Warfare and Civic Culture

Warfare and Civic Culture

The Soviet-Afghan war has caused grave injury to the civic culture ofAfghanistan. The destruction and disruption wrought by the magnitude of thelethal technology employed was exponentially greater than that of any previousinvasion in the past. In addition to extensive ecological damage, including thevicious destruction of Kabul that dwarfs anything previously experienced, thewar stretched taught the fabric of the society, threatening to undermine itsconfidence.

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 toacademic freedom. All were compromised.

Two generations of children have grown up without knowing the joys ofchildhood, their lives concentrated instead on how to avoid death and deal withemotions associated with death. The war has left terrible scars on minds as wellas bodies. These scars threaten to undermine the traditional socialinfrastructure which served for decades to dampen ethnic, religious, culturaland linguistic differences in this complex multicultural society.

The deep apprehensions, amounting to fear among many, that prevail underTaliban rule despite an acknowledged improvement in security, have resulted inthe breakdown of trust which makes the organization of cooperative communityprojects difficult. This compounds the fact that many Afghans who benefittedfrom largely free services while in exile developed complacent attitudes leadingthem to expect others to do for them what once they expected to do forthemselves. Their vaunted self-reliance was thus eroded.

The spirit of jihad that initially sustained the leaders as a vital animatingforce deteriorated as spirals of continuing conflict and individual strugglesfor self-aggrandizement created a previously unknown lust for money in thepursuit of which hallowed values were violated without precedent. The very soulof Afghanistan's cultural heritage was assaulted by the systematic looting ofthe Kabul Museum and pillaging of archaeological sites throughout the country.These were not spontaneous acts committed by victorious armies, but calculatedthefts for profit without regard to national pride or the preservation of itscultural identity.

Fueled by this voracious appetite for illicit gains, the production of opiumin Afghanistan tripled during 1979-89, and then again quadrupled from 1989-96accounting for 40 percent of the world's opium production. Afghanistan standsnow just below Burma on the international narcotics scene, accounting for about30 percent of global production. The largest areas under poppy cultivation arein the provinces of Hilmand and Nangrahar where 80 percent of Afghanistan'sopium poppies are grown in fields formerly producing food and cash crops. Theabsence of law enforcement facilities makes these one of the least controllednarcotics trafficking areas in the world.

Happily, although many believe that the number of Afghan heroin addicts hasincreased, no reliable data indicate that the abuse of hard drugs is yet asignificant problem. Nevertheless, those Afghans who are partners in thisindustry are eager to subvert any individual or institution that would restricttheir operations.

The Taliban seek to redress this situation but the breakdown of governancehampers their efforts. Senior authorities are untrained and thus incapable offormulating consistent policies or strategies for reconstruction; even whenpolicies are announced, the intent to carry them out is not always clear. As aresult, the bureaucracy is overcome with inertia, except for the imposition ofexternal forms of selective Islamic conduct, such as beards for men and veilsfor women.

To revitalize this otherwise turgid bureaucracy will require monumentalefforts. Institution-building with concomitant human resource development areurgent priorities. Almost two generations of young Afghan men opted for warinstead of education; educational opportunities for women were severelycurtailed for many years and are now all but nonexistent; the education systemis in shambles. Thus those who should be most productive today are emotionallyand mentally unprepared and highly vulnerable to the temptations of anti-socialactivities.

The collapse of the old order of governance highlights the artificiality ofthe systems conceived by rulers in building a framework of unity in the name ofa nation-state on the unstable foundation of Afghanistan's multifaceted society.Whether the systems were expressed in terms of constitutional or Islamicprinciples, the controversies and contentions between the state, the religiousestablishment and local leadership arrangements have never been satisfactorilyaddressed.

While acknowledging the truth of social aberrations and politicalintransigence, it must also be noted that Afghan society continues to exhibit adynamic meld of change and continuity. Old values have by no means beendiscarded by the bulk of the society who still hold fast to the standardsdetailed 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 everyday life of most Afghans. A spirit of courageous conviction that viablesolutions will ultimately evolve is abundantly evident as the Afghans face theiruncertain future with quiet dignity. This characteristic of Afghan societyremains inviolate.

The current challenge before the Afghans is indeed daunting. But, so too werethe challenges presented after 1978 by coups, invasion and occupation. Althoughmany may now call for the UN to find solutions, others are equally convincedthat as Afghans they cannot wait for others, that peace cannot be brought byoutsiders. For them, solutions lie in the patient rebuilding of confidence andtrust within individual communities.

Recent events have brought about sweeping changes. There can be no return towhat was pre-war Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the society that will emerge will berooted in the past. Despite the virulence of the recent onslaughts, despitecurrent deplorable erosions and perversions, continuity will in the end permitshared sets of values to prevail along with the variations and varieties thatconstitute the richness of Afghanistan's cultural heritage. Afghan culture hasbeen constantly changing; adaptability is a measure of its strength.

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Louis Dupree's Afghanistan remains the most comprehensive discussionon cultural patterns, from the prehistoric through 1980. Among the manyanalytical studies of the jihad period since 1978, Asta Olesen in Islamand Politics in Afghanistan provides a clear picture of tribal ideologiesand their relationships with ruling authorities since Ahmad Shah Durrani in theeighteenth century. For the Russian perspective on the conflict after 1978,Gennady Bocharov's reflective Russian Roulette: Afghanistan Through RussianEyes recreates the atmosphere and moral enigmas of war.

In a novel approach using stories told about the lives of three prominenthistorical figures in the late nineteenth century, David Edwardes in Heroesof the Age sheds new light on the contemporary strife by examining valuesin Pushtun culture, especially as they contend with state encroachments duringthe imposition of the concept of nation-state on such a diverse culture. Thefourteen contributors to Fundamentalism Reborn?: Afghanistan Under theTaliban edited by William Maley, address the origins of the TalibanMovement as well as the cultural dilemmas inherent in this most recent attemptto 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 Refugeesby Judy Mayotte, while the complexities and challenges involved inreconstruction is provocatively described by Asger Christensen in AidingAfghanistan: The Background and Prospects for Reconstruction in a FragmentedSociety.

Of the many specific ethnographic studies listed in the bibliography, thoseby Barfield, Boesen, Canfield, Christensesn, Dor, L. Dupree, Ferdinand,Frederiksen, Glatzer, Harpviken, Olesen, Pedersen, Rao, Shahrani, N. Tapper andR. Tapper are particularly recommended, as is the comprehensive study on thevariety of house-types illustrated in Afghanistan: An Atlas of IndigenousDomestic Architecture by Albert Szabo and Thomas Barfield.

People cannot be understood in isolation from the landscape which shapestheir lives. The stunning vividness of Afghanistan's environment captured in thework of Roland and Sabrina Michaud is published in Afghanistan and Mirrorof the Orient.


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