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Jeff's Afghan Diary: The Rule of Law?
August 18, 2007

      I have been busy in Salerno, ironically.  There have been some Soldiers here from both our ETT and from the Infantry unit in Do China, and I have been working with them to get both supplies and them back to Do China.  Unfortunately, I have not had much success with getting supplies, but it looks like the Soldiers themselves will finally get a flight back to Waza Khwa on Sunday.  (While Waza Khwa is still a ways away from Do China, at least they can be picked up by convoy if no helicopters take them the rest of the way.)

      I went to the Religious Services office and picked up a hymnal and some rosaries for any Soldiers in Do China who may want one.  (We have lots of Bibles sent to us, but nothing in the way of music or other religious items.)  I went to the Post Office and discovered I could mail these to myself for free, so they will be there when I return from leave.

      I also went and bought some Afghan clothing and jewelry for my family at the local bazaar, and mailed it home – it will probably get there before I do.  The bazaar is a collection of small shops inside CONEX trailers; Afghan merchants sell movies and DVDs, small electronic items, cigarettes (very cheap over here), novelties such as marble chess sets and wooden trinket boxes, and some Afghan clothing.  I selected some Lapis Lazuli jewelry for my wife, a couple Afghan outfits for my girls, and a T-shirt for my son.  I also bought myself a Pashtun outfit for myself – I plan to wear it at my church when I talk about Afghanistan on my return.  (I e-mailed my pastor, asking if he wanted me to speak at Sunday School about my experiences, and he assured me everyone would like to hear about it.)

      I have been able to wash my clothes in a washing machine for the first time in a few months.  My clothes are much cleaner now than I have been able to get them by using a bucket!  And of course, it’s much easier, but not as fast – washing in a bucket only takes a few minutes, but a washing machine takes half an hour.  So I am gradually getting back into the modern world now.

      I should take a moment here to talk about how differently most Afghans view the world from how we Americans view the world.  Afghans enjoy the modern comforts we have as much as we do, but it will be quite some time before most of them view the world in a way similar to us, from a modern, scientific, logical point of view.  Particularly in the rural areas, such as Do China.  Of the 25 million Afghans, less than half live in an urban area.  Most of the Afghans view the world from a tribal point of view, with values very different from most of the Western world.  In fact, Islam itself came from a tribal part of the world, and many Muslims seem to feel that the tribal ways are God’s ways, because of this fact.

      In tribal Afghan culture, emotions and familial relationships take priority over what we may otherwise consider “facts.”  Whether a man commits a crime is less important than what tribe the man belongs to; in fact, it is the responsibility of the man’s tribe to punish him for any crime he may have committed.  If a man commits a crime, it is the tribe that is dishonored, not the man, and therefore the tribe will exact punishment, even up to the death penalty.  Unfortunately, this also means that the tribe can (and often does) excuse the man for committing a crime, while the society as a whole has no justice served.

      Crimes are usually seen by Afghans to be anything spoken against in the Quran, and includes things most modern societies view as being criminal: murder, stealing, lying, rape, assault, and the like.  Other crimes are more tribal: insubordination to the elders of one’s tribe, disobeying parents, and similar cultural laws.  Adultery and other “sexual sins” are also illegal, and can be punished by death (especially for women – the double standard applies here).

      What is amazing to see is the lack of a court system for much of Afghanistan – the tribal elders function as judge and jury, and mete out what they feel is appropriate justice, which often involves corporal punishment, or beatings, for both children and adults.  In fact, children who disobey parents continually may be punished by death – it is seen as being preferable to have a child killed than to have the tribe dishonored by a disobedient son or daughter.  Of course, this may include disobedient adults as well.

      In every village, the elder may whack any child who the elder feels is unruly, at any time.  No parental permission is required, because the parents are expected to allow this (otherwise the parents themselves are disobedient!).  This is part of what constitutes tribal law.

      Another part of their culture is the “Us versus Them” way of looking at the world, “us” being first those in one’s tribe, then one’s geographic region, then one’s country, then one’s religion.  Tribes will war with each other, but any outsider who tries to interfere suddenly becomes a common enemy to both tribes.  In similar fashion, anyone who dares suggest that the tribal ways of doing things are wrong is unMuslim, even if he or she is actually a Muslim believer.  (This logic is used to justify all types of atrocities, both here and particularly in Iraq.)  So of course, anything a non-Muslim says is viewed with some suspicion, because it does not come from the Quran.

      I have seen interpreters get into big trouble because they accurately interpret what is being said in front of Americans, because they are not covering up for their fellow Afghans.  The relationship between Afghans and fellow Muslims is felt to be more important that truth and personal responsibility.  In fact, many times Afghans work to avoid the appearance of personal responsibility.  This is one of the hardest issues to work with in training the ABP.

      The rule of law depends on giving each individual accountability and responsibility for their own actions.  Emotions and feelings have some consideration, but are no excuses for criminal behavior.  However, here in Afghanistan, if the behavior hasn’t dishonored the tribe, criminal behavior may be excused, and the individual is not held responsible.  Blame-shifting is common, especially for anyone caught in deception.  When caught in a lie, an Afghan will often try to change the subject, rather than accept personal responsibility.  (Of course, criminals in America do this as well.)  Even for something less than a lie, if facts appear to put an Afghan in unfavorable light, they avoid talking about the facts, or change the subject.  It happens a lot, and seems to be one of the more negative aspects of their culture.

      In many ways, this has become a source of deep frustration for me – in my opinion, Afghanistan will only change as much as the people and their values change.  Without a change of values, all we are doing is training their military to continue fighting its tribal wars, with deadlier effect.

-- Jeff Courter

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and Executive Director of
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).  
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here.
God and Science (Hypertext Edition, 2005).
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion:
Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).

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