Afghanistan Table of Contents
The Soviet-Afghan war has caused grave injury to the civic culture of Afghanistan. The destruction and disruption wrought by the magnitude of the lethal technology employed was exponentially greater than that of any previous invasion in the past. In addition to extensive ecological damage, including the vicious destruction of Kabul that dwarfs anything previously experienced, the war stretched taught the fabric of the society, threatening to undermine its confidence.
National traits once honored hallmarks of Afghan character were jeopardized. Tolerance for others. Forthrightness. Aversion to fanatics. Respect for women. Loyalty to colleagues and classmates. Dislike for ostentation. Commitment to academic freedom. All were compromised.
Two generations of children have grown up without knowing the joys of childhood, their lives concentrated instead on how to avoid death and deal with emotions associated with death. The war has left terrible scars on minds as well as bodies. These scars threaten to undermine the traditional social infrastructure which served for decades to dampen ethnic, religious, cultural and linguistic differences in this complex multicultural society.
The deep apprehensions, amounting to fear among many, that prevail under Taliban rule despite an acknowledged improvement in security, have resulted in the breakdown of trust which makes the organization of cooperative community projects difficult. This compounds the fact that many Afghans who benefitted from largely free services while in exile developed complacent attitudes leading them to expect others to do for them what once they expected to do for themselves. Their vaunted self-reliance was thus eroded.
The spirit of jihad that initially sustained the leaders as a vital animating force deteriorated as spirals of continuing conflict and individual struggles for self-aggrandizement created a previously unknown lust for money in the pursuit of which hallowed values were violated without precedent. The very soul of Afghanistan's cultural heritage was assaulted by the systematic looting of the Kabul Museum and pillaging of archaeological sites throughout the country. These were not spontaneous acts committed by victorious armies, but calculated thefts for profit without regard to national pride or the preservation of its cultural identity.
Fueled by this voracious appetite for illicit gains, the production of opium in Afghanistan tripled during 1979-89, and then again quadrupled from 1989-96 accounting for 40 percent of the world's opium production. Afghanistan stands now just below Burma on the international narcotics scene, accounting for about 30 percent of global production. The largest areas under poppy cultivation are in the provinces of Hilmand and Nangrahar where 80 percent of Afghanistan's opium poppies are grown in fields formerly producing food and cash crops. The absence of law enforcement facilities makes these one of the least controlled narcotics trafficking areas in the world.
Happily, although many believe that the number of Afghan heroin addicts has increased, no reliable data indicate that the abuse of hard drugs is yet a significant problem. Nevertheless, those Afghans who are partners in this industry are eager to subvert any individual or institution that would restrict their operations.
The Taliban seek to redress this situation but the breakdown of governance hampers their efforts. Senior authorities are untrained and thus incapable of formulating consistent policies or strategies for reconstruction; even when policies are announced, the intent to carry them out is not always clear. As a result, the bureaucracy is overcome with inertia, except for the imposition of external forms of selective Islamic conduct, such as beards for men and veils for women.
To revitalize this otherwise turgid bureaucracy will require monumental efforts. Institution-building with concomitant human resource development are urgent priorities. Almost two generations of young Afghan men opted for war instead of education; educational opportunities for women were severely curtailed for many years and are now all but nonexistent; the education system is in shambles. Thus those who should be most productive today are emotionally and mentally unprepared and highly vulnerable to the temptations of anti-social activities.
The collapse of the old order of governance highlights the artificiality of the systems conceived by rulers in building a framework of unity in the name of a nation-state on the unstable foundation of Afghanistan's multifaceted society. Whether the systems were expressed in terms of constitutional or Islamic principles, the controversies and contentions between the state, the religious establishment and local leadership arrangements have never been satisfactorily addressed.
While acknowledging the truth of social aberrations and political intransigence, it must also be noted that Afghan society continues to exhibit a dynamic meld of change and continuity. Old values have by no means been discarded by the bulk of the society who still hold fast to the standards detailed throughout this chapter. The concepts of honor and hospitality, combined with the essence of Islam's teachings embodying honesty, generosity, frugality, fairness, tolerance and respect for others still underlies the every day life of most Afghans. A spirit of courageous conviction that viable solutions will ultimately evolve is abundantly evident as the Afghans face their uncertain future with quiet dignity. This characteristic of Afghan society remains inviolate.
The current challenge before the Afghans is indeed daunting. But, so too were the challenges presented after 1978 by coups, invasion and occupation. Although many may now call for the UN to find solutions, others are equally convinced that as Afghans they cannot wait for others, that peace cannot be brought by outsiders. For them, solutions lie in the patient rebuilding of confidence and trust within individual communities.
Recent events have brought about sweeping changes. There can be no return to what was pre-war Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the society that will emerge will be rooted in the past. Despite the virulence of the recent onslaughts, despite current deplorable erosions and perversions, continuity will in the end permit shared sets of values to prevail along with the variations and varieties that constitute the richness of Afghanistan's cultural heritage. Afghan culture has been constantly changing; adaptability is a measure of its strength.
Louis Dupree's Afghanistan remains the most comprehensive discussion on cultural patterns, from the prehistoric through 1980. Among the many analytical studies of the jihad period since 1978, Asta Olesen in Islam and Politics in Afghanistan provides a clear picture of tribal ideologies and their relationships with ruling authorities since Ahmad Shah Durrani in the eighteenth century. For the Russian perspective on the conflict after 1978, Gennady Bocharov's reflective Russian Roulette: Afghanistan Through Russian Eyes recreates the atmosphere and moral enigmas of war.
In a novel approach using stories told about the lives of three prominent historical figures in the late nineteenth century, David Edwardes in Heroes of the Age sheds new light on the contemporary strife by examining values in Pushtun culture, especially as they contend with state encroachments during the imposition of the concept of nation-state on such a diverse culture. The fourteen contributors to Fundamentalism Reborn?: Afghanistan Under the Taliban edited by William Maley, address the origins of the Taliban Movement as well as the cultural dilemmas inherent in this most recent attempt to fuse society's diverse segments into a confined mold.
An overview of the cultural traumas experienced by Afghan refugees, especially women, may be found in Disposable People? The Plight of Refugees by Judy Mayotte, while the complexities and challenges involved in reconstruction is provocatively described by Asger Christensen in Aiding Afghanistan: The Background and Prospects for Reconstruction in a Fragmented Society.
Of the many specific ethnographic studies listed in the bibliography, those by Barfield, Boesen, Canfield, Christensesn, Dor, L. Dupree, Ferdinand, Frederiksen, Glatzer, Harpviken, Olesen, Pedersen, Rao, Shahrani, N. Tapper and R. Tapper are particularly recommended, as is the comprehensive study on the variety of house-types illustrated in Afghanistan: An Atlas of Indigenous Domestic Architecture by Albert Szabo and Thomas Barfield.
People cannot be understood in isolation from the landscape which shapes their lives. The stunning vividness of Afghanistan's environment captured in the work of Roland and Sabrina Michaud is published in Afghanistan and Mirror of the Orient.
Data as of 1997
Data as of 1997
Afghanistan Table of Contents