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The Making of Afghanistan

It is hard to imagine now, but for students at Kabul University, 1968 was no less a hectic year than it was for students at Columbia, Berkeley, Oxford, and the Sorbonne. A king, Mohammad Zahir Shah, had been presiding over the many ethnic and tribal enclaves of Afghanistan since 1933. But he knew enough of the world elsewhere to attempt, cautiously, a few liberal reforms in his capital city, Kabul. The university had been set up in 1946; a liberal constitution was introduced in 1964; the press was technically free; women ran for public office in 1965. By the Sixties, many students and teachers had traveled abroad; and new ideas about how to organize the state and society had come to the sons of peasants and nomads and artisans from their foreign or foreign-educated teachers.

In the somewhat rarefied world of modernizing Kabul, where women were allowed to appear without the veil in 1959, communism and radical Islam attracted almost an equal number of believers: to these impatient men, the great Afghan countryside with its antique ways appeared ready for revolution. It was from this fledgling intelligentsia in Kabul that almost all of the crucial political figures of the next three decades emerged.

Less than five years after 1968, King Zahir Shah was deposed in a military coup by his cousin, the ambitious former prime minister Mohammad Daoud.1 Daoud initially sought help from the Communists, whose influence in the army and bureaucracy had grown rapidly since the 1960s: together, they went after the radical Islamists, many of whom were imprisoned or murdered for ideological reasons. But when Daoud, wary of the increasing power of the Communists, tried to get rid of them, he was in turn overthrown and killed. In April 1978, the Communists—themselves divided, confusingly, into two factions, Khalq and Parcham, that roughly corresponded to the rural–urban divide in Afghanistan—assumed full control of the government in Kabul, and in their hurry to eliminate all potential opposition to their program of land redistribution and indoctrination—an attempt, really, to create a Communist society virtually overnight—inaugurated what two decades later still looks like an ongoing process: the brutalization and destruction of Afghanistan.

Within just a few months, 12,000 people considered anti-Communist, many of them members of the country’s educated elite, were killed in Kabul alone; many thousands more were murdered in the countryside. Thousands of families began leaving the country for Pakistan and Iran. Many radical Islamists of Kabul University were already in exile in Pakistan by 1978; some of them had even started a low-intensity guerrilla war against the Communist government. Several army garrisons across the country mutinied, and people in the villages, who were culturally very remote from Kabul, began many separate jihads, or holy wars, against the Communist regime.

Earlier this year, in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, I met Anwar, whose father and uncle were among the earliest Afghans to take up arms against the Communists. They weren’t Islamists. Anwar’s father, a farmer, lived in a village north of Kabul, near the border with what is now Tajikistan, and, although he was a devout Muslim, knew little about the modern ideologies of Islam that had traveled to Kabul University from Egypt, Pakistan, and Iran. It was Anwar’s uncle, an officer in Zahir Shah’s finance ministry in Kabul, who was a bit more in touch with them. He was friendly with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, one of the prominent radical Islamists at Kabul University, who sought refuge in Pakistan in the mid-1970s after a failed uprising against Daoud and the Communists.

In the beginning, the Russians were busy with consolidating the Communist hold over Kabul and securing the country’s main highways, and they seemed very far from rural Afghanistan, which in any case had had for years relative autonomy from the government in the capital city. But later, with the aggressive campaigns of land reforms and Marxist indoctrination emanating from Kabul, resistance built up swiftly throughout the country. Anwar’s father and uncle joined one of the Mujahideen groups that, though equipped only with .303 Lee Enfield rifles, managed to keep their region free of Communist influence. Then, in December 1979, the Soviet army entered Afghanistan in order to protect the Communist revolution, which was also being threatened by factional fighting among Afghan Communists and rebellions by the army; and the position of Anwar’s family became more precarious.

In 1983, Russian planes bombed the villages Anwar and his relatives lived in, in retaliation for attacks on Afghan army convoys by the Mujahideen. Although Anwar’s father and uncle stayed back to fight and look after the animals and fields, there was no choice for many of the women and children but to leave.

Anwar, who was seven years old at the time, couldn’t recall too many details of the long walk that brought him and his mother and young brother to Pakistan. He did remember that it was very cold. There was snow on the ground and on the hills, and Anwar and his family walked all day and rested at night in roadside mosques. The 350-mile-long road to Pakistan swarmed with thousands of refugees, but they had to avoid moving in large groups, which the Russian helicopters buzzing ominously overhead liked to fire upon. They also had to stay as close as possible to the main road, for there were mines in the fields and on the dirt tracks—these were the tiny “butterfly mines” that floated down from the helicopters and then lay in wait for unmindful children and animals.

I still heard about the mines when I traveled this past spring on the road that links Kabul to Pakistan, through Ningrahar province.2 Dust-spattered refugee families from northern Afghanistan stood hopefully by the side of the eroded tarmac, where the Toyota pickups of the Taliban—young turbaned men and guns crammed in the back—were the new sources of fear. The land seemed vacant, the high surrounding mountains concealed behind a haze, and the stubborn bareness of rock and desert was relieved only occasionally by a green field and a black-tented encampment of nomads.

There is emptiness now, but in the days of Zahir Shah this land was reclaimed, with Soviet assistance, for cultivation; and orchards and fields, watered by broad canals, sprang up. In a half-abandoned village, rusty padlocks hanging from the doors of bleached wood set into long mud walls, an old Afghan was startled when I mentioned that time. Rasool had been in his late teens then; had known some of the prosperity that came to the region; and could even, with some prompting by me, remember the white men—Russian experts—traveling through the fields.

Unlike Anwar’s father and uncle, Rasool wasn’t a Mujahideen: he hadn’t revolted against the Russians or the Communists; he had been content to tend his land. The jihad had almost bypassed him; and he had known hard times only when, sometime in the mid-1980s, Russian planes bombed the canals that brought water to his land. There had been another recovery after the Russian army withdrew in 1989, when white men, this time from the UN, came and supervised the repair of the canals. By then, the local Mujahideen commanders were in charge. They taxed all the traffic on the roads; they took over the land which once belonged to the Afghan state and made the farmers grow high-yield poppy.

There was no point for Rasool to defy the commanders; he wouldn’t have got any cash credit from the traders in the town for anything other than opium. Not that the poppy-growing had improved his circumstances. It was the Mujahideen commanders who had grown very rich from converting the poppy into heroin and then smuggling it across the border into Iran and Pakistan.

And then, suddenly, before he had even heard of them, the young soldiers of the Taliban arrived from the southern provinces, chased out the Mujahideen commanders, and took over the checkpoints. They supervised, and profited from, the drug business until 1999, when they abruptly banned the cultivation of poppy, leaving most farmers with no sources of livelihood, and the option only of migrating to Pakistan.

Rasool lived in the vast, now arid land, after being taken, in just three decades, through a whole fruitless cycle of Afghan history. The long reign of Zahir Shah was no more than a faint memory. All the slow, steady work of previous generations was canceled out; Afghanistan was even further back from its tryst with the modern world.


But then, like many Muslim countries suddenly confronted in the nineteenth century with the rising power of the West, Afghanistan’s route to modern development could only have been tortuous. The Afghan empire of the eighteenth century had reached as far as Kashmir in the east and up to the Iranian city of Mashhad in the west. Like present-day Afghanistan, it contained many different ethnic groups, the dominant Pashtun tribes in the east and south, Tajiks and Uzbeks in the north and west, and the Shia Hazaras in the central provinces. Almost all of them were Sunni or Shia Muslims. Fiercely autonomous and proud, they had successfully resisted the British attempt to extend their Indian empire up to Kabul; but after two Anglo-Afghan wars, 1838–1842 and 1878– 1880, the Afghans had been subdued enough to serve as a buffer state between the expanding empires of Britain and Russia.

The British were content to exer-cise influence from afar without troubling themselves with direct rule. It was under their supervision that the present-day boundaries of Afghanistan were drawn, leaving a lot of Pashtun tribes in what is now Pakistan. The British also subsidized the Afghan army. Until 1919, when the Afghans won complete independence from the British, the ruler in Kabul reported to Delhi in matters of foreign policy, which essentially involved keeping the Russians out of Afghanistan.

The British-backed rulers of Afghanistan in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were insecure and ruthless, obsessed with protecting their regime from any local challenges as well: Afghanistan’s continued isolation was in their best interests. During the twenty-one-year rule of Amir Abdur Rahman (1880–1901), one of Afghanistan’s more pro-British rulers, only one school was built in Kabul, and that was a madrasa (theological school). Condemned to playing a passive part in an imperial Great Game, Afghanistan missed out on the indirect benefits of colonial rule: the creation of an educated class such as would supply the basic infrastructure of the post-colonial states of India, Pakistan, and Egypt.

Afghanistan’s resolute backwardness in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was appealing to Western romantics: Kipling, who was re-pelled by the educated Bengali, commended the Pashtun tribesmen—the traditional rulers of Afghanistan, and also a majority among Afghans—for their courage, love of freedom, and sense of honor. These clichés about the Afghans—which were to be amplified in our own time by American journalists and politicians—also had some effect on Muslims themselves.

  1. 1

    Since then Zahir Shah, who is eighty-six years old, has lived in exile near Rome. The regimes that followed him now make his forty-year-long reign appear a golden age in the country’s history, and he is much respected by an older generation of Afghans. He has been talked about recently as a possible alternative to the present Taliban regime. See “Secret Memo Reveals US Plan to Overthrow Taliban,” The Guardian, September 21, 2001.

  2. 2

    A recent UNDP report reveals that although 1.6 million explosives have been cleared, it will take another seven to ten years to turn Afghanistan into a mine-free place. See Dawn (Pakistan), July 1, 2001.

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