The Afghan War and Our Persistent Empathy Gap

Let's say you're an American farmer and you want to dig an irrigation ditch between two fields. Before you do so, however, you decide that you simply must ask for permission from a heavily armed foreign soldier who is patrolling in your area. You do so because you want to avoid being shot on suspicion of planting a bomb, leaving your wife a widow and your children fatherless.

Even if the foreign soldier said OK and then helped you to dig the ditch, how would you feel as an American man? Would you be grateful? Or would you resent the fact that you had to coordinate with foreign soldiers to avoid being shot and killed on your own property?

As General (ret.) Stanley McChrystal spoke to Jon Stewart about the Aghan War on January 8, 2013, McChrystal shared the story of an Afghan farmer who'd had to ask for permission to dig a ditch, and recounted how a Marine lance corporal had helped him to dig it. He used this as an example of U.S. troops helping to make things better in Afghanistan; indeed, he argued that U.S. troops are natural helpers, builders of unity among disparate peoples.

American troops try hard. But they're heavily armed outsiders operating in a culture utterly foreign to them. Even when they seek to help, such help may breed resentment among a people with lots of dignity and pride. Again, just ask the average American male how much he'd like to ask "Mother, may I?" of a bunch of heavily armed foreign troops operating in his backyard.

As McChrystal himself noted, U.S. troops are not typically helping Afghan farmers to dig ditches. More likely they're running Special Ops raids in the middle of the night, or patrolling a complex maze of farms and villages. The persistence of violent night attacks at zero-dark-thirty and daily firefights in farmers' fields, with their inevitable collateral damage, are not necessarily conducive to building trust among the Afghan people.

Afghanistan, as McChrystal put it, has been spindled, folded, and mutilated. But he, like most of us, continues to see U.S. troops strictly as benevolent caregivers, not as potential spindlers or folders or mutilators.

A persistent empathy gap continues to separate us from the harsh reality of how others see us. Heavily armed foreign troops are not the natural people to bind things together, even when those "foreign" troops are well-intentioned American men and women. Couple this fact with another item from McChrystal's interview, his confession that Afghan security forces are "never going to be good enough" for U.S. troops to leave with any degree of confidence in the country's subsequent stability, and the conclusion is clear. U.S. troops should withdraw: now.

Astore writes regularly for and can be reached at