A History Of Wounded Afghani Pride

Barnett Rubin writes an amazing account of his work with Afghani governments in the post-9/11 era, for the Boston Review. He picks just the right details from the history of this tortured country to give us a very human portrait of what’s been going wrong there for more than 30 years now.

As Manan Ahmed observes elsewhere:

It is one sad casualty of our current myopia that we are interested only in the monolithic account of Soviet-Afghan war and the “Talibanization” and continue to stress “top-down” factors in our analysis.

The New Great Game of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, while not necessarily imposing a particular great power’s direct control over the region, has essentially been a process of destroying a strong central government in Afghanistan in order to keep their options open, as it were. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan to have a more pliable ruler there, so that they could more easily counter American influence in Pakistan. The Pakistanis encouraged radical Islamist militants in their fight against the Soviets because they were afraid that the nationalism of the more liberal Afghani would lead to loss of territory around the disputed, century-old, Durand Line. The Americans were interested in destroying the Taliban in order to drive the Al-Qaeda out or at least underground. What every one failed to do was provide the region with some form of centralized bureaucracy and administration — even if it wasn’t democratic — so that a movement could be made towards the creation of liberal institutions and a more globalized form of economy. Without either of these, Afghanis have no incentive to move away from tribalism and bonds of local clans.

This situation, perversely, leads to an argument for an increased engagement with Afghanis in terms of the tribalism that they have been forced by many decades of Western intervention of the most haphazard kind, to reluctantly embrace. In Senator Clinton’s confirmation hearing for Secretary of State, Senator John Kerry, Chairperson of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, says:

We have not, I think — we honored tribalism when we dealt with the Northern Alliance and initially went in to Afghanistan. We really haven’t adequately since.

What Sen. Kerry probably doesn’t realize is that “honoring tribalism” is merely a short-term strategy that doesn’t address, and in fact probably exacerbates, the underlying problem in Afghanistan, which is the lack of a central government.

What Afghanistan has lost, as a result of this neglect of the West, is a way of life that will probably never return, a way of life that Rubin, in his article, briefly alludes to when he mentions lunching

… in a private room in the rear of the Marco Polo restaurant, where Malikyar [a friend of Rubin’s] father had run a night club in Kabul’s swinging sixties.

This era in Afghani history was the pride of its elite, an elite that could have been seen as an anomaly in a largely rural and Islamic region, but it could also have been an elite that could have provided a way forward for the region into true nationhood, had it not been betrayed on multiple occasions by the short-sightedness of those who needed Afghanistan as merely a base for pursuing larger power struggles that had nothing to do with the population of the region.

It is an unimaginable blow to the hopes of the Afghani elite that has been struck. For people in the West, who might look fondly back on the Sixties, as an era of unparalleled experimentation and permissiveness, the current age is merely an inconvenience or irritation in its return-to-roots fervor. But for Afghanis, the difference is one of life and death, sometimes literally, and always in a spiritual sense. What has been lost will possibly never be recovered. Such a loss is a true tragedy, because it is a loss without any complementary gain. They have been stripped of their old identities but have no comfort in a new one — at best, they can show each other fading photographs in the comfort of suburban dwellings in various Western countries that have offered them refuge.

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