When I went to Afghanistan in early 2003 I believed firmly in many things. I believed that right always conquered wrong. I believed the world had learned from the horrible things of the past. I believed there was still a chance for a better future. I believed that a country of tribes like Afghanistan could be united to build a stable place for all the people. Afghans could work together and make things better.
When I first went to Afghanistan, I was sure that the United States and its allies would be able to make things better in that place of suffering and brokenness. After all, we were a great bastion of democracy, whose motto, e pluribus unum, meant that there could be unity despite differences. We could do anything because we were one people. Afghanistan would be better if its people could unite like we had. It was possible. That is what I told my Afghan friends and colleagues.
Now I know that such idealism is not reality. Perhaps my disillusion is the natural result of experiencing a part of the world where life was traditionally brutal and there were few true heroes who fought for their people. Many things there were hard to see. Or perhaps it is just part of getting older and realizing that the things of this world will probably never be as we want them to be.
The more time I spent in Afghanistan, the more I saw that the actions of a great people like the US do not necessarily flow with wisdom, nor are its agendas always unified and good. I saw firsthand the mistakes that were being made by well intentioned Americans. We were alienating the Afghan people. Instead of bringing them together to move forward, we seemed to them to be more preoccupied with our own bureaucracy. Worse still, I saw that the chaos and confusion of Afghanistan was infecting the work that we had come to do there.
When I came home, I saw that Americans here were being affected by a similar kind of chaos and confusion. The fabric of our domestic dialogue was no longer based on the premise that as Americans, we were all working toward the same goal, even if we saw different paths to those goals. The many voices that were now proliferating were not talking about what we could do if we worked together as Americans. They were talking about differences that were beginning to tear us apart. We stopped focusing on issues as Americans first and began talking about ourselves as opposing factions. We started applying labels that became more important than the people to whom they were applied. Fear of the differences replaced the hope that had made us a great people.
Instead of providing examples to the war torn people of Afghanistan of how a democracy brings people together, we began to talk about ourselves like they did. We became tribes, political and cultural tribes, instead of the citizens of one country.