Learning to Listen: Lessons Learned Along the Pakistan-Afghanistan Border 60 years Ago Still Resonate Today

By Claudia Koonz

A tribal headman with wife and sons in 1963 in the Chitral region of Afghanistan. Photo courtesy Claudia Koonz.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Snippets of dialog quoted in this essay were drawn from letters the author wrote during her travels.

“20-Year US War Ending as It Began, With Taliban Ruling.” “5,200 US soldiers. 66,000 Afghani military personnel, 47,000 civilians killed.” The recent headlines brought memories of a tribal headman and his family in the Kalash valley in Chitral, Pakistan, near the border with Afghanistan. The year was 1963. My friend Carol and I were 22 years old. While hitchhiking for five months through Asia, we heard opinions about America that policymakers apparently failed to hear.

While we were hitchhiking toward the Khyber Pass, a Pakistani military convoy invited us to join their excursion into the notoriously dangerous Northwest Territory on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Of course, we said yes. When a landslide blocked the jeeps at about 9,000 feet, the officers grabbed binoculars and peered anxiously into the mountains. As the highest-ranking Pakistanis ever to venture a visit, they did not know what to expect. The fierce mountain tribes, they explained, fought among themselves but united against outsiders — as far back as Alexander the Great of Macedonia (320s B.C.E.), who they halted at the Khyber.

“Just look around at the descendants of his soldiers who remained here,” our Pakistani guides said. “Look at people’s faces

. They speak their own language, Kalash, make wine, and use cowrie shells in jewelry.” Victories against invaders over many centuries, they told us, culminated with the two devastating British defeats in the 19th century that made Afghanistan “the place where empires go to die.”

At lunch in an 18th century fort deep in Chitral territory, we asked about the Chinese-Indian war that had ended a few months earlier. I mentioned the probability of a Pakistani “alliance with Russia against the Chinese . . . whenever China gets the bomb.” The officers credited shrewd Chinese leaders with understanding that superior weapons could never prevail against tribal guerilla tactics in these 12,000-foot high valleys.

Later Carol and I asked about the massive USAID-funded earth-filled dam construction site we had visited a week earlier. Surely this was an effective alternative to armed invasion. Over dinner, our hosts told us these projects were wonderful, but the Americans who directed them made a poor impression on their Pakistani partners.

Like the hundreds of Asians who had given us lifts over the previous six months, the officers saw us as their first opportunity to talk to “real” Americans about their ambivalence toward our country. The naiveté of the letter I wrote that evening is embarrassing. “No matter how grateful they are for aid, they cannot suppress envy, jealousy and resentment.” The following days, however, brought edification. One colonel, for example, could not comprehend “’the way Americans take everything for granted. Presto a car, fridge, house, every luxury — at the snap of the fingers. How can anyone have values when their life is so easy?’” Even though U.S.-funded hydroelectric plants supplied 70 percent of the nation’s electricity, several wondered, “’What’s behind this generosity? . . . Are they trying to buy our loyalty with money but no understanding [of us]?’”

A couple of officers had trained at bases in the American South. “‘How can democracy work when it fails even in the country of its birth?’” they asked. After a soccer game on another evening, a brilliant young man who was the “governor” of the area challenged my gung-ho provincialism. That evening I described in a letter how they saw us. “For years America has built itself up as the utopia of the world. In [Pakistani] schools everyone learns what a perfect country we have. They see 1,000 Americans living in luxury like only the President here enjoys,” and feel invaded. “These, I repeat, are EDUCATED men, who are 100% pro-western, but who plead for America to stop blundering.”

American blunders did not stop. Only a year after our conversation, the Johnson administration concocted the Tonkin Gulf Incident in August 1964, which became the template for subsequent U.S. foreign military engagements. In the coming years, the lessons of Vietnam were not learned.

In 2001, the Bush-Rumsfeld-Cheney cabal did not even consider the Taliban’s offer to negotiate the handover of Osama Bin Laden. Bush’s press secretary made it clear, “There will be no discussions.” Over the next 20 years the U.S. spent $2.2 trillion in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a sum that surpassed U.S. investment in rebuilding the economies of post-1945 Western Europe.

In 1963, as Carol and I conversed with well-educated Asians on whose good will American foreign policy depended, it became clear that the framers of that policy did not understand what they did not understand. Today, calamitous surrender in Afghanistan demands acknowledging that the human toll of military aggression makes us less, not more, secure.

The American bipartisan preference for violence over negotiation has been shaped by our overwhelming military power. As a former American NATO commander put it, “’If you have a hammer, everything is a nail.’” Our hosts’ prediction about Chinese strategy has proved to be prescient. China, with four overseas military installations, relies on its Belt and Road Initiative to wield influence. America’s 750 overseas military installations prompt civilians and generals to see too many nails.

Claudia Koonz is the Peabody Family Professor emerita in the Department of History at Duke University and author of The Nazi Conscience (Harvard University Press).

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