PAKISTAN: Clash of cultures muddies the water in Afghanistan.

By David Fox
ISLAMABAD, Oct 12 (Reuters) - Imagine a world without television, or music, or dancing, or plays, or pets, or hobbies - without leisure of almost any kind. Welcome to Afghanistan.

Now imagine a world where anything goes, where leisure is considered an industry and entertainment almost a basic human right.

Welcome to America.

Pitch those two countries against each other, and the result is a clash of cultures that almost defies comprehension.

"The U.S. action against Afghanistan may be in pursuit of the elimination of terrorism, but for many people it appears to be a clash of cultures - of civilisations almost," said Pierre Devries, a Belgian anthropologist who spent 10 years studying tribal societies in central Asia.

"The roots of this conflict and the spark that torched its current flame are simply incomprehensible to ordinary Afghans and, I'm afraid to say, probably ordinary Americans as well," he told Reuters in an e - mail interview.

Until September 11, for most Americans a mention of Afghanistan would - if anything - conjure up an image of plucky guerrillas fighting against the might of the Soviet Union during their decade-long Cold War occupation.

One of the more jingoistic of the "Rambo" movies centred on the eponymous hero rescuing his American colleagues from the clutches of demonised Russian soldiers with the help of the honorable mujahideen.

Few who saw the movie believed the suggestion of covert support by the United States for a war in a place they'd scarcely heard of was anything other than a figment of Hollywood's imagination.


Since that date, when suicide hijackers steered planes into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, Afghanistan has become synonymous with terrorism.

"Most people in Afghanistan have absolutely no idea that their country might be the international headquarters of a global terrorism network," Devries said.

The suggestion that someone living among them, Osama bin Laden, could have planned and organised such an audacious act is simply inconceivable.

"You have to appreciate that Afghanistan today is a country almost devoid of intellectual thinking beyond that of a very narrow range ... religion," Devries said. "It is a country almost devoid of modernity."

Ordinary Afghans, he said, have no idea what is happening to them.

Although almost inured to conflict after more than two decades of war that ended only with the Taliban rulers seizing power in 1996, the scale of the U.S.-led assault has stunned even the most battle-hardened Afghan.

Most Afghan conflicts have been between people who speak the same language, have the same customs and the same religion. Even during the Soviet occupation, tens of thousands of Afghans fought under Moscow's direction against their countrymen.

This time the enemy is unseen.

Planes capable of flying all the way from continental America are dropping bombs on Afghan cities. Cruise missiles are being launched from thousands of miles away by submarines - a mind-boggling concept for a country where the overwhelming proportion of the country has never seen the sea.


"No matter how many times the people are told this is not about them, this is not about Afghanistan, they will say 'but wait, these bombs are for us'," said Devries.

"They may not like the Taliban very much, but they are just a tyrant in a different cloak. They are Afghans. The people responsible for their current situation are not."

Since coming to power, the Taliban - who espouse a form of Islam that existed over 1,000 years ago - have issued a list of strictly enforced edicts that would be comical if they were not so serious.

The sentence for men caught shaving is imprisonment "until their beard gets bushy". Women caught washing clothes in Kabul's streams "will be picked up with respectable Islamic manners, taken to their houses and their husbands severely punished".

Television, cinemas, pets, music, card games and dancing are all banned. Women must be covered from head to toe in the all-enveloping burqa whenever they appear in public.

Yet the belief exists in America and beyond that Afghans have control of their destinies and it is their own fault bin Laden and his supporters live in the country.

"There is this belief that somehow people in Afghanistan are aware of their situation, have control of their situation, and are merely ignoring world opinion out of evil bloody-mindedness," Devries said.

"There is no comprehension in the United States of the reality of the lifestyle of ordinary Afghans."

Likewise, he said, ordinary Afghans - who have been known to nurse a grudge for generations, never mind years - cannot comprehend the reaction in the United States to the September 11 attacks.

Almost every living Afghan has lost a relative in conflict. The average lifespan of its menfolk, according to the United Nations, is just 42 - meaning virtually every male has known nothing but war for most of their lives.

"Ultimately it is a great breakdown in communications ... a great difference between two worlds that, I fear, is being widened by the day."

(C) Reuters Limited 2001.