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Afghan terror past and present


'Afghanistan' by Chris JohnstonIn Afghanistan, anthropologist Thomas Barfield has observed, centuries can merge as decades do in other countries — the past isn't even the past yet there. The history of contemporary Afghanistan is complicated, yet the last 150 years bear directly on why civil society in Afghanistan is in the same perilous state as its maternal and child health.

The British fought two wars against the Afghans in the 19th century, in an attempt to block the expansion of Czarist Russia's sphere of influence towards British India, the jewel in the crown. The Afghans won, but were then bankrolled by British India. This is a centuries old weakness of the Afghan state: its dependence on outside aid to ensure financial stability.

The arrival of Western powers in Central Asia began to change Afghan political dynamics. During the Anglo-Afghan wars elites engaged rural militias in rebellions against the British, but refused to share power with them after the British were defeated.

Over subsequent decades the refusal of the ruling elites to even consider that ordinary people should have a say in how their country was run, and the brutal suppression of numerous revolts by the new emir, Abdur Rahman, eventually undermined his successors and led to a civil war in 1929.

The establishment of a parliamentary system in 1964 ostensibly widened political participation. However, Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan, refused to give up any executive authority. His cousin, Daud, ousted him in a republican coup in 1973. Five years later Daud was killed in a communist coup — ending 230 yeas of dynastic rule.

But the question of what was to replace the dynasty, who had the right to rule and on what basis, was unresolved even when the Russians withdrew in 1989 and its local regime fell in 1992.

The West supported the mujahideen's resistance to the Russians but victory quickly deteriorated into a civil war which destroyed the state structure and engulfed a huge number of ordinary Afghans in political battles from which they had previously been separate.

Enter the Taliban. Within half a lifetime Afghans had experienced ideological extremes in government. And the country was broke.

The so-called war on terror drew the US and the West into Afghanistan — now the US is leaving. At the first hint of serious negotiations with the Taliban this year US lobbyists and some Afghan women asked: what will happen to women if the Taliban return?

Things are already dire for women and it is fanciful to believe the old Tajik or Uzbek mujahideen leadership did not share the same views of women's place as old Pashtun leaders. Many in government have simply learned to moderate their public expressions.

Australian media last week followed the story of a young Afghan woman behind bars for having been raped by a cousin's husband. She has a choice: marry him or spend 12 years in jail with the child she gave birth to following the rape.

A Ministry of Women's Affairs official told a recent United Nations workshop that half of the country's 476 female prisoners were in jail for 'moral crimes'. These include running away from home, refusing to marry, and marrying without family consent.

However horrific these crimes against women are, the culture that allows them may be slow to change. The protection of women's 'virtue' is fundamental to a family's reputation. Thirty five years of conflict have put a premium on that 'virtue'.

Some Afghans still express exasperation at how ex-mujihadeen warlords implicated in mass killings during the civil war are able to sit in the parliament. The West accepted the deals done to balance competing ethnic and regional interests and to deal with their arguable fear of state disintegration, while simultaneously rolling out Western-style democracy.

Pragmatists argue that Afghanistan would have been a less stable place if these interests had not been accommodated in the revised political order. However, old warlords die and it is unclear whether a recent spate of political assassinations, including that of former President Rabbani, were really perpetrated by the Afghan Taliban or by other political players.

In the meantime various groups are quietly re-arming ahead of the US withdrawal in 2014.

Will there be a civil war when the Americans leave? Some foreigners believe Afghans are weary and wary of more war. Others are convinced further conflict is on the cards, or at least more insecurity. Pakistan is clearly crucial to Afghanistan's future security. Pakistan's anxiety about being surrounded by enemies, particularly India, means it will always try to institute a compliant government in Kabul.

The short window of foreign donor aid has also put a premium on quick grabs for the benefits. And it starts near the top, with President Karzai's recently assassinated half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai.

There are now legendary stories of money grabs from the Kabul Bank which were then invested in Dubai properties, just before the last financial crisis sent prices south. The money 'lent' has disappeared, as has the bank's former governor, Abdul Qadir Fitrat, who is now in the US. Like many moneyed Afghans he had ensured his US permanent resident status well in advance of any trouble.

Corruption, otherwise known as administrative fees, is endemic in most areas of ordinary Afghan life, to the distress of many Afghans. 

Jan ForresterJan Forrester is back in Australia after working in Afghanistan for much of the last four years.


Topic tags: Jan Forrester, Afghanistan, War on Terror



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Existing comments

We may forget one of the most important issues affecting Afghanistan, drugs. The value of the drug trade is far larger than current foreign aid and it will ensure that the wars will continue for a long time to come. The increase in illegal drug production in Afghanistan shows that nobody is really trying to stop this industry. Tolerating drug production and corruption helps western forces to “keep friends” and the Taliban to finance its rearmament. It helps to finance an exodus of richer people to safer places and helps to finance people smuggling. I feel for our brave soldiers fighting an unwinnable war for a cause which nobody can define in a place where they are not wanted.

Beat Odermatt | 05 December 2011  

Thanks for those thoughtful comments Beat. Regrettably the ostentatious poppy palaces in Wazir Akbar Khan in Kabul and many places elsewhere belie that it is only the Taliban getting rich on the drug trade. It has allowed the Taliban and its opportunistic allies including Afghan criminals, to open up new northern trade routes. Demand in the West in particular (and by Iranians if - officially - not their government) means the trade will go on. I also feel for the Afghan and other NGO workers at dangerous front lines trying to change civil society against huge odds.

jan forrester | 05 December 2011  

Never mind, we have our priorities right. We jail them here at vast expense and starve them to death in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Marilyn Shepherd | 05 December 2011  

Jan Forrester says that the position of women in Afghanistan is dire. She sees that the Tajik, Uzbek and Pashtun leaders all sharing a common view of women. Why can she not join the dots? The common element is Islam. The Taliban recently stoned a young women and her daughter, then shot them. This was because she had been accused of adultery. They were simply following the instructions of Sharia Law.

The single frame cartoon shows a woman bodly putting her voting slip into the ballot box, defying the menace of the males around her. This fanciful and plainly at odds with the facts on two counts. First, in reality the Taliban would have no hesitation in killing her. The Taliban also do not recognize the legitimacy of democracy. To them it is a Western invention, a creation of man. It has no place in an Islamic state.

I think that Beat's final sentence sums up the hopeless situation very accurately.

John Ryan | 05 December 2011  

Oh come on John, this is more complicated than Islam. Do I need to remind you that it wasn't Muslims who burnt witches in Europe and North America not so long ago? Or of the Catholic equivalent of Sharia law in Spain during the inquisition? Or of the Dutch Reformed Church treatment of Bantu and 'Cape Coloureds' in South Africa? If there is a religious component to the problem in Afghanistan, then surely it is about the use of religion to justify barbaric practices, and Islam has no monopoly on that. In any case, it's not just about religion, as Jan makes clear.

Ginger Meggs | 09 December 2011  

Ginger Meggs, take the totality of Jesus' words and life, and find any example that can be used to truly justify the burning of "witches". Conversely I can quote you many verses from the hadith and the Koran that justify the shameful treatment of women under Sharia Law.

John Ryan | 10 December 2011  

John, you don't have to go to the Koran to find verses that justify the shameful treatment of women. Try these for a starter - Samaria shall become desolate; for she hath rebelled against her God: they shall fall by the sword: their infants shall be dashed in pieces, and their women with child shall be ripped up. Hosea 13:16 Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves. Numbers 31:17 Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling. I Samuel 15:3

Ginger Meggs | 12 December 2011  

Hi my name is jermainian and i write to speak out about how i feel about war and what i feel we should do about it for many years now U.S.A. have fought wars with many countries and i feel that one war is not the answer to everything GOD is if we as a country and as a world would learn to turn our lives over to GOD and believe in our hearts that whatever we ask him for in jesus name he will do then i feel as if we wouldnt have to be having and making all these wars with each other because if we would just obey GOD'S WORD and try our best at giving GOD all the time we can no matter who it is Afghanistan, Mexico, America, who ever with FAITH, PRAYER, AND WITH GOD on our side we as countries and as a world can bring peace and love and friendship between all of us thank u and i pray that what i have just said will open the eyes of this world and show you that GOD is waiting on us all as a world and as a country and as our selfs to make up in our mind that HE'S the answer & the way.

jermainian gooden | 29 December 2011  

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