Afghanistan is not 'impossible to conquer' but is difficult for imperial power to rule through proxies: Afghan-American author
Published: Sep 01, 2021 12:14 AM
Tamim Ansary. Photo: Courtesy of Tamim Ansary

Tamim Ansary. Photo: Courtesy of Tamim Ansary

Editor's Note:

The final evacuation flight took off from Hamid Karzai International Airport on the last hours of Monday night, taking the last US military and civilian personnel back to the US and ending the longest war in American history. Afghanistan is known as the "graveyard of empires" and the US' failed war made people rethink the history of the British and the Soviets on this same ground. But in the eyes of Tamim Ansary, (Ansary)  an Afghan-American author and public speaker, the reason for the failure of foreign forces is they do not understand the internal narrative existing in the country: the fight between the groups of Afghans. After the upheaval in Afghanistan, Ansary's book Author of Games Without Rules, The Often-Interrupted History of Afghanistan became popular in China. Recently, Global Times reporters Xie Wenting and Bai Yunyi (GT) conducted an exclusive interview with Ansary where he elaborated on the story of two Afghanis and his thoughts on the current situation in the country. 

GT: In a recent article, you mentioned that, when you visited Kabul in 2002 just after the fall of the Taliban, you witnessed shocking devastation and debris, but you still felt the culture. The soul of Afghanistan still existed. However, when you returned to Kabul 10 years later, while the city was being rebuilt, you felt the Afghan culture was lost. Why do you think this happened?

Ansary: A culture changes from within. Institutions from another culture do not generally produce the intended change when they are imposed. They do create change, but not necessarily the change that was intended. In the case of Afghanistan, a constitution was presented to the country by the foreign coalition of powers that drove out the Taliban. That constitution mandated a political structure for the country, the apparatus of a parliamentary democracy, and elections were established as the system by which the country would choose its officials. This system has evolved over a long period of time in the West and I deem it one of the great achievements of human civilization as a whole. 

Democracy, however, does not begin and end with elections. It begins with social institutions that emerge out of the lives people are actually living. It includes education and schools and universal access to libraries and other sources of information. It includes a universal acceptance of the rule of law but the laws must reflect the social institutions that impact actual lives. So, when a Western system was imposed to Afghan society that year, people decided who their leaders were in the traditional ways and then went through the motion of the apparatus that was now in place. Because there was money coming into the country, the only way to get close to those funds was to go through the system established by the foreign power. In earlier times, Afghans were interrelated as networks of families, clans and tribes. Access to power diffused into the population as a whole through the connections officials in power had with vast family, tribal and traditional networks. And as members of these networks, they received emotional support vital to their well-being. You do not want to disappoint "your people", whoever you feel your people might be. 

But the 30 years of war that preceded the arrival of America in Afghanistan had laid waste to all those relationship networks. The people who secured power through elections and appointment by elected officials had essentially no social networks or commitments or accountability. Afghanistan had been through a long terrifying war of all-against-all. Pretty much everyone in the country had come out of that devastation with lots of enemies and few friends, few ties. 

So, in this new era, when they secured places in the new imported structure of political power, at a time when trillions of dollars were coming into the country, people who were in a position to channel that money and owed nothing to nobody tended to fill their own pockets placing funds in bank accounts abroad. Yes, things got built but what did not get built was a warm social community in which Afghans as a whole were all included as if they were family. The war of all-against-all tends harm development of deep friendship among strangers.

GT: The Taliban seems to have changed. The group's leaders appear to be more open to the world. Based on your observation, what has and has not changed over the past two decades with regards to the Taliban? In your opinion, what path will the Taliban take this time when assuming power?

Ansary: The Taliban who took over the country in 1996 were boys. They were teenagers and twenty-somethings who had emerged from the worst childhood on earth. When they first took power, I saw a United Nations report which estimated that there were as many as 500,000 disabled orphans in Afghanistan because the Soviet landmines laid in the '80s were often shaped like toys and designed not to kill but to maim the unfortunate child who picked it up, thereby burdening the whole family that was trying to escape to the refugee camps outside the country. These were the Taliban. When they first took over the country they were basically angry, damaged, largely illiterate boys, who had been brainwashed with a version of Islamic doctrine inseparable from terrorist ideology and told they were the agents of God.  

Now they are 40- or 50-year-old men, they have received some schooling, they have practical experience, they have had to actually run systems and they have become more sophisticated with technology such as social media. What they promise should be taken with a few grains of salt. It does not represent what they intend to do. 

I am sure they do not know what they will do. It will depend on what they can do. Their promise of "moderation" does indicate their awareness that there are other demographics in Afghanistan which may gather political force and, if they want to actually govern the country, they may have to negotiate with Afghans who have other views, other orientations, other cultural practices. These promises should be seen as tactical moves, addressed not so much to the outside world as to forces yet unspecified within the country. 

GT: You said there are "two Afghanis":  one in the city that yearns for a secular life and social progress, and one in the countryside that calls for religion and conservatism. Could you elaborate on how the two types of Afghanis came into being and what their different historical and cultural backgrounds are?

Ansary: I do not know that I would go so far as to say that people in the city yearn for a secular life. I think people in the city mostly regard themselves as Muslims and they cherish Islam as a source of spiritual nourishment. I think they see Taliban "Islam" as something other than Islam. 

I also think the urban/rural divide in Afghanistan, although sharper than in most places, is a version of something that is happening worldwide. There is a tension rising in the United States between a rural culture, a country outlook that is at odds with the culture and world view of urban folks whose views and opinions come out of their exposure to diversity. I also think that the direction in which the world is going, given the evolution of technology and the globalization of world culture, makes diversity an inevitable factor which all people, in the country or the city, will have to deal with. 

The rural culture embodied so deeply in Afghanistan expresses a nostalgia for a past that can never be restored. That does not mean we should ignore what that nostalgia craves. There may be something precious we are losing in our rush to modernity that we should not relinquish so easily.

GT: The massive civil war appears to have come to an end and a new government will be formed. Do you think this time the "two Afghanis" can end their fight and become one unified entity? Will the Taliban have the will or the ability to resolve this urban-rural division?

Ansary: I hope the civil war has come to an end but I do not know if it has. I get the impression that negotiations are underway to form a new government and I hear hints that it may be an inclusive government, which is to say, that it will at least grant a seat at the table for all ethnic groups, and all political orientations who can broadly be named "Islamic", including those who seek to bring into being a progressive movement in Islam. 

But I do not know whether this is actually happening or whether it will actually succeed. If such a coalition government does emerge from current talks, Afghanistan has a chance. Even if it is a fairly conservative government it has a chance as long as it is absolutely sovereign. If it is only a Taliban government or a coalition of political forces in Afghanistan that are controlled by foreign powers in the Islamic world, Afghanistan does not stand a chance.

GT: In your opinion, how can Afghanistan's politics and society be modernized while preserving the "soul of Afghanistan"?

Ansary: The two key ingredients are peace and sovereignty. There is no doubt in my mind that if Afghans are sovereign without foreign powers able to dictate its internal policies, and if there is peace for an extended period of time, preferably forever, the country will progress toward modernity on its own way at its own pace. 

No culture, anywhere on Earth is static. Culture changes with the times. That is inevitable. What is important is that those changes emerge from conversations and negotiations among the people of the culture themselves. 

GT: What is your take on the idea that "Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires"? The US repeated the history of the UK and the Soviet Union. Why does the same story repeat over and over again? Do you think other foreign forces will still want to interfere in Afghanistan again in the future?

Ansary: The pattern happens again and again because Afghanistan has an internal story crucial to its own social and cultural well-being. The relations that Afghan peasants and city residents are trying to work out among themselves. However, the country is situated in a territory that matters to global powers wrestling with global issues that are quite irrelevant to Afghans. It connects the Silk Road, which was one of the three or four major arteries of world trade in ancient times. This was the place where roads to India branched away from roads that ran from China to Rome through the lands of the Turks and the domains of Persia. 

This issue emerged in a new way in the 19th century because the world had entered the global era and the geo-political contest between Russian Empire and Great Britain inevitably made Afghanistan a key staging area because of its geographical location. Later in the 20th century, when the competition shifted into the confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union known as the Cold War, Afghanistan remained one of the world most strategically significant territories. 

In the 21st century, air power claimed a place that belonged exclusively to naval power in the 19th and 20th centuries. And Afghanistan? Take a look: from air bases in this country warplanes can reach Beijing, Moscow, Delhi, and Tehran. It is no surprise that during its 20-year project in Afghanistan, the United States and its allies built two of the world biggest airbases at Bagram and Kandahar.

Incidentally, Afghanistan is not "impossible to conquer" as is often claimed. It has been conquered many times by people who stayed and settled there. Those conquerors are what we now call "Afghans". What has proved intractably difficult is for an imperial power to govern Afghanistan from afar through proxies. 

There is an inherent cultural tension between urban and rural Afghans. Any national government in Afghanistan has to be based in Kabul, as geography requires it, and any national government has to deal with foreign powers that have interests in Afghanistan. 

However, this outward-facing inclination and necessity tends inherently to put the government in Kabul at odds with the tribal powers in rural Afghanistan. When the government in Kabul becomes an obvious proxy for some distant and culturally different imperial power, the tension between Kabul and the demands from the people grows exponentially. As a result, the country becomes less and less governable. 

For the reasons I have sketched above, it is difficult to imagine that foreign powers will not seek to interfere in Afghanistan again in the future. 

GT: Some countries are mulling over imposing sanctions on Afghanistan. What do you think of the sanctions? Will they be effective or will they lead to more disasters for the Afghan people?

Ansary: Sanctions, it seems to me, are an effective tool for forcing the rulers of some nation to the bargaining table if they have a functioning economy. Sanctions threaten to undermine the economy of a country and thus create internal problems for the rulers. Therefore, sanctions put pressure on those rulers to come to the bargaining table. 

Afghanistan, however, has been living on foreign aid for years. The bulk of its national budget has been coming from foreign sources. The massive development projects in Afghanistan, the roads, the factories, the power plants, the airports, the apartment buildings and the rest, were funded by foreign governments and foreign companies. 

As is often the case in such situations, ordinary people will suffer while a small ruthless ruling elite will have an easier time imposing its will internally. I think there is a substantial possibility that a humanitarian crisis of monstrous proportions may erupt in Afghanistan regardless of what the international community does. I cannot see that sanctions on Afghanistan will do anything but exacerbate that possibility. 

GT: How do you evaluate the role that China can play in Afghanistan's peace and reconciliation process as well as in its economic reconstruction?

Ansary: China can play a positive role in Afghanistan at this time by offering the sort of aid Afghans will need to secure their immediate future. The Chinese government seems ready to use any military force it deems necessary in dealing with internal matters but it has not demonstrated a will to send military forces into foreign countries, which makes it one of the few players who can really play a positive role here.