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Chapter Summaries

By Clare Lockhart


Afghanistan Revealed reaches behind the headlines to portray an Afghanistan in the context of its past, its region, and its culture and society.

One set of authors helps us to understand the trajectory of Afghanistan’s history over decades and centuries. Bijan Omrani asks us to take the long view of history and understand how a number of forces shaped the patterns of Afghan history. He starts with the notion of Afghanistan at the heart of Asia, subject to the rivalries and ambitions of great powers on all sides. He reminds us that Afghanistan, while often at war, has often been prosperous, and at the intellectual and artistic cutting edge of civilisation. Omrani leaves us with the idea that while Rahman had succeeded in imposing a unity on Afghanistan, he did so through turning the society inwards. This isolationism, he argues, came at the expense of Afghanistan’s deeper identity of openness and dynamism of engagement with its region and cultures beyond its borders.

Jules Stewart takes us to the dynamics of the Great Game where, from 1813 to 1947, the competition between the Russian and British empires over Central Asia set the stage for the Anglo-Afghan wars. He demonstrates how misunderstandings and miscommunications between Afghan rulers, diplomats, politicians and soldiers led to wars that perhaps should never have been fought. He paints a picture of the delicate balancing act inherent in Afghanistan’s quest for independence from outside interference while seeking the benefits of partnerships of aid, trade and military support. He leaves us with the haunting observation that Britain neglected to start initiatives that would have meaningfully changed the lives of the Pashtun inhabitants on either side of the Durand Line.

David Loyn focuses on the first eight decades of the 20th century. He starts from the notion that while many of the foreigners who encountered Afghanistan after 2001 thought they were beginning their approaches from scratch, the previous century had witnessed a series of rulers who had attempted to introduce reforms to Afghanistan’s society, politics and economy. He paints a colourful picture of Afghanistan’s rulers – from Amanullah to Zahir. Using the image of Amanullah’s obelisk proclaiming the virtues of wisdom over ignorance, he describes the tensions between city and countryside, tribe and state, men and women, conservatives and modernisers. He describes a real progress that succumbed to the conflicts that started in the 1970s.

Rob Johnson takes us through the years between 1978 and 2001 and describes the character and consequences of a series of conflicts – the Soviet occupation, the failure of political parties within Afghanistan to reach agreement on a political arrangement after the Soviet withdrawal, and the rise of the Taliban. In doing so, he provides a stark reminder of the enormous toll that the repeated failure of politics and resulting outbreaks of violent conflict have taken on Afghan citizens. Subsequently, he takes us through the last decade. Starting with the notion of the multiplicity of conflicts in motion, he reminds us that with the diplomatic agreement that created the post-Taliban government in 2001 there was no question of occupation by ISAF (NATO’s International Security Assistance Force) – rather it was created to underwrite a process of peace and reconstruction. He describes the series of mistakes, including conflicting missions, under-resourced initiatives and missteps that saw the temporary peace succumb to a new set of conflicts. He provides a nuanced view of the successes as well as failures of the last decade, and points out how internal and regional politics, as well as accommodation between local traditions and central authority, might provide a constructive way forward. Of central importance is the distinction he makes between a construct of nation-building, as externally imposed and implemented, and the need for Afghans to reach an internal consensus on a way forward for their country – to build their own nation – if there is to be any lasting peace.

A second set of authors shed important light on the regional context and interests of Afghanistan’s neighbours. Victoria Schofield’s history of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa takes us from the British colonial legacy of the 19th century, through the US support of the anti-Soviet Jihad in the 1980s to the current day. In doing so, she provides essential context for understanding how the administrative and political divisions have left a legacy that creates an ongoing set of challenges for the Pashtun or Pukhtun people and tribes to find a way to live within the nation state on either side of the Durand Line. She reminds us of the crucial importance of understanding the legacy of history and the current challenges in this border region. She points to a series of issues that need to be addressed on both sides of the border if Afghanistan and Pakistan are to find a way to live in peace with each other.

In telling the history of the emergence and re-emergence of the Taliban, Ahmed Rashid dispels a series of prevailing myths. He reminds us that the goal of the Bush administration had never been to nation-build. Instead, Bush era policy was characterised by a rejection of nation-building, an indifference to rebuilding and resourcing Afghanistan and a hasty exit to focus on Iraq. He describes how a partnership with “warlords” alienated the population and set the conditions, together with misconceived aid projects and a vacuum in governance by the Karzai regime, for a Taliban revival. He then describes a series of efforts to reach out to the Taliban in search of a ceasefire and agreement, and offers an analysis on how such efforts could yield more success in future.

Yossef Bodansky starts from the premise that Afghanistan has always been at the mercy of the strategic aims of great regional powers. He describes how a contemporary Great Game is once again playing out, this time in the form of the historic evolution of China’s ascent and rivalry with Russia – and its quest for the strategic and economic resources, including energy and minerals, that control and influence of the territory of Afghanistan and its region bring. He argues that China has long pursued a trans-Asian axis – a loose alliance between China and Persia, with Pakistan as its lynchpin. He describes China’s current shift in focus and resources to its west, and presents the challenge of post-2014 Afghanistan in the light of China’s regional quest for both economic resources and stability.

In “After the ‘War Economy’” John Dowdy and Andrew Erdmann present a balanced picture of both the constraints and opportunities for Afghanistan’s economy to grow. The logic is clear: the more Afghanistan can increase its domestic revenue, provide livelihoods for its people, and integrate economically with its region, the less it will be dependent on foreign taxpayers, and the more it can set the conditions for peace and stability internally and regionally. They add their voices to a chorus decrying the uncoordinated aid system, and calling for a new approach based on catalyzing Afghanistan’s industrial and agricultural production, and regional integration. The authors present a realistic view of the obstacles – ranging from lack of electricity and land-locked geography to weak governance and the distorting effects of this aid system – yet also point to the potential and what it would take to realize this potential. Afghanistan’s minerals and hydrocarbons, its construction industry and light industry, its agricultural sector, and trade and transit are highlighted as the three key opportunities. The authors recommend a path that avoids the extremes of a free market approach on the one hand and a statist approach on the other, advising an approach based on building domestic markets through understanding where Afghanistan’s competitiveness really lies and tailoring support to these goals. They recommend giving private sector development much more attention, while focusing on key priorities and integrating development activities much more closely to these priorities. Policy makers would do well to heed these recommendations.

A final set of chapters reveal the characteristics of life, family and culture in Afghanistan. All authors paint a picture of the diversity of the peoples – Hazara, Pashtun, Tajik, Turkmen and Uzbek – who coexist within Afghanistan’s borders. Helen Saberi takes us into the Afghan kitchen and not only shares the recipes of Afghanistan’s best-known dishes but describes the rituals and customs of eating: the discussions in the chaikhana, the breaking of the fast at Iftar, the family outings on picnics, and the celebrations of Nauroz.

Magsie Hamilton Little describes how Islam influenced the politics, education, institutions and culture of Afghanistan, and its interaction with Pashtunwali. At the level of personal lives, she describes the rituals of prayer, of Ramadan (Ramazan) and Eid, and of Hajj. She then shows us how the role of women is shaped by Islam, tribal tradition and politics. She analyses the changes in women’s status and rights, and the fears and hopes of women about their future.

Humayun Khan gives us a comprehensive description of the Pashtun people – from the legal and administrative decisions that have shaped their lives, to their customs and economic history. He describes their engagement in the series of conflicts and wars that have afflicted the region, and outlines a series of political questions that will need to be addressed for a diplomatic route to ending the war to gain real traction.

Whitney Azoy shares his extraordinary personal history of how “Lesson 21” prompted him to leave diplomatic service for the life of an anthropologist, and his famous study of the game of buzkashi. The life histories of Habib, a great horseman who ends up under house arrest, and a local squire who ends up in refuge in Quetta, illustrate the terrible toll of Afghanistan’s decades of war on individual lives. Azoy concludes that life in Afghanistan “can be more complicated than you think”. And as Thomas Barfield has commented, “the buzkashi model has lost none of its power in explaining today’s Afghanistan.”

In “Rules of Afghan Disengagement”, Greg Mills and Anthony Arnott provide a balanced picture of the risks and opportunities ahead. They pay tribute to the immense sacrifice of lives and expenditure of resources. They point to the extraordinary changes that have taken place in society, from mass urbanization to the introduction of millions of cellphones, and the widespread access to internet and media. Their eyes are wide open to the risks of warlordism, corruption and ethnic rivalry. At the same time, they are optimistic about the business opportunities from extractives to carpets. In comparing the Soviet exit to the current transition, they are aware of the similarities, but point out the many differences - including Afghanistan’s progress along the route to democracy and the comparatively narrow base of support to the insurgents. They conclude with recommendations to external actors - to reward stability rather than insurrection in choices over allocation of s

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