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Palden's Archive | The Great Game - Afghanistan

Healing the Hurts of Nations

from Healing the Hurts of Nations
Palden Jenkins

A short history of Afghanistan, shedding light on its recent years of conflict

Written 2003 (not updated since)

There is no hope of a cessation of evils for the states – and, in my opinion, none for mankind – except through a personal union between political power and philosophy and a forcible disqualification of those common natures that now follow one of these two pursuits to the exclusion of the other. The union may be achieved in either of two ways. Either the philosophers must become kings… or else the people who are now called kings and potentates must take – genuinely and thoroughly – to philosophy.  - Plato, early 300s BCE, The Republic

Afghanistan has both benefited and suffered from being strategically located. India lies over the mountains to the East, Persia across the deserts to the West and Turkestan (now Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan) over the Oxus river to the north. The Silk Road from China to the West passed its northern border, meeting a major trade route through Afghanistan from Persia to India. It is a mountains-and-valleys country which has sheltered many ethnic groups over time, and it is difficult to control centrally. Whoever controls Afghanistan controls more than its landmass: the Great Game concerns control of central Asian land-routes and whatever travels along them.

Ethnic groups in AfghanistanIts people are today comprised of roughly 50% Pashtuns (Pathans), a clannish people of herders, farmers and traders living largely in the south and east; about 25% Tajiks, farmers and town-dwellers mainly in the northeast; 11% Uzbeks and Turkmen, farmers in the north; around 9% Mongol-derived Hazara farmers and herders in the central highlands; small numbers of Nuris, Pashai and Kirghiz in the northeastern mountains; Aimaqs in the west and Baluchis in the southern desert. Sikhs and Hindus live in some towns.

Today Afghans are reviving uncertainly from twenty years of war. Whatever development model it truly needs to adopt, so much rebuilding, social bridge-building and environmental restoration is needed that inter-ethnic cooperation is imperative, otherwise its people will suffer. Two generations of Afghans have lived through war, never knowing what a peaceful, stable life looks like. Afghanistan needs to re-enter the world community by sorting out a future which really works for itself. As in neighbouring Tibet – another mountainous land with a religious streak and a strong indigenous culture – too much has been eroded by recent foreign interference. Both nations face a new start, redefining their national identities anew, since past history is no longer a model to emulate.

Afghanistan has seen good times as a rich culture-centre at various periods of its history. Independent since 1747, strong ethnic tensions tug at its national unity. Its ethnic groups, while regionalised, are also much intermixed, so dividing the country would not work and, in the world community, small ethnic groups such as Afghanistan's can be swamped in terms of numbers and representation. Afghanistan's population is around 22 million, compared with a billion people in India, 135 million in Pakistan and 63 million in Iran. So the wider world obliges Afghanistan to be one country, whether or not it feels like being united.


Map of ancient Afghanistan
Afghanistan's early history is hazy. Pottery finds date back to around 6000 BCE. Northern and eastern Afghanistan, once covered with fruit and nut forests (apple, apricot, peach, fig, cherry, walnut, pistachio) was one of the world's earliest centres of plant domestication and agriculture, and a source-point for the camel and the horse. The deserts of Afghanistan were originally grasslands. A verdant country, it was ruined by grazing goats, axes and, in recent times, incendiary bombs. By 2500 BCE, the Harappa civilisation in the Indus valley (in Sindh, now Pakistan), one of the world's early urban civilisations, had outlying towns in Afghanistan. Then, after 2000 BCE Aryan people from the Caucasus area migrated into Afghanistan, spreading into India and laying the foundations of north India's rich Hindu culture. The Vedas, the oldest body of classic Hindu tracts, were first conceived in Afghanistan.

By 1000
BCE, Bactria (a city-state centred on the city of Bactra or Balkh), Gandhara (around Kabul and Peshawar), Aria (around Herat) and Margiana (around Merv) were well established as regional centres. For a long time Bactra was the region's main city and a renowned place of learning – it stood aside the Oxus river and at central Asia's crossroads. Zoroaster came from here around 600 BCE, founding a faith which was to spread across Iran and parts of India, descended from ancient beliefs derived probably from the High Altai mountains further north. It never became the great world religion it might have become, but it gave birth to Mithraism and influenced the development of Judaism, Christianity and Islam through its philosophy of dualism – the notion that Earth is a zone of darkness that needs lighting up with the fire of spirit. This metaphysical stance exercises a background influence on Afghanistan to this day, nowadays in Muslim fundamentalist clothing.

In the 550s
BCE Afghanistan was invaded by Cyrus the Great of Persia. Persia became the world's greatest empire of the time. Afghanistan was unified, but under foreign rule. The Persians took a cosmopolitan approach, demanding reasonable tribute and ruling even-handedly, as imperialists go – their interest was strategic, since Afghanistan gave access to India. Here begin three characteristic Afghan issues: foreign domination, mainly for geo-strategic purposes; tribal revolts against foreign rule, in this case in southeast Afghanistan; and settlement by foreigners, in this case Jews freed from captivity in Babylon by Cyrus.

Some Afghan tribes trace their ancestries back to Jacob, Solomon and Abraham, indicating stray prehistoric Jewish elements who wandered the region in the time of Moses and Joshua. There was an ancient Jewish presence before the Babylonian Jews, a culturally modernised city people, came along. Jews crossed the Khyber Pass to Kashmir – at the time a larger Jewish community than in Israel. They also followed the long Silk Road to China, where they have figured as a minority community up to this day.

Greeks and Central Asians

Map of Greek Afghanistan
When Alexander the Great and his Greek army, having taken over Persia, swung through Afghanistan in 330-28 BCE, there was only token resistance. The Greeks were townies interested in dominating trade and urban areas, and the Afghans, mostly rural people, left them to it – the Greeks, after all, brought advantages they could exploit. Alexander didn't stay long – he died in 323, aged 32, back in Babylon. He had a cultural master-plan: genetic colonisation (getting his men to mate with local women), founding and expanding Greek towns and introducing the Greek way of life.

Greek culture was cool, permissive, liberal, fascinating and cosmopolitan, a way to get ahead if you were young and adventurous. Alexander's influence outlived him: many Greeks and Greek-influenced people settled in Afghanistan, and the towns adopted Greek ways, architecture and currency. A Greek kingdom, Seleucia, centred in Persia, ruled the area until, in 239, the local Greeks, called Greaco-Bactrians, declared independence. By 180 Bactria, Gandhara and Taxila (an important trading city in Sindh) became wealthy Asian-Greek culture-centres. Buddhism entered Afghanistan from India, and the meeting of Greek, Buddhist, Afghan and other Asian influences made the area a cultural hot-spot.

But after two generations disaster struck. The Yueh-Chi tribe from Kansu in northwest China had been stirred up by westward Chinese imperial expansion. Better known to history as the Kushans, they migrated into Sogdia and Afghanistan in the 130s
BCE and settled down, closely followed by the Sakas from what is now Kazakhstan, who swept past them into India. By now Afghanistan was becoming accustomed to take-overs – sometimes things got wrecked, but life went on anyway, regardless. The Kushans found their feet, dovetailing Greaco-Buddhist and Chinese ways, growing prosperous by controlling the Silk Road that connected Rome, Iraq, China and India.

Buddhism migrated to China along the Silk Road as a result of the Kushans. Later, led by one of history's greater monarchs, Kanishka, a Buddhist wise man and patron of the arts (78-102
CE), the Kushans spread down into Sindh, establishing a capital at Peshawar and building a stable empire which lasted there until the 240s CE. The Kushan period lasted over 350 years. But then the Persians, now Zoroastrans by faith though eclectic in culture, had found a new lease of life, and they retook Afghanistan and Sogdiana. So Afghanistan had another period of Persian rule.

Always vulnerable, the country was then wrecked by Ephthalite Huns who swept down from the north around 400
CE, heading for India and Persia. The Buddhist culture was utterly destroyed. This invasion was a major setback, Afghans' first large-scale destruction by foreigners. Afghanistan was then unaffected by foreigners and relatively quiet for 125 years from 425 until the Persians came back in 550. By the 600s Persia slowly disintegrated, and Afghanistan became an indefinite, semi-autonomous frontier country – another of its favourite roles.

It was now faced with a perennial home-spun problem: if the country was not to be ruled by foreigners, who, amongst its diverse ethnic groups, would lead it? As often, the answer was inconclusive, with shifting arrangements. The country came under remote Tang Chinese influence in the early 600s, but the area's most lasting foreign invasion was to come from the west: Islam. The Muslims reached Balkh in 652 and Kabul in 664.

Muslim Afghanistan

Across the Muslim empire, subject peoples were not forcefully converted – Afghanistan did not become predominantly Islamic for 300 years. Yet Afghans accepted Muslim rule, which served them better than most of the alternatives. Some converted, particularly for tax and political advantages. But by 747 a serious revolt against the Umayyad dynasty in Syria broke out in western Afghanistan (Khorasan). Within three years this revolt spread west to the Islamic heartlands, leading to the overthrow of the Umayyads and its replacement by the Abbasid dynasty of Baghdad. Regional emirs (princes) grew stronger.

This was the heyday of Sogdia, just north of Afghanistan: the cities of Bokhara, Samarkand and Balkh became leading Muslim culture centres, producing a plethora of advanced ideas in science, medicine and literature. Much Muslim wealth came from silver mines in the Hindu Kush mountains of northern Afghanistan, funnelled through Balkh which, by now, was an enormous walled city.

Things got interesting in the 960s. A Turkic slave of the local emir rebelled and captured Ghazni, making it an independent sultanate. His grandson, Mahmud of Ghazni, sultan from 998 to 1030, repeatedly looted Sindh and Punjab, amassing a fortune with which he developed Ghazni into a centre of gardening, architecture and learning. He built an empire stretching into India and Persia. Afghanistan had a medieval time of greatness. The Ghaznavids slowly declined after 1037, following an invasion by Ghuzz and Seljuk Turks from the north.

In 1151, the Ghaznavid governor of Ghur in central Afghanistan felled the Ghaznavids, ruling Afghanistan as the Sultan of Ghur, and spreading by 1206 into north India. He founded the Delhi Sultanate and began 600 years of Muslim dominance in India. So the tables had now turned: Afghans were now terrorising and dominating others. This strengthened a longstanding Afghan habit of making money out of distant rich areas as a way of developing itself – this lasted until modern times, with the lucrative export of cannabis and opium to the West, a trade which, in the 1980s, made Chechen smugglers rich too.

Then came the Mongols. They were a weapon of mass-destruction in their own right. Genghiz Khan destroyed Balkh, Kabul, Ghazni and Herat in 1221. One of the outcomes was the destruction of the advanced irrigation and agricultural systems of the area, devastating the economy and ecology of the area. Hülegü Khan swung through Herat again in 1258, on his way to destroy the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad. From 1332 to 1370 the descendants of the Ghurids regained control in Afghanistan, but they were then destroyed by Timurlenk.

Timurlenk was a Turk with dreams of reviving Mongol might, starting a very dramatic and destructive career as emir of Samarkand in 1361, proceeding then to take and destroy Balkh in 1370, Herat in 1381 and Kabul in 1398. His empire of skulls died with him in 1405, and everyone was much relieved. Local rule followed, supported by raids in India for booty. The Afghans were by now well stirred up and hurting – they had become troublemakers. With a destroyed economy, they looked to other places to extract wealth. One Pashtun clan, the Lodi, took over the Delhi Sultanate in India in 1451 for 75 years, and another, the Surs, dominated Bihar, far away in eastern India.

Meanwhile, up north, Timurlenk's great grandson Babur and his Moghul people were thrown out of Ferghana (north of Sogdia). They invaded and settled the Kabul area around 1504, raiding India to build up wealth. Two decades later, in 1526, Babur swept down from Afghanistan to overcome the Delhi Sultanate, founding the Moghul empire. His son Humayun was forced to withdraw to Kandahar in 1539 but, by 1555, he was back in Delhi, and thereafter the Moghul empire lasted over 150 years. The Moghuls were fairer and less violent than the Delhi Sultans, achieving a noteworthy civilisation in north India – they created the Taj Mahal. European merchant adventurers were impressed by the Moghuls when they started visiting India.

Afghanistan went into a turbulent period. Russia, a new power which had emerged since the 1400s, was expanding further north, pushing the Uzbek people south. The Russians next took over Bokhara and Khorasan. This drew the Persians into Afghanistan for strategic reasons. Kandahar and Balkh changed hands several times. Safavid dynasty Persia, at its zenith in the early 1600s, ruled Herat and western Afghanistan while the Moghuls ruled the east. A series of Afghan revolts through the 1600s gave both powers some trouble – it was a turbulent time and, as you might imagine, the Afghans were pretty fed up. By 1709 a Pashtun, Mir Wais, led a revolt, making Kandahar independent and gradually spreading out from there. In 1722 the Afghans amassed an army, marching to Persia to fell the Safavids in 1722. Persia revived under Nadir Shah, bringing war back to Kandahar in 1738, but on his death Safavid Persia collapsed.

Independence and the Great Game

Here began the independent state of Afghanistan. Ahmad Shah Abdali, an Afghan Safavid officer, raised tribal support and took Kandahar, Kabul and Peshawar. India was raided repeatedly, and support from disparate Afghan chiefs was bought with the booty gained. Hindu kingdoms in the Punjab failed as a result, with the side-effect that the Punjabi Sikhs were militarised and, by 1834, the Sikhs drove the Afghans out of lowland India, never to return. This lost Afghans a major source of raiding income.

The Afghans were restive at home too: Pashtun predominance led to constant tribal revolts. The Hezaras (descendants of earlier Turko-Mongol invaders) were driven into the central highlands. By 1819-26 there was full-scale civil war – the Afghans now terrorised each other. The situation stabilised under Dost Muhammad, who ruled Afghanistan until 1863, establishing the territorial integrity of today's Afghanistan and giving it stability.

But the wider world had other ideas. Here comes the 'Great Game' – the competition for influence in central Asia between Russia and Britain, with China periodically sticking in its oar. Neither Afghanistan nor Tibet were profitable lands, but they were, for the British, buffer territories protecting the Indian Raj from the Russians. Over the centuries from the 1500s on, Russia had expanded east and south: by 1854 it had taken Kazakhstan, and by 1868 it reached Afghanistan's northern border. Russia's geopolitical aim was to establish warm-water seaports in the Indian Ocean and to pressurise the British in India.

The British, meanwhile, were gradually expanding their control of India, reaching Sindh, Punjab and Kashmir by 1850. This upset the Pashtuns living in what, to the British, was the troublesome North West Frontier of the Raj. These tribal areas, now on the Pakistan-Afghan border, remain politically unruly to this day. To subdue the Afghans and forestall a Russian advance, the British took the Khyber Pass and marched on Kabul and Kandahar in 1839-42. It was a disastrous expedition – hardly any British returned, to the great glee of the Afghans. An expedition in 1878-80 was unsuccessful too, though the British gained border land in the North West Frontier and the Khyber Pass, dividing the Pashtun people. Hindus and Sikhs began to settle in Afghan cities in the 1800s, bringing British and Indian business into Afghanistan.

Afghanistan's borders were validated by Britain and Russia, to serve as a buffer zone. But foreign meddling didn't stop. The ethnically divided Afghans were perpetually vulnerable to foreign manipulation, and during this time there was an understandable hardening of Afghan attitudes to foreign pressure. This tendency was counterbalanced by growing numbers of Afghans who had travelled abroad and were educated in India and Europe. By the early 1900s these cosmopolitan Afghans, many from wealthier families, became a growing modernising influence in Afghanistan. After World War One, the British came back in 1919, seeking to establish a mission in Kabul to block Russian encroachment – Russia had just gone through its revolution. Again, the expedition was unsuccessful – the British had blundered seriously with the Afghans.

In the 1920s a reforming group under king Amanullah Khan gained control, introducing electricity, newspapers, telephones and a national bank – the infrastructure of modernity. One notable liberal moderniser was Mahmud Tarzi, an Afghan intellectual. The liberal, modern Afghans established relations with the new Soviet Union, which seemed fairer than the British. The Soviets sent aid and technical assistance, but this was greeted with disdain by the more insular tribal Afghans, conservatives and nationalists because the Russians were avidly secular. Particularly upsetting were the opportunities the Soviets gave to women.

Secularism and Islamic fundamentalism

Across the Muslim world, secular modernisers, backed by the West and USSR, were making Islam look old-fashioned and religiously conservative, which in many ways it was. Foreign pressures thus exerted an obstructive influence on Islamic reform at this time, causing Muslim clerics to dig in their heels. Reform, liberalisation, secularism and foreign interference were connected together in the minds of Muslims. This strengthened Muslim conservatism at a critical time, fundamentally affecting the course of developments later in the century.

Muslim conservatives had some justification in opposing foreign secular influences, since the West sought in particular to control the oil deposits of the Middle East and Iran. This conservative trend continued throughout the 20th Century – the 9-11 attacks of 2001 being a recent version of it. In Afghanistan, Islamic traditionalism was strong, and warlords and traditional leaders had much to lose from foreign interference. So they opposed reform. In doing so, they prevented Afghanistan from developing its own form of modernity.

Amanullah's reforms proved too radical. He had emulated Turkey's Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who had rejected Islam and brought major structural reforms in Turkey. But Turkey was in a desperate situation following the fall of the Ottomans in 1920, and Turks were more westernised and thus more receptive to secularly-driven change. Across most of the Muslim world, secular modernisers, nationalists and socialists were gaining ground. Western powers, working hard to control Middle Eastern oil, sliced up the Ottoman territories, establishing client states in the 1920s such as Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the Gulf States. Nationalist and socialist movements grew in response to this in these states. They reached their peak in the 1950s and 1960s in the Middle East, and also in newly-independent India, fronted by figures such as Nasser in Egypt, Mossadeq in Iran and Nehru in India.

Meanwhile Muslim religious, traditionalist and right-wing elements, initially overwhelmed, slowly grew louder, complaining of cultural and moral degeneration across the Islamic world. Saudi oil wealth supported the building of mosques, madrasahs (colleges), institutions and social welfare projects. By the 1970s it became a battle of hearts and minds as secular nationalism came under pressure. Conservative mullahs and imams led a revival in the 1980s-90s in Iran, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. Arab nationalists, socialists and democrats, by now an ageing generation, lost strength as popular opinion deserted them and military coups and foreign interference marginalised them.

In the bipolar Cold War context, since the West opposed Arab socialists, who were often supported by the Soviet Union, the West tended therefore to support Muslim fundamentalists, through Saudi Arabia as a proxy, to created insecurity and division in the oil-rich Middle Eastern states. This was to turn against the West, especially when the US-supported Shah of Iran was felled by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979. They didn't necessarily agree with the Ayatollah, yet many Muslims were heartened by his Islamic revolution.

In 1929, back in Afghanistan, there was a conservative revolt. Amanullah was overthrown, anger was vented, government offices were wrecked and modernisers were exiled. A new king, Nadir Khan, came to power, abolishing the reforms. This was a terrible letdown for modernised Afghans – Mahmud Tarzi landed up in exile in Turkey. Nadir Khan was later assassinated by a student in 1933 and his son Zahir Shah became king, to rule for four decades – he was the former king who resurfaced as an old man in 2001 after the US invasion of Afghanistan. At first his regime was isolationist and traditional. After World War Two the international scenery changed, and deft foreign policy was called for: the British left India in 1947, India and Pakistan were partitioned and trouble brewed east of Afghanistan, especially in Kashmir.

The Great Game, again

A new Afghan prime minister, Mohammed Daoud, Zahir's cousin, came to power in 1953. The Pashtuns along the Afghan border declared an independent Pashtunistan in the tribal areas of west Pakistan in 1949. Afghanistan approached USA for development aid and arms: fatefully, president Eisenhower in USA just didn't understand the Afghans' position, and nothing came of it. Afghanistan then turned to USSR and assistance was forthcoming.

The Russians started large development projects, building roads and hospitals, bringing in teachers and experts, training soldiers and sending Afghans to study in USSR – the Great Game was back. The Russians brought liberalising influences, especially for women, who entered the workforce, hospitals, universities and government. Even though, or perhaps because, traditional tribal structures were weakening, the Pashtun border issue continued rumbling, nearly turning to war between Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1961.

The wider world obliged Afghanistan to modernise. Liberalisation, press freedom and tourists arrived in the 1960s, bringing office blocks, motor traffic and smog to Kabul. A Communist party was founded, and a new constitution brought democratic elections in 1965. Daoud lost his post. One critical clause in the constitution required that all political parties should respect Islam and the king, effectively banning socialist and republican parties. Moscow didn't like this. During the elections, Marxist students rioted and the government lost control. The king reshuffled the newly-elected government and, in so doing, undermined the democratic constitution, parts of which never came into effect. The outcome of this failure, war and civil war, lasted three decades, until 2001.

Moscow sought a puppet government. A group of Afghans, the Parcham group, started manoeuvring for power, trying to please Moscow. The king and government were discredited, the army was infiltrated and rioting spread around the towns. In 1973, while the king was abroad seeking medical treatment, Daoud headed a coup d'étât, the constitution was annulled and a new government was announced. Daoud, being a power-seeker, not a Communist, consolidated his power and set up a one-party constitution. The Soviets withdrew their support.

By 1978 they engineered a further coup, placing a Communist, Babrak Karmal, in charge. Mass arrests, torture and attacks on tribes followed, galvanising the tribespeople into opposition. Squads of mujahedin, committed, grass-roots, religious nationalists, were formed. Money and weapons came from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, with American finance, training and backing. Here Osama bin Laden enters the scene. In Iran, Khomeini's Muslim revolution took place in 1979 and, while Afghans had no great love for Iranian Shi'as, the situation nevertheless encouraged Afghan Muslim radicals. The nation polarised: it was now entering two decades of war and horror.

In 1979 USSR invaded Afghanistan, aided by Karmal. The mujahedin fought back, using American anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles with devastating effect. Secretly aiding the mujahedin became USA's largest ever military aid project: USA was out to weaken USSR as part of its Cold War geopolitical strategy, using Afghans as proxies. Afghanistan was gradually devastated. Villages emptied. Agriculture died, apart from lucrative opium production for export. Many Soviet soldiers became addicted to drugs. Six million Afghan refugees left for Pakistan, Iran and further afield. By 1985, USSR had deployed 120,000 troops in Afghanistan, still unable to control the rural areas. The Hazara central highlands and the Panjshir valley in the northeast became no-go zones for the Russians. By 1986 the tide had turned against them.

In 1988 the new Communist government of Mohammed Najibullah attempted a truce and power-sharing arrangement, but the stoic mujahedin fought on. In 1989 USSR withdrew, as part of Gorbachev's perestroika, having lost 40,000 men. By 1991 the Najibullah regime controlled only the towns and main roads, the mujahedin controlling everything else. The UN presented a peace plan, instantly rejected by the mujahedin. Pakistan and USA withdrew support from the mujahedin since Afghanistan had suddenly lost its geopolitical attraction – though there was no shortage of weapons left.

This withdrawal of American support was to prove a deciding factor in the growth of anti-American feeling in Afghanistan, leading it to host to al Qaeda. There was now hardly any government. The warlords and mujahedin could not simply go home – many had neither homes nor peacetime prospects and many of their families were dead or in exile. The war was now a self-perpetuating mess.

Najibullah fell in 1992. Afghanistan entered a new phase: mujahedin groups now fought each other for dominance. Kabul was devastated by fierce bombing. Power shifted repeatedly until, in 1994, the Taliban emerged – a new group of largely Pashtun fundamentalists raised in Pakistan and financed by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Many mujahedin from Afghanistan and elsewhere joined the Taliban since they seemed genuine as jihad warriors, and their fundamentalism was the only coherent message of the time. Other mujahedin groups were fighting simply because they were in the habit and wanted to stake out territory.

The Taliban took Herat in 1995 and Kabul in 1996, soon taking 80% of the country. Their strict fundamentalist code found initial support since they brought order to a country tired of mayhem and corruption. Their rule was fierce and excessive: mass killings, tight sharia law, harsh treatment of women and of the Hazaras. An enclave of independent mujahedin, mostly Tajiks, fought on in the northeast, known as the Northern Alliance. To make things worse, major earthquakes hit northeast and east Afghanistan in 1998 and 1999. The country was paralysed: Afghan society was in serious trouble and no alternatives were visible.

The country had by now become a base for a worldwide movement of Muslim militants which had sprung up since the late 1970s. At its core was al Qaeda, 'the Foundation'. Supported by Iranian and Saudi funds, Sudanese and Afghan facilities, old mujahedin and alienated and rootless young Muslims from many countries, al Qaeda gained an increasing foothold in Afghanistan. The country had become a sump for Muslim outcasts and a training place for terrorists. They sought redemption, adventure, revenge and security in numbers.

Al Qaeda was a network of international, autonomous, collaborating cells based on a CIA model taught to them by the Americans in the 1980s. The Foundation offered funding, training, strategic and logistical support to Islamic terrorists worldwide. Having secretly supported Muslim terrorism, the Americans had second thoughts when the terrorists turned their attention to USA, though their support ended only early in 2001. After 9-11, al Qaeda brought American warplanes over Afghanistan, having become a geostrategic force capable of hitting at America's heart.

The Taliban fell in late 2001, quicker than expected, thanks to American air attacks, renewed Northern Alliance vigour, international pressures and a hidden 'Factor X' no one can fully explain. A sinking ship, many fighters deserted them, replicating a perennial Afghan pattern: Afghans had become so accustomed to invasion, take-overs and political shifts that their loyalties had become at times ardent and at other times very fluid. For Afghans, survival has often meant nimble and timely side-switching.

The future

An interim government and nation-building process was set in motion in 2002 after a loya jirga presided over by the aged former king, Zahir Shah. USA and the international community, after making many promises, then failed to foot the bill and give sustained support, turning their attention elsewhere. Peacekeeping troops were shipped in, but their control was restrcted to Kabul and certain areas only. There was a dramatic failure to rein in the warlords, disarm and pacify the country. This was potentially fatal, throwing Afghans back on themselves at a time when outside support is vital.

Three major steps have become critical for Afghans: inter-ethnic bridge-building, the stepping back of the warlords and the emergence from hiding of women. Without these steps, further polarisation and civil war, or at best political paralysis, is possible. Another crucial factor dogging progress is a system of corrupt, warlord-driven order ruled by baksheesh, back-stabbing and the opium trade – by 2003 bumper crops were on their way. One of the cruel ironies of the opium trade is that there is hardly a better crop for fertilising the land, in a country short of compost and agricultural regularity. But one advantage is that, whenever Afghanistan settles down, the land stands in good stead for a revival of farming – barring droughts incurred through global climate change.

Ordinary Afghans are deeply challenged to forgive and cooperate, pulling together to rebuild their lives and build a tacit national consensus. This goes against the interests of the warlords, but it is perhaps the greatest democratic act ordinary Afghans could carry out. Foreign powers are challenged to complete the nation-building commitments they high-mindedly, or hypocritically, took on. If they fail to do this, Afghanistan could become a hotbed for troublemakers again – already the Taliban is making noises of revival, though these could also be only noises.

The biggest challenge is the removal of hidden agendas: USA with its designs on strategic control of central Asia and on Russia's and China's back-doors; Iran and Pakistan with their habits of meddling in Afghan affairs; India, which plays Afghanistan as a pawn against Pakistan; Saudi interests promoting Islamic conservatism; and the world, with its short attention-span, which abandons needy nations as soon as their newsworthiness has subsided.

Making a success of the future is a tall order for Afghanistan – it will take decades. In the end, it rests on Afghans, but the international community needs nevertheless to set aside its short-termist, narrow interests to create a containing field within which Afghans may reconstitute their society. This is not just a matter of roads and economic development: it concerns the rebuilding of a society and the necessary trust, coherence and consensus that would allow it to move forward.

Afghans habitually retreat into scattered warlord-led sub-groups, keeping themselves locked in an inward-turning vortex. There is now no significant foreign foe to unite against: the true enemy is internal divisiveness and reticence in subscribing to a national vision. The need for the future is clear: reconstruction, social healing and environmental repair. There will be arguments over development styles, who sacrifices what and who gains what, yet a pragmatic middle route is the only option. Since skilled leaders are easy to assassinate, it rests greatly on public consensus-building. It will be a long haul, yet the price of all other alternatives is greater.

There comes a point when a bullet-riddled society's immune system grows tired and depleted, developing complications. The nation just needs to catch a cold to suffer severe consequences. Civil war has harmed Afghan social bonds, yet people remain. The only way out is up, since down has already been well tried and, while many indigenous traditions need relaxing or re-focusing, the answer is not found in importing foreign answers, even though foreign aid is needed. To attract support and aid, Afghans need to broadcast clear signals of revival and to amass global credibility. Reconciliation and redevelopment require a buildup of social momentum that can escalate in tempo only if held in place by a strong national consensus.

Here we come to a footnote on ancient Afghan democracy. Western democracy is a recent thing, rooted in ancient Germanic, Celtic and Greek patterns. The Afghan tradition of loya jirga – a Pashtun term for grand council – began some 5,000 years ago amongst the ancient Aryan peoples. It was used over time for the selection of rulers and headmen and the airing of matters of principle. Islamic tradition has a not-dissimilar system. From the time of the great Kushan ruler Kanishka to the 1970s there were sixteen national loya jirgas and hundreds of smaller ones.

As an alternative to voter democracy loya jirga has its virtues, since democratic elections often propagate half-truths, populist slogans and broken promises. But loya jirga has weaknesses too, since headmen, elders and 'spirituals', while entrusted with representing their peoples, don't always do so, and background manoeuvring can sew up the outcome. These same problems exist in Western democracies and in any system. One traditional Afghan solution in cases of misgovernment or disrespect of loya jirga consensus is revolt, but an alternative tradition is now needed – consultation, consensus and (in a still very male society) gentlemanliness.

Afghans have institutional customs by which unity can be built. While these incorporate respect for elders and 'spirituals', which can often mean conservatism rather than wisdom, indigenous democratic-style mechanisms nevertheless exist. Their weaknesses, as with all constitutional systems, rest on the goodwill and integrity of leaders and on the people holding leaders to account. Despite being a wrecked society, Afghanistan has many redeeming aspects, not least conflict-weariness. It is now up to Afghans to accentuate these redeeming factors. It is up to the international community to give genuine, non-interventionist support to this reconstruction, otherwise trouble can again be expected from this beautiful, strangely friendly, tough, landlocked and rather isolated nation.

From the book Healing the Hurts of Nations, by Palden Jenkins, 2003.

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