Ploughing through the voluminous memoirs and travelogues of intrepid Victorian imperialists has long ceased to be fashionable for today’s policy- makers. Yet, even as the civilized world shudders at the very thought of a reinvigorated taliban gaining a foothold in parts of eastern and southern Afghanistan, it is instructive to examine what the stalwarts of another age had to say about coping with exotic problems. There are two passages, in particular, I would recommend to the multinational forces, the army of United Nations officials and the assorted NGOs that have descended on Afghanistan, to fight the ongoing war on terror and, ostensibly, to make a difference to the lives of people devastated by 25 years of savage conflict.
The first, by the legendary Lord Roberts of Kandahar, a former commander-in-chief of the British Indian army, was written in 1880, shortly after his successful march from Kabul to Kandahar to relieve a 3,000-strong British garrison. “It may not be very flattering to our amour propre,” he wrote, “but I feel sure I am right when I say that the less the Afghans see of us, the less they will dislike us.”
The second, by Lord Curzon of Keddleston, a future Viceroy of India, was written in 1892 in his celebrated two-volume travelogue, Persia and the Persian Question. Then a rising Tory backbencher with a deep interest in imperial affairs, Curzon proffered a sharp critique of religious and political evangelism in the East. “Above all we must remember,” he argued, “the ways of the Orientals are not our ways, nor their thoughts our thoughts. Often when we think them backward and stupid, they think us meddlesome and absurd…Our system may be good for us, but it is neither equally, nor altogether good for them. Satan found it better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven; and the normal Asiatic would sooner be misgoverned by Asiatics than well-governed by Europeans.”
The extent to which the two observations help in understanding contemporary Afghanistan is truly remarkable. Five years after the fanatical taliban regime was booted out of Afghanistan by a combination of the indigenous Afghan resistance and US forces, peace has not returned to the country. In an interview just prior to his meeting with President George W. Bush, the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, confessed that the security situation in his country was worse than it was two years ago. After the talks, the US president renewed his claim that the taliban would not be allowed to make any more headway. His brave talk came in the backdrop of growing nervousness among the expatriates of Kabul after the kidnapping of 23 South Korean Christian evangelists — what the hell were they doing in the Ghazni province in the first place' — by the taliban.
The growing perception that things in Afghanistan are deteriorating at a rapid pace is both gaining ground and forcing a reassessment by the Anglo-American alliance. An alarmed British parliamentary committee recommended last month that the United Kingdom raise its level of troop deployment in Afghanistan to a level substantially more than its present 7,500 —this despite a ministry of defence warning that the country (already bogged down in the Basra province of Iraq) had no further troops to spare. At the same time, in the course of a fleeting visit to Kabul and Islamabad, the new British foreign secretary, David Miliband (familiar to Indian leftists as the eldest son of Ralph Miliband, academic and long-time editor of the annual Socialist Register) pronounced that he intended to transform his country’s foreign policy into a “force for good”. The British foreign office has informally hinted to the media that this means gradually withdrawing from a hopeless situation in Iraq and concentrating all resources in winning the war in Afghanistan.
That any suggestion of withdrawing from Afghanistan is going to have a disastrous effect on the already-fragile Karzai government is well appreciated. Yet, it is undeniable that the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force, far from bolstering the security of ordinary Afghans, has become deeply unpopular. Frightened and trigger-happy soldiers have squandered the goodwill that was apparent in 2002. Equally, the well-meaning UN mission to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people has been transformed into a gigantic, wasteful bureaucracy. The battalions of advisers and experts deployed to bolster Afghan self-confidence have become a parallel authority and have undermined the institution-building process in Afghanistan. Far from creating conditions for genuine self-government, the totality of foreign involvement has made the country a dependency.
At the root of the problem, as Curzon shrewdly discerned more than a century ago, is a mindset that is prefaced on a monopoly of enlightenment. In the course of interactions with UN staff and NGOs during a visit to Kabul last month, I was struck by the contempt with which Afghan politicians are viewed. Apart from prominent leaders being dismissed as ‘warlords’, there is general incomprehension of the shifting allegiances of individuals and their strong attachment to ethnic identities. When the two houses of the Afghan parliament passed a bill conferring amnesty on past excesses by individuals or groups, the NGOs and the foreign media were outraged — a far cry from the acclaim that greeted South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Trying to force-feed social liberation to the Afghans has added to the problem. There is more than a little disdain for the average Afghan’s obvious reluctance to allow women out of the home — “Did you even know there is a Mrs Karzai'” I was asked. When Malalai Joya, a 29-year-old woman MP from Farah province, was evicted from parliament for describing her male colleagues as “farmyard animals”, she was feted by do-gooder expatriates — a move that, ironically, reinforced conservative Afghan fears of growing cultural distortions.
The Western view that Afghan democracy is so feeble that it needs constant guidance and supervision is based on cultural incomprehension. Despite many imperfections and a failure to live up to dizzying expectations, President Karzai has done a reasonably good job of accommodating different factions and giving all the ethnic groups a stake in the power structure. The Pushtuns are undeniably the backbone of Afghanistan, but groups such as the Tajiks and Uzbeks who were the mainstay of the Northern Alliance have the space to both exercise power and still voice their opposition. There is, for example, considerable political activity in Kabul and elsewhere in anticipation of the 2009 presidential and parliamentary election.
Apart from the National Front, a federation of parties comprising the old Northern Alliance, there is an attempt by the Pushtun opponents of Karzai to find a suitable candidate who can challenge the president. There is also a growing debate on the need or otherwise for politics to be conducted along party lines and whether Afghanistan could do with a greater measure of federalism. Almost every Afghan politician has a definite view of what constitutes developmental priorities, which are invariably at variance with the donor agencies. Unfortunately, it is the donors who prevail.
In short, all the features that constitute democracy are there in Afghanistan. What the West cannot comprehend — but we can — is the culture of deals, indulgence and brazenness plus, of course, violence that accompanies the jostling for power. Afghanistan is a society in transition, struggling to recover the basic human dignities that were lost for 25 years. It needs all the encouragement and assistance in coping with external problems to help it find its own feet. Judgmental intrusiveness is a problem it can do without.