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Foreign-imposed ideologies and report wars

KABUL - It's raining in Kabul so I spent a quiet day indoors, reading and watching television, surfing the 30 some Afghan channels. Yesterday the winner of Afghan Star (basically Afghan Idol), Sajed Jannati, sang a song for New Year's. Another New Year's concert took place today, and the singer was Farzana Naz, who has even given a concert in the southern province of Helmand.

There was a debate on Tolo News about a report commissioned by a UK Ministry of Defense think-tank, obtained by the UK Independent under Freedom of Information. The report, titled "Lessons from the Soviet Transition in Afghanistan", says that like the Soviet intervention, the NATO intervention was "unwinnable", because it was trying to "impose an ideology foreign to the Afghan people."

I couldn't get the full report, but googling the title yields several similar studies and reports. William Byrd wrote one in 2012 for the US Institute of Peace, called "Lessons from Afghanistan's History for the Current Transition and Beyond". Byrd's report has a number of tables that compare the Soviet and NATO interventions and withdrawals, and is interesting because it notes differences as well as similarities. History never repeats itself exactly.

Byrd makes a few interesting notes that are often forgotten. For example, "there has never been a serious separatist movement in the country, let alone one with any significant prospects of success." Also, that "Afghanistan can be effectively governed and politically stable," and was, according to Byrd, from 1933-1973, even if those states didn't penetrate deeply into the countryside and were not very successful developmentally.

Byrd also discusses how, for most of its history, Afghanistan has depended on external financing, as it does today. The state left behind after the USSR left in 1989 held on for three years. It collapsed in 1992 because the USSR itself collapsed and the financing disappeared. The Afghan economy is in better shape today than it was in 1989, and if aid does not collapse, Afghanistan could survive the transition.

I continued today's exploration into the literary genre of think-tank/NGO report with a very interesting one by Thomas Ruttig of the Afghan Analysts Network, called "How it All Began: A short look at the pre-1979 Origins of Afghanistan's Conflicts". Ruttig discusses the long-term theme of reform and resistance in Afghan history. Top-down reforms attempted by some of the monarchs and their prime ministers, and again by the pro-Soviet governments, failed. "But the reforms changed Afghan society in the long run nevertheless", in education and economy. The most important paragraph in this one is in the conclusion:

"It is significant that the slower reform process between 1929 and 1973 met almost no violent resistance. Modernisation was only violently resisted when it came in the context of outside military intervention, as between 1978 and 1989 (by the Soviets) and after 2001 (by the US-led alliance), and its opponents were able to label it as a threat to Afghan culture and religion and to politically mobilise significant parts of the Afghan population against it."

Rounding out today's report reading was another nice one by Niamatullah Ibrahimi, also of the Afghan Analysts Network. "Ideology Without Leadership: The Rise and Decline of Maoism in Afghanistan," was not satisfying in its explanation of the decline of Maoism, but it was full of an interesting and mostly disappeared history. Maoism was a contender in student and national politics in the 1960s, but attacking Maoists was about the only thing that the pro-USSR Left (PDPA) and the Islamists agreed on. And while the PDPA could count on support from the USSR and the Islamists had Western support, the Maoists could not hope for support from China (which backed the Islamists). Ibrahimi argues that internal weaknesses of leadership and endless ideological debate without strategy meant that the Maoists could not capitalize on their strength among young people. This was the unsatisfying part - all parties split, and have interminable debates, so why would the Maoists suffer more from theirs? Another thing I wished for an answer to: the Maoists believed that Afghanistan, as a primarily rural, agricultural economy, would reward a strategy of rural protracted people's war more than a strategy based on urban areas, but they were never able to gain any strength in the countryside. Why not? Ibrahimi offers some answers - they were primarily urban intellectuals - but the answers beg the question.

(A strange thought occurred while I was reading this. As far as the strategy goes - of fighting a protracted rural war with infinite patience and slowly encircling the cities - it seems that the mujahaddeen, and now the Taliban, are following it, rather than the Maoists.)

Still, a very useful contribution and a resurrection of a history that everyone who has held sway in Afghanistan wants to suppress.

Taken together, I conclude that the UK's Ministry of Defense report was wrong. The problem isn't that democracy, or socialism, are "foreign ideologies", that Afghan society is inherently and eternally conservative. After so many invasions, Afghan society is certainly sensitive to foreign imposition and anything that could be seen as that. But Afghanistan's history, including its suppressed parts, is full of people who were trying to make change, sometimes gradually, sometimes recklessly, sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding in unexpected ways, sometimes dying in the attempt. Friends of Afghanistan shouldn't let them be erased from history.

Justin Podur is visiting Kabul for the next few days.

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