Kabul's inherent paradoxes

The sanctity of Afghanistan's borders and the sovereignty of the state remain hostage to questions of ethnic identity and perceptions of historical injustice.

The ancient city of Herat lies in the west of Afghanistan, just 120 kms from the Iranian border, astride the once-great network of caravan routes plying the Silk Road from East to West, China to Turkey. The British feared that it stood on the conqueror's route to India from Russia, through the great passes of Khyber and Bolan. Its strategic significance explains why Herat was the subject of intense British interest in the 19th century, a walled city even then comprising over 100,000 people. This explains why, later, British military minds decided to demolish around 20 of the 30 famous minarets of the city to strengthen its fortifications against pending Russian attack. Situated in a rich green valley basin surrounded by mountain peaks, Herat is today an intensively cultivated area, as centuries ago, benefiting from its propinquity to Iran. Captain Charles Christie of the 5th Bombay Light Infantry, only the second European to visit the city, noted it in 1810 as a source of excellent grazing, and supply of camels and horses, wheat, barley and fresh fruit. It was, author Peter Hopkirk reminds, like Baghdad, a city of "incomparable wealth and splendour." But the industries for which Herat was once famous have suffered in the years of conflict, notably carpets and glass. The latter is especially distinctive: rough-edged, blown, royal-blue, opaque glass. There was little prospect of buying any of this in Herat, given the security environment. My chance instead came in Kabul. Having made a measly 12-dollar sale to us, the young glass merchant, Mohammed Aznar, promptly offered lunch to my colleague and me. I declined, not least because of the poverty of my purchase. But the I was reminded me of the clich s I had heard of local generosity, according to which a host would rather starve than not show a guest hospitality. ENCOUNTERS LIKE this always leave me wondering how little we know about the country the external community is trying to assist. A lack of knowledge about local practices, customs and operating constraints appears to be the key to understanding why well-meaning advice never seems to take root in developing environments. We had slipped out just before the end of a seminar on provincial governance to visit the glass shop across the road. These were two different realities; two parallel universes. In one the international think-tank delivered an impressive-sounding analysis of the plans to restructure provincial governance; in the other, a man was attempting to eek out a living from traditional crafts amid the squalor of everyday Afghan life. While the former illustrated the burgeoning passing international trade of knowledge and ideas, the other represented the declining terms of passing trade on Kabul's streets. The attempts to apply Western-style administrative and governance solutions to Afghanistan raise a central question, however, the answer to which may be the most accurate gauge of the success of the post-2001 peace- and nation-building project. How does Afghanistan work? If the reality of historical practices can be understood, perhaps they can be best meshed to modern institutional and management theory - of the sort that has been proposed by international consultants in the Afghanistan National Development Strategy. Defying a nation-state logic of salient topography, common ethnicity and language, and consolidated geography, Afghanistan emerged as a state within its current borders in response to imperial pressures. It was constructed as a buffer between the British Empire to the south in India and a hungry Russian counterpart to the north. From the time of King Amir Abdur Rahman Khan (1880-1901), successive rulers crafted administrative regimes, each time extending the boundaries of central authority and its modern features of taxation, roads, communications, education, land reform, trade and finance institutions, and gender equality into the hinterland. These are the very tools of a nation-state project. At best, however, this resulted in parallel political structures of the sort that continue today; at worst, resistance and conflict. Thus Afghanistan has, throughout its modern development, attempted to marry a centralized state, usually in Kabul, with localized, fragmented and decentralized authority. This authority has been complicated by extraneous issues, notably the division between Pakistan and Afghanistan of the Pashtuun people, and explains, too, the increasing focus on religion as the single tie binding Afghans - even though that thread is split on the Sunni-Shi'ite divide. CAN AFGHANISTAN graft on western administrative ideals? History would appear to suggest not - or if only as a parallel system alongside traditional tribal and religious mores. But this assessment might underestimate the impact of recent events on customary influences. The events of the 1990s saw a dramatic restructuring of traditional power balances and authority in the country as the rival mujahiddin commanders ran amok in trying to gain control of the capital. Whether this reflected the outcome of the disintegration of local and central authority or the destabilization of the restraining balance between local and central power is moot. What is more certain, however, is the resultant ascendancy of personal and tribal ties over governmental loyalties, and religious over national authority. Stopping such a corrosion of national identity and values demands creating an impression of a national common good. This will hinge on central delivery of such "goods," especially law and order. Kabul's ability to deliver these and other services to the provinces and to match the high-altitude governance plans of external consultants to local reality is partly a function of the generosity of donor nations. Regardless of the extent of the bleating of Kabul and its supporters abroad, international largesse is never going to match local needs and expectations. Attention thus invariably will shift to how Afghans help themselves. In any case, this is probably where the core answers to Afghanistan's stability reside. Long-term cohesion, from which security and prosperity can flow, fundamentally requires addressing the deficit not only of capacity, but of nation-statehood. This includes the uncertainty over of the status of the country's southern border with Pakistan. As long as Kabul refuses to accept the status quo of the Durand line cutting through the Pashtuun, this issue remains not only a bone of bilateral contention (and thus a source of instability), but also an excuse for national failure and related cause of a division of operating systems. It would be unfair not to acknowledge the bind the president finds himself in this regard: If he recognizes the border, he faces internecine revolt. If he does not, he can hardly expect Pakistan's connivance on his concerns about border security and porosity. The sanctity of Afghanistan's borders and the sovereignty of the state remains hostage to questions of ethnic identity and perceptions of historical injustice. As 9/11 vividly showed, any deterioration in the security situation in Afghanistan could have costs beyond its region. These cannot only be measured in terms of terrorist acts and wider support for radicalization elsewhere - in the Middle East in general and in Israel specifically - but would confirm the enormity of the challenge of nation-building and the uphill struggle facing external military and development actors. APOLOGIZING FOR the glass shop's not having been open earlier, Aznar explained in excellent English that he had been at school. His features gave him away as a Hazara - the descendants of the Mongol war-machine of Genghis Khan, which had raped, burned and pillaged its 13th century way through the ancient lands that today make up Afghanistan. The paradox of his ancestry and contemporary sophistication is a play for Afghanistan's future, of the need to the bridge the gap between local and national needs, traditional and modern concepts, and the theory of governance with the constraints on government. The writer heads the Johannesburg-based Brenthurst Foundation, and is in Kabul on secondment to ISAF IX as a special adviser.