|Understanding Afghanistan and its neighbours|
Before 11 September 2001, Afghanistan was for most Westerners a far-away country about which we knew little. The brutality of the Taliban regime and the safe haven that it provided to al Qaida primarily affected surrounding and nearby countries. That changed as a result of the terrorist attacks against New York and Washington DC of that fateful day. As the United States launched a military campaign to oust the Taliban and destroy al Qaida's terrorist training centres in Afghanistan, the country was propelled for several months to the very top of the international agenda.
The welcome demise of the Taliban brought with it a formidable challenge for the international community: Afghanistan's reconstruction. This requires, among other things, the building of a viable state structure, the extension of central authority throughout the country and the development of a constitution providing safeguards for human rights and religious tolerance. Since August 2003, NATO has been directly involved in this endeavour, leading the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the UN-mandated peacekeeping mission responsible for providing security in and around Kabul, the Afghan capital.
Although mainstream media have increased coverage of Afghanistan and its Central Asian neighbours in the past two years, the history, traditions, culture and politics of the region are still little known in the West. Given the prospect of long-term NATO involvement, anyone with an interest in the Alliance and security matters will likely find that time invested in reading on that part of the world today will pay dividends in the years to come. Both Afghanistan: A Short History of Its People and Politics (HarperCollins Publishers, 2002) by Sir Martin Ewans and Ahmed Rashid's Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia (Yale University Press, 2002) would probably make welcome though sobering additions to many stockings this Christmas.
Afghanistan: A Short History of Its People and Politics is a must-read study providing useful insight into the shortcomings of earlier attempts at consolidating Afghanistan's unity and reforming its society and the scale of the challenge that the country and the international community faces today. Sir Martin, a British diplomat and former head of the British Chancery in Kabul, provides a detailed chronicle of Afghanistan's history from the emergence of the Afghan Kingdom in the 18th century to the fall of the Taliban. And he concludes that: "If there has been an overriding feature of Afghan history, it is that it has been a history of conflict - of invasions, battles and sieges, of vendettas, assassinations and massacres, of tribal feuding, dynastic strife and civil war."
Today, close to 6,000 NATO-led soldiers are deployed in ISAF. Moreover, NATO is currently seeking to increase its presence in Afghanistan and expand the mission to help build stability in more of the country. As a result, arguably for the first time in their history, Afghans have genuine cause to hope for a better future and, with international support, the opportunity to turn the tide of history. Nevertheless, the international community should not lose sight of why previous reform efforts in Afghanistan have failed.
One of the most fascinating chapters in Sir Martin's book covers Afghanistan's earlier drive for modernisation, which took place during the ten-year reign of Amanullah Khan. Crowned on 27 February 1919, Amanullah was the first Afghan leader to seek to transform the country. In the process, he oversaw the drafting of a constitution for the first time in Afghan history. Amanullah's constitution was based on that of Turkey, where Kemal Ataturk had successfully set up a secular state. In Afghanistan, Amanullah sought to create a similar secular framework within which the monarchy and the government could operate and to define the relationship between religion and the state.
Amanullah also attempted to reform the legal system. He did this by creating an independent judiciary, building a network of courts and developing a secular penal code. In addition, he oversaw legislation to improve the rights of women, invested heavily in education and attempted to overhaul and reorganise the tax system. While Amanullah was genuine in his attempts to modernise Afghan society, his reforms inevitably came up against deep vested interests and eventually led to tribal uprisings. In response, he was forced to abdicate in January 1929.
Amanullah may simply have been ahead of his time and his reform programme too ambitious for Afghanistan early in the 20th century. But his fate and that of his reform programme do not bode well for today's efforts to build a viable Afghan state and draw up a constitution in which all ethnic communities are fairly represented. Indeed, the challenge of balancing the need to modernise, on the one hand, and respect for tradition, on the other, remains formidable.
An assembly of tribal leaders, or Loya Jirga, is meeting in December 2003 to review and agree a constitution. By all accounts, the draft text is moderate yet progressive. It includes guarantees for all faiths to worship and allows political parties to be established as long as their charters "do not contradict the principles of Islam" and that they do not have any military aims or foreign affiliation. Pashtoo and Dari are to be the official languages. Hopefully, it will be possible to find the right balance this time because, if approved and implemented, a new constitution should be a major step in bringing stability to Afghanistan.
Chapters devoted to the rule of Mohammed Daoud Khan also make fascinating reading. Daoud, one of Afghanistan's most dynamic leaders, led the country in the 1950s and early 1960s, and then again between 1973 and 1978. An autocrat, who sought a close relationship with the Soviet Union, Daoud was able to bring tribal leaders in line and to assert central authority over the entire country. He resigned in March 1963 as a result of an unwinnable conflict with Pakistan and growing opposition to his ever-more autocratic rule. He regained power in July 1973, only to be overthrown and killed in 1978.
While Daoud's policies,
during both of his periods in power, were highly autocratic, his principal
achievement was to have built, for the first time in his country's history,
a sufficiently well-trained, well-equipped and mobile Afghan Army to be
able to maintain stability throughout the country. The international community
is effectively facing the same challenge today. Disarming, demobilising
and reintegrating former Mujaheedin into a disciplined and efficient
Afghan National Army is one of the prerequisites for successful implementation
of the December 2001 Bonn Agreement, the international accord setting
out a reconstruction process for Afghanistan, and a sine qua non
for a stable country.