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CONSIDERATIONS ABOUT THE NATIONAL QUESTION IN AFGHANISTAN

Juan Ignacio Castien Maestro
2013 / 7 / 16

Dealing with the Afghan national question is without a doubt a very complex task. It can also be considered a reckless task when undertaken by a foreigner and even more reckless when this person is facing an audience that is mostly made up of native experts. However, the fact of being a foreigner not very much involved may have a positive side. It offers certain degree of disaffection which helps to consider things from a more objective perspective and this is something that might compensate for the lack of -dir-ect familiarity with the problem to some extent. Thus, this distance entails both advantages and disadvantages. We will try to let the former prevail over the latter.

Afghanistan is certainly a country which has been undergoing an ominous situation for more than three decades. Nevertheless, its present and difficult situation should not make us forget its historical past, usually outstanding, and its future possibilities in view of its natural wealth and its role as a country that links the Indian Ocean with the interior of Asia. We must also be aware of the fact that in the seventies Afghanistan was a poor and backward country but had been living in peace for decades and somehow was modernising itself at all levels. As we all know, this promising modernisation was dramatically interrupted and this fact itself refutes the stereotyped and so widespread view which reduces the Afghan history to an endless series of violence and fanaticism. In the same way it can operate as an incitement to move towards a better future, taking up again that path of progress which is now abandoned. Along with these first arguments there is another which I personally find extremely important: despite the chaos, the civil wars, the foreign interventions and a catastrophic economic situation, Afghanistan has survived. There is still an Afghan State, no matter how weak it may be, and there are still millions of people living in and out of its territory who assume the Afghan national identity. Thus, it is important to take good note of the resistance capacity which the Afghan State and its society have shown. Such capacity, shown under extremely difficult conditions, should give us cause for hope in the future. It is also quite revealing as it shows the fact that the construction of an Afghan State and nation may have been a more succesful process than many people had previously believed it to be. This process has been turbulent indeed and its achievements only partial. It could be said that metaphorically it is still at the halfway point, but this also points out the fact that it has already achieved a lot on the road and these first accomplishments may serve as a basis to trigger future progress.

It is worth reflecting, although very briefly, on the nature of this Afghan national construction. To begin with we have to highlight a very important fact. Unlike many States from Africa, Asia and Oceania, the Afghan State is not a result of colonialism. It does not stem from colonial administrations which later gained independence. Many Afghans like to recall how Afghanistan succesfully resisted the conquest attempts on the part of the British and the Russians. This is why the Afghan State turns out to be a much less artificial State than many of the current States around the world, understanding this artificiality as a lack of ties to local identities and cultures. Secondly, the Afghan State is considerably older than any of the States of America and even older than many States of Europe. Its birth may traced back to the enthronement of Ahmed Shah Durrani in 1747 (seventeen fortyseven). Consequently, most of the territories that now form part of Afghanistan have been subject to the same State for centuries, no matter how weak´-or-precarious its authority may have been. This historical continuity deserves to be mentioned.

Certainly, the first Afghan State owned a very lax structure. It basically consisted of a series of lineages led by several commanders which were grouped around the ruling dynasty. There was no Afghan nation at the time, but French´-or-Spanish nations were not built from scratch either. Just as many other traditional States which are not national States themselves, this was an ethnic-based State,´-or-to be more accurate, mostly composed of Pashtuns. Pashtuns were the hegemonic ethnic group within the new State. Just like most of the prominent lineages, the ruling dynasty was linked to this ethnic group in such a way that a large proportion of the leading class was also Pashtun. This circumstance has had both favorable and unfavorable effects with respect to the creation of a more cohesive nation. This has led to a situation of discrimination regarding the non-Pashtun population and it has created a sense of comparative grievance among many of them. At the same time, however, this gave a greater initial cohesion to the new State, still under construction, linking it to a specific ethnic group in a privileged way. This fact generated a feeling of greater commitment with the future among the people who belonged to that ethnic group. This commitment was also encouraged by the existence of a strong Pashtun identity which was mostly sustained by a solid tribal organisation. The Pashtun population organized itself by means of a series of a more and more patrilineal lineages ranking from little clans to the big tribe but all of them descending from a common ancestor, Qais Al Rashid. That is how the tribal system finally allowed the blooming of broad and inclusive identities. It did not only promote particularism and factionalism as tendencies opposed to unity and integration, but also the cooperation between separate groups and a deep sense of shared identity among all of them. Additionally, the new Afghan State relied on tribal organisations to a great extent, using them as a basis for recruiting and locating its contributors and also as administrative units. Thus, the result of this primitive link with a specific ethnic group and its sophisticated tribal organisation may have been highly -function-al in order to strengthen this first Afghan State. Nevertheless, these ties would cause a series of problems in the long run as well, and they are still present in large part. The disagreement among several tribal particularisms would join the conflict among ethnic particularisms and both would hinder the progress towards a more integrated and modern State and society. All that turned out to be beneficial at the beginning became damaging later on.

The modernisation of Afghanistan was decisively accelerated from the reign of Abdurrahman the first on, at the end of the 19th century. Unfortunately, this developing country suffered from serious problems. Most of all, it had scarce resources to fund itself. Since then, this country had survived thanks, largely, to subsidies provided by foreign powers which have been buying their political influence with them. In addition, the own orography of the country hindered the internal communications and therefore, any process of policy centralisation. Finally, there was a third factor that hindered the progress towards a greater internal integration. The already existing ethnic and tribal heterogeneity served as a serious obstacle to the identity and cultural standardisation which all national construction processes seem to require. A common usage and language prevailed by means of schools, mass media and the everyday -function-ing of public institutions. A progressive Pashtunisation could have been predictable with respect to Afghanistan, a kind of assimilation on the part of the population to this solid core of the Pashtun ethnic group, in order to drastically soften the initial identity and cultural heterogeneity. Along with the clear weakness of the State, this contingency would clash with another important hindrance. The two major languages in the country are Pashtu, the language of Pashtuns and Dari, a variant of Persian. It is an old and prestigious language linked to an even more prestigious culture which has marked the history of Central Asia for centuries, from Turkey to India. This is the reason why in the Afghan case it has played an important bridging role to a rich historical past and surrounding countries and regions. Pashtu language did not allow nothing of the kind. It is thus unusually paradoxical that both the language and culture of the political dominant group were not the most prestigious and powerful. It is no surprising, therefore, the fact that Pashtu and Dari have had to coexist, the current bilingualism of a significant part of the Afghan people, the emergence of Tajik, an opposite identity developed within the Persian-speaking community,´-or-the fact that minority populations such as uzbeka and hazara have progressively imbued themselves with the Persian culture and language. The final outcome was a linguistic, cultural and identity pluralism which is difficult to manage but also very enriching and a factor that helps to promote relations with neighbouring countries. However, there is a national culture and identity which trascends all that diversity. It is underlined by examples such as the fact that bushkazi, born in the northern regions, is now a national sport´-or-the fact that attan-e-melli, an originally Pashtun dance has now become a national dance. In addition, there is a common vindication of the distant historical past of the country, full of glorious episodes that come together in an extraordinary heritage of monuments.

Along with this ethnic division, which could be described as horizontal, another one, vertical in nature, would need to be added among several social strata. There was a notorius gap, very common in developing societies, between a modern and urban minority and a large rural population much more traditionalist and conservative. This urban minority was greatly related to the new State which was still under construction, serving as public servant, in the military´-or-as contractor. The weakness of this State was also the cause of its own weakness. In the same way, the isolation of this State with respect to the bulk of its population was also affecting the latter. As a consequence of this fracture, urban minorities had greater difficulties to act as the cultural avant-garde and modernising influence. This could have served as an instrument to spread new uses and habits among the rest of the population, thus narrowing the cultural gap that kept them apart.

Most of the tragedies in recent Afghan history have their source in the existence of these internal fractures. Due to the lack of internal integration, certain minority sectors have tried to impose their own projects by fire and sword on the whole society. That is how Khalq and Parcham factions firstly operated, especially the former, but also a large proportion of the Mujahedeen and above all, the Taliban. There were clear differences among these movements regarding their ideology, Stalinist communism in the face of Islamic fundamentalism, and with respect to their social foundations, more urban in the former and more rural in the latter. Despite these differences, all of them shared a radical incapacity to understand the complexity of their own society and a common aptitude to believe that violent imposition was an infallible remedy for all ills. Some of them supported a project of forced modernization, others defended an ultraconservative severity, resulting to some extent from a reaction against the former, but both were a symptom of this social and cultural fracture and both were contributing to make it worse. Thus, they were cause and effect of it. After so many tragedies, many people are expected to become aware of the disastrous consequences that derive from the attempt on the part of a-limit-ed minority to impose itself on the rest of the society. As a result of that violence, the most erudite urban minority is now devastated, ruined and most of its members sought refuge abroad. Thus, the Afghan society has been beheaded and this fact constitutes, in our opinion, one of its biggest problems. However, this tragedy may have had a positive collateral effect. This exile imposed on them has given many Afghans a chance to get acquainted with other cultures as well as gaining a vast wealth of technical knowledge. It would be desirable that all this additional education could serve greatly to the development of their country in the near future.

In order to achieve this modernising aim, it is necessary to overcome one of the country s outstanding issues. A minimum level of consensus about the nation that is to be constructed must be established, as well as an acceptable identity and cultural synthesis to the vast majority of the population which truly enables a better coexistence and greater cooperation among them. In line with this aim, a profoundly biased position favouring the Pashtuns must be avoided, thus making non-Pashtun people feel more comfortable as well. Therefore, ethnic particularisms must be fought and separatist inclinations must be avoided. Given that many people coming from different ethnic groups are found anywhere in the country, ethnic-based partitions would surely lead to slaughters and forced displacements of entire populations. Recent experiences in the Balkans, the Caucasus and the Middle East prove it. Apart from this, the fact of parcelling up Afghanistan might destabilize neighbouring States. They are indeed fragile States such as the former Soviet republics and Pakistan. Unlike Afghanistan itself, they are former colonies which gained independence. They have little historical tradition, are ethnically very heterogeneous and some of them are victims of strong conflicts whether open´-or-latent. It is recommended not to play with fire. It seems much more sensible to make efforts to complete construction of what it s been half-built at such high cost. It is necessary to restart the process of the Afghan national construction which was dramatically interrupted in the last decades and this concept involves the adoption of a pragmatic perspective. In the face of the temptations of any nationalist mysticism, the objective must be much more modest. It is about improving the lives of millions of real people. Thus, we can talk about a pragmatic nationalism in opposition to an ethnic nationalism. This pragmatic nationalism does not deny cultures´-or-ethnic identities but it is aware of the dangers which any project of national construction may bring about if this project is exclusively based on them. It promotes, however, the other identity resulting from the coexistence within the same borders, under the same State, as a result of sharing a given history and certain cultural components and most of all, of having common interests arising from belonging to the same country.

These common interests are now very weak. It cannot be otherwise, because the State itself is very fragile, it is out of many localities and there is a very distorted national economy. In this way, the lack of internal articulation and institutional integrity hinder the development of those common interests. These problems are not only the legacy of a pre-modern past´-or-one of the effects of war and chaos. They have been largely strengthened by globalisation, the modern phenomenon par excellence. Afghanistan entered the global economy in a very peculiar way, by means of the generalisation of the illicit trade in drugs and weapons. Certainly, the internal disbanding of the Afghan society enabled this trade to achieve its current strength. But once formed, its corrosive effects have soared. Those sectors of the population more -dir-ectly involved in those activities have acquired immense riches and by means of violence and bribery have subdued the population and State institutions. The outcome was a much weaker State, a spectacular increase of social inequalities and the territorial fragmentation of the country. Although the Afghan case is perhaps one of the most terrible cases around the world, it is certainly not the only one. Let s think about what happened in several countries in Latin America and Africa, for example. Nevertheless, the problem here gets worse in view of the interweaving between these local authorities and different foreign powers. In a similar context, the new natural wealth of the country may end up being used by the warlords in order to reinforce their already powerful position as well as further disintegrating the country in collaboration with foreign interests. The tragedy in the Democratic Republic of the Congo illustrates a serious warning in this respect.

In short, we keep facing a series of vicious cycles. The weakness of the State and
society gives way to the eclosion of several centrifugal forces which further weaken this State and society while encouraging new disintegrating forces. It is vital, therefore, to strengthen the centripetal tendencies. It seems something difficult to achieve without external support but it would be desirable that this international collaboration was performed more efficiently than it was in the past. In the meantime, the only viable medium-term strategy lies in the hard work of promoting the organisation of the population based on the struggle for its everyday interests. This work should be orientated in a broader perspective towards the aforementioned pragmatic nationalism. However, this should be focused on the expectation of a long-term collective improvement rather than on those weak interests they are now sharing. Therefore, the stress must be on the fact that strengthening the national construction constitutes the best way of improving the situation of the population. Despite all the difficulties that already existed, things were better for most people when the Afghan State was stronger and had a more articulated economy and it could thus reasonably be assumed that things would be even better in the future. There is therefore a reasonable prospect that the situation may begin to improve if they manage to find their way back to national construction.




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