Whitney Azoy thinks Afghanistan, the nation, might be just an illusion, no more real than Narnia or Oz. Charles Dunbar believes Afghanistan really is a nation because none of its tribes has ever wanted to secede. Ted Callahan thinks it is Taliban Nation. Et moi? I think it might be interesting to see what Afghanistan becomes when we take our boot off its neck. It might surprise us.
The event was called Afghanistan: Taking Stock. It was held at the University of Maine School of Law in Portland on Monday the 22nd, with a panel of experts organized and moderated by Maine Law Professor Charles Norchi, who has done much good work in Afghanistan as a journalist, human rights lawyer and development specialist. Another Old Afghan Hand, Edward Girardet, was on the menu but had to cancel at the last hour, leaving a seat on the panel for me.
Of course in my lead paragraph I trivialize the presentations of three distinguished Afghanistan experts whose knowledge and experience is far broader and deeper than my own. Dr. Azoy is an anthropologist whose field work was in Afghanistan and has spent many years there in a variety of roles. He speaks fluent Farsi. Ambassador Dunbar served as chargè d'affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul during the Soviet occupation and as U.S. Ambassador to Qatar and Yemen, two of al Qaeda's favorite playgrounds. Ted Callahan, another anthropologist, did his field work in Afghanistan, worked with Three Cups of Tea Greg Mortenson's Central Asia Institute, and recently served as cultural adviser to a U.S. Army unit in southeastern Afghanistan. But as I reminded them, my proud distinguishing qualification for the term "Afghanistan Expert" is that I alone on the panel had seen Hamid Karzai in a swimsuit.
But I digress.
Whitney Azoy questioned the notion of Afghan statehood as an artificial construct whose contiguous border doesn't translate into a nation-state in any of its languages. His long experience with the northern tribes, who have always chafed at being bossed around by the southern Pushtuns, and his close acquaintance with southern leaders such as Ismael Khan, have informed his thinking. Whitney sees Afghanistan - if I'm getting this right, Whit - more as a collection of city-states with interlocking spheres of influence than as a unified nation. Ambassador Dunbar begged to differ, noting that Afghanistan has been a nation-state longer than the United States, having been united by the Durrani Pushtuns in the mid-18th Century, and that since then there have been no separatist movements to speak of (unlike in the United States) and no matter what their tribal affiliation the people who live inside Afghanistan's borders have no problem with being called Afghans. [The "Pushtunistan" movement, with the goal of erasing the Durrand Line, was not separatist inasmuch as it hoped to reunite the Pakistani and Afghan Pushtuns. It never gained much traction, and of course none at all in Pakistan.]
What I remember most vividly of Ted Callahan's excellent presentation was a series of maps of Afghanistan illustrating in sort of time-lapse cartography the spread of Taliban shadow governments in province after province across Afghanistan. The present-day map looked like the U.S. electoral map of Nixon vs. McGovern in 1972, with Kabul in the role of Massachusetts. Those shadow governments, Ted says, don't play much if any of a military role but do exercise civic authority and can settle disputes between the Taliban fighters and the civilians.
Meanwhile, the Battle of Marja continues with more U.S. and NATO casualties and more civilian deaths, and on Wednesday a bicycle rigged as a bomb killed at least seven people in the nearby provincial capital, Lashkar Gah. The New York Times report quotes an Afghan who fled the fighting in Marja for what he thought would be the safety of Lashkar Gah only to see his cousin killed by the bomb and his brother seriously injured. The man, identified as 30-year-old Rahmatullah Khan, is quoted as saying, "This is not a country. Actually this is a hell for us....We actually don't know what's going on in our country. Why they are fighting? With whom are they fighting?"
Those are excellent questions, Rahmatullah Khan. Unfortunately there are no good answers.