Come Back to Afghanistan by Said Hyder Akbar

“[T]he people of Afghanistan . . . are tired, poor, and have few opportunities—and they are thus at the mercy of warlords, terrorists, opium, the country’s carnivorous neighbors, you name it. They need long-term help, not the shaky presence of the aid comminity.” (p. 326)

“In spite of everything, there is still a lot of goodwill toward the Americans here. It’s not like it is in Iraq: in Afghanistan the U.S. troops have legitimacy. The Americans did not invade this country: they helped overthrow an occupying force. Since then they’ve decreased the detrimental influence of neighboring countries. And perhaps most important, their continued presence prevents a return to chaos. But even this substantial benefit cannot placate Afghans forever.” (p.289)

These two quotations from Mr. Akbar’s book epitomize his view of Afghanistan’s future, American foreign policy, and what the U.S. owes Afghanistan. I would respond that although the Afghan people need and deserve our help, they don’t need to be “placated” like little children. Americans will do what they can, but it is ultimately the responsibility of the Afghan people themselves to make their own way in the world and to find a way to govern themselves peacefully and reconcile the many tribal tensions and feuds that still make violence a part of daily life in Afghanistan.

Said Hyder Akbar is a college student, or was one when he wrote this book, born to Afghan parents in exile in Pakistan, reared in the U.S., and now the son of the governor of Afghanistan’s Kunar province. He writes mostly about the two (maybe three) summers he spent in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban as the government of Hamid Karzai, with the help of American troops, attempted to stabilize and rebuild Afghanistan. The book is quite informative on the state of Afghan politics and infrastructure, but it is notable for what it doesn’t say as much as for what it does.

Two subjects are absent or near-absent from Mr. Akbar’s narrative. He spends a great deal of time and ink telling us about the former mujahadeen and about tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan, about politics in Kabul and politics in Kunar Province, about Afghan poverty and American ineptness and Americans who do things well. However, two subjects which seem to me to be central to the Afghan story, Mr. Akbar almost never mentions: women and religion.

Occasionally, there is a brief allusion to daily prayers or Taliban legalities, but if the author and his family are any example, Islam is a background noise in the life of the political elite in Afghanistan. No mosque attendance, no Islamic studies, no citing of the Koran, very little prayer or reference to Islamic law, are to be found in the pages of this book in which many people were just a few years ago supposedly fanatical Islamists. Has all this religious zeal just disappeared or gone underground, or is Mr. Akbar a secular Muslim (like a secular Jew or a nominal Christian) who just doesn’t pay any attention to the role of religion within the culture of Afghanistan?

Women, too, are nearly invisible in Come Back to Afghanistan. Mr. Akbar writes about his mother; he even tells us that she was quite unhappy with him when he returned to the U.S. from Afghanistan after his first summer there. He brought back quite a bit of film of the loya jirga, a large meeting in Kabul of tribal leaders and warlords and other political leaders, including many women. Only Hyder Akbar doesn’t film or tape any of the women, and his mother is quite angry about the omission. Nevertheless, Mr. Akbar doesn’t learn any lessons from this martriarchal scorn because the rest of his book is just as woman-less as his recording of the loya jirga. He writes about his mother again, a brief visit to a girl’s school, and a glimpse he gets of his uncle’s wife. Are women in Afghanistan still just as invisible as they were under the Taliban? Or do they simply fly under Hyder Akbar’s radar screen completely? I would certainly have liked to know a lot more about whether or not women are being educated and given freedom and opportunity in the new Afghanistan, but Mr. Akbar’s a lot more interested in mountain hikes and Kalishnikovs.

Aside from these two glaring omissions, Come Back to Afghanistan is an enthusiastic, impassioned portrait of the rebuilding, and sometimes the tragic re-breaking, of Afghanistan during the years 2003-2005. When Hyder Akbar first goes to Afghanistan to spend the summer with his dad, he is seventeen years old. By the end of the book, two and a half to three years later, it is obvious that he has grown up, mostly as a result of his experiences in Afghanistan. He’s a man with a mission —to participate in the reconstruction and the political and economic of his native country. I wish him and his country well

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