I got into the cab slowly enough to size up the situation. One car in the family means that every once in a while I’m well and truly stranded, public transportation not being enough. I have to trust some other person to be a decent driver who will get me where I want to go safely and quickly. When I’m lucky, I can get a story out of it, too. The tall thin frame of a Somali man greeted me, as usual in cabs these days, and that was the situation. I needed a ride, he was making a living, and that was all there was to the deal. I told him where I needed to go and we were off.
Before he could switch on the radio and create his own professional space in the front seat, I let him know I was a chatty, friendly kind of guy with some simple banter. Did this ride come with a story? There was an awkward moment before we got the talk moving as easily as the red minivan, but it came together. We had enough between us to build a little bit more trust by chatting, sharing opinions more than stories. I let him do much of the talking as we got it going because, after all, he’d seen a lot of guys like me but I hadn’t had a chance to speak with someone like him in a while.
“What do you think about Obama’s plan for Afghanistan?” fell from his mouth easily enough after awhile.
“I’m not sure. I don’t know what we want to accomplish.” I didn’t let on much.
“The people there, you know, they have had a lot of war.”
“I’m sure they are weary of it by now.”
“They just want to defend their families. The US goes in there and does nothing but shoot them, they will make more radicals. They don’t want to be told what to do.” He didn’t waste a lot of time getting to the heart of it.
I knew where this was going, and I listened carefully to what he had to say. This was a man who came from a place that has been ripped apart by war longer than he’s been alive, so he knows. Somewhere along the line, he got out of the situation and found a way to keep his family safe here in the US. He choose to come here, yes, but no one wants to be told what to do. We got into Afghanistan a bit deeper and moved on to an excellent schooling in recent Somali history. I enjoyed it immensely.
Long after I got where I was going the basic thrust of the conversation stayed with me. This wasn’t about revenge or geopolitics or Sharia Law or any of the things being talked about on the teevee nooze. It was about people, generally just as stubborn as I am, who don’t want to be shot at and told how they have to run their world.
I’ve never been completely against war in Afghanistan because, after all, we were attacked. The Taliban gleefully harbored the terrorists, and we cannot tolerate that situation. Yet there’s always been a small dissonant chorus in the back of my mind that tells me that, no matter how justified we feel, it’s simply not enough.
What do we hope to accomplish through war? A democratic government would be a wonderful thing, but a nation like ours is not made by force from the outside. A corrupt government, elected or not, is going to be hated and feared in wrenching turns of instability. It may be possible, as I’ve read, to have a comparable “Peace Surge” that builds infrastructure like dams across Himalayan rivers, irrigating the desert and providing electrical power to Pakistan for cash. But if this isn’t what people really want in their lives, it’s just another imposition from the outside, a casual disregard for their lives.
As much as we talk about our own goals in Afghanistan, a simple understanding of what the people of Afghanistan might possibly want, over the long haul, is what will make all the difference. I’m sure I don’t know what that is, and I have yet to hear anyone on CNN tell me anything that sounds reasonable. I doubt that our State Department knows what that is, either. Perhaps the people of Afghanistan themselves have no idea – there may not be much room for anything called “Afghanistan” in the daily grind of surviving.
When any of us get into a situation that we have no prior understanding of, all we have is a sense of trust. We can trust in a few ideas and principles, such as the basic goodness of people or the implied deal of the situation. Real trust is formed through listening to each other and understanding common goals. It’s not a necessary part of hiring a cab, but it makes the ride more interesting.
When it comes to having a decent opinion about how we affect other people’s lives, however, knowing their goals is as at least as important as our own. Until I know them I’m not convinced of anything.