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Afghanistan is not Vietnam

If President Obama learns from Britain’s mistakes in 1943 with Albania and meets Afghan warriors on their terms, the United States can end the war and win the peace in Afghanistan, honorably.

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The basis for a relationship with Afghanistan must be honor and honor is shared between individuals, man to man. Putting more troops on the ground, interacting with Afghans, is the only way to build such ties of honor.

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The second major lesson to learn from Britain’s mistakes: In Albanian culture, the guest is sacred. According to customary law, the greatest sin is to deny a visitor hospitality – mikpritja. The Afghan equivalent is melmastia.

British soldiers took great advantage of Albanian hospitality laws, but they were a double-edged sword. Once a man had been a guest in an Albanian home, the men of that home were honor-bound to protect him, even if he was a Nazi.

Afghans also consider guests to be sacred. Those who have rendered hospitality to Taliban fighters are unlikely to give them up. We can hunt the Taliban, but we should not expect much help from traditional Afghans who have, in Albanian terms, “guest-friendships” with them.

Third and finally: In Albanian traditional culture the only way to cleanse dishonor is to take blood vengeance – gjakmarrja – or to reconcile based on “the mediation of good friends,” to form a besa. The Afghan (Pashto) words for vengeance and reconciliation are badal and rogha. The British in Albania were bounced constantly between these two poles, vengeance and reconciliation. American soldiers in Afghanistan will be bounced between them as well.

Obama was right to open the door to reconciliation midway through his West Point speech last month. If the US is to have any hope of success in Afghanistan, the strategy on the ground must be to broker peace between individuals, families, and tribes. And most important, make peace with the relatives of those the US has inadvertently killed, who are otherwise honor-bound to seek vengeance.

Echoes of tribal culture persist in the high mountains of North Albania, but today, the country is poised to join the European Union. Even so, if the US is to win in Afghanistan, we must think like an Albanian warrior of yesteryear. We must kill our enemies or be prepared to reconcile with them. There can be no middle ground.

Michael L. Galaty is a professor of anthropology at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss. He spent eight years in northern Albania conducting research for the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the International Research and Exchanges Board, and the US Embassy in Tirana.


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