For reasons unknown, some myths about Afghanistan refuse to die. They are practically engraved in Western consciousness. Any attempt to provide an alternative viewpoint is greeted with a complete refusal for consideration. Some of the better-known fables include:
Afghanistan is a graveyard of empires
The Soviet Union lost the war in Afghanistan
Tribal code of honor dictates life in Afghanistan
Pashtuns are the majority of population and they won the war against the Soviet Union
Afghanistan is a place of everlasting warfare
. . .and my favorite,
Fighting season begins after snow melts and ends when snow returns
Many other myths can be added to this list. Feel free to contribute below.
The existence of myths, in essence, is not the problem. Rather, their perpetuation skews the understanding of the land and people. Myths are a popular way of accepting something without questioning, because they are, like any stereotypes, a widespread opinion. As such they are a product of collective memory and cannot be questioned by an individual without repercussions.
The problem, however, is that times change and places evolve, whereas the myths remain unchanged. Previous reality is today’s misrepresentation of reality, because the conditions have changed. The best example is the concept of the fighting season; that is, the notion that Afghans do not fight in winter because of, well, the winter. During that period the mountains are covered in snow and are impassable by the fighters who, like in the archival footage of the Mujahedin forces crossing high mountains in the 1980s, then have to wait until snow melts in the spring.
[Note that winter conditions and fighting offseason did not prevent the Afghans from obliterating the British military units as they retreated from Kabul in January of 1842]
Even elementary geographic knowledge illustrates that seasonal conditions have minimal impact on operations overall. The heaviest fighting against the Taliban has always been in the south, particularly in Helmand Province, which is hardly an area where one has to be concerned about impassable snow-covered mountain passes. Nor does one have to worry much about waiting to attack Kunduz until snow melts. And the Taliban, like everyone else, use the road network—which is much more advanced today than ever before—to drive around in their white Toyotas. Afghan peasant warriors prefer driving over walking at any time of the year.
I recall an episode where an American military officer, standing at the checkpoint in Kapisa Province and looking at the mountains several years ago, asked an Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) agent about which mountain paths were frequented by the insurgents. The American unit was assigned to educate and train an Afghan special police unit and visited Kapisa in that capacity. “No,” the agent answered, “they are using the same roads we do.” A Sergeant standing next to the officer leaned toward him and said with a smile “Sir, I think he just politely told you that you’re a dumbass.” [Both servicemen belonged to the branch of military where directness is encouraged, particularly downrange.]
And there you have it. The myth of a fighting season in the mountains has been perpetuated to the point that even a decade later since our military’s arrival to Afghanistan an impression existed that climbing mountains—in this instance Safi Mountains, a difficult range to cross even in summertime—is a preferred way of transportation in Afghanistan. Rather than paying off those who guard checkpoints, that is. Of course in some instances weather conditions will prevent the bad guys’ movement, but in today’s terms that is only a temporary headache and mainly on secondary or tertiary routes. An example would be the roads through Azra District, Logar Province, which connect peripheral areas in the vicinity of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
Figure 2. As I hiked to the top of the mountain, then rested to snap a few photos of the valley below, I could not resist thinking about how many insurgents were hiding atop the mountain compared to how many were freely driving around through settlements like these.
Still, all this does not prevent us from continuously reading about the fighting season, which is even being reintroduced in a new context, such as the Taliban benefiting from climate change. The only climate change the people of Afghanistan feel concerned about from time to time is the one in the Presidential palace in Kabul City; to predict how that climate will evolve, we need a computer so powerful that is yet to be invented. Meanwhile, the Westerners could benefit from eliminating the myths about Afghanistan in their minds—at least for the purpose of military and intelligence training and education and, of course, of reconstruction—and stop treating Afghanistan like a living museum.