When most people think of Afghanistan, a war-torn, tumultuous country comes to mind. But Ann Scott Tyson holds a much more nuanced image. “Afghanistan is a very complicated place,” she says.
As you will read in our lead story, over the course of a year starting in 2011, Ann spent considerable time in two small villages in Konar province, in eastern Afghanistan. Living there while working on a book gave her unusual insight into how Afghan tribal culture works. And it deeply informs her understanding of how the Taliban took power this month.
There were rules and codes, of course; Ann understood the expectations that she would follow them. She also saw that while locals followed Islam, they weren’t dogmatic – they like their festivities, she says. People were adaptable – a family could have one son in the army, one in the Taliban. “People make deals at the rural, local level,” Ann says. “That’s how they function – and survive.”
Much of it comes down to problem-solving. “The elders can be very democratic and deft,” Ann says. But there’s also a strong culture of honor and shame – something you’ll see the impact of in her essay, which she wrote with her husband, Jim Gant, a retired Special Forces officer who commanded a small team of Americans conducting a tribal engagement mission in the area. That culture is a powerful force – and one Americans struggled to understand.
Ann told me that this was a particularly difficult story to write. “I want to give some insight into how the tribal dynamic works, and how the Taliban understood this, while the central government paid little attention to it at the grassroots. My hope is that when readers think about the Taliban, and how they pulled this off, they’ll have a better sense of what happened.”