Leader Development & Education for Sustained Peace Program: Cross-Cultural, Geopolitical & Regional Education

Afghanistan before the Current Upheavals

Anthropologist and consultant Dr. Whitney Azoy answered the following questions on Afghanistan.

Q1: What was Afghanistan like before the current upheavals?

WA: On the surface life was quite peaceful and had been for the better part of 100 years. People were slowly coming to accept the idea of a centralized government. Security was good in most parts of the country. Poverty was the norm, but no one starved in normal years. Health and education services were rudimentary in rural areas, but both networks were gradually expanding. The Afghans version of Islam was pious but not zealous. It was universally assumed – naively, we now realize – that Afghanistan was firmly set on a course of gradual but comprehensive development heading into the 21st century. The great bulk of that development (including national security) had been financed by handouts from rival superpowers (first the Czarist Russians and the imperial British in the Great Game, then the Soviets and the Americans in the Cold War).

Q2: Then what happened?

WA: A freak Marxist coup d’état in April 1978 fractured all sense of stability. Since then there have been four regimes and eight heads of state. None has achieved the pre-1978 level of nation-wide legitimacy. In the absence of Cold War superpower hegemony, regional actors like Pakistan and Iran are pursuing their own ends within Afghanistan. Hence the mess we have now.

Q3: So the mess is of recent origin?

WA: Only in terms of specific historical events. On a deeper level, the mess originates in the basic structure of Afghanistan. Its geography and ethnicity are fragmented by the Hindu Kush mountains such that the country, in fact, amounts to three fringe areas. The North leans toward Central Asia, the West toward greater Persia, and the South and East toward the Indian sub-continent. Once the superpower subsidies ended, so did the government’s ability to hold things together.

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