Reflections on Afghanistan

Despite taking the cheaper, more southerly route through the searingly hot desert from Tehran to Mashhad­–­ 800 kilometres in June– I didn’t think to modify my Macrobiotic diet. At an early stage we were held up in a crowded non-air-conditioned bus by a hideous accident, which involved a collision between petrol tanker and cattle in the Dasht-e Kavir desert halfway between Teheran and Mashhad. As I gazed out of the bus window the scene of death and destruction was like a tableau with no frantic activity, except for the buzz of flies around the corpses of disembowelled cattle. I was probably seriously dehydrated and felt pretty nauseous– a condition that conspired to my contemplating not being alive at the destination. On reaching Heart, 250 kilometres south west of Mashhad, the relief of stumbling out of that wretched oven of a bus was enough to restore some health especially after slamming down a cold can of Coca-Cola. Fresh water was hard to come by, but American sweet beverages and Marlborough cigarettes were available everywhere. Graham pointed out in his sardonic fashion­– “They’re a wily lot the Afghanis, – they managed to exploit Cold War rivalry between Russia and US by getting the Americans to build the only main road east to Kandahar and the Russians to build the other half from Kandahar to Kabul.” 

Wily or not, the people of Afghanistan had the misfortune or were fortunate to live in a part of the world where most great empire builders and traders needed to pass through or control. If a merchant wanted to carry gold and silver to China from Rome or Persia, she could take the Bukhara, Samarkand and Kashgar route avoiding Kabul altogether. However, if you wanted to carry silk and spices and the camels you used to transport them from central Persia to India you had to pass through Kabul. A legitimate income was to be made extracting taxes for rites of passage. Apart from some pillage and plunder the other major source of revenue was subsidy from the Great or Lowland power of the day.

far more consequential, though, than simply trade to those lowland tribal dynasties, south of the Hindu Kush, attempting to nation build from 1747 onwards was how strategic the location was to Russia and Great Britain in the 19th century. Essentially, India was the source of great wealth that Britain had stolen, and Napoleon and Russia wanted. These geopolitical rivalries played out in Afghanistan were known as the Great Game. Even today wherever there are violent sectarian clashes in the world you can be sure to sheet home the ultimate causes to two factors: the hegemon of the day building or maintaining an empire and paying no attention to local tribal dynamics. The people of these rugged mountains and valleys separating three lowland powers have rarely enjoyed political unity but neither have they succumbed to any of them. Hence, they are the proud owners of the Persian epithet Yaghestan that translates as rebellious or ungovernable. (Chayes, 2006)

The Musahhiban Dynasty, which ruled Afghanistan from 1929 to 1978, seemed to achieve the right balance between appeasing the complexities of local power dynamics and extracting subsidy from USSR and US to build national infrastructure in the Great Game 2. The political world of the mid 50’s was like a giant jigsaw puzzle, which had been smashed up in the 40s and was in the process of being put together again through the prism of the Cold War and post colonialism. A significant event in that process was the Bandung conference in April 1955. Apart from Tito this was the first non-white global get together– which established African and Asian nations’ independence from old colonial masters and neutrality in the US/USSR cold war. Therefore, each country was willing to fall in with whatever side offered the most. 

As far as Afghanistan was concerned Americans were the first to buy influence. They funded major irrigation infrastructure projects such as the Kajaki dam in Helmand province in 1951.Then 4 years later, to not so subtly nudge Afghanistan towards the Soviet sphere Nikita Khrushchev handed over $610 million, $441 million of which was military. At least these were the figures estimated by the Prime Minister Ayub Khan of Pakistan in a conversation with Eisenhower in Karachi in December 1959. Ayub wanted to reinforce his need for US military aid so Pakistan could ostensibly deter Russia and China, but more truthfully, India! He was one of many Pakistani generals who saw the need to wrest the controls of government from the elected assembly, which he did about a year prior to the meeting with the US president. So, a substantial military aid package would help solidify his leadership. 

On the next leg of Eisenhower’s Goodwill mission, he flew to Bagram from Karachi, 38 miles from Kabul. In case he was in some doubt as to whom Afghanistan was beholden, “Six Soviet MIG-17’s flown by Afghan pilots streaked out to escort it (the president’s jet) in.’’ (Russell Baker, Times) reminding him that the Kremlin was in charge here. (Douglas Brinkley,12/01/2012, New York Times)

Photos taken in the 50s and 60s in Afghanistan showing functioning infrastructure attest to the success of accommodating US and USSR rivalry. In addition to the civic buildings there are many photos of young women and girls in western clothes, albeit in the major urban centres, which illustrate the success of the prime minister Mohammed Daud Khan’s social reforms allowing women more public presence. In 1957 women were allowed to attend university and enter the workforce. These gender emancipating reforms had been initiated by king Amanullah Khan who was able to briefly capitalize on the defeat of the British in 1919. He was a keen admirer of western civic norms and ashamed of how backward Afghanistan was, so he created schools for both genders, overturned strict dress codes for women and created a modern constitution which upheld equal rights and individual freedoms. Unfortunately, he did not have the patience to build a bureaucracy needed to implement his reforms, the pace of which was far too rushed. Consequently, the domestic reaction propelled him out of the country in 1929. 

It is important to not lay all the blame for a continuously fractious Afghan society solely on lowland superpower machinations. There were three intrinsic aspects of tribal culture, which militated against achieving a cohesive group. According to Barfield (2010), first, kinship groups were small in size, second, culturally, the concept of equality was really important, so a leader had to constantly be wary of leadership challenges and third, a leader never had the institutional norms to bolster their position. For these reasons religious leaders were often more successful than tribal ones in uniting large groups because they originated outside the clan system and could call on God’s authority to circumvent tribal rivalries. (Barfield, 2010.p 59) However, as a 1972 anthropological paper, The Ecology of Rural Ethnic Groups and the Spatial Dimensions of Power, concluded “…inhabitants of marginal lands adopt heretical positions as an expression of political dissidence with the lowland orthodoxy.” Identity for the people of the mountainous region of Bamian is so enmeshed in the sect such that members of different sects do not cooperate on any level – commercial or social. (Canfield, 1972) In addition to all that non-cooperation, conflict can also occur as a result of intergenerational blood feuds, the violence of which was sanctioned by Pashtunwali– oral customary law. (Jones, Munoz, 2010)

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