KABUL, Afghanistan—What some news media have characterized as “growing anti-western sentiment” in Afghanistan is more precisely an evolving determination by the Afghan state and populace to find ways to express their opposition to the western nations occupying their homeland.
That opposition was evident when I arrived in the capital more than a year ago and watched the faces and gestures of the locals when a U.S. military convoy drove through the city. For example, the drivers who shuttle me between my walled, razor-wired guest house with armed guards to my walled, razor-wired workplace with armed guards are still instructed to pull off the road and park until any military vehicle operated by NATO’s International Security Assistance Force passes. In other words, don’t do anything that could be perceived as threatening by easily frightened young men in uniform with a boatload of firepower at their disposal, moving as fast as they can over cratered roads. Average Afghans don’t need to be reminded that these forces, like the Soviet and Mujahideen armies before them, have no reluctance to generate civilian casualties.
However, some of our drivers are still unwilling to appear as though they are pulling their tales between their legs in deference to the armored alpha dogs, so they stop only about half the time and generally reduce their speed to a slow roll. They, like the pedestrians and shopkeepers, still try to appear casual but all the adults keep one eye trained on the armored vehicles until they race out of sight. This is not a social display between allies, but a careful dance between the occupiers and the occupied.
In recent weeks, the Afghan government has shut down several of the restaurants that sell booze and familiar meals and nightlife to international civilians. While that story got a plenty of attention from western journalists, there have been more troubling developments. Three Italians, two of whom were doctors at a Kabul hospital, were charged with cooperating with the Taliban. Those charges were later dropped, but a former British Embassy security chief, was sentenced to two years in the notorious Pul-e-Charki jail after being found guilty of bribery. Bribery is an everyday occurrence among westerners and Afghans in all kinds of commercial, legal and political transactions. The choice of who to prosecute out of the universe of possibilities is a political decision designed to shape public consciousness.
The widely discredited government of Pres. Hamid Karzai is trying to exercise some facsimile of public resistance to the Western powers, particularly the United States. Tapping into the deep well of anti-western sentiment is a desperate act of political survival from a man who was the handpicked puppet of the United States eight years ago. Karzai had no base of popular support then (arguably the chief reason he was picked) and he has none today.
Last weekend, at the university where I teach, the new documentary film Addicted in Afghanistan by director Jawed Taiman, a British-Afghan, was shown. At point, one of the young boys in the family of opium and heroin addicts the film follows shouts to the camera that his addiction was produced by the U.S.-led occupation. The overwhelmingly student audience erupted into applause. I later heard that some shocked faculty members walked out in disgust with students. One, an American, reportedly said the incident has her reconsidering whether she will return after this semester.
I was stunned that my colleagues were surprised. Our students are not going to speak up in a well-lit classroom in an “American university” and tell their instructor what they honestly think about the United States. Some of the older students lived under Taliban rule. All of the students were directly impacted by the chaos of civil war and the latest bloody foreign occupation. Every Afghan understands that what you say in public can earn your execution.
But in the anonymity of a darkened gymnasium, with abundant peer support, they can exercise their frustration, disappointment, anger or disgust in a collective manner that affords both plausible deniability and little likelihood of reprisals. Popular resistance always finds, or creates, opportunities to express itself.