The Mindset of Force: Egregious Fallacies in American Understanding of Terrorism in Afghanistan
- As Sri Sri Ravi Shankar says, “Muscle and money power alone cannot bring change. Mindset has to be addressed.”
The Urdu word Khaufnak means someone who elicits terror. I heard David Headley use this word in a Chicago courtroom, almost 10 years ago. In June of 2011, I sat in the Federal courthouse in Chicago, for several days over 2 months, staring into the unusual eyes — green in one eye and blue in the other — of the horrific Mumbai terror attacks perpetrator, David Headley. Responsible for the heinous attacks in Mumbai, akin to the 9/11 of India, Headley’s story runs like a Bollywood movie of espionage, crime and romance.
The seismic tragedy in Afghanistan once again brought me back to that time with my lens as a journalist with a frontline seat into a rare terrorism trial. I saw upfront, how misplaced and one-sided literal and situational translation can derail our judgment. How our inadequate context ultimately can be a disadvantaged perspective and a long-term failing. That Headley trial, a rare lens into a terrorism trial attended by media from around the world, was rife with double entendres and unintended puns.
Using the Urdu word, Khaufnak, the terrorist alluded jokingly to his cool nature rather than to terror at all, while he was in court talking to another alleged perpetrator! Many nuances were lost in translation in that trial.
In a recently released new report, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, a U.S. government watchdog, has summed up key successes and failures from two decades of war. The 140-page report, titled, “What We Need to Learn: Lessons From Twenty Years of Afghanistan Reconstruction,” points to the inability of the Americans to contextualize the challenges faced in Afghanistan.
Quoting the sixth point in this report, here’s this group’s disconcerting observation:
“The U.S. government did not understand the Afghan context and therefore failed to tailor its efforts accordingly. Effectively rebuilding Afghanistan required a detailed understanding of the country’s social, economic, and political dynamics. However, U.S. officials were consistently operating in the dark, often because of the difficulty of collecting the necessary information. The U.S. government also clumsily forced Western technocratic models onto Afghan economic institutions; trained security forces in advanced weapon systems they could not understand, much less maintain; imposed formal rule of law on a country that addressed 80 to 90 percent of its disputes through informal means; and often struggled to understand or mitigate the cultural and social barriers to supporting women and girls. Without this background knowledge, U.S. officials often empowered power brokers who preyed on the population or diverted U.S. assistance away from its intended recipients to enrich and empower themselves and their allies. Lack of knowledge at the local level meant projects intended to mitigate conflict often exacerbated it, and even inadvertently funded insurgents.”
In 2018, Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller indicated that negotiations with the Taliban leaders were the optimum and perhaps the only efficient way of moving forward in Afghanistan. Says journalist Bill Roggio, “We never understood the enemy.” That has been the problem of the Western mindset transposing its understanding into an unusual ecosystem.
Isn’t it time now we approach another mindset, one of peace rather than force? Another intractable conflict that lasted for over 50 years, in Colombia, with leftist rebels, government troops, and rightist paramilitary militias, that was mired in an endless cycle of violence, is a case in point.
A peace deal was struck between the FARC-EP and the Colombian government. Finally, after half a century of drug trades and criminal activity, hopes of peace and development emerged in the nation of Colombia. How did this happen? Mediation by an international human rights activist and spiritual leader, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. Lauding his efforts the President of the House of Representatives, Congress of Colombia, Fabio Raul Amin Saleme, said, “Your commitment in Colombia for more than eight years compels us to recognize your achievements in peace matters in our overwhelmed nation.”
Referring to an article on Afghanistan, he had penned 2 decades back, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar tweeted on Aug 16th, commenting on the American withdrawal and the ensuing crisis, “20 years of armed conflict has gone in vain. The humanitarian crisis in #Afghanistan is a blot on humanity. Muscle and money power alone cannot bring change. Mindset has to be addressed.”
We tried to muscle through this conflict for 20 years. Now it’s time to dive into a mindset we never sought to fully understand.
Shalini Parekh is a Chicago-based journalist, who covered the terrorism trial of the 2011 Mumbai terrorism-accused, David Headley. As an international correspondent covering South Asia, she sees how media coverage and understanding of cultural context can be skewed when a grasp of cultural nuances is inadequate.