Sunday, November 27, 2011

Graveyard of Empires

Afghanistan has been described in many ways, with a tendency to focus on the "medieval" or "biblical" character of their development, or to take note of the fiercely independent, xenophobic and indefatiguable spirit of the Afghan warrior. This is perhaps most aptly, or at least most often conveyed by describing Afghanistan as the "Graveyard of Empires" - in reference to the repeated failure of great powers (England and Russia most recently) to absorb Afghanistan into their spheres of influence.

Whether this is a historically accurate claim, and whether the U.S. is in line for the next funeral is a topic that fuels many debates with my warrior/scholar colleagues (who BTW tend to be as well or better read on such things than any of my friends in the foreign service). Suffice to say, it's just not that simple.

Nonetheless, the phrase certainly came to mind when I was bouncing along the valley floor of one of the most problematic areas of the provinces, and the crumbling remains of a fortress allegedly built by Alexander the Great loomed above us.

On the return trip, the monument felt even more meaningful, as our KLE/meeting up the valley had left me feeling like many of the problems they faced had probably been around since the time that fortress was built.  Not enough water, neglect/disenfranchisement by central government, and challenges with agricultural yields and pricing. While courteous, the leaders were both wary of us and weary of what they saw as a long series of unfulfilled promises.

View Looking the Other Way
(and no I didn't take this picture)

Nonetheless, it was great to be out and about - even in what a friend aptly calls a "rolling bank vault".  Still, watching these timeless villages roll by, and passing donkey carts with our massive and thundering convoy, I couldn't shake the sense of not belonging, and the more sobering/relevant sense of being too distant to understand. It is the same sense of having an unbridgeable gap that could come to the surface when I talked to Cameroonian villagers and found only the most tenuous connection to bridge the yawning gaps in language, clothes, custom etc.  Food, children, music and similar topics could help open the door to shared humanity, but those are hard to come by as we roll along, briefly stopping, trying desperately to understand and help - often hoping that the smiles and thumbs-up signs which have become commonplace are sufficient to convey our intent.

City Hall - Note Snowcaps behind

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