A review of William Dalrymple's, Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42.
This is a book that we should have had ten years ago, and which will still be read in fifty years' time.
It is a history of the first war fought by Westerners in Afghanistan in modern times, and is clearly designed to cast a light on our present conflict there. But it is also a beautiful and moving account of a tragedy complete with imperial hubris, foolishness and great human suffering.
Its strength comes from two things, found at the front and the back of this thick but readable history. At the back is a huge bibliography, in which Dalrymple to his great credit has made an effort to include Afghan as well as British sources. Visiting Kabul, the author made great efforts to lay his hands on records of what Afghans made of the war. Several of these provide a colourful, even florid, counterpoint to the grim and introspective language of many of the British sources. (I liked, for instance, the phrase "the bird of sense had flown out of the Wazir's brain," used by one of these Afghan writers to describe a drunken government official.)
It is also a lively book filled with colourful characters, helpfully listed at its front. Here is Alexander Burnes, the Scottish roué and brilliant linguist whose advice (if taken) might have saved the British from war, but whose love affairs instead helped to start it. I suppose Burnes was in some attenuated way my predecessor, because in 2007 I went to Afghanistan as political counselor at the British Embassy. But we live in a more anemic age, and I could never claim to have anything like his extraordinary experiences, which culminated in his being cut to pieces on his own front lawn.
Here also is Lady Sale, a formidable woman who led a group of demoralized British hostages to freedom and a brief spell of outlawry in the mountains north of Kabul. And here is Shah Shuja himself, an "intelligent, gentle and literate teenager" who goes on to be the Afghans' most reviled king - the king referred to in the Tolkienesque title.
Shah Shuja was a serially unlucky man, who was evicted from Afghanistan's throne and repeatedly failed to win it back until the British authorities, then ruling most of India, decided that it would suit their interests to help him return. They feared the possibility that the Russians might send an army through Afghanistan and saw Shuja as a reliable ally. And they relied, in making this judgment, on the views of those closest to the top British decision-makers - ignoring the advice of the tiny handful of people who knew Afghanistan best, including Burnes who was then based in Kabul.
What followed was hubris: a huge army was assembled and escorted the bejeweled Shuja - who (whatever he had been like as a teenager) comes across as a vain and haughty man - to Kabul in 1839.
It is worth remembering that the British army was not universally hated in Kabul from the start. Being non-Muslims counted against them, but not fatally. In fact, as this history shows, if the British had acted more sensibly they could have avoided any major confrontation with the Afghans. To quote a Greek proverb, though -- from the people who knew all about hubris and tragedy -- whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad.
The British soldiers took up residence in an indefensible sprawling camp, and diminished their army through spending cuts. They undermined Shah Shuja's authority by making it apparent that he was a Western puppet (or, as the Afghans rather charmingly put it, a "radish").
They conducted love affairs with Afghan women. Dalrymple has dug up a startling metaphor from the work of a poet called Maulana Kashmiri, which may help explain why: "The women of that land/ Are of such delectable beauty/ One could slay a hundred Firangis (Westerners)/ With the power of her buttocks." But when a culture of prostitution established itself in Kabul, and Afghan noblemen were cuckolded, trouble was not far behind.
What was more, when rioting began in November 1841 the British failed to respond, and when a mob surrounded Burnes's home they abandoned him to a grisly fate. This emboldened other groups to join the rebels - who may only have intended to send the British a message, and who to begin with were a disparate and badly-organized group.
Nemesis followed. A bloody trail leads through this book from its beginning. Afghan politicians kill each other in all sorts of ghastly ways, roasted to death or chopped slowly in pieces or blown from the mouths of cannon. The British army destroys entire villages, often killing every man above the age of fourteen in villages that resist them. And when the time comes that, in an extraordinary reverse, the British find themselves at the mercy of the Afghans, their bodies end up heaped so high that they clog the passes leading from Afghanistan back into India. Barely a single one of them returned home. That included, as the book points out, not just British soldiers but uncounted Indians who accompanied them. Many of these were left to die, or sold into slavery.
Even then the sickening litany of horror is not finished. An Army of Retribution is sent by the British to restore their image as a formidable enemy, and pursues its goal with relentless cruelty. Kabul is almost wholly burned to the ground. One of the British participants lamented: "We are nothing but licensed assassins."
This story deserves to be remembered, not least because of the tens of thousands who died - for no wise purpose, as Dalrymple reminds us more than once. (The quote comes from one of the war's few survivors.) The war ended with Shah Shuja dead and the man who had preceded him on the throne, Dost Mohammed, restored to it.
This is a fabulous history. Is it, though, a useful guide to present-day events? Looking at the successive travails of foreign armies in Afghanistan can give an impression that they are always doomed to come to a bad end. (Dalrymple seems at one point to adopt this approach, writing of the Soviet experience but also appearing to prefigure the end of the post-2001 mission: "The Afghan resistance succeeded again in first surrounding then propelling the hated Kafirs into a humiliating exit.")
The earlier passages of the book tell a different, subtler story than this. Like the early British visitors to Afghanistan, I never encountered hostility in Afghanistan as a Christian. (Being British was another story - "Angrez," English, is still a playground insult.) And plenty of foreigners have visited Afghanistan, lived there, and been advisers to its government, without encountering hostility.
If the Taliban do play the role of Dost Mohammed, taking over the country once foreign forces leave, then it will be a consequence of our own mistakes. Several of those are eerily similar to those that the British made 170 years ago. I took four lessons from my reading of this book.
First, power exercised is power diminished. The British never had greater influence than when they had a huge army on the verge of marching into Afghanistan. They never had less influence than when that army was pinned down within the country.
Second, decisions should be taken as near to the ground as possible. In the days before the war when Alexander Burnes was based in Kabul, his advice was often disregarded - because being close to the Afghans meant being far from the centers of British power, where decisions were made. It remains true today that if an Iraqi, or an Afghan, wants to win U.S. support then they must learn English, work the Washington lecture circuit, and appeal to American popular opinion - while ignoring the much more important work of building support at home.
Third, the British wasted money on war that might have been saved by spending small extra sums, at the right time, on diplomacy. Burnes struggled for a budget to support his early diplomatic efforts - money that was refused him, but was then dwarfed by the huge sums needed to invade Afghanistan. That has its echo today. Until recently, the U.S. budget for military bands was said to exceed that for the entire State Department. How much was invested in buying influence in Afghanistan prior to 2001, or even after it for that matter, compared with the cost of deploying over a hundred thousand soldiers there?
Fourth and most important, the Afghans themselves have to be in charge. Shah Shuja proves in Dalrymple's book to have been a more skillful player than the British ever imagined. While they were retreating homewards through Afghan snow and sniper fire, Shuja was safely holed up in his Kabul fortress, wringing his hands at his allies' foolish refusal to take his advice. Cleansed of his association with tainted foreigners, he even went through a brief period of resurgence. Perhaps Hamid Karzai will have the same experience, once he is less visibly reliant on -- and frequently overruled by -- the United States.
Let us hope so. If one thing stands out more clearly than anything from this book, it is that Afghanistan deserves a future better than its past.
Gerard Russell was head of the British Embassy's political team in Afghanistan in 2007-8, and a political officer at the United Nations in Kabul in 2009.
On March 19, Pakistan's government gave a briefing to the country's top military officials.
The topic of this high-level meeting was not the Taliban's takeover of the Tirah Valley, fresh tensions with Afghanistan, or other urgent national security matters. Rather, the briefing-delivered by the commerce secretary to the army, air force, and navy chiefs-was about tightening trade ties with India.
This issue has been a priority for Pakistan's civilian and military leadership alike since November 2011, when Pakistan announced its intention to extend Most-Favored Nation status to India (New Delhi granted this privilege to Islamabad in 1996). The decision was rooted in the realization that the potential benefits of a formal trade relationship with India-lower prices and variety for consumers; bigger export markets for producers; more employment for the masses; and greater revenues (currently lost to smuggling and other informal trade) for the government-were too immense to pass up.
Since then, both countries have continued to give strong indications that they intend to make their trade relationship a close and formal one. Last year, Pakistan abolished its positive list of goods that could be imported from India, and replaced it with a shorter negative list of items that couldn't be imported. The two capitals also launched a new integrated checkpoint at the Attari-Wagah border crossing (which serves the only land route for Pakistan-India trade), and concluded a landmark visa agreement that loosens travel restrictions.
This year, even after political relations took a plunge following a series of deadly exchanges along the Line of Control in January, the desire for trade cooperation remains strong. In recent weeks, each nation's ambassador to Washington has publicly affirmed-one at Harvard, the other at CSIS-the imperative of a strong trade relationship. Just days ago, Islamabad's envoy to New Delhi assured an audience of Indian and Pakistani businessmen that "we want trade normalization and there is a roadmap for that."
However, despite these encouraging signs, trade normalization remains a work in progress. Pakistan had pledged to phase out its negative list by the end of last year-thereby bringing the two countries closer to a fully operational MFN regime-yet today it remains in place.
So why the holdup?
One commonly cited explanation is the resistance of Pakistan's powerful agricultural interests, who fear the consequences of heavily subsidized, cheap food products coursing into Pakistan-particularly those, such as bananas and oranges, which Pakistani farmers already produce in abundance. Predictably, last November, the president of the Basmati Growers Association warned that his members faced "economic suicide." And the head of Farmers Associates Pakistan (a lobby group) threatened to literally block Indian agricultural products from entering Pakistan.
However, a new Wilson Center report on Pakistan-India trade, edited by Robert M. Hathaway and myself, presents a more complex picture. Some food producers actually relish the prospect of acquiring foodstuffs from India, because they believe such products will be of higher-quality then their own, and hence generate greater profits. Another surprising source of support is the textile industry, which believes it can capture major shares of the Indian market. Pakistani home textile and bed ware manufacturers have already explored joint venture options with Indian partners.
There is, however, strident opposition from other sectors. The pharmaceutical industry fears that India's surfeit of raw materials and large economies of scale will marginalize Pakistani products, while the chemical/synthetic fibers sector worries that India will dump its large fiber surplus in Pakistani markets. Our report also highlights opposition within the automobile industry. Manufacturers are anxious that Indian car parts will flood Pakistani markets and devastate local industry, and fear that Pakistani parts exports will suffer because Indian car makers prefer domestically manufactured parts. Islamabad has given in to the car industry's protectionist proclivities; the sector has nearly 400 items on the 1,209-item negative list-far more than any other sector.
Another likely reason for the MFN delay is politics. Security and territorial disputes have a historic habit of contaminating Pakistan-India trade relations at the most inopportune of times. In 1965, the two countries went to war over Kashmir, bringing an abrupt end to a promising period of commercial ties (in the preceding 18 years, the two nations had concluded 14 trade facilitation agreements). Banks in both countries were seized as enemy properties, and customs officials at the Wagah border crossing were the war's first civilian prisoners of war.
Nearly 50 years later, a more subtle dynamic is at play. Last June, an Indian government official lamented that momentum for trade normalization had slowed because Islamabad was linking trade to progress on the territorial issues of Siachen and Sir Creek. It's a lament that highlights a major obstacle to Pakistan-India trade normalization-because it exposes a major disconnect in each country's motivations for pursuing normalization.
Back in April 2012, Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar proclaimed that trade normalization would "put in place the conditions that will enable Pakistan to better pursue its principled positions" on territorial issues. Some observers, however, believe that New Delhi sees stronger commercial relations as an end in themselves. India-at least up to now-has demonstrated no interest in making the territorial concessions that Pakistan hopes closer trade ties will bring about. Islamabad likely understands this disconnect, and is hesitant to consummate MFN because it fears that the Pakistani public would, in time, perceive the move as a sacrificing of political and territorial issues for purely material gain.
Our report, drawing on the views of its eight contributors, offers 15 recommendations aimed at addressing these challenges to normalization. Several suggest how to get Pakistanis to embrace trade as a good thing in of itself. For example, Pakistan's media-a powerful influence on public opinion-should amplify the advantages of bilateral trade by spotlighting the positive sentiments of consumers and producers. Other recommendations focus on how to keep political/territorial issues from sabotaging trade ties. Both sides should remain committed to the Composite Dialogue-a formal process of ongoing bilateral talks that began in 2004 and encompass a wide range of topics, including territorial issues. Additionally, trade should be divorced from developments within the security realm. This means that New Delhi should not impose punitive trade measures or close its borders if Pakistan-based terrorists attack India.
The report also underscores the imperative of acting quickly to cement trade normalization-because global economic developments make doing so a virtual necessity. Rich-country trading partners of India and Pakistan are facing economic slowdowns, and Europe's financial crisis is contributing to diminished exports. Now is therefore the ideal time for India and Pakistan to more robustly tap into each other's markets. To that end, our recommendations call for the implementation of trade-facilitation measures that accelerate the path to normalization.
These include loosening transit restrictions (India and Pakistan restrict each other's ability to use the other's territory to reach third countries); enhancing trade route efficiency (this can be done by improving the quality of roads and railways, and by removing restrictions on the type and size of trucks and train cars); and establishing new private oversight institutions-including a dispute resolution mechanism-to guide the bilateral economic relationship. The emphasis here should be tackling non-tariff barriers (from long waiting times at border crossings to rejections of bank-issued letters of credit) that make many exporters-especially Pakistani-reluctant to pursue cross-border trade.
In recent days, Islamabad has refused to provide a timeframe for completing trade normalization, other than some vague assurances that the negative list will be phased out after this spring's elections. According to Pakistani insiders, such statements are genuine. All political parties in Pakistan fully endorse trade normalization, argue these observers, and whatever the composition of the next government, it will be determined to move forward.
For the sake of regional peace, let's hope so. A new National Intelligence Council study contends that trade may be the only way to keep South Asia peaceful over the next 20 years-because it's the most realistic strategy to dramatically boost employment in Pakistan, and thereby to reduce the prospects for youth radicalization and a new generation of militants who terrorize both Pakistan and India.
So while trade normalization has great potential payoffs for India and Pakistan, it also matters immensely for the rest of us. In the words of one of our report's contributors, "the entire world has a stake in peace in South Asia."
Michael Kugelman is the senior program associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @michaelkugelman
The series of trade facilitating measures enacted by India and Pakistan starting in November 2011 were undoubtedly the first steps toward creating new trading opportunities that could lead to a quantum leap in bilateral trade between the two countries. Trade potential between India and Pakistan is estimated to be $19.8 billion (U.S.), which is 10 times larger than the current $1.97 billion in trade. Of this, India's export potential accounts for $16 billion and its import potential accounts for $3.8 billion. The potential in India's mineral fuels is another $10.7 billion, of which export potential accounts for $9.4 billion and import potential $1.3 billion.
The items with the largest export potential include cellular phones, cotton, vehicle components, polypropylene, xylene, tea, textured yarn, synthetic fiber, and polyethylene. The items with largest import potential include jewelry, medical instruments and appliances, cotton, tubes and pipes of iron and steel, polyethylene terephthalate, copper waste and scrap, structures and parts of structures, terephthalic acid and its salts, medicines, and sports equipment.
In a major move towards normalizing trade relations, Pakistan's transition from a positive list to a negative list in March 2012 (except for road-based trade, for which Pakistan continues to maintain a positive list of only 137 items) was perhaps the most significant step toward unleashing bilateral trade potential. Under the positive list approach, Pakistan imported from India a specified list of items. The negative list specifies the banned list rather than the permitted list of imports, allowing a much greater flow of goods from India.
India and Pakistan also maintain sensitive lists as members of the South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) agreement. While negative lists specify items that are completely banned from trade, sensitive lists consist of items on which trade is permitted but tariff concessions are not allowed. As in any trade liberalization process, there will be both winners and losers. The negative and sensitive lists indicate sectors in which countries want to protect domestic industry from each other's imports.
A substantial proportion of India's export potential to Pakistan - 58 percent - is in products that are on Pakistan's negative or sensitive lists, applicable to India under the South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA). Similarly, 32 percent of India's import potential from Pakistan is in items on the sensitive list for Pakistan applicable under SAFTA. Further, Pakistan's negative list indicates that the automobile and component industry is the largest sector that enjoys protection from Indian imports.
On the other hand, agricultural items, for which resistance to liberalization is building up in Pakistan, are unlikely to have any impact as this sector has already been liberalized. Pakistan's sensitive list indicates that textiles account for 24 percent of the items on the list, but this sector accounts for only 3 percent of India's export potential of items on Pakistan's list. India's sensitive list indicates that the textiles sector is protected the most-a sector in which Pakistan enjoys a comparative advantage. Most of the items on the sensitive list are fabrics, which if allowed at preferential (lower) tariffs into India will compete with large firms (rather than small firms) in India that produce comparable quality. Even though these firms are likely to oppose liberalization, there is no rationale to protect large firms.
India's sensitive list under SAFTA applicable to Pakistan indicates that the textiles sector is protected the most (accounting for 22 percent of India's import potential) - a sector in which Pakistan enjoys a comparative advantage. It can be inferred that while Pakistan considers its automobile sector as the most vulnerable, India fears competition in the textile sector.
To realize the untapped trade potential between the two countries, several physical and regulatory impediments need to be addressed. Expansion of physical infrastructure at the land borders, amendment of transport protocols to allow seamless transportation without the requirement of transshipment of cargo (the transfer of goods from one country's truck to the other country's truck at the land borders because Indian and Pakistani trucks cannot operate in each other's territory),and dismantling of the road-based positive list are measures that could bring about a substantial reduction in the transaction costs of trading between the two countries.
Non-tariff barriers have been a key issue for Pakistani business people trying to access the Indian market. While there are genuine non-tariff barriers related to the complexity of regulatory procedures, non-transparent regulations, port restrictions, and problems related to recognition of standards and valuation of goods, these are not discriminatory and are being addressed in India's ongoing reform process. It is more difficult to address "perceived" barriers that business people face in entering each other's markets. Business people fear entering these markets as they are not sure their goods will be welcomed. This is more so in the consumer goods market segment. However, there is evidence that some businesses have made a bold entry with their country labels and have not met much resistance. Exhibitions and fairs are an effective way of dealing with these perceived barriers.
For deeper and stronger trade linkages it is important that there are foreign investment flows between the two countries. Businessmen from both countries are reluctant to invest as they fear the consequences of a possible political event. If a bilateral investment treaty is put in place it could improve business confidence. In the meantime, businessmen in both countries have suggested allowing joint ownership of manufacturing facilities located in the respective countries. Thus, investors can enter into joint ventures without physically locating in each other's territory. This could be the first step for entry until legal systems can be altered to safeguard investments, and there is an improvement in investors' confidence.
A key determinant of realization of trade potential is the liberalization of visas. The revised visa regime expected to become operational soon provides only an incremental improvement over the existing system as it introduces measures to ease travel of tourists, pilgrims, elderly and children. The business visa is also more liberal for certain categories. As security is a key concern, information technology-driven systems should be made to screen visa applications and physical movement of people.
India and Pakistan need to engage with each other to understand each other's regulatory regimes. As new businessmen enter the economy it is important to have forums that would bring buyers and sellers together. The business communities must create multilevel channels of communication that can reduce misconceptions, bridge the information gap, and generate a significant change in the business environment of the two countries. This could help in realizing the untapped trade potential between the two countries.
Nisha Taneja is a professor at the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations in New Delhi.
NARINDER NANU/AFP/Getty Images
Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s latest vague and controversial anti-U.S. remarks were puzzling to many people both inside and outside Afghanistan, as they implied that the United States is inadvertently colluding with the Taliban. Despite the fact that he later accused the media of misinterpreting his comments and tried to clarify his remarks during a press conference with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Kabul, his comments generated a lot of noise, confusion, and varied interpretations by political commentators.
The most popular interpretations explained that Karzai’s bizarre remarks were likely aimed at cementing his patriotic image. Others believed his comments were attempts to rebuild his legacy as he nears the end of his term in office. Some speculated that they were a result of “bad advice” from his political cronies.
All of these interpretations may have shades of truth to them, yet there is another unnoticed nuance to Karzai’s remarks. Karzai is displaying his influence over the U.S. because of two important matters: peace talks with the Taliban and the 2014 presidential elections.
With regard to the peace talks, Karzai wants to take the lead on the process, undermine any existing secret negotiation channels that have excluded him, and at a minimum, reduce Kabul’s dependence on Pakistan’s cooperation for the success of any future peace talks. Having felt excluded from the “secret channels” allegedly opened by the United States to hold negotiations with the Taliban, Karzai also wants the Taliban to know that approaching the Americans for peace talks will end up nowhere if his government is not involved.
To be able to dominate the political landscape, Karzai needed to showcase his power and authority to the Taliban and counter the militants’ long-running accusations that he is a “powerless” “puppet” of the Americans and that he does not have authority over major decisions in the country So he staged the recent political drama by ratcheting up his demands on the transfer of the Parwan Detention Facility from the U.S. military to the Afghan government and the expulsion of U.S. Special Forces from parts of Wardak province. He also stepped up his anti-U.S. rhetoric to ensure his demands were met despite widespread opposition from influential political and social groups in the country. To add weight to his demands, he even involved the Council of Religious Scholars, a body widely considered to be a tool for advancing Karzai’s personal political goals. While he achieved both demands, it was a political gamble that brought Afghan-U.S. relations to their lowest point in the last decade. Yet for Karzai, the end result was that he managed to display his authority and influence over a major international player, though it has yet to produce any breakthroughs in terms of holding direct talks with the Taliban.
The second issue on Karzai’s mind is the 2014 presidential election. He is constitutionally barred from running for another term, and the Afghan president knows well that his survival and his family’s and clan’s statuses in post-2014 Afghanistan depend on whomever becomes the next leader of the country. Karzai’s anti-U.S. rhetoric and what it achieved will reinforce his position as a “Kingmaker” in the upcoming elections. This is likely to mobilize powerbrokers around him and make it easier for his handpicked candidate to win the election because in Afghanistan, the perception of power is more important than actual power.
For Karzai, having a handpicked successor who ensures the continuation of his and his family’s interest and political survival is more a matter of necessity than choice. This is because, in the incredible tale of Afghan history, many rulers of the country and their families have either been brutally killed or have faced permanent exile in foreign lands. This unfortunate historical precedent has become even more prominent as five out of nine Afghan leaders and their immediate families have been murdered since the Communist revolution in 1978. For Karzai, the stakes are even higher if he loses power or if he becomes politically irrelevant. After all, members of the Karzai family and tribe have enjoyed incredible riches and political domination of southern Afghanistan over the last 12 years, sometimes at the cost of other tribes and political rivals. Since 2001, his relatives and tribe have ruled the south of the country–where Afghan kings have historically hailed from–more like the Sopranos of Kandahar than the Kennedys of Afghanistan.
With the Afghan election date fast approaching, the United States should expect more such erratic statements from Karzai. But they should also understand that Karzai’s anti-U.S. statements neither reflect nor speak for the wider Afghan public view of the United States. In fact, Karzai was taken aback by the harsh criticism he faced from majority in the country, including members of his own government. This backlash stemmed from the anxiety that has gripped the country over the widespread belief that a premature withdrawal of the U.S.-led NATO troops will mark the beginning of a civil war in the country. Many Afghans see their leader’s frantic and bizarre statements as not only damaging to the national interests of the country, but also further throwing the country into the arms of Afghanistan’s two rapacious neighbors: Pakistan and Iran.
Najib Sharifi is the Director of Afghanistan New Generation Organization—a youth empowerment body based in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Ahmad Shafi is an Afghan journalist and a former NPR producer.
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Image
Afghanistan provides all too many examples of the wisdom of Winston Churchill's saying "those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it." Great Britain forgot the hard-learned lessons from the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42) and got caught in the misadventure of the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-80). The Afghan Communist government that took power in a military coup in 1978 did not appear to have learned from the failed westernization and reform experiment of King Amanullah (1919-29); it imposed radical changes and engaged in brutal repression, quickly stirring up a violent reaction that threatened the new regime. The Soviet Union optimistically viewed its military intervention in Afghanistan at the end of 1979 as a limited action with a short time horizon-assumptions that proved unfounded and whose lack of realism would have been apparent from a review of Afghan history. And it does not seem that the United States and its NATO allies reflected on lessons from the Soviet occupation when they initiated the international military intervention in Afghanistan after 9/11, even though, as Bruce Riedel noted: "A country rarely fights the same war twice in one generation, especially from opposite sides. Yet that in many ways describes the U.S. role in Afghanistan today."
Afghanistan and its international partners now face a challenging process of international military drawdown and transition-in security, political, financial, and economic spheres. What can be learned from Afghanistan's history to inform and help guide this process? A recent paper outlines parallels and contrasts between past and present, and distills some historical themes and lessons that may be relevant for the current transition and beyond. It focuses on the change of Soviet strategy and its military withdrawal from Afghanistan (1986-89) and the subsequent Soviet-backed Najibullah regime (1989-92). Of course, any lessons from history must be applied cautiously, in full cognizance of the current situation and major differences from the past. Nevertheless, findings of the paper do shed light on themes and lessons from Afghanistan's history that could inform current transition planning and the path ahead.
First, it is necessary to clear up some myths and misconceptions. Afghanistan is a geographically well-defined country, whose borders were formed during a long period of conflicts and resistance against outside powers, most notably the British and Russian Empires. Dating from 1747, the country has a far longer history as a distinct national entity with continuity to the present than most of its neighbors-such as Pakistan, created in 1947 with artificially demarcated borders in two separate parts, or the central Asian states to the north formed after the break-up of the USSR at the end of 1991. Unlike some of its neighbors, Afghanistan has never had a significant secessionist movement. And the 1933-73 period shows that the country can be stable and effectively governed. The Afghan monarchial state did not penetrate deeply into the countryside, nor was it very successful developmentally, but it did keep the peace and maintain order, was perceived as legitimate internally and externally, maintained reasonable control over its borders, exercised independent diplomacy in a difficult region, and limited and monitored the activities of foreigners within the country-basic state functions which subsequent Afghan governments have struggled to fulfill.
Second, expectations about the pace of progress need to be kept modest. Whether domestically or externally driven, overly ambitious reform efforts with unrealistically short timeframes-particularly those disturbing established power relations in rural areas and affecting religion, culture, and the role of women-have led to sharp domestic reactions that set back development, sometimes for decades.
Third, the possibility of Afghanistan's neighbors playing "spoiler" roles and of regional rivalries undermining transition is very real. Historical experience and the current situation in Pakistan indicate that there may be a need to plan around, or at a minimum for contingency planning, with respect to Pakistan for example preventing a meaningful peace agreement with the Taliban. Iran and to a lesser extent other regional countries may also raise issues for the transition. More generally, the Soviet withdrawal period shows both the difficulties in reaching a peaceful solution to a conflict during military withdrawal, and the adverse consequences of failure to do so.
Fourth, Afghanistan's history has been characterized by chronic succession problems and associated conflict. Indeed not since 1933, and only three times since 1747, was there a smooth succession from one ruler to the next. Of the eight leaders of Afghanistan during 1973-2001, all but one died violent deaths or were ousted/exiled from power. Thus history highlights the challenges associated with the 2014 political transition and underlines the need for effective election preparations and a political strategy to maximize the prospects for smooth elections. If successful and not followed by post-election violence, the next Presidential election would comprise an unprecedented peaceful transfer of government leadership in Afghanistan's recent history.
Fifth, the post-Soviet withdrawal period shows the potential and limitations of Afghan security forces: holding onto Kabul and other large cities is probably the most that can be hoped for. Indeed, more risks may be associated with the Afghan National Army during and after the current transition given greater ethnic factionalization; parts of the ANA could fragment or desert earlier rather than later, whereas the post-Soviet Afghan army held together reasonably well until near the end.
Sixth, the Soviet and post-Soviet experience with arming and paying militias suggests that this approach is fraught with danger, risking instability given dependence on payments to militia leaders and exacerbating grievances and drivers of conflict due to predatory behavior of many militias. A "political marketplace" as seen in some African countries, where factionalized and short-term patronage is used for political and security management to hold together different ethnic groups and regional interests, and where deals reached can be-and frequently are-re-opened including through violence, is unstable and does not provide a good foundation for successful transition or sustained political progress.
Seventh, effective Afghan leadership, pursuing a national agenda, has been critical for achieving positive outcomes in times of change and transition in Afghanistan, including foreign military withdrawals. International experience also underlines the importance of effective national leadership during transitions, as emphasized in the 2011 World Development Report Conflict, Security, and Development.
Eighth, Afghanistan during most of its history has depended on outside financial support in various forms, and the current transition and following period will be no exception. While aid certainly can and should decline from the extraordinarily high levels seen in recent years, abruptly stopping or suddenly cutting back support would be a recipe for disaster, as occurred most notably in 1991-92 when the Soviet Union in its final days stopped all support to the Najibullah regime and it quickly collapsed.
Ninth, the Afghan economy currently is in much better shape than during the Soviet and post-Soviet period, having seen recovery and rapid growth over the past decade in contrast to the widespread destruction of infrastructure and the rural economic base and massive displacement of population during the 1980s and early 1990s. In coming years the destabilizing effects of a deep economic contraction must be avoided, which will depend on maintaining political stability, avoiding deterioration in security, and building confidence, as well as gradual rather than abrupt declines in international aid.
Finally, it is also important not to overlearn some apparent lessons from history. For example, Afghanistan's problematic experience over the past five decades with divisive, ideologically and ethnically driven political parties has made political parties in general an anathema to many Afghans. But effective political parties are an essential ingredient in successful democracies around the world, and a signal failure of the post-2001 period has been that more nationally oriented political parties have not emerged and developed.
In conclusion, some lessons from Afghanistan's turbulent history constitute warnings and cautionary themes about what can go wrong. This reflects the reality of the country's history, and both Afghans and international partners should move forward with eyes open so problems and risks can be managed better and mitigated to the extent possible. Certainly Afghanistan, the region, and the world cannot afford a repeat of the disastrous history of the 1990s-a worst-case outcome whose ramifications and damaging effects continue to be felt to this day. All parties must make strong efforts to ensure that such a repetition of history is avoided.
William Byrd is a visiting senior expert at the United States Institute of Peace. The views expressed here are his own.
There is talk of civil war in the mountains of Khost, the fields of the Helmand River Valley, and on the streets of Kabul. With 2014 looming, Afghans, journalists, diplomats, and military officers alike are wondering what the future holds for this troubled country straddling the Hindu Kush.
Will there be civil war or not? In a recent report I co-authored with Scott Bates for the Center for National Policy, we pointed to civil war and the related problem of security force fragmentation as two of the biggest risks Afghanistan faces. Dexter Filkins penned a persuasive essay in the New Yorker full of vivid details about the factional and ethnic rivalries within the Afghan National Army (ANA) and among its glut of militias. One of his interview subjects memorably remarked:
This country will be divided into twenty-five or thirty fiefdoms, each with its own government. Mir Alam will take Kunduz. Atta will take Mazar-e-Sharif. Dostum will take Sheberghan. The Karzais will take Kandahar. The Haqqanis will take Paktika. If these things don't happen, you can burn my bones when I die.
Another journalist, Robert Dreyfuss, insists that such dire predictions are foolhardy. Citing Afghanistan's former Ambassador to France and Canada, Omar Samad, he argues that Afghans will look into the abyss, lean back, and compromise.
However, people on both sides of this debate are missing the forest for the trees. This misperception begins with our collective failure to take Afghanistan's history seriously.
We often act and talk as if Afghan history began on 9/11, but our reaction to al Qaeda's attacks was an intervention in a long-standing and still-unresolved civil war.
It began over thirty years ago, when the Khalq faction of the communist People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) overthrew the regime of President Mohammad Daud Khan in 1978 and instituted a series of far-reaching radical reforms that sparked rebellion across the country. Against their better judgment, the Soviets occupied the country in support of their beleaguered communist allies, inflaming conflict, which saw seven main mujahideen parties supported by the United States, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and a host of Arab volunteers pitted against the Soviets and the PDPA, who were also divided into two factions.
The mujahideen parties fought each other almost as much as the infidels. The "national" character of these parties was always a screen for a myriad of local conflicts over water, land, tribe, sect, ethnicity, prestige and power.
The Afghan civil war can be divided into different phases. The first was the nascent period of unorganized rebellion that followed the overthrow of Daud Khan. The second phase witnessed the gradual organization of the rebels into the Peshawar Seven and the introduction of Soviet troops. These troops withdrew in 1989 and the mujahideen parties turned on each other along with various quasi-government militias, marking the third phase. The regime of President Najibullah held onto pockets of the country and Kabul. Then the Afghan security forces buckled as Soviet largess vanished into history. Kabul fell in 1992 and the mujahideen continued to fight each other for supremacy, beginning the fourth phase. The Afghans looked into the abyss and jumped straight in.
The fifth phase saw the Taliban - a movement led by mujahideen veterans - storm through the south, take Kabul, and come to a stalemate with the Northern Alliance, a coalition dominated by members of Jamiat-i-Islami. The sixth phase began with Western intervention and the toppling of the Taliban regime in Kabul in response to 9/11. And the current phase has witnessed a return to rebellion, with the Taliban, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hizb-i-Islami, and Jalaluddin Haqqani's network battling the American-supported regime. Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency has reprised its role in the Soviet-Afghan War, now sponsoring and directing rebellion against an American-led coalition.
The leaders of the current rebel movements are rooted in the Peshawar Seven. Taliban leader Mullah Omar fought the Soviets in the south as a part of Harakat-i Inqilab-i Islami. Gulbuddin, an old rival of Ahmad Shah Massoud, has been causing trouble ever since he took to throwing acid at the faces of unveiled women and brawling with rival student activists at the University of Kabul in the late 1960s and early 1970s. His Hizb-i-Islami fought Jamiat-i-Islami and others for control of Kabul in the early 1990s. Haqqani cut his teeth fighting Daud Khan in the 1970s and as a mujahideen commander under Mohammad Yunus Khalis in the 1980s.
And we see the same cast of characters elsewhere. The same mujahideen and government officials who were fighting for God and/or country, selling narcotics, and committing atrocities since the 1970s are some of our closest friends and allies in the war's current phase.
There are differences in scale between these phases in terms of ferocity of combat and destruction, flows of internally displaced persons and refugees, as well as the numbers of casualties. Estimates of casualty and, to a lesser extent, refugee figures in the last thirty years of war vary widely.
In 1978, an estimated 40,000 Afghans were killed, followed by 80,000 in 1979. By 1987, less than a decade after the Soviets entered the conflict directly between 1 and 1.5 million Afghans had been killed in the war. This represents about 9% of the entire Afghan population, which is higher proportionally than the deaths suffered by the Soviet Union during World War II. Losses were more than twice as high among refugees, who were often more vulnerable to attack, disease, infection, and starvation than those who remained in their villages. By the Soviet withdrawal, there were 6.2 million Afghan refugees in Iran and Pakistan.
During the 1990s, estimates of civilians killed range from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands as the mujahideen fought over territory. Much of Kabul was reduced to rubble as various mujahideen commanders fought from neighborhood to neighborhood.
In 2001, different tallies claim somewhere between several thousand and 20,000 Afghans were killed as a result of the American-led intervention. Casualties dipped between 2002 and 2005. Since 2006, over 12,000 Afghan civilians have been killed due to the war. Most of these have been killed by the insurgency. These figures were increasing over the last few years, but have dropped in 2012. Regardless, they still pale in comparison to the 80s and likely the early and mid-1990s as well. More than 5.7 million refugees have returned to Afghanistan since 2002, but 2.5 million Afghan refugees remain, mostly in neighboring countries.
But war is not only a balance sheet of death and destruction. It is a political activity in which force is assessed to be an appropriate means by which to pursue political interests.
The underlying political disagreements, factional rivalries, toxic personalities, and Pakistani interventions and proxies that have been driving war in Afghanistan remain unresolved. The modern bureaucratic system that Western technocrats have willed into existence has not sufficiently vested Afghans in non-violent politics. Afghanistan is already divided into fiefdoms. An ocean of money and the American-led occupation force are all that holds them all together. Both will soon get much smaller.
So the question of whether or not Afghanistan will devolve into civil war after 2014 is the wrong one. The civil war will, of course, only continue. The question is, what will the next phase look like and how can we shape it for the better?
The greatest risk and most likely outcome is the fragmentation of the Afghan National Security Forces. The biggest danger is posed by the divisions within the Afghan National Police (ANP) and the Afghan Local Police (ALP) destabilizing the larger security force institutions. Most of the personnel in both of these forces are deployed in or near their home districts.
And like politics, all civil war is local.
The Nahr-e-Saraj police force in Helmand, for example, is divided between competing narcotics thugs, former Hizb-i-Islami fighters, former communists, and their children all of whom share a history of rivalry, murder, war, and hatred that have barely been contained over the last several years. Different ALP militias in Central Helmand also hail from different factions. Once their special operations mentors withdraw, they may begin to clash with each other, the ANP, and the ANA.
As long as the United States and its allies stay abreast of these factional politics, they can mitigate -- but not avoid -- this fragmentation through proactive in-country diplomacy, firm mentoring, and appropriate mechanisms for the distribution of funding and supplies. ALP militias must be integrated into the Afghan National Police now rather than later. As the ALP force currently stands, it poses an unacceptable risk to the long-term integrity of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF).
The trouble is, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has not been systemically mapping these factional conflicts down to the local level and incorporating this information into their planning. ISAF, the Combined Forces Special Operations Component Command-Afghanistan, the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan, and the US Embassy in Kabul should create a large and mobile cell of officers, diplomats, aid officials, analysts. This cell would be tasked with traveling around Afghanistan and achieving a granular understanding of the local conflicts that are driving the war and threaten to tear the ANSF and the country apart.
What will the next phase of civil war hold? How many will die? Despite the thousands dead over the last decade, the current phase pales in comparison to the 80s and early 90s. Afghans may come to remember the last ten years as the orange slice in the middle of the soccer match. Some in Washington and London have vested hope in negotiations, but there is little evidence for optimism on that front.
Afghanistan is no longer a counterinsurgency problem. Most foreign troops will be heading for the exits over the next two years. Only by taking its politics and history seriously down to the local level will we be able to help ensure sufficient stability as the International Security Assistance Force itself becomes history.
Ryan Evans is a Research Fellow at the Center for National Policy.
DMITRY KOSTYUKOV/AFP/Getty Images
On Monday, the New York Times wrote about an unreleased report by the Afghanistan Human Rights Commission mapping human rights abuses from 1978 until 2001. Spanning the two bloody decades in which Afghanistan oscillated from Russian occupation and violent resistance, to all-out civil war in the early 1990s, to oppressive Taliban rule, the report documents tens of thousands of deaths, torture and other extreme abuses, including evidence of 180 mass graves. Although many of these abuses are well known, what has caused the biggest controversy, and the reason the report is still unpublished, the Times reports, is that many of the perpetrators are members of the current government or are local powerbrokers who still hold sway over key regions and provinces in Afghanistan.
Many of these incidents (the Dasht-e-Laili massacre of 2,000 Taliban prisoners; massacres of Hazara populations in Bamiyan during the Taliban era; the 1993 Afshar massacre by mujahedeen leaders) have been documented by other groups, but this report appears is of a different scale and level of detail. It is certainly the most comprehensive reporting on past abuses to date, and with more forensic and investigative resources, likely more rigorous. It also holds the greatest promise for energizing a more balanced and holistic debate about how Afghanistan might address this horrific past. Whereas past transitional justice projects have been criticized for singling out certain warlords or ethnic groups, this mapping illustrates how widespread the violence was. Victims and culprits can be found in every ethnic group, every region, every pocket of Afghan society. This report might be used as a springboard for a national discussion about how to move beyond finger-pointing and allow recognition of past abuses to be a part of more meaningful national reconciliation.
If it ever comes out that is. Previous high-level efforts to get traction on transitional justice issues have been squashed due to political pressure. For example, a 2005 United Nations mapping report that documented past cycles of violence and conflict and tied specific abuses to perpetrators was never released officially (though it has been leaked). Similarly, much controversy has surrounded the release of the AIHRC mapping report. Originally commissioned in 2005, human rights advocates have been preparing for an imminent release for several years but publication has been repeatedly delayed, in part due to technical issues and follow-up research, but also because of political pressure from the Afghan government, the Times reports. Most recently, when the Afghan government learned of the report's imminent release, the lead Commissioner in charge, Nader Nadery, was fired - many believe in order to prevent the report's release.
Nor is the Afghan government the only player to question if the report should be released. A U.S. official quoted in the piece argued the report should not be published, at least until after Afghanistan's 2014 presidential election "There will be a time for it, but I'm not persuaded this is the time. ...It's going to reopen all the old wounds."
This is a refrain that human rights advocates have heard time and again. While there has been much lip-service to supporting transitional justice, it has always been de-prioritized versus other political and security concerns. With a new election cycle, a new stabilization initiative, prospective reconciliation talks, or simply flowering insecurity always on the horizon, there has never been a "right" time for such a discussion. And in the meantime the rancor caused by impunity continues to erode confidence in the Afghan government and the rule of law, and the abuses of past years seem ever more likely to repeat themselves. This was never truer than it is now, as the looming 2014 elections and withdrawal of international combat troops have prompted many of the same perpetrators of past abuses to re-arm in preparation for a potential new era of violence.
Not only would it be important for such a report to come out now, so that there is at least a chance that such concerns will be discussed during this critical transition period, but it would be a serious setback if the report succumbed to political pressure and was not published at all. Already there are troubling signs that the space to publish critical thought in Afghanistan is getting worse, not better over time. In post-2001 Afghanistan, one of the few unequivocal successes has been the growth and freedom of the media. Afghan journalists, researchers and analysts have consistently been at the forefront of a surging new civil society, asking challenging questions and providing one of the few real checks and balances to government actions. Supported by foreign aid donors, and unrestrained by a Karzai administration that for most of the last 10 years has tolerated criticism, Afghans have enjoyed greater freedom of speech and association than anywhere else in the region.
However, there are signs that space is shrinking. Afghan journalists and stringers have been reporting greater harassment - in some cases leading to physical abuse - at a local level. New procedures have also been instituted that limit NGO activities or research organizations. When I was in Afghanistan earlier this month, we had to seek permission from several, overlapping ministries in Kabul to do even the most basic research or events in the provinces. Given this overall climate, the perception that the AIHRC report is hushed up would send a powerful signal to Afghan media and civil society: If a report of this magnitude and importance cannot be published, then what can?
The fact that such a report could even be produced shows how far Afghanistan has come in the last 10 years. Now, the way the report is treated is an important litmus test of how many of those gains will be preserved following transition. Publishing this report would not, of course, resolve all the underlying political issues. And while not a given, the Afghan government may fear it would put many of its key allies and partners at risk of prosecution (although the Amnesty law likely would prevent that) or disqualification from upcoming elections. However, ignoring this issue for so many years has created much larger consequences that might be better addressed in this transition period than left to fester. The Afghan government has a credibility problem both with the Afghan public and with the international community (whom it relies upon for continued aid). Past efforts to ignore these issues has to widespread, popular disillusionment with the Afghan government, undermining efforts on stabilization, rule of law development, and reconciliation. If the Afghan government embraced this report (which it originally commissioned) as an opportunity to begin a national conversation on these issues, it might be a concrete way to show the Afghan population and international donors that it meant all of the commitments about reforming government institutions and protecting rights that it made at events like the recent Tokyo conference. It would show that while there are many challenges on the horizon, Afghanistan's leaders and political system have moved beyond where it was in the 1980s and 1990s. There has never been a more critical time for such a statement.
Erica Gaston is a Senior Program Officer on Rule of Law in Afghanistan at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
As calls for an international intervention in conflict-wracked Syria begin to echo in Washington, it is critical that policy-makers remember the lessons learned in Afghanistan. One recent editorial on the crisis highlighted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's use of a United Nations Security Council brokered peace plan to buy extra time to crush his opponents, the Free Syrian Army. The plan, pulled together by international envoy Kofi Annan, called for Syria to withdraw troops, tanks and heavy weapons from major urban areas where fighting has claimed over 1000 civilian lives in the last week. Assad's predictable outmaneuvering of the U.N. drew this response from the Editors:
"The inescapable reality is that Mr. Assad will go on killing unless and until he is faced with a more formidable military opposition. That is why the shortest way to the end of the Syrian crisis is the one Mr. Obama is resisting: military support for the opposition and, if necessary, intervention by NATO."
I think that they are right. But having participated in an intervention or two in my day, here are a few thoughts to consider before we jump in:
Go in light.
There will be calls for a large-scale, multinational intervention. But consider Afghanistan 2001, where 300 U.S. Special Forces and 110 CIA officers - supported by precision air strikes - partnered with the Northern Alliance to overthrow the Taliban in a matter of weeks.
Or Libya 2011; Operation Odyssey Dawn (U.S. operation) and Operation Unified Protector (NATO) used air strikes and Tomahawk missiles to cover ground assaults by forces opposed to Qaddafi's military. Duration: months.
The takeaway: a small investment of ground, intelligence, communications and air support can help produce an insurgent victory in a reasonable amount of time. Special Forces, for example - Arabic-speaking, experts in small unit tactics and calling in precision air support - can act as force multipliers by organizing, training, equipping and supporting the Free Syrian Army to conduct guerilla warfare, subversion, sabotage and intelligence activities.
Equally important: the fewer American and coalition partners on the ground the better, as it gives the Free Syrian Army and political leaders-in-waiting more legitimacy. After all, this is their war to win.
Go in smart.
Following a Free Syrian Army victory, we can expect some kind of insurgency. Fomented by former al-Assad regime members with external support, this insurgency will include former Syrian military members, elites who have lost position, true believers, and citizens taking advantage of the chaos to address local grievances.
As the Syrian Army's fortunes decline, caches of weapons and ammunition will be squirreled away for future use.
That said, there are 100 things that can be done right now to tamp down those things that will foster a post-conflict insurgency. And when it starts, there are 100 things that we need to do to put that insurgency to rest.
Go in cheap.
The U.S. is broke. In the coming year, the Pentagon, the Department of State and USAID will all suffer huge budget cuts. And after burning through immense amounts of cash in Iraq and Afghanistan, politicians and citizens alike are going to want this one done on the cheap.
And do not expect our allies to pick up our financial slack. NATO members are recovering from operations in Afghanistan and a rough economic ride thanks to the Euro crisis.
And that's okay - because going in with wads of money for stabilization, reconstruction and development can distort national and local economies and contribute to corruption. It is better to have fewer resources, and work to get government and community contributions for proposed projects. Sometimes less can be more.
Go in with humility.
If the Free Syrian Army pulls off a victory, they will have earned the respect of the world for winning their freedom from a ruthless dictator.
Let's be conscious of shackling and binding the new government with all sorts of Western cultural requirements.
In Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia intervening and international organizations have, at times, forcefully pushed Western ideas, notions and agendas before newly formed governments. Note that what is important to us will probably be important to them too - but maybe not this year, or the next. So think about what is immediately possible, and lay down the groundwork for that which is not.
Go in - but be prepared to walk out
Do not want it more than they want it. Never become so invested in another country's success that you cannot walk away.
If for some horrible reason the post conflict government participates in Human Rights violations, engages in corruption at levels that could lead to state capture, behaves in other ways that are irresponsible or reprehensible, and refuses to work with donor and supporting nations willing to assist them in recovery, then be prepared to walk away.
What is unacceptable in this day an age is to find your nation or international organization so leveraged by a new government that they can behave poorly and get away with it - because they know that you cannot leave; and that you will refuse to fail.
We do not want to find ourselves supporting a government that is as bad as the one that we helped remove.
Lastly, never take the first step until you know that last.
Do not commit to intervene until an agreement is reached with the Syrian opposition that outlines how the conflict ends and how the peace is to be secured.
Perhaps an important starting point to the conversation: "what do you/we want Syria to look like in 20 years?" The answer to that question tells you how to construct your post-conflict situation - and that in turn tells you how to fight your war.
Discuss things like:
- dismissing the Syrian military wholesale or deciding to work with it;
- choosing to form either a strong central government (that may lack capacity) or a federalized state;
- the process for creating a new constitution: timeline, participation, and content;
Essentially, what we want to avoid is rushing to bad decisions that will hamstring efforts to bring Syria back as a full participant in the world community.
Intervention seems to be a possibility. We have a lot of experience and talent in this arena - let's put it to good use.
Roger D. Carstens is a Senior Research Fellow at New America Foundation. A former Army Special Forces officer, he is currently in Somalia conducting research for a book that he is writing on counterinsurgency.
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Portrait of Massouma Esmatey-Wardak (left), UNESCO Conference, Paris, France, 1959
"I was trouble," my grandmother said with amused satisfaction as she recounted tales of growing up in Afghanistan. "Right from the start, I gave the boys hell."
At first, the "boys" were cousins in Kandahar whom she harassed mercilessly, at the risk of a beating by her parents; then it was the men in the government whom she lobbied as the president of the Afghan Women's Council (AWC) and Minister of Education, and later it would be a group of Islamic fundamentalists whom she defied -- at the risk of death.
Massouma Esmatey-Wardak was not an exception, but an example of the freedom countenanced by women in Afghanistan. In 1959, at the advent of social reforms by Prime Minister Daud Khan under King Zahir's rule, she was among a small group of women who adopted the ban on mandatory veiling in public. Maintaining that Islam and honor were not contingent on women's seclusion, she advocated for women's rights and served on the Constitutional Advisory Committee that drafted the progressive 1964 Afghan Constitution, which enfranchised women and gave them access to education and employment. In 1965, her election to the lower house of the Afghan Parliament from the conservative province of Kandahar surprised the nation and further revolutionized the role of women. She was not the token female candidate, but rather the product of a popular vote to elect an educated and competent representative. Championing sweeping reforms that galvanized social and economic development, she became known for her steadfast commitment to women's rights, in face of societal pressures, as well as her pragmatic and frighteningly-tough character.
Massouma at a UNESCO Conference, Paris, France, 1991
As president of the AWC from 1987-1990, she made bold strides in gender equality that would characterize her leadership. Her accomplishments included income generation opportunities for women, the strengthening of women-focused civil service organizations, equal pay with men, and workplace childcare; improvements designed to integrate females, who had long been traditionally marginalized, into the public and professional sphere. She also worked to change child custody regulations that granted the father and his agnates de facto custody based upon Islamic law. By the end of her tenure at AWC, membership had expanded to 150,000 women in almost every province.
In the wake of her successes at the helm of AWC, President Najibullah Ahmadzai appointed Massouma as Minister of Education in 1990, though she was not a part of his contentious political party. Her appointment at a post formerly held by her husband, who supported her, was part and parcel of the political reformations in the country at that time. Under the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA), the country was progressing socially in a way that seemed incongruous with Islam. And more than ever, Massouma was determined to secure access to education and promote literacy for women. The efforts were condemned by most Mujahideen leaders, who perceived the developments as a communist endeavor destined to obliterate Islam from the country's core values, and promote sexual anarchy. [[PAGEBREAK]]
Women's rights disintegrated in the chaos of the civil war -- and the brain drain that ensued with the exodus of educated Afghans. My family left in 1990 at the cusp of the conflict, but my grandmother stayed until 1992 to hand over the Ministry of Education (MoE) to its new leader. After the Soviet withdrawal, President Najibullah agreed to transfer power to the Mujahideen in an effort brokered by the United Nations. Headed by President Mojadeddi, the former Jihadists took key ministerial positions in the new Islamic Afghan Government. The MoE was entrusted to Mohammad Yunus Khalis, a now-notorious commander and contemporary of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who led his own Islamic party, Hezb-e-Islami Khalis. My grandmother recalled the day she met him and his staff in her office; she in her tailored skirt suit, and he and his men in the traditional shalwar kameez, ridden with lice and spitting snuff under the carpets. Her key and the future of women's education rested in Khalis' hand.
For three months, Massouma lived alone in an apartment in Kabul with factional fighters fighting above her. She witnessed the atrocities that galvanized a period of depraved lawlessness during the civil war, as young girls jumped out of windows to escape rampant sexual assault by the fighters. Some sought her out in anger and were turned away by a former staffer, who remained loyal even as the threats to her life intensified. It was eventually through him that she sent word to Hamid Karzai, then the deputy minister of foreign affairs. He assured her security and safe passage, and issued her a passport out of Afghanistan. But it was no longer a country she recognized.
The Taliban dealt the final blow to the social development and women's rights of my grandmother's generation. The current Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan maintains a sketchy record of human and women's rights, and yet 50 years ago, even women in some rural areas had access to education and healthcare. Neither my grandmother nor my grandfather was born to wealthy families with vast social capital. They came from modest families that understood the value of education -- especially for women -- as a part of Islam, not divorced from it.
Born in 1930 in Kabul, Massouma was encouraged by her parents, who were teachers, to excel in her studies, which she managed to do even as the caretaker of her six siblings when her mother fell ill. At 17 she became a teacher herself and enrolled in college to study social sciences. Her performance earned her a scholarship to study education administration at a teaching college in Illinois. Together with her husband, who would complete his master's degree in physics at Georgetown University, she came to America in 1957 and returned to Afghanistan in 1959 with high hopes of modernizing the country.
Massouma holds hands with the president of the Women's Federation of Czechoslovakia, Prague, Czechoslovakia, 1988
Like most displaced immigrants, my grandmother was far removed from whom she once used to be when she died in 2007. The headstone that crowns her with a simple epitaph is a reflection of her unwavering strength today, and renders the irony of her demise from Parkinson's a particularly cruel one. An even greater dishonor to Massouma's memory would be if the achievements of powerful pioneers, like her, were stricken from the current discourse of social change in Afghanistan. They are a testament to the power and potential of Afghan women -- and that cannot be buried nor forgotten.
Thirty years ago, before there were cell and satellite phones, way before WiFi and drones, news about seemingly obscure wars like Afghanistan came from the plucky reporters who trekked into the heart of conflict to interview rebel fighters in their lair. British-educated Edward Girardet was looking for his "own Spanish Civil War or Vietnam to cover" when he graduated from college, and his reporting from Afghanistan for the Christian Science Monitor during the period of the Soviet occupation from 1979-1989 was a stellar example of the unilateral genre.
He would disappear from view for weeks on end, hike through contested zones with Russian troops very close by en route to the Panjshir valley, where he would interview "the Lion" -- guerrilla leader Ahmed Shah Massoud. To return to his home base in Peshawar he'd search for a Pakistani border post and turn himself in for illegally crossing the border. After tea and a friendly chat with the post commander, he'd be sent off on safe transportation. Girardet's Killing the Cranes makes gripping reading.
Jonathan Steele of London's Guardian also traveled to Afghanistan during the nine plus years of conflict, but he arrived by plane from Moscow, visa in hand, and covered the other side, reporting from the perspective of the Soviet-installed Afghan government and the Russian officials sent to prop it up.
The past is prologue in land-locked Afghanistan as anywhere else, and the challenge for both journalists in writing memoirs of the 1980s is to make the jihad of that era and the power they were fighting relevant to the very different contest now under way. This isn't an easy task, for the arduous trek through the Hindu Kush will provide the brave, lone reporter at best a slice of events at a certain moment, but it may not have any inherent message for readers 30 years later. It is still tougher for someone who covered the war only from the Russian side, which would seem like a classic case of looking through the wrong end of the telescope. Full disclosure: I've known both authors for decades.
On the surface, there are more than a few similarities between the two periods: a superpower with enormous resources and advanced technology is bogged down in an asymmetrical war with indigenous Islamist insurgents, who survive in large part thanks to backing from neighboring Pakistan, which has an agenda of its own. The differences also jump out: Pakistan, nuclear-armed, is now working both sides of the street -- facilitating the U.S. warfighting, while backing the Taliban insurgents killing U.S. troops. The added twist is that those insurgents in the past five years have spawned a Pakistani Taliban that seeks the overthrow of the Pakistani state.
Girardet's main contention is that by funneling weapons through Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), which heavily favored the ruthless commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the CIA set the stage for the struggle now under way. "Simply put, it was the U.S. backing of the Islamic extremists in the 1980s that helped produced the current military quagmire in Afghanistan." Fair enough. But then he takes it several steps further. "The Hyena," as he calls Gulbuddin, never won a battle except against his Mujahidin rivals, and also "may have had dealings with the KGB," which "built him up" through its propaganda. His source for the latter claim is a 1990 research report by a House Republican committee on terrorism, co-chaired by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), the champion of the Mujahidin cause. Girardet says the United States provided Hekmatyar at least half a billion dollars in military and financial support. While many of Girardet's claims are factually sound, what's missing is original research, so a reader can judge whether Rohrabacher's claim is true, partly true or a canard.
The final quarter of the book is a once-over lightly account of the past 20 years, relying heavily on sourcing from non-governmental organizations. Girardet himself long ago started up his own NGO to encourage media coverage of conflicts. But the same initiative which led to a series of excellent guides for reporters covering Afghanistan also advocated involving "credible media, like the BBC and VOA more directly as a means of promoting mediation among the belligerents. This could be through practical information outreach aimed at making fighters and local populations more aware of on-the-ground humanitarian needs," he writes, thereby blurring the line between media and aid organization.
"As with so many foreigners passionately involved with Afghanistan, it has been hard to see what has become of this extraordinary country and its people since war first erupted in 1978," he writes, noting that "many of us have romanticized Afghanistan because of its harsh beauty and poetic embrace."
In December, 2001, the German government asked Girardet to take part in the Bonn conference setting up a transitional government in Afghanistan. He was in a group examining constitutional and legal aspects, a crossing of lines which no staff journalist could do. Girardet then switched hats in his book, criticizing his own work: "Much of what finally emerged from the Bonn accords was a recipe for disaster...equally farcical is the legal system that eventually emerged," thereby denouncing what seems to be his own handiwork. It would have been valuable to know just how that salami was made.
This is not an analytical book; it lacks source notes; and the case for his conclusion on the last page -- "All I see is a replay of history" -- is thin. For example, he compares Operation Moshtarak, the high profile U.S.-led operation in 2010 to remove the Taliban and the drug trade from a key part of Helmand province, with the Red Army offensive against Massoud in Panjshir. "Operation Moshtarak had clear parallels with the Red Army-Afghan offensive I witnessed twenty-seven years earlier in the spring of 1982 against the Panjshir. The push, which involved some twelve thousand Soviet-Afghan troops, was roughly the same size as Marjah's," he says. In 1982, he recalls, reporters were with the guerrillas, slept in the villages, drank tea with the locals. Girardet notes with surprise that the "dispatches from the British and American military fronts of today often seem to be from a different war, with assessments that have little to do with Afghanistan."
But he should know that the Taliban are not Massoud's Panjshiris; their commanders will kidnap a journalist trying to embed with them, sell him or her to other commanders or hold them for ransom for a year or more. The aim of Moshtarak was to set up civilian control and leave, a far cry from the Red Army offensive.
Girardet also acknowledges that enterprising Afghans are now starting up businesses, cross-border trade is vibrant, newfound wealth has enabled local people to send their children to schools, and education is one of the country's "most dramatic success stories."
Steele's "Ghosts" is a packhorse of a different color, recounting his trips into Kabul in 1981, 1986, 1988 and 1989, but without any reflection or second thoughts. His sources are largely from the Soviet-backed People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), with no voice from the guerrilla side except for the much despised Hekmatyar, with whom he had some fascinating exchanges. Even though Steele has returned to the country several times since 9/11, he apparently did not use the opportunity to flesh out his facts.
This is an unabashedly revisionist history of Afghanistan in the modern era.
Steele says a lot of Afghans still admire Najibullah, the Soviet-backed leader who served as president from 1986 to 1992 after heading the KHAD secret police at a time it reputedly arrested, tortured and killed large numbers of Afghans.
"In today's Afghanistan, many Afghans in their late thirties or older look back on the Najibullah period with nostalgia, and his picture is occasionally seen on windshields or bumper-stickers in Kabul. People remember it as a time of genuine national sovereignty in which a secular and apparently uncorrupt regime was in charge."
"Some older Afghans even hark back favorably to the Soviet period, when millions of rubles of aid flowed into the country and did not disappear into ministers' or other corrupt pockets in the way it has done more recently under the US occupation." No source given, so just take it on faith.
Ghosts is built around a device that will madden any serious student of Afghanistan: a set of myths supposedly held by the western media and governments.
"One reason why the United States has repeated so many Soviet mistakes is that much of the West's conventional wisdom on Afghanistan rests on myths," Steele writes. "Policymakers and the media peddle an inaccurate view of Afghanistan's history. In this book, I hope to set the record straight."
Chief among these "inaccuracies" is that the defeat the Soviet Union suffered in Afghanistan was a military defeat during nine plus years of guerrilla war. According to Steele it stemmed directly from the failure of the Soviet project to modernize the country. The defeat "was political, not military," he writes. "Moscow's attempt to safeguard the PDPA program of radical reform in one of the world's poorest and most conservative countries had run into the sand." But this was a historic defeat for the Red Army too, for the collapse of political support for its venture in Afghanistan led to the collapse of the Soviet dominance in Communist East Europe.
Steele makes no secret that he opposed the U.S. intervention after 9/11, putting him in a minority at the left-of-center Guardian. He recounts the debate: "The war's opponents (myself included) argued that attacking Afghanistan would provoke anger in many parts of the Muslim world and increase the terrorist risk. The ‘war' against terrorism was not a job for troops or missiles. It should not really be a war at all. Dealing with terrorists had to be a combination of politics and police."
He says he also argued to his colleagues that Osama bin Laden, unlike Japan during World War II, was not interested in territory, for "his was a war of ideas."
A revisionist perspective sometimes leads to fresh insights and a valuable critique. But in this case, no example jumps out that is worth citing. What does jump out is that the author, in failing to shoot down the very myths he posits, gives currency to the Soviet myths used to justify the invasion.
Take "myth" number three: "The Soviet invasion led to a civil war and Western aid for the Afghan resistance. " To counter this, he quotes a Russian diplomat "who preferred not to be named" 30 years later after the event. "Soviet officials...believed that holding Kabul, the other main cities and the roads connecting them was enough to keep the Mujahedin at bay and prevent Afghanistan from going over to the Western side."
Another variant is "myth" two: "The Soviet invasion was an unprovoked attack, designed to capture new territory." In actual fact, Steele reports, "the invasion's primary aim was to protect the Soviet Union's southern border and save a revolutionary government that was meeting armed resistance."
The inconsistencies largely discredit the thesis. Was it the threat of Afghanistan going "Western" that led to the invasion, armed resistance against a friendly government, or a Soviet desire to "modernize" Afghanistan?
His debunking is sometimes simplistic. Take the "myth" that the CIA's supply of Stinger missiles forced the Soviets out of Afghanistan. That, according to Steele, is "a right-wing propaganda attempt to manipulate history."
In the more recent era, his "myths" defy the facts. He calls it a "myth" that the Taliban "are uniquely harsh oppressors of women," and then there is myth 13: "Banning girls from school is a Taliban trademark." He even calls it a "myth" that the West abandoned Afghanistan after the Red Army departed.
The lack of rigorous analysis, far from undergirding, instead raises questions about his major point, which is to plead for Washington to negotiate a "power-sharing" arrangement with the Taliban, though he doesn't define what that would be. He doesn't help his case by saying there's "one enormously important difference" between the record of President Obama with Soviet Party Chairman Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev, he says, seriously sought a negotiated exit while the U.S. sought to extend the civil war.
"The lesson for today is clear," Steele says. "This time there must be negotiations. For the Obama administration to put its weight behind a serious effort to end the Afghan civil war would atone, in part, for the U.S. policy of sustaining and enlarging it in the 1990s."
If you accept Steele's reading of history, this may well follow. Anyone who doesn't will have to look for a better set of arguments.
Roy Gutman is McClatchy Newspapers' bureau chief for Turkey and the Gulf, based in Istanbul.
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As Yogi Berrafamously put it, "It's déjà vu all over again." Amid a looming budget standoff,a presidential election cycle in full swing, and the popular dissatisfaction ofboth the left and the right, the United States has arrived -- yet again -- at acritical juncture in its war in Afghanistan, with key decisions being debatedconcerning the post-surge scenario and the prospects of political reconciliationwith various militant groups. The tragedy is that, much like its previousiterations, the current round of the Afghanistan debate in Washington isriddled with a staggering number of mischaracterizations. While the Cold Warproduced a cohort of able Soviet specialists, the decade-long war inAfghanistan has so far failed to produce sufficientregional expertise in the United States (this reasonably comprehensive list, for example,identifies just 107 Afghanistan-watchers in the United States).
Consequently, anumber of questionable assumptions about the Afghan people -- concerning theirattitudes to foreigners, their history, their society, and their values -- gounchallenged. Historicalanalogiesand socioeconomicdata are regularly manipulated by various parties to validate their ownbiases and preconceptions, and readingsof Afghan historyare, when not completely erroneous, unapologeticallyWestern-centric. For example, onecommon view that has gainedcirculation among think-tankers, policymakers, and congressional staffersis that a majority of Afghans are inherently hostile to the United States. Yet this viewpoint is not borne out by polling data, however imperfect. Thelast pollconducted by ABC News, the BBC and, ARD German TV, for example, says that nearlyseven in 10 Afghans support the presence of U.S. forces in their country.
Another and perhapsmore damaging misperception is of Afghanistan as the "graveyardof empires": a historically insignificant strategic backwater where greatcivilizations -- inevitably European ones -- ended up mired in ruinous war. Buteven a cursory examination of the region's history makes a mockery of this nowentrenched concept. During his conquests, Alexander of Macedon spent about twoyears solidifyinghis control of what is today Afghanistan and Central Asia, referred to inhis day as Bactria and Sogdiana. In fact, his army chose to reverse its coursein today's Punjab, over 200 miles to modern Afghanistan's east, afterthe Battleof the Hydaspes. The 19th-century British Empire, despitean initial setback, wonsubsequent engagements against the Afghans in its bid to create a bufferzone to British India's northwest. And the defeat of the Soviet military in the1980s was only made possible with American,Pakistani, and Saudi support.
The "graveyard of empires" canard also largely ignores non-Western history. Ancient and medievalAfghanistan was in fact at the heart of a number of major civilizations,including the GreekBactrian states; the KushanEmpire, which was a contemporary of imperial Rome; and, from the 10th to 12th centuries, the Ghaznavidsultanate, whoserulers made regular military forays into the subcontinent. The great MughalEmpire, at its zenith perhaps the most prosperous realm on Earth, had itsfoundations in what is today's Afghanistan, when its progenitor Baburestablished a presence in the region between Kabul and Peshawar. Count, on topof all this, several centuries of sustained Persian rule over the region.
In addition topopular misconceptions of Afghan xenophobia and historical backwardness, argumentsare regularly setforth about theincompatibility of Afghan societywith democracy.Although Afghanistan does have a history of underdeveloped democraticinstitutions, there are many reasons to question this blanket assessment.Definitional problems certainly persist: For many rural Afghans, democracyconnotes unlimited freedoms, rather than responsible and self-determinedgovernance. During the 1970s and 1980s, Soviet forces and their Afghan clientsoften called themselves democrats, further adding to confusion about the termin the minds of many Afghans. At the same time, there are mechanisms -- shuras,jirgas -- that, though hardly Jeffersonian, are analogous to the town hallsthat formed the bedrock of early American democracy. In this year's edition ofthe reasonably reliable Asia Foundation surveyof Afghanistan -- which polled 6,348 Afghans from all 34 provinces -- anoverwhelming 69 percent of Afghans polled say they are satisfied with the waydemocracy works in Afghanistan.
Ethnic politics isanother common source of confusion, with regular calls now heard inWashington for a soft partition of the state, creating a Taliban-dominated "Pashtunistan" separated from a confederation of provinces dominated by ethnicTajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks. Soft partitions, which were also advocatedin the case of Iraq not that long ago by U.S. Vice President JoeBiden, may appear to be easy and seductive solutions to pacifying complexpost-colonial societies overrun by civil war. But among otherproblems, they present a moral quandary, implicitly (thoughunintentionally) opening the door to ethnic cleansing. A cursory look athistory tells us that the partition of mixed political entities has almostalways been accompanied or preceded by ethnic cleansing or immense sectarianviolence: Consider India, Palestine, Bosnia, or Cyprus. Afghanistan'spopulation is heterogeneous, and given the commitment to establishing apluralistic and democratic state, calls for the country's de facto or de jurepartition appear both irresponsible and impractical.
Just as there areseveral peculiar narratives about Afghan society and history in steadycirculation, thereis also growing skepticism aboutthe United States' abilityto prosecute theAfghanistan war, with enormousdivergences between official U.S. and Afghanperspectives. One reason often cited for limiting the United States'involvement is the financial burden that the Afghanistan war represents in an era ofausterity. But according to the Congressional ResearchService, the war in Afghanistan will cost the United States an estimated$114 billion this year, a mere 3 percent of the federal budget, and a muchsmaller fraction of the American economy. This appears to be a small investmentrelative to the importance to American foreign policy and national security ofgetting Afghanistan right.
Somecommentators make theargument that the Afghanistan war is a sideshow to other forms of securitycompetition, particularly in East Asia -- that, in essence, the continued U.S.involvement in Afghanistan distracts from looming threats to U.S. securityposed by other great powers such as China. This is questionable for at leasttwo reasons. Firstly, other major powers -- including China, India, Russia, andIran, all of whom see Afghanistan as part of their extended neighborhoods -- areclosely watching developments affecting the U.S. position there. Americansuccess or failure will resonate in Moscow and Beijing, as well as New Delhiand Tehran. Secondly, the United States is not confronted with a binary choicebetween prosecuting the Afghanistan war and retaining a military presence againstmajor state threats. The United States has faced multiple security challengesbefore; the resources required to tackle them are quite different from oneanother; and U.S. military resources dedicated to securing Europe and theAsia-Pacific region have been steadilydeclining regardlessof investments in Afghanistan.
Finally, it is widely believed today inWashington that the Taliban enjoy popularpublic support, particularly among the ethnic Pashtun population ofAfghanistan. If true, it is certainly not reinforced by extant survey data. Noris the Afghan public weary of the United States' intensified involvement. Accordingto the Asia Foundation survey, aplurality of Afghans (46 percent) believes that the country is headed in the rightdirection, compared with 35 percent who believe otherwise. What is even moreencouraging, only 11 percent of Afghans have a lot of sympathy for armed opposition groups,half the proportion who expressed similar sentiments two years ago. In that sameperiod, those who have "no sympathy at all" for the Taliban have almost doubledto 64 percent of the population. Despite frustrations with the ability of the currentgovernment to deliver, Afghans express optimism about democracy as a principle,associating it most closely with peace and freedom. The United States, suchpolls clearly reveal, should not fool itself with undue pessimism. Its effortsare gradually beginning to bear fruit.
Currently,Afghanistan's fledgling state, though challenged frequently by security, governance,and development problems, has an elected government and an internationalpresence to contribute to the work of nation-building. Despite the ongoinginsurgency, widespread corruption, and the daily risk of arbitrary orextrajudicial killing, the Afghan people continue to strive for normalcy intheir day-to-day lives and hope for peace and prosperity in the future. Withthat in mind, the pontification of a few pundits and the exigencies ofnear-term politics should not lead to poor or rash decision-making. A balancedview of Afghan public opinion, history, culture, and politics -- and, just asimportantly, of the United States' ability to shape these factors in advancingits national security interests -- is crucial as Washington debates a decisionthat will have important regional and international implications for decades tocome.
JavidAhmad, a native of Kabul, is program coordinator and Dhruva Jaishankar is program officer with the Asia Program of the German Marshall Fund of the UnitedStates in Washington, D.C. The views reflected here are their own.
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The idea of defiance against tyranny and oppression owes a great deal to Hussain ibne Ali, the hero of the battle of Karbala in 680 AD. With just 72 valiant followers and family members, the grandson of Prophet Mohammad faced the military might of the Muslim empire ruled then by a despot, Yazid bin Mu‘awiya. Hussain refused to sanctify Yazid's reign through baya'a (allegiance) and consequently, he and his small contingent were martyred in the most brutal of fashions. The accompanying women and children were imprisoned for months in the dark alleys of Damascus.
On every Ashura, the 10th day of the Muslim calendar month of Muharram (which fell on December 6 this year), many Muslims all across the world commemorate Hussain's great sacrifice, but tragically the central message ofKarbala appears to evade the broader Muslim thinking today. In Western literature and research on Islam, this episode is often viewed through the lens of certain Shi'a rituals practiced on and around Ashura. It is worth probing why that is so. Even more importantly, it is critical to understand why terrorists and extremists like al-Qaeda andthe Taliban often attack the Ashura related gatherings (as is evident from attacks in recent years in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan), and what is at the core of their disdain of all the things that Imam Hussain stood for.
A brief historical reference is required to understand the context of Ashura.After Prophet Mohammad's death in 632 AD, the expansion of Islam became a global phenomenon, courtesy of a variety of means. Islam was a rising power in theworld, but in the process, the fabric of Muslim society was also being transformed, as the Muslim outlook was gradually influenced by people from various cultures. New elites that were more interested in power and wealth alone started emerging as more influential, and consequently, Islam's emphasis on egalitarianism, justice and equity started getting diluted. A deliberate attempt to imitate the dynastic empires of the Byzantines and Sasanians was obvious to many observers at the time. The distortion of Islamic ideals became a favorite pastime of Yazid and his coterie. The expansion of influence by way of the sword was a hallmark of his times.
Imam Hussain, the spiritual custodian of Islam at the time, staunchly stood against this shifting tide, and his unprecedented sacrifice was intended to shake the Muslim conscience and expose the misleading path introduced in the name of Islam. It was a matter of principle for him - one of human dignity and honor. Challenging the newly introduced monarchical system of government was another important feature of this struggle. In his last sermon before departing from Madina on his journey towards Karbala, Iraq, he made clear his mission: "I seek to reform the Ummah of my grandfather." An armed struggle for that purpose was never his intended route. He believed in conveying the message through love and compassion. It was a message motivated truly by humanity. The great Indian leader Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi aptly acknowledged this by saying: "I learned from Hussein how to achieve victory while being oppressed."
This was not a mere political battle, though some Muslim historians try to project it that way so as to cover up not only Yazid's atrocities, but indirectly to defend his school of thought as well. The mainstream view, however, both among Sunni and Shi'a Muslims, is very sympathetic toward Imam Hussain. It would be an absolute travesty of Muslim history to call this a Sunni-Shi'a battle. Some writers still do that, either out of lack of in depth understanding, or in a flawed effort to simplify things for a lay Western reader. On the Muslim side, only a handful of controversial clerics project this version. Still, most Muslims shy away from digging too deep into the matter, and carefully avoid questioning the historical developments leading to the rise of Yazid.
Insightfully, the whole narrative of tragedy at Karbala would have remained unheard of without the tireless struggle of Hussain's sister Zainab ibne Ali, who as an eyewitness of the tragedy propagated details of the event far and wide among Muslims. While in chains, she courageously challenged Yazid's policies on his face in his court in Damascus soon after the battle at Karbala. Many Muslims -- some out of ignorance and others out of bigotry -- avoid appreciating the crucial role of a woman in this grand struggle. Zainab's contribution to fighting for the essence of the Muslim faith was as critical as that of Hussain.
Though Shi'as are often at the forefront of commemorating the tragedy of Karbala, Sunnis, especially those belonging to the Barelvi school of thought in South Asia and almost all Sufi circles in broader Asia and the Middle East, also enthusiastically participate in paying homageto Imam Hussain and his companions. Extremists and terrorists among Muslims want to destroy this element of unity, as sectarianism suits their divisive and violent agenda. Distorting religion to make it dogmatic in outlook and regressive in approach is also what helps them achieve their goals exceedingly well. For them, political power is an end in itself. Hussain's message stands completely contrary to this perspective.
The attack on Shi'a Muslims observing Ashura in Kabul on December 6, which killed 55 people, was a manifestation of the perpetrators' perverse worldview. Next door in Pakistan, where this threat is more pronounced, a heavyprice (in the form of terrorism and violence) is being paid for ignoring the expanding tentacles of religious extremism. Though things remained peaceful on Ashura in Pakistan this year, the Kabul attack was claimed by a splinter wing of a banned Pakistani sectarian group, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi(LeJ). Authorities have yet to uncover solid proof ofwho was responsible. Irrespective of whether the Afghan Taliban was directly involved in this specific attack or not, their policies during the ‘reign of terror' in Afghanistan (1996-2001) indicate that they hold similar views toward those who honor the martyrs of Karbala. Taliban massacres of ethnic Hazara Afghans (of whom the vast majority areShi'a Muslims) in the late 1990s are a case in point. The curse of sectarianism has inhibited spiritual growth of many Muslims.
The remedy to the malady lies in mainstreaming the message of Karbala both within the worldwide Muslim communities and among those who are interested in deciphering the foundational themes of Islamic discourse. At a higher level, Hussain's message of defiance against oppression and personal sacrifice for the cause of humanity is applicable for a broader audience for generations to come.
Dr. Hassan Abbas is a Senior Advisor at the Asia Society and the editor of Watandost blog. He is based in Washington D.C.
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On September 2, 2010 an airstrike conducted by Joint Special Operations Command in Afghanistan's Takhar province killed a man named Zabit Amanullah and nine of his companions. NATO forces in Afghanistan believe the raid killed a Taliban deputy governor called Mohammed Amin, but there is ample evidence that all those killed were in fact civilians who were caught in the crossfire of a military intelligence case of mistaken identity.
I began investigating the Takhar air strike as soon as it happened because I knew Zabit Amanullah, who had previously worked with me as a human rights researcher. With the help of another Afghan friend who had acted as Amanullah's security focal point, by the following day, I had discovered the identities of those civilians killed in the attack. It took me six months to find the real Mohammad Amin and work out the relationship between him and Zabit Amanullah. Special Forces helpfully supplied the Afghanistan Analysts Network, which recently released an authoritative investigation into the Takhar airstrike, with the sketchy biographical details they had on Amin. I sought the help of contacts within the Taliban in northern Afghanistan to find the real man who matched their profile.
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ISLAMABAD -- After a team of helicopter-borne U.S. Navy Seals stormed a compound in the densely populated Bilal Town neighborhood in the Pakistan Army town of Abbottabad, Osama bin Laden was dead. Pakistan was notified after the operation. The U.S. Congress and citizens alike are dumbfounded that America's archenemy was hiding in the plain sight of the Pakistan military and intelligence rather than in the mountainous frontier of the tribal areas. Former President George W. Bush famously declared that the United States would smoke him out of his cave.
However, Abbottabad is far from a cave. The small city is about a three hour drive from Islamabad, reached through roads that trace the modest altitude climb. The town is a hilly and verdant spot where many Pakistanis retreat for the summer when the plains are scorching. It's near some of the famous hiking spots such as Natiagali. Abbottabad is covered in most guidebooks for Pakistan, including Lonely Planet. Most notably, the hill-town is also home to Pakistan's Military Academy and indeed, Bin Laden's massive, albeit non-luxurious, lair was a mere kilometer from this prestigious institution and the security that accompanied it.
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Editor's note: The author is the chief executive of the British Council, a co-sponsor of The Great Game play series. For reviews of and commentary on the play, please see The New York Times, the Washington Post and National Public Radio.
Last Thursday I had the opportunity to sit next to Masood Khalili -- a ringside player in Afghan politics over the last twenty years -- as he relived his past on stage, including the terrifying moment when he witnessed the assassination of the anti-Soviet commander and Afghan political leader Ahmad Shah Massoud by Al Qaeda operatives, just two days before the 9/11 attacks.
Will Pakistan go the way of Tunisia and Egypt? Are we on the verge of witnessing throngs of discontented Pakistanis storming the streets of Islamabad and Karachi seeking an end to a wobbly democratic regime with an ever-attentive military establishment keeping a tight leash on its extraordinary privileges?
It's not completely fanciful. Some key similarities do exist between Pakistan and Tunisia and Egypt. Obviously, they are predominantly Muslim countries, they have all experienced long periods of authoritarian rule, they have significant military establishments, and they are all U.S. allies to varying degrees. Despite the willingness of their political elites to work with the United States, especially on the "war on terror," significant segments of their populace remain either hostile toward or suspicious of the United States.
These common features might well lead some to conclude that Pakistan could be on the precipice of a political upheaval, and indeed, Pakistan's prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, was recently forced to defend against the comparisons. Despite these seemingly compelling similarities, it is unlikely that Pakistan will witness a societywide political uprising that will challenge the existing political order.
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The debate over Afghanistan strategy since Obama's troop increase last year may not have produced any solutions yet, but it has produced plenty of think tank reports purporting to have them. One of the most recent is a new RAND Corporation study that makes bold claims about victory in counterinsurgency. The authors of the study argue that debates over COIN are usually "based on common sense, a general sense of history, or but one or two detailed historical cases." Policymakers and military officers are desperate for solid research that can help them evaluate the menu of strategic options, but the best they can expect is advice based on analogies or selective readings of history. To remedy this situation, the authors set out to perform a thorough analysis based on "extensive data collection, rigorous analysis, and empirical testing."
It's a laudable enough goal -- but for all their claims to superior rigor, the authors fail to live up to it. They make a series of basic methodological mistakes that throw doubt on their conclusions. Most importantly, they confuse cause and effect.
The authors identify fifteen "good" practices and twelve "bad" ones and conclude that success will occur as long as COIN forces implement more good practices than bad. In other words, there is a universally applicable checklist for victory. The authors are unequivocal about the meaning of their analysis of 30 past conflicts: "These data show that, regardless of distinctiveness in the narrative and without exception, COIN forces that realize preponderantly more good than bad practices win, and those that do not lose."
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Wearing army fatigues and a red cap, Zaid Hamid is perhaps Pakistan's best-known television personality. The strategic affairs expert, who coined the term 'Hindu Zionist' to describe the hypothetical Indian and Israeli nexus against Pakistan, has become a household name across the country for his conspiracy theories on economic terrorism and Indian-U.S.-Israeli plotting. His Facebook page currently has a following of 66,000, among them students of expensive schools and even pop singers and fashion designers. Whether it is explaining Taliban militancy, Pakistan's ever-present electricity crisis, Blackwater's involvement in planning terrorist attacks, or plans for the U.S. to take over Pakistan's nuclear weapons, conspiracy theorists call the shots in Pakistan.
Pakistan's booming television industry, allowed to operate by ex-dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf, helped lead to his downfall. The country's vibrant Urdu press, which outsells its English-language counterparts in most areas of the country, also helps shape public opinion, with its small army of retired military officers and civilian officials dominate the opinion pages to air their misgivings and concerns. It seems that anti-Americanism on the op-ed pages sells to Pakistanis, who are among the most anti-American people in the world.
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If time spent studying Afghanistan brings wisdom, thenThomas Barfield must have the judgment of Solomon: He has been traveling theresince the early 1970s as an anthropologist. Any book that he -- now a professor at BostonUniversity -- writes on the subject deserves to be takenseriously. His latest book, Afghanistan:A Cultural and Political History, also has the ambitious goalof being a comprehensive but readable short history of Afghanistan, with aheavy focus on the last nine years.
It hits the target. Although casual readers may find theearly pages hard going, the pace soon picks up; quotations from the poet Sa'diand Ibn Khaldun provide variety. Barfield's vision of the "longue durée" meanslooking at Afghanistan's development over the course of centuries. Not for himthe perpetually renewed mantra that "the next six months are critical";'he caninstead bring a vision of Afghanistan over the centuries to cut through knottydebates with easy self-confidence and lapidary sentences.
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