How can history be “often interrupted”?
Well, Afghanistan has a history of its own that’s continuous, but that continuity is interrupted every 40 years or so by an invasion or an occupation. The history of Afghanistan has been that of a central power, the king or the elite, trying to conquer his own country. The outside powers then complicate that story.
Why would a ruler want to conquer his own country?
A king would always have to consolidate his country in order to confront any invasion. Also, he would tax and draft from the people and then go out and conquer other places. He’d go to India or to Iran. When the big global powers came he couldn’t go far and wide any more so he went deep instead and tried to conquer his own country.
Who is the most famous king of Afghanistan?
The most pivotal king in this “conquering my own country” project was the 19th-century king Abdur Rahman Khan [1880-1901], also known as the Iron Amir. He was a towering and sinister figure. He moved huge parts of the population from one part of the country to another, possibly to disrupt their ability to revolt. He created a secret spy system that was completely pervasive and then he created another spy system to spy on his spies.
Then another king, reviled by some and revered by others, was King Amanullah, a radical reformist of the 1920s who, in ten years, tried to do all the things that people of Western culture would like to see happen in Afghanistan today. He tried to empower and liberate women and he tried to introduce secular education, but eventually it triggered a backlash. He was toppled and Afghanistan had to start all over again.
Suggested Reading: “Government and Society in Afghanistan: The Reign of Amir Abd al-Rahman Khan” by Hasan Kawun Kakar (1979) and “Fire in Afghanistan 1914-1929: The First Opening to the West Undone by Tribal Ferocity Years Before the Taliban” by Rhea Talley Stewart (2000)
From 1930 to 1975, because of the cold war, the canny Afghan leaders carved out an autonomous position for Afghanistan by playing the neutrality card. In that period Afghanistan was in control of its own cultural evolution and it was a period of progressive social development under King Mohammad Zahir Shah. They built secular schools, a university, roads, and created an infrastructure. Most importantly, that family’s policy slowly brought a liberalisation of gender relations and the unveiling of women. By 1975 women had moved into public life pretty dramatically. There were women radio presenters, teachers, doctors, lawyers. There were almost as many women graduating from university as men—and they wore Western clothing and not a body bag.
What happened to these women after the coup and the Soviet invasion in the 1980s?
Some fled abroad, many died in those wars and many others lost their position and ended up locked up in their houses.
The Soviets did the most damage of all the occupiers, didn’t they?
Yes. The Soviets destroyed the social fabric in such a way that even now we are facing the residue of what they did. The Soviet destruction radicalised the rural conservative end of the political spectrum and rendered it an almost psychopathically reactionary force. The Taliban are the descendents of that.
So the Soviets created the Taliban?
That would be my judgment. The Taliban emerged out of the refugee camps that existed because of the war the Soviets waged.
Suggested Reading: “Decoding The New Taliban: Insights From the Afghan Field” by Antonio Giustozzi (2009)
And women are still under threat.
Considering what happened to the Westernised [Afghan] women in the late 1970s this is worth thinking about now in terms of the planned withdrawal. Once again women have dared to come forward and be heard, to run for parliament. Their names are known and that could be serious.
That is a chilling thought.
I think we have to stay engaged. But I think the way we’ve been engaged is beginning to create animosity. The West has so much money, power and confidence that the efforts to collaborate in building an infrastructure have tended to sideline Afghans. We need more dialogue, more initiative on the part of the Afghans and more support from the foreign powers.
What about Opium?
Yes. Opium has crept in and interlaced with Afghan life; a life that has already been destroyed to some extent by war. Opium is the main agricultural cash crop of Afghanistan. There are places where opium has become currency. People use it to buy clothes or get a haircut. It’s not worth money, it is money.
Suggested Reading: “Opium Nation: Child Brides, Drug Lords and One Woman’s Journey Through Afghanistan” by Fariba Nawa (2011)
It sounds intractable.
There is an idea that Afghanistan is always the same—a place with bearded warlords. Actually Afghanistan is dynamic and constantly changing. The influx of technology is great and increasing, and the flip side of war and displacement is that [Afghan] people see the world as refugees. They learn skills and go back to their home in some inaccessible valley you have to get on a donkey to reach and they build a hydroelectric plant. It’s not a society of a defeated people. We can’t predict the future by the past. The Economist