If Americans are on Afghan land and making decisions about Afghan lives, the least we can do is to make some perfunctory effort to find out what they want for their country. But because of barriers of language and logisticsâand because America is just not set up to care very much about people on the other side of the world who don't vote in our electionsâeven this perfunctory effort often seems like too much trouble.
Peter Eichstadt's new book Above the Din of War is a notable exception. Eichstadt set out to interview Afghanis from all walks of life. He talks to merchants and policemen, video store owners and archeologists, representatives and staunch opponents of the Taliban. He even, in what is perhaps the book's most painful section, listens to girls who have literally set themselves on fire in order to escape abusive marriages.
What he discovers from all these interviews, mostly, is that Afghanistan is a huge, horrible, brutal, and basically unsolvable mess. This is not exactly a surprise, but the details and extent of the nightmare still have the power to shock. The Taliban are, basically, monsters. Eichstadt talks to several young boys who were less brainwashed than simply bullied into becoming suicide bombers. He also interviews video store owners targeted for violence by the Taliban for selling pop DVDs. The Taliban's influence, he learns, is extensive and possibly growing. In Helmand province, the Taliban threatened to destroy telephone towers unless the companies restricted service to certain hours every day. The companies complied.
There's no doubt from Eichstadt's interviews that a large number of Afghans hate the Taliban with a passion. Many of the author's interlocutors have had friends and family killed by the religious extremists. A number of them argueâwith at least some warrantâthat the Taliban aren't even an indigenous force but are controlled by Pakistan and/or Iran.