World

Knowledge of Afghanistan 'astonishingly thin'

Despite anguished debate about strategy in Afghanistan, diplomats, academics and other experts agree on one thing: they know remarkably little about the country.

Diplomats rotate through the country for short deployments, linguistic skills are minimal, and Afghan studies is an "orphan subject," hardly taught at universities.

"There's a problem with a lack of global expertise," says Clare Lockhart, an adviser to the Afghan government between 2001 and 2005, and now head of US think tank The Institute of State Effectiveness.

Image caption Anthropological studies on Afghanistan would enhance understanding, experts say

"In recent years, we have seen the consequences of not having a cadre of people with that deep knowledge."

Some diplomats agree. Sir Hilary Synnott had responsibility for Afghanistan when he was UK ambassador to Pakistan from 2000-2003.

"There's a perception that the Brits understand it for colonial reasons. But these things don't pass through the genes. During the Taliban era we didn't have diplomatic or trade relations. That has reduced our knowledge.

"A lot of the knowledge we need now is about personalities. Who is who, what are they doing, how influential are they?"

Taking risks

In the past five years, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has trained six staff in Pashto to varying levels of competence, and 34 in Dari. But it is a time-consuming process and diplomats can only spend a maximum of two years in Afghanistan before being moved on to a new posting.

The FCO insists that there is not a problem with lack of expertise about Afghanistan. It says that when diplomats move on from a posting in Kabul, they often work on Afghan affairs in their new role in Whitehall or elsewhere. And it underlines that it also draws on expertise from non-governmental organisations, academics and other international institutions.

But of the 161 British diplomats in Afghanistan, there are just three who speak Dari or Pashto fluently.

"Maybe someone like me, who left the embassy after 14 months (to join the UN), shouldn't have been allowed to leave," says Gerard Russell, formerly political counsellor at the UK embassy in Kabul, and now at Harvard University.

"I'd also say something about risk management. Diplomats get security to protect them, but we need to see whether we can take more risk. It does sometimes lead to people getting killed. Five of my colleagues at the UN were killed last October. But some people have to go out and take risks in order to engage with people and understand them."

Beyond diplomats, academic knowledge is also limited.

The School of Oriental and African Studies in London (Soas) is the only university in Britain where you can learn an Afghan language. And even here, they do not teach Pashto at degree level.

Martin Bayly will go there as part of his PhD studies on stabilisation efforts in Afghanistan. He has set up The Afghan Studies Group to bring together academics with an interest in the country.

Image caption Knowledge of languages will open doors to understanding Afghanistan, scholars say

"There is plenty of security-related literature, but there's less up-to-date understanding of anthropology and societies in Afghanistan, particularly in the south," he says.

Organisations funding academic research in the UK confirm this. "It's an orphan in academia," says Adam Roberts, head of the British Academy. "The picture is astonishingly thin and it must have an affect on policy."

There isn't much more in Europe or the US. "There are really very few places where you can learn Dari or Pashto. Dedicated studies on Afghanistan exist but are very scattered," says German expert Thomas Ruttig.

He speaks Pashto and Dari, and has been working on Afghanistan for 25 years. In a paper released this month, he writes: "There does not seem to be a comprehensive recent English-language book or article dealing with the types of Pashtunwalai (codes of honour) among Pashtun tribes in Afghanistan."

This has direct implications. "Recent developments in Afghanistan have underscored that there is still an immense lack of understanding - and even of interest - with regard to the nature of the Taliban movement," he writes.

"There is considerable confusion as to whether the largest and most influential insurgent movement is mainly driven by ethnic, religious or political motives."

The point is taken up by Rory Stewart, a Conservative MP who trekked across Afghanistan alone, sleeping in villages, from 2000-2002.

"We struggle to really internalise their motivation, to sense intuitively the ways they do or do not appeal to rural Afghan communities, and to acknowledge that Afghan rural communities may be more conservative, more religious, more anti-foreigner than they reveal to us," he says.

His conclusion is a bleak summary of the challenges facing Western policy-makers: "The more time I spent there, the less I understood."

Clare Lockhart, Institute for State Effectiveness, Washington

"There's a problem with the lack of global expertise. We know it's vital to understand the context of a country across its history, geography, culture, politics and economics. We have in recent years seen the problem and consequences of not having a cadre of people with that deep knowledge.

"When I first arrived with the UN team in 2002, there was a widely-held assumption there was "nothing there". To my great surprise I found there were water and sanitation departments, schools, clinics, finance offices. There were civil servants that neither the media nor the policy community at the time were able to see.

"Part of the problem has been historical. After the Soviets pulled out, the country was forgotten. Since 9/11 there has not been a large allocation of funds for studying it; there's no comparison with how much was poured into Russian and East European Studies during the Cold War. Most people who want to study it end up doing international relations or development.

Thomas Ruttig, Co-Director Afghan Analysts Network, Berlin

"It seems to be broader than just a British problem. The same lack of work on this goes for Germany: there are really very few places where you can learn Dari or Pashto. Dedicated studies on Afghanistan exist but are very scattered.

"There is an expression: these are "orchid subjects" and this relates to the former divide between East and West Germany. In the East, we had a concentrated faculty of Asian studies at Berlin's Humboldt University. This was almost abolished after 1989/90 and the remainder has been pushed back into the "traditional" corners of linguistics etc. 

"The current professor "for Afghanistan" in Berlin deals with Uzbek dialects in the north of the country. I've nothing against this - but this should only be one part of the picture.

"Apart from this, you have people here and there who come from other fields, without proper language skills, basically riding the Afghan wave since it became interesting again.

"I do not see a much better situation anywhere else in Europe. Only Russia will definitely have some more people working on it."

Rory Stewart, Conservative MP, London

"In a journey of five miles you go from a community controlled by a mullah to a community controlled by a feudal landlord, to a community controlled by a tribal commander. The more time I spent there, the less I understood, and the less plausible it seems to me that some accelerated course in Pashto or Dari at a British university would transform our ability to create an effective, stable state in Afghanistan.

"The question of understanding the Taliban is usually described in Powerpoint presentations where people will say: 'There are three different parts to the Taliban, here's the Haqqani network, etc.' But we struggle to really internalise their motivation, to sense intuitively the ways they do or do not appeal to rural Afghan communities, and to acknowledge that Afghan rural communities may be more conservative, more religious, more anti-foreigner than they reveal to us.

"We should be investing more heavily in linguistic expertise, in learning about other people's countries and sympathising with their culture. But what we need to learn is not how to do engagements in places like Iraq and Afghanistan better, but the lesson that perhaps we shouldn't be doing them at all."

Gerard Russell, former British diplomat, Harvard

"Afghanistan is so vast and complex, it has got over 40 dialects and languages. After two years there, I understood a bit of parts of it. Given that two years is the maximum a British diplomat can serve there, that presents a challenge for the embassy.

"I don't think it affects understanding of the big picture. Some of my colleagues were very brilliant and understood it well on a strategic level. But when you're trying also to communicate with Afghans, it is difficult if you have not experienced how they live.

"Maybe someone like me, who left the embassy after 14 months (to join the UN), shouldn't have been allowed to leave.

"I'd also say something about risk management. I think the best time I had there, for gaining understanding of Afghans, was getting out and about with the UN.

"Diplomats get security to protect them, rightly, but maybe we need to see whether we can take more risk. It does sometimes lead to people getting killed. Five of my colleagues at the UN were killed last October. That's not easy for any organisation to accept. But some people have to go out and take risks in order to engage with people and understand them. "