My first conversation with a member of the Afghanistan National Police exemplified how vastly different the lives of the average Westerner and an Afghan truly are. The man was a curious individual, who wanted to know where I was from and what life in San Diego was like. Though he could barely read or write, he had seen a world map and knew where the United States was located. How does one describe beautiful southern California to someone who has never traveled beyond the village where he was born? Or explain a “big city” with streetlights and the freedom to move about without armed escorts? How can you convey a culture rich in freedoms and rights when no frame of reference exists?
There are times when it is hard to believe there is a war going on in Kabul. Residents still go about their daily business. Yet, there are no functioning traffic lights in Kabul. This makes for an interesting drive from one part of the small city to the other.
There are many new businesses open today that would not have been allowed to open under the old Taliban regime. Shop owners have established places of business in close proximity to the Coalition forces and rely on Embassy staffers or United Nations personnel to spend money. The proprietors all speak of their dislike for the Taliban because of the violence they prescribe and atrocities they commit against the people of Afghanistan.
One shop owner I met operates a DVD store. He was not allowed to sell movies that were not made in Muslim countries when the Taliban was in power. He told me of that time as Gladiator played in the background. The shelves of this little shop are now full of popular movies providing a window to the world.
There have been many books written by Afghan experts that describe the Afghans as skilled fighters and talented craftsmen. It is difficult to find one, however, that highlights the Afghan’s entrepreneurial spirit. Rarely does a conversation in Afghanistan begin or end without some type of negotiation playing a part. It is that spirit of commerce that will play a role in providing a lasting stabilization for this land-locked nation.
The population here in Afghanistan is fragmented into two groups—those with an education and those without. Within the government and banking systems, many Afghans are fluent in English, understand the power of the global market, and have business school-level skill sets. But as is true in the West, those with an education can be lured away by attractive employment offers in other parts of the world.
I have learned many things in my eight months in Afghanistan. What I most often tell our Afghan friends is that they must look forward and not back. Progress is messy, but it will come. After more than 20 years of rule by those interested in destruction through ideology and hate, a new world is opening up for the Afghan people.
Lieutenant Commander Sergio Rodriguera, Jr., is a Navy Reserve Intelligence Officer currently serving in Afghanistan at ISAF Headquarters. He is a former counter-terrorism advisor at the departments of Defense and Treasury.