( The following is an essay on the lessons learnt in peacemaking in Afghanistan during the visit to Kabul earlier this year. In the space of one week, we were given lectures, visited the city an neighbouring areas to see ground realities, and had long soulful discussions on the unique conundrum that South Asia faces in terms of development, coming to terms with a colonial history and building peace. This work is a product of analysis and summarisation of all that I learnt from the experience. )
Mr Aziz Rafiee, the director of the Afghan Civil Society Forum, had begun his talk to us in Kabul with the following quote by Saadi: “If you have no sympathy for another’s pain, the name of human you cannot retain.” For peacemakers, and for any individual, these words are heavy with the wisdom of man’s experience in the world, not as a political being, but a social, emotional one. For us students, the student exchange programme was enlightening in that it showed to us the three sides of the subcontinent: it was an exercise in understanding this very ‘other’.
The Great Game
Afghanistan is currently, and historically has been, the prize that the winner of the ‘Great Game’ shall acquire. Although this explicit statement sounds inciting enough, and may sound untrue at first sight, seeing as America’s predominant ‘cause’ in the region is the establishment of democracy and a ‘just government’, this is how people from within the civil society analyze their status even today. Said Mr Rafiee, Afghanistan currently has the highest capability of sweet water in the world: 17 billion cubic metres. The World Bank puts this number at 65 billion cubic metres and the CIA says there’s 170 billion cubic metres of the said resource in the region. There is also said to a hidden trove of natural gas and oil, along with mines of caladium and scandium which are 200 times more expensive than uranium. So while the label of instituting democracy stays put, as it has since the time of the Cold War across the world, it seems to be a covert war in the name of globalization that the US is carrying out in the region to advance the interests of its multi-national corporations. This is a view from within Afghanistan as to their value in the world.
All in the name of Democracy?
The presence of international actors seems to be something that has, for the larger part, been welcomed by the people of Kabul, at least in terms of dealing with the Taliban. However, their continuing presence seems to be irksome to a few within the civil society members we spoke to, who saw them as a hindrance to development of the country as well as peaceful resolution of their political situation. They are seen as pursuing greedy corporate as well as strategic interests. Also, a large number of people do not believe that NATO and US forces shall actually be pulled back by next year. Continuation of presence could be justified through the fact that Afghanistan has no functional economy of its own, and is too dependent on funds coming in from aid from the UN and other international donors. There are not many people dying of hunger or poverty within the country, maintaining this status quo which turns into a vicious cycle. Neo-colonial domination also continues through the fact that the cabinet of Afghanistan is composed of foreign ministers from different countries which means there are already too many stakeholders within the country.
Multiculturalism vs a Fragmented Nation
Apart from the international presence, the question of a cohesive national identity still remains. The region is made up of 36 ethnic and religious constituents, including Hindus, Muslims and Parsis. Of these, the Pashtuns dominate, constituting 36% of the population, according to the last census held in 1979. The second in this turn come to be the Tajiks, who hold the executive administrative rights within the country, while the Pashtuns hold most of the power. Other tribes include the Hazaras, the Balochs, the Turkmen and the Persians, among others. The country is landlocked on all sides by Iran, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan and on all fronts, there exist skirmishes along the borders as identities spill over them. Thus, Afghanistan also faces the problem of facing disturbances on almost all fronts with ethnic identities seeking to unite or separate. Thus emerges the problem of no common language, no common national identity to keep the nation together. However, it was also argued that no serious efforts at secession have been made, and this was attributed to the predominance of the Islamic identity, and the characterization of Afghanistan as an Islamic state.
Then there is the question of terrorism. According to Liaqat Ali at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, this is the most important challenge that Pakistan and Afghanistan face today. He stressed on the importance of taking this seriously and not being reductionist about it since it is the main contributor to instability and threat to regional peace. He blamed the phenomenon on the inability of the region to get rid of the colonial legacies, ie the disputed borders along Kashmir as well as the Durand Line. Calling us ‘hostages to history’, he said it was important to go back to the roots of jihad and see where it originated and tackle it from the ground upwards. Jihad, according to him, has very deep sentimental, psychological and social underpinnings, none of which will be easy to tackle, but it is equally important that they are. Finding a political solution would mean encouraging the Taliban to participate within civil society and eventually reaching a political power sharing agreement with them, even though Mr Ali did not see in them the capacity to be able to govern.
Afghanistan’s relations with Pakistan are also a hotbed of disagreements as well as the source of much security for the country. While both characterize themselves as Islamic countries and share that bond, they also share a partitioned Pashtun population between themselves along the Durand Line. Apart from Pashtun cries for national secession, the two countries have till date not come to an agreement on formalizing the border or on Pakistan returning the disputed areas to Afghanistan. Mr Ali at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs characterized Pakistan into four categories: the common people that live there, the progressive civil society of Pakistan, the nation-state of Pakistan and the established one in terms of governance and intelligence. While the first three are not problematic, it is the last that creates a sense of an ideological Pakistan that shoulders Islamic fundamentalism. Pakistan has had an increasing desire for influence in the country since the Russian invasion and it also has a different approach to terrorism than Afghanistan. Its approach to the Taliban is one of support and encouragement, especially the Quetta Shura faction, even at the political level, while it sees the Northern Alliance as an opposing political party. In this, the two countries face potential problems which could only be solved through a resolution of the disputed border, an agreement on approach to dealing with terrorism, and possibly through a power-sharing agreement that could be cut between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance that could be cut next year.
India’s presence in Afghanistan, although not seen as definitely benign by either Afghanistan or Pakistan, is certainly not military, which makes it less of threat in that sense. The Afghans seem to embrace the Indian presence, for its effect on their economy, their cultural advancement and social and infrastructural development. Although there have been recent accusations and uprisings against the perceived corruption of the indigenous culture by Indian parties in the state, for the larger part, the Indian presence is seen as harmless and productive.
Representation and the Other
Thus, for Afghanistan, the situation is as tumultuous as ever. According to Mr Rafiee, the lack of trust, disconnected states and state-nations, corrupt governments, territorial conflicts, ethnic, religious and linguistic differences, no presence of rule of law are all factors that work well for the ‘actors’ present in the region. As much the speakers stressed on regional cooperation as the way ahead as well as the ultimate goal for lasting peace in the region, a real-time on-the-ground effecting of such a situation seems hard enough, seeing as there exist enough intractable conflicts between the three countries – India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. However, common agendas to work on would and should include dealing with the rampant poverty in the region, terrorism and millennium development goals.
According to Mr Aziz Hakimi of Future Generation, copious investment in education, building tolerance instincts, dispelling myths that might create victims are some of the ways to deal with the exceptional situation in South Asia at the ground level. According to Mr Ali, also important is reviving micro-identities to focus on localism to deal with Western hegemonistic forces and keeping traditional values alive. While such as assertion at a cultural level can go tragically awry in the name of re-gaining ground for the ‘Orient’, it is indeed true that for Afghanistan to take further steps into development and peaceful existence, it needs to move forward on its own feet with a considerable role in handling issues that the region faces together.