I have heard it said it will be another 300 years before Afghanistan actually achieves third world status. Afghanistan is a country with people and cultures that are as complex and varied as the landscape itself. Adding to this mystique is Afghanistan’s location, poised for nearly 3,000 years on the path between East and West; it has been a focal point and an afterthought for trade, migration, and conquests and has switched hands between many conquerors, empires and monarchical indigenes. Parts of it were along sections of the spice road, it was along the path of Alexander’s epic conquest where he even married an Afghan woman and where he advised his soldiers to cut off their beards while fighting Chitralis in the Kunar Valley due to the fact that the Chitralis would use them as opportunistic handles in close combat. Afghanistan is not a desert wasteland filled with shimmering heat and sand, occupied by Arabs, nor is it, as is commonly referred to, located in the Middle East.
I am an archaeologist and historian by profession and have worked in the field of archaeology and cultural resources management for over 30 years. Throughout those years I had also worked with multiple American Indian Tribes throughout the United States.
About six years ago I was talking to a colleague and told me he had taken a job with a government agency by the name of the Human Terrain System. At the time, it was a proof of concept program that mixed social scientist with the military to augment the war in Afghanistan. The concept was to take professionals with cultural expertise and imbed them with troops on the battlefield to help make better decisions regarding the fight against the insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq. The United States army is the best in the world when it comes to breaking things and killing bad people. But fighting an insurgency is not something we have excelled at. This to me is the epitome of ironic considering through our Declaration of Independence t our country was conceived, wrought, and founded through one of the most successful insurgencies in all of history. Thus I embarked into the world of counterinsurgency as I eventually applied and got a job as a social scientist. My friend ended up going to Iraq and I went to Afghanistan.
I ended up doing two tours in Afghanistan. The first was at Bagram Air Field in Parwan Province and lasted fifteen months while the second was in Kabul with a duration of nine months. The first stint was working at the Division level with both the 101st and 82nd Airborne armies. I traveled throughout eastern Afghanistan doing assessments, ethnographies, gathering tribal data and various research assignments.
The second stint was at a multinational International Security Assistance Forces camp. It was in Kabul along the old Jalalabad Road and was multinational hodge-podge of forces with French, German, Bulgarians, Portuguese, Belgians, Croatians, Georgians, Italians, Turks, Dutch, and one Greek guy, just to name some of them. Of the thousands of troops there were only around fifteen Americans both civilian and soldiers. I can now proudly state I can say good morning in six different languages.
I was assigned to the Turks and worked for the Turkish general. We would conduct our own research projects but also conducted research whenever the general would have questions regarding Afghan cultural affairs. Some of the research projects we did for the general consisted of what Afghan students felt about their future, how Afghans perceived a Turkish hospital, why the desertion rate for the Afghan National Army was so high, just to name a few. He would give us his idea, we would write a research proposal, he would review it, then we would conduct the research through an interview process, synthesize the date, compose a report and then brief it to the general. It was exciting and rewarding as well as dangerous. There was no real typical day per se with the exception of recognizing how well off we are in America.
I know Maggie is a romance novelist, so I will try to shed some insight regarding the romantic practices I observed. From my perspective, there wasn’t a lot of overt romance going on in Afghanistan. Most all the marriages are arranged. A friend of mine once told me that the greatest gift a mother could give her son would be his wife. He was Afghan born, American raised, a lawyer and anything but traditional. But he was so proud and happy his mother selected his wife for him. Not that he hadn’t tried on his own, he’d previously married a woman from Wales and that didn’t work out. However, the marriage his mother arranged was successful and he and his wife had 3 children and he was very happy about it.
Weddings are a big business in Kabul. Huge wedding halls have been erected and are almost always busy. It appeared to me that the ritual or act of getting married was seemingly more important than the partnership. The financial burden to the groom was staggering and I was told that it was not uncommon for the groom to have to sell his house and go deeply into debt in order to “consummate” the marriage rather than the traditional practice. It’s gotten to the point where the government has considered stepping in to attempt to control and regulate the process. Generally, the family agrees on a bride price and then goes from there.
I lived with a guy that was originally from Iran but had moved to Utah when he was in his mid-teens. I used to tease him he moved from one theocracy to another. He was around 50 at the time and approached me and asked me if I knew what the going bride price was in Kabul. I told him as a general rule it was somewhere around $10,000 American. He indicated that he might want to find a bride. There were several Afghan women one the base, he snuck off on a couple of occasions which set me into a panic and I tried to lecture him that one person from our agency had been kidnapped in Iraq sneaking off base and that this was not a place for that. He felt comfortable since his native language was Farsi and one of the 2 official languages of Afghanistan is Dari, which is a form of Farsi.
He eventually found a woman that worked at a foreign PX on base. She was Shia and since he was from Iran they figured he was as well. Funny thing was he claimed to actually be a follower of Buddha. It took him awhile but he finally got the nerve up to ask her. Let the negotiations begin. After meeting her family he came back and was almost dazed. He told me they advised him that their bride price would be around $60,000! I told him both he and the family were crazy. This went on for a while and he came home one day seemingly relieved due to the fact he had gotten the price negotiated down to a more reasonable $45,000. But the family added a caveat that since the future bride was the only one in the family making a wage they requested he pay them an additional sum, which I believe was around $500 per month, to make up for the loss of her income for the family. Still crazy. This went on and on. Eventually he would pay for an engagement party which cost him around $8,500. He had a plan to just pay for that then get her out of the country and then have a reasonable marriage. Our tours ended at different times and the last I heard they did get married however he did have to pay another $8-10,000 as well as purchase much gold to adorn the bride.
Culturally, this practice is not only acceptable but is the norm for them. It is probably hard for some Americans to agree or even understand these practices. Who is to say that one person’s distaste is not another person’s romance.