In Which I Take a First Stab at Explaining Cultural Relativity

Cultural relativity is a heinously difficult concept to fully comprehend. I want to say: “Look, there are some cultures where they do certain things that ‘we’ find abhorrent. But that’s the way their world works.” Yet in the same breath, I have to say, “Yes, it’s probably not desirable in the long run, but it’s still just the way some people live.” The two are parallel, in the purely geometric sense of the word—they run alongside each other, ‘and never the twain shall meet’. When they do, we inevitably find conflict. 

The inspiration for this post came from an NPR story, by Quil Lawrence and Ahmad Shafi, about an Afghan girl sentenced to death for possessing a mobile phone, and allegedly using it talking to a (presumably non-related) boy. To ‘Western’ sensibilities, such a sentence seems repugnant. But in a culture where strict delineation of the sexes is observed throughout all spheres of life, it is at least comprehensible.

What is interesting about this report to me, in terms of my Ph.D. research, is the predicament in which places the American soldiers. The girl came to a US army base seeking refuge. It was duly provided. But the soldiers in the base—trying to win over the hearts and minds of the local population—will be making no friends by sheltering this girl from the punishment which her culture has deemed appropriate.

It’s a deadly Catch-22. If they let the girl return to her family, she will most likely be killed. If she stays on the base, what little local support the Americans in the area have gathered in the years they have been there. The point that Quil and Shafi raise is, in a counterinsurgency environment:

When she came to an American military base pleading for help, U.S. officials had to figure out how to save her life without enraging the local community.

This is an extremely difficult question to answer. Part of my purpose with the dissertation is to develop metaphors to help us understand these cultural differences, and to accommodate as many of them as possible. It is not my intention here, or anywhere else, to ‘draw lines’ around what is acceptable and what is not. But I will write more on the ways in which these different cultures might not see eye to eye.

As an example of why the cultural differences are so important, consider the following observation from the historian and anthropologist, Thomas Barfield. We must consider the ‘perceptions’ of the girl’s presence on the base. As a matter of honour for her family, this could legitimately be considered a grave undermining of her male relatives’ authority. As Barfield points out: “Because honor itself [is] judged in the theoretical realm, perception [is] more important than reality.”1 The majority of Afghans, whether or not they are Pashtun by descent, follow the precepts of pashtunwali: “a code of principles thoroughly rooted in the primacy of maintaining honor and reputation.”2 In Afghan culture, it is vital to the integrity of the family that these principles be upheld.

The necessity to uphold honour is so important that, as Quil and Shafi point out:

This is where the story in Afghanistan often ends: The woman is sent home, and later killed by her family to cleanse the dishonor.

In this case the story ended more happily. From the point of view of this post, however, the comments of the girl’s Marine caretaker is more telling:

There are so many women who have this issue. It would be nice if there was something we could do that was tangible, but I don’t know what that thing is.

I’m going to keep searching for something. But it will be a long and difficult struggle to find a way to reconcile to very different cultures. And these cultural differences don’t make the delicate matters of counterinsurgency any easier.


1. Barfield, Afghanistan, 185.

2. Barfield, Afghanistan, 59.

Phase 2

So, yesterday the first chapter of the dissertation was ‘approved’ by my supervisor. A cursory history of Afghanistan. And I can safely say, what a basketcase. (Afghanistan, not me… Well, maybe not.)

It’s never really been ‘stable’. No one really knows when it all started. (Most people are all about 1747, but Louis Dupree reckons 1880.) I’m inclined to disagree with Dupree, even though his book ( is truly astonishing in scope. It has (separate) chapters on flora and fauna.

I really want to meet a Marco Polo sheep.

Marco Polo sheep

There was a brief period, in the middle of the twentieth century, when there was scope for long term stability, but then the Cold War happened. William Blum has my favourite summing-up of the Cold War:

The remarkable international good will and credibility enjoyed by the United States at the close of the Second World War was dissipated country by country, intervention by intervention. The opportunity to build the war-ravaged world anew, to lay foundations for peace, prosperity and justice, collapsed under the awful weight of anti-communism.

Blum, Killing Hope (, 7.

Onwards, Ever Onwards

And so, from the history, which stretches back to an ancient Sasanian word, “Abgan,” I’m moving into more modern times. Specifically, the period between the fall of the Taliban (or 9/11, or some other arbitrary date I can find a Best Defence for) and the “Drawdown” this July. I’m looking at the effect that the conflict has had on the opium trade. So I’ll be reading a lot of UNODC/CIA reports (yay!), and trying to formulate a thesis around that.

As for the process of history compiling, it was a lot of hard work, and spending a lot of time bogged down reading about things that I didn’t really need to know about. Trouble is, I’m interested in everything. So I spend a lot of time wandering down interesting, albeit unnecessary, rabbit holes.

But I now fully understand the importance of context and historical background. Not that I didn’t before, but, I guess it’s one of those things that you don’t really fully appreciate until you do it yourself.

An Evaluation

Mostly for me, by way of a “this went well, this didn’t,” type of exercise.

I spent too long reading about stuff that wasn’t specifically relevant, not enough time reading about stuff that was pertinent. (But that’s mostly to do with the failings of the library than anything else.)

In terms of things that went well, I was pleased with the writing and editing process. I only wrote twice as much as actually ended up in the manuscript. (I still remember the RMA essay. 12,000 (ish) words for a 2,500 essay. (Thanks, Rummy. :-p)

Working Hypothesis

My initial hypothesis would be that there has been very little impact, directly on farmers. But that is only really from the briefest of overviews. Feel free to brutally correct me, that’s partly why I’m writing this blog.

I enjoyed the process of compiling the history, and I think I’ll enjoy the project as a whole. I guess only time will tell.


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Post Number One

I just read the latest ICOS report “Afghanistan Transition: Dangers of a Summer Drawdown.” [pdf]

Overall, it seemed to me to be rather negative, concerning the situation in Afghanistan. Two things in particular caught my attention. First, the critique of the ANSF seems unnecessary. Second, the statistics surrounding the Afghan people’s knowledge of why NATO forces are in their country.


However, the result of training as many ANSF as fast as possible is a flood of advanced weaponry into the hands of tens of thousands of mostly young men, whose allegiance is often fluid under the pressures they face. There is a risk of trained ANA or ANP switching alliances or fighting for the insurgency instead of for the Afghan state.

This section in particular, based on my understanding of the situation, seemed a little off-base. To threaten defection because of "fluid" allegiances is misleading. Moreover, it detracts from all the positive work that is being done with regard to the ANA and ANP.

It might well be the case that defection from the police is a serious issue in Afghanistan, but without any kind of policing, nothing long-term will be achieved. Of course announcing a date for the withdrawal of NATO forces was unwise, but that doesn’t mean that it didn’t have noble intentions. Of course we should be saying "end-state not end date." But there has to be room for development, and mistakes.

Omelette and eggs, I think.

A Tale of Two Statistics

I’m wary of quantitative data. Without extensive context, they are difficult to use for any real purpose. However, there were two pieces of data which—if they based on reliable informants and have not been skewed or otherwise manipulated—got my attention.

The first: only 8% of the 1,000 men of Helmand and Kandahar were aware of the "event which the foreigners call 9/11." Really, that speaks for itself.

The second: "in October 2010, 40% of interviewees in Helmand and Kandahar believed that foreigners were in Afghanistan to occupy or destroy the country, or to destroy Islam."

I was under the impression that extensive propaganda campaigns were engaged in at the start of the conflict (2001) to inform and reassure the Afghan people.

Was this not the case? If so, where do you think the disconnect between this information and the Afghan people lies?

I’m interested to read your thoughts.