the Soviet occupation only…

Correct, the breakdown of the old order, the revolutionary and war troubles turned the country into an arena of new political actors, war profiteers, mafia networks, terrorist organisations, parties manipulated from abroad and agents of all kind of countries. During the East-West conflict, Afghanistan was positioned as a buffer. Pakistan from the East and South, Iran from the West and the Soviet Union from the North held it up like a decayed house. The country did not have much which held it together internally. There were few institutions that bound together the conflictive forces.

But Afghanistan had a government, an administration, an army and political parties…

The Afghan state only existed in Kabul and the big cities. The country was centrally organised but the state only acted as a mediator and used the army as a threat of force.

How is that?

One example: There was always conflict about pastures between nomads and settled farmers. Once when I was with the nomads, one such conflict escalated. The parties turned to the governor. But he said that you are more familiar with the circumstances yourselves. Next week, I want to hear from you that you settled the conflict – otherwise, I send the army. The nomads and the farmers indeed quickly solved their conflict through a council assembly. Both sides were afraid of the army.

What would have happened if the army came in?

The army had not decided who is right and who is wrong. The soldiers would have behaved like locusts and eaten up all reserves. It is their old right that the local population has to feed them. As much as hospitality counted – but that would have been too much. The central government only acted through the possibility the army coming in. That also could be a way for bringing about and keeping the peace in certain areas of Afghanistan today. The same principle also is the reason for the Germans‘ success in Kunduz: They are not successful because they are strong and fire around – but because they are present and the people have the impression that the Germans would involve themselves and fire if problems got out of hands. But at some time, the Afghan army has to assume this role at some point. In order to so, however, it first has to become capable again of being respected by conflicting parties.

With President Karzai, there is a central authority. But Karzai seems to lack respect even from his Pashtuns. There are rumours that the Americans are looking for a replacement…

Who will become President of Afghanistan during the elections in a year’s time, should not be decided by the West but by Afghans themselves – and I believe that most Afghans do not see an alternative to Karzai yet, despite their disappointments about him.

Does he do everything that is in his power?

Perhaps, but there isn’t much in his power. He is no ruler but a President, a ‘chairman’. In Afghanistan this means that he chairs amongst people who, according to their egalitarian tradition, do not tolerate someone above themselves permanently but only for a certain purpose and only as long as it serves their interests.

What does ‘egalitarian tradition’ mean?

All thirty to forty million Pashtuns – to whom Karzai belongs – go back to a common ancestor. Those who live today see themselves as his grand-grandsons and therefore equal decendants. If they respect anyone as their leader, it is on the basis of his courage, wisdom, rhetorical prowess and ability to mediate. He is leader only because of his merits and has to prove his leadership abilities on a daily basis.

Karzai and his government are accused of corruption and nepotism. Karzai’s brothers are said to profit from the drugs trade and the overexploitation of timber…

That, again, shows the egalitarian dilemma: Karzai can become the president of a state but not of his family. Even as family elder, he cannot act as a despot but has to build consensus.

Afghans criticise less their government but the approach of the Americans and of the international aid workers as well as the volume, use and effect of aid…

Many in Kabul say that the aid workers think about themselves primarily, that their organisations act like commercial enterprises and that they are less interested in Afghans. There might be some truth in it but nevertheless most Afghans do not want that the foreigners leave – neither the civilians nor the military. After the attacks on the German garrison in Kunduz there were large demonstrations – with the demand that the Germans stay!

But even aid groups say that something in development cooperation went wrong, that mistakes were never corrected. What exactly went wrong?

In late 2001, after the Taleban were driven out, quick action was in demand. But it was rushed and done without a plan, as if the whole country was to be rebuilt over night from scratch. At the same time, there were well-planned reconstruction programs earlier, among them by Germans. It also was incorrect that the whole country was destroyed. There were areas that were extremely strongly destroyed but also some where infrastructure was working.

Why that rush?

Projects were prioritised that created quick visible results. That allowed ministers from donor countries to have pictures taken while cutting ribbons – in order to impress their home audiences. Often it wasn’t important any more whether the projects made sense or not, whether they were sustainably useful.

Do you know examples?

You know, schools can be built everywhere and in a short time. But what happens in them afterwards? Where do the teachers and the teaching material from? Who educates the teachers and who pays their salaries? The Afghan state wasn’t and isn’t able to provide all the new schools with teachers and textbooks. Or: The Germans should guarantee power supply by renewable energies and build micro-power stations like in Nepal. They concentrate on building overhead transmission lines that bring power to Kabul from neighbouring Uzbekistan. This line still doesn’t exist [did not in 2008]. This is the reason why the cement factory and the sugar factory in Baghlan still do not run again.

It is said that 20 billion dollars of aid were waisted. Is this correct?

First of all, no one really would be able to come up with an exact figure. Secondly, that wouldn’t be correct in that absoluteness. There were good developments also. More children than ever – girls in particular – attend school. The health system improved. Women take part in public life in a completely new way.

That positive development might be true in Northern Afghanistan. But how about the South?

Indeed, there are big differences between the regions – and this is also one of the reasons why the Taleban and other opposition forces are on the surge again. Development is fine, and the figures are impressive indeed. But one also has to watch where aid is getting to. Here, one comes to the result that there are developed and underdeveloped areas emerging. This is dynamite for Afghanistan as it is for other developing countries.

And now what?

Lessons need to be learned from those mistakes. Up to the day, there is no comprehensive audit and assessment of the German as well as of the international Afghanistan aid since 2001. Only this would be a basis for a new concept – for Afghanistan‘s development as well as for the way Germany contributes to security. Without a well-founded Afghanistan strategy, our military involvement at the Hindukush is no longer justifiable. Naturally, this strategy needs to be coordinated with the Afghan government and amongst the supporting countries.

How could such a new strategy look like?

Take the drugs problem, for example: Poppy cultivation cannot be limited on a large scale by planting roses or crocuses for producing saffron. These are often considered a general remedy that allows farmers to replace poppy and gives them an adequate income. Legalising poppy cultivation and buying up the harvest by the state is no solution as well. Many experts share my opinion that only comprehensively developing Afghanistan’s economy as a whole would produce the millions of jobs that are required. If Afghans were provided a sensible, regular income, terrorism would be void of any potential personnel. Development band-aids and high-tech weaponry might look cheaper in the short run, but will cost us more than we can afford on the long run.

As a result of terrorist attacks and hostage taking many aid organisations reduce their personnel. What does a well thought-out development strategy help if there are not sufficient foreign aid workers who can implement it?

Afghans need to be given more responsibilities. Why do we need thousands of foreigners in Afghanistan? I know many areas where there are excellent Afghan experts. That does not mean that no foreign aid workers needed at all. For example, they need to check on the ground whether money is spent in accordance with the planned purposes. Foreigners still can work in Afghanistan. Naturally, not in the war zones in the South or in areas where they are not wanted or where the population wants them but isn’t able to protect them. That is the case in parts of Southern Afghanistan, in the Southeast and the East. But their deployment is possible in more areas than usually assumed.

Additionally to a new strategy, is there also more money needed for Afghanistan?

The Afghanistan programme was designed on the cheap right from the start. Per capita much less than in Eastern Timor, Kosovo or Bosnia was budgeted here. The reason given was that the destroyed Afghanistan wasn’t able to absorb more money and aid. I think this is nonsense.

Could you imagine that the foreign military and aid workers withdraw – as a result of the bad security situation and the rejection of the Afghanistan mission at home?

When the troops leave a situation will emerge all over the country that will resemble Kabul in the 1990s when everyone fought against everyone else and where minorities were massacred. This would also draw the North in. The country would implode. We should not allow such a no-man’s land to emerge, neither in Afghanistan nor anywhere else. That would be al-Qaida land.

That means we should stay there even if it costs more casualties – Germans included?

We have been widely spared up to now. The figure of casualties is no higher than that of traffic accidents in the Bundeswehr – although each casualty is one too much. If we act wisely that might remain so.

In case of a permanent Bundeswehr mission: Would ethnological advice do it good?

Naturally, but they already have got good orientalists and social scientists in their own ranks. I also give presentations in the Bundeswehr and they already have tried to hire me.

Really? In that case, we hardly can accuse the Pentagon of hiring ethnologists…

The Pentagon wants to use our knowledge to know the enemy better and to fight him. The Bundeswehr wants to keep up security in the North and to avoid turning the population against itself. That is a fine but decisive difference. After all, I already advise Bundeswehr soldiers, but only here and not in Afghanistan. I stem from a Quaker family and I am a pacifist. Nevertheless, I find the Bundeswehr mission ‚sensible and necessary‘. I had to leap over the shadow of my own family background to say this. But to wear a Bundeswehr uniform would still be too much [for me].

Interview: Martina Doering, Berliner Zeitung magazine, 12 April 2008
Translation: Thomas Ruttig


Bernt Glatzer Government War