Largely as a result of the Bush administration’s “war on terror,” the traditional framework of the East-West political dialogue has broken and fallen entirely under the spell of the extremists on both sides. Since much of the West’s relationship was based on Cold War and Neo-colonial relationships to begin with it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it finally broke. Yet nothing new and as powerful has come along to replace it. Now what we see is confusion in the West as declining powers like the U.S. attempt to rig the international system to ensure some role in a future where they cannot control events as they had. The U.S. failure in Afghanistan is largely due to an inability to switch its thinking from the Cold War to a multi-polar world while it had the authority and power to do so. Instead, as the result of manipulation by right wing and neoconservative intellectuals, the U.S. simply substituted Islam for communism and went on with an aggressive strategy as before.
It hasn’t worked and the evidence mounts that a political, economic and or military catastrophe approaches for which the West is not intellectually prepared. By continuing to support Pakistan’s military the U.S. works against its own interests in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. By backing rigged elections with pre-selected candidates that the Afghan people don’t want and by continuing its war on political Islam through predator drones and special operations, the West commits itself to a fight it cannot win. Western intellectual circles have known this for some time but it would now appear as evidenced by the controversy surrounding the recent release of recommendations made to the Obama administration by the Afghanistan Study Group that the consequences of current policy are finally sinking in. As the next stage of recommendations is formulated it is imperative that genuine new thinking gets into the process.
Breaking this chain of institutional thinking is essential to solving the Afghan problem. But most suggestions to “think outside the box” aren’t really intended to create new thinking as much as they are to try and maintain the same old thinking with a different approach. What is needed now is a wholly different way of thinking and a whole new group to do it. To do this the issue of Islam needs to be moved off center stage where the current acrimony has been intentionally focused and replace it with another model that incorporates ideas, histories and enduring beliefs that link humanity together in a common struggle and a better life for all.
Resetting the clock in Washington and Afghanistan
Afghanistan’s tribal system has strong ties to Islam, but the center of tribal life is not the Mosque but the secular local community center. The political Islam of today’s Taliban extremists is neither native to Afghanistan nor is it consistent with the traditions of the Pashtun tribal code known as Pashtunwali. As stated by Selig Harrison in his extensive document Pakistan, the State of the Union, “The coexistence and interaction of the ancient tribal code with religious traits is a very interesting phenomenon that is indispensable for understanding the Pashtun national culture. On the one hand, it explains the inevitable and ritualistic religiosity of the Pashtun, and on the other hand it explains the futility of efforts to inject religious fundamentalism in Pashtun social and political culture as it stands in contradiction to Pashtunwali. In fact, the Islamic identity of the Pashtuns is only one thousand years old whereas Pashtunwali is reportedly five thousand years old.”
According to Vartan Gregorian in his 1969 study, The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan, prior to the British military invasions of the mid-19th century, the Afghans were not hostile to the European powers. In 1809, Scottish statesman and historian Mountstuart Elphinstone and his “retinue of some 400 Anglo-Indian soldiers were well received by the Afghans.” So too were others in 1810, 1815, and 1826, when Sunni Afghans were reported to have expressed an open tolerance toward Christians. British explorer Charles Masson “was well treated by Muslim religious men and Afghan tribesmen.” Of his stay in Kabul in 1832, he reported that a Christian was respectfully referred to as a “Kitabi” or “one of the Book.”
Renowned adventurer and East India Company political officer Alexander Burnes wrote home in May of 1832, “The people of this country are kind hearted and hospitable. They have no prejudice against a Christian and none against our nation.” Burnes argued correctly that the strong Afghan Amir, Dost Mohammed, “could keep the country together and resist Russian or Persian encroachment, but a country split into feudal principalities and tribes would invite Russian intrigue aimed at picking them off piecemeal with no great difficulty.” Yet, his argument and the goodwill of the Afghan people were lost when London acquiesced to the conquest of Afghanistan through what is known as the “Forward Policy,” setting the stage for three Anglo-Afghan wars, an endless low-intensity conflict, and a century and a half of political instability. For centuries prior to the current era, Afghanistan set itself apart as a crossroads of trade and as an example of moderate Islam. It must do so again today not only for the sake of its own people, but as an example of the kind of moderate and progressive Islam the world will lose by allowing the forces of extremism to set the public agenda and rule.
Europe and the United States have a responsibility to Afghanistan. But public opinion is badly informed and disconnected from Afghan culture while governments remain encumbered with colonial mentalities that will deal only with their own vital interests and dismiss any chance for a restoration of Afghan society.
A new and shocking departure from the existing narrative is needed to change the tone of the Afghan crisis and reorient the world’s thinking, but efforts to think outside the box must also be subject to the reality that the box itself is no longer of any value in solving the problem.
Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould are the authors of two books in the Open Media Series published by City Lights Books, Invisible History: Afghanistan's Untold Story and Crossing Zero The AfPak War at the Turning Point of American Empire forthcoming in February 2011. Visit their website at www.invisiblehistory.com.