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Five Things Afghan History Can Teach Us

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The French historian Alexis de Tocqueville once said, "When the past no longer illuminates the future, the spirit walks in darkness."

As world leaders converge on Bonn, Germany, next week to discuss the future of Afghanistan after 2014, is it likely that any of them will look to history to find better answers? Probably not.

Heeding de Tocqueville's warning, if we look beyond Afghan history of the previous decade and well into the last century, five key points emerge that could help the country lay a better foundation for itself once American and NATO forces reduce their presence or leave altogether.

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1. Remember why it's important to support Afghan democracy.

In the 20th century, Afghans underwent two experiments toward democracy, both of which were unsuccessful.

In the first case, royal Prime Minister Shah Mahmud, the king's uncle, made modest attempts in 1949 to respond to demands for political reform and fairer elections. The result was the "Liberal Parliament" that elected reform-minded lawmakers who granted new liberties, like freedom of the press.

Student unions sprang up at Kabul University and a host of newspapers were born. The targets of their anger: conservative religious leaders on the one hand, and the government on the other. Unfortunately, having neither a tradition of responsible political activism nor freedom of expression, criticism became extreme and protests erupted. By 1953, out of fear that a revolution would brew, the royals shut down all non-government newspapers and arrested "liberal" leaders.

A decade later, King Zahir took a more active role in government and ushered in the country's second experiment with democracy and socio-economic modernization. One of his first undertakings was to order the drafting of a new liberalized constitution unlike any the country had seen before.

From equal rights, universal education and health care, to a vast penal code and the return of a free press, the Afghan constitution of 1964 was arguably the finest in the Muslim world. For the first time, women were allowed to enter politics and the king appointed six to parliament and the Grand Council.

Despite this leap toward greater liberties, illiteracy was rampant and many parts of the country did not have the financial resources or facilities to implement universal education. Meanwhile, parliament was plagued with invective, unreasoned debates and an abysmal legislative record--not unlike today's Afghan legislature.

The king was seen as lacking leadership during the political imbroglio. Although the daily business of government continued, a series of prime ministers were unable to assemble enough support to carry out effective programs. By 1972, four premiers had resigned and the system was near collapse. A year later, the king was overthrown.

In either example, the transition to a democratic system proved difficult and nearly disastrous. Afghanistan's current democracy is trying to function in a period of more daunting problems.

Since April, at least three mass protests in Kabul turned violent and even deadly. Separately, a yearlong election dispute in parliament prevented a single piece of legislation from being ratified. The impasse finally ended last month.

In 2008, more than 600 mid-level and senior government officials were prosecuted or fired over corruption charges. Four years ago, 60 MPs threatened resignation if President Hamid Karzai didn't replace his foreign minister, who they deemed incompetent. Meanwhile, Karzai, once thought to be a shrewd statesman, has been dogged by allegations of corruption, nepotism and ineffectiveness.

And although the illiteracy rate has improved from what it was in the 20th century, more than 30 years of warfare has left the education system in shambles. Some 70 percent of Afghans still cannot read or write.

The question looms: Is democracy right for Afghanistan?

Yes. Even though both of the country's previous experiments in democracy failed, they were a testament to the Afghan people's desire for a system that brought about equal rights and representation for all its citizens.

A survey last year by the Asia Foundation discovered that 81 percent of Afghans believe in this principle. The same poll found "broad support for democracy as the best form of government, even higher than many other nations in the regions."

However, in order to put democratic principles into practice, the Afghan leadership must not repeat the mistakes of the past and remember the key reasons that their brief romances with democracy have ended.

2. A strong police and military are critical to safeguarding progressive reforms and women's rights.

Throughout the 20th century, Afghanistan has struggled with its efforts toward modernization. In some cases, these initiatives have been met with violent rejection from religious fundamentalists who feared it threatened their way of life.

Between 1919 and 1929, the young King Amanullah oversaw an array of social, political, and economic changes that affected nearly every facet of Afghan society. Calling himself a "revolutionary king," he was determined to modernize his country along the lines of Turkey's Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Establishing a foundation of law for Afghanistan that was more secular than ever before, Amanullah gave his nation its first written constitution that contained a Bill of Rights and ended slavery. However, his most revolutionary changes involved greater freedom for women.

During his reign, coeducational schools were opened and polygamy was discouraged. Afghanistan even became the first Muslim country to abolish the custom of the veil when the king's wife, Queen Soraya, took off her headscarf at a public event.

But these changes were too drastic for Afghanistan's conservative leaders. When Amanullah returned from a tour of Europe, tribal armies descended on Kabul and drove out the enlightened monarch--literally. He and his wife fled in the middle of the night in their Rolls Royce.

Amanullah's father-in-law, the intellectual statesman Mahmud Tarzi, would later lament: "If only he had waited for two years and built up the army as Ataturk suggested, what might he have done?"

By the late 1950s, another dynamic leader had learned from King Amanullah's mistake. With a stronger army and police force, Prime Minister Mohammed Daoud defeated several mob and tribal rebellions that were directed against his women's rights reforms.

Today, according to the Asia Foundation's 2011 Afghanistan survey, more than a third of Afghans cite insecurity as the biggest problem confronting their nation. With terror attacks against girls' schools and government leaders still at high levels, it underscores the need for a stalwart army that can retain its members.

In 2009, Afghan security forces finally got a pay raise that put their salaries within the range of Taliban fighters. The increase drew more than 2,600 new recruits in the first seven days after it was announced. The Afghan National Army now has around 160,000 personnel and is expected to reach 260,000 by 2015.

That figure comes closer to the 300,000 combat troops that western military analysts had estimated in the early 1980s that the Soviets would need in order to "pacify" the entire country. It is also close to the 300,000 soldiers that Emir Abdur Rahman had assembled during his reign in the late 19th century when he formed the country's first national army and used it to unify Afghanistan under a central government.

3. Pakistan must become a genuine partner in peace.

Ever since the creation of the Pakistani state in 1947, Afghanistan has had a contentious and, at times, hostile relationship with its eastern neighbor.

The seed of this thorny rapport can be traced back to the late 19th century when the British had colonial control over India. It was then that English diplomat Mortimer Durand coerced Afghan Emir Abdur Rahman to sign a vague agreement that demarcated spheres of influence along the Afghan-Indian border. The single-page document was essentially used by the British to divide and weaken the Pashtun tribes who lived on both sides of the line.

For decades, the Pashtun tribesmen had blocked British attempts at absorbing Afghanistan into its empire. The Great Game, as it famously came to be called, was the geopolitical battle between the British and Russian empires for dominance over Central Asia. Afghanistan was basically seen as the buffer state that could keep Russia out of India.

In 1893, Mortimer drew a poorly marked 1,600-mile line that bisected Afghanistan from its panhandle down through its southwestern border with Iran. The Emir, an ethnic Pashtun himself, feared that if he did not agree to the Durand Line, British India would wage a fierce campaign to replace him. But in his autobiography, Abdur Rahman issued a prophetic warning:

"If you should cut these tribes out of my dominions, they will neither be of any use to you or me. You will always be engaged in fighting and troubles with them, and they will always go on plundering. As long as your government is strong and in peace, you will be able to keep them quiet by a strong hand. But if at any time a foreign enemy appears on these borders, these frontier tribes will be your worst enemies."

Fifty-four years later, the temporary line became a permanent border. Land that was long regarded to be Afghan was absorbed into Pakistan. Validating Abdur Rahman's prophecy, it is that porous region today where the fiercest battles have been waged between al-Qaida/Taliban forces and the American military.

Throughout the 1950s, the redrawn map and its international recognition drove a wedge between Afghan Prime Minister Daoud and Pakistan. Both sides waged an intense propaganda campaign to win over the hearts and minds of the people in the disputed territories. In retribution, goods that were transported from the Arabian Sea through Pakistan often arrived pilfered or damaged on the other side of the border.

The issue of "Pashtunistan" was a constant point of contention between Daoud and the Pakistani government, and nearly drove the two countries to war. The diplomatic rift became so intense that it caused the Durand border to be closed for a year, severely harming the Afghan economy. The issue was resolved only when Daoud resigned in 1963.

When he returned to power ten years later after staging a bloodless coup against his first-cousin, King Zahir, Islamabad grew alarmed. The Pashtunistan movement, which had been muted during the king's experiment in democracy, was amplified once again.

By 1975, a stronger and bolder Pakistan welcomed a handful of Afghanistan's fundamentalist leaders and set up secret military camps to train them as guerrilla fighters against Daoud's newly formed Republic, write authors Liz Gould and Paul Fitzgerald. Five years later, these were some of the same camps that Washington funded to fight the Soviets.

Today, that embryo of religious fanaticism--with help from elements within Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency--is full-grown and waging war on Americans, Afghans and Pakistanis. In his final congressional testimony in September, Navy Adm. Mike Mullen lambasted extremist elements within Pakistan's military for their support of terror attacks in Afghanistan.

"With ISI support, Haqqani operatives planned and conducted that truck bomb attack, as well as the assault on our embassy," Mullen said, referring to the deadly strike on the American embassy in Kabul in September.

That declaration, along with the killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad and this past weekend's deadly NATO attack on two Pakistani military posts, has sunk U.S. relations with Islamabad to a new low.

In reprisal for Saturday's airstrike that killed more than 20 Pakistani soldiers, Islamabad has indefinitely shut down NATO's supply lines through their country, and said it was re-evaluating its intelligence, diplomatic and military links with the U.S. If this retaliatory move lasts long, it will obviously harm both American forces and the Afghan population.

Prior to this development, the American military had been trying to circumvent transit through Pakistan, finding a variety of alternate routes through Afghanistan's Central Asian neighbors in what's being called the Northern Distribution Network. A top military commander told NPR that the U.S. military had to find substitute channels because it lost as much as 15 percent of its supplies through Pakistan to ambush and theft in 2008 alone.

History has shown that Islamabad has not worked in the general interest of the Afghan people. Even though many in the Pakistani government will argue that it sheltered millions of Afghan refugees during the Soviet war, it is an undisputed fact that their country benefited from that conflict. In fact, according to Lawrence Wright, "as much as half of the money the U.S. gave to the I.S.I. to fight the Soviets was diverted to build nuclear weapons."

Those weapons have been built up to shield against the threat or perceived threat that Pakistan feels is coming from neighboring India, its archrival. After all, a paranoid Islamabad wants "strategic depth" in Afghanistan in case a war breaks out with India.

Unfortunately, this kind of mentality weakens the entire region. Instead of building schools, creating a solid education system, and healing the fractured Af-Pak relationship, the region could grow into the next generation's worst enemies--bigger and bolder than ever.

4. Education must incorporate Afghan nationalism.

Through a ruthless campaign of unification in the late 1800s, Emir Abdur Rahman succeeded in breaking down Afghanistan's feudal system, and established effective control over the entire country for the first time in history. The Emir understood that without a concept of unity and nationalism, Afghanistan could easily fall back to a warring country of independent states and ethnic groups.

In his autobiography, Abdur Rahman wrote: "The first and most important advice that I can give my successors and people ... is to impress upon their minds the value of unity. Unity, and unity alone, can make Afghanistan into a great power."

A quarter-of-a-century later, that message would be echoed by his grandson, King Amanullah, who turned it into law under Article One of the country's constitution: "... all parts of the nation are to be treated as a single unit without discrimination between different parts of the country."

Amanullah's father-in-law, Mahmud Tarzi, impressed this idea even further into the nation's psyche. Tarzi launched Afghanistan's first newspaper, Seraj al-Akhbar (The Torch of News), and one of its central missions was to advocate national unity and promote a love of country, particularly among the youth. According to Dr. Senzil Nawid, he even redefined the word for birthplace, "watan," to mean homeland--a word that had not existed in the Pashto or Dari languages.

Nawid writes, "[Tarzi] paid serious attention to issues of language and literature and modern education, which he saw as essential not only for national progress but for the realization of social and political homogeneity--common language, history, geography, and literature."

While King Zahir's 40-year reign was not one that was marked with remarkable equality of social classes, it can be noted for its absence of ethnic rivalries or conflict. Even as Mohammed Daoud, the first president of the Afghan Republic in the 1970s, may have supported a one-sided nationalistic movement with his tenacious effort to regain the Pashtun territories lost to Pakistan, Afghans still consider him one of their country's fiercest patriots.

Today, largely in part to the post-Soviet civil war, Afghanistan's national and cultural identities have been shattered. Ethnic divisions and strife are rampant. And with little confidence in the national government--which is the most ethnically diverse in Afghan history--a nationalistic spirit does not have a healthy place from which to emanate.

With the absence of a well-respected president or legislature, nationalism can only be taught in the schools through programs that promote unity and teach cultural heritage. The country's diversity is its greatest strength, and if this notion is not inaugurated in the children, Afghanistan as a nation is doomed to fail in the next 20 years.

Abdur Rahman may have said it best: "There is no doubt that Afghanistan is a country that will either rise to be a very strong, famous kingdom, or will be swept altogether from the surface of the earth. ... I must say that it is impossible that she ever take the middle course."

5. The Afghan leadership should become the leading voice of moderate Islam for the country.

Throughout the 264 years that the Afghan state has existed, Islam, either expressively or subtly, has played an inextricable role in the political and social fabric of its society. Most notably, it was used to bring down the Soviet goliath in the 1980s.

In more recent times, Islam was perverted and used to justify repression and evil. When properly understood, however, it is this very faith that has broken these kinds of shackles and provided periods of enlightened thought and action.

For example, during his premiership in the 1950s, Prime Minister Daoud employed legal scholars who carefully examined each modernization step to ensure it did not violate Islamic law. These young advisers received an education in the West and at Cairo's al-Azhar University, considered the finest Islamic school in the world.

Having determined that both the veil and the ban that prevented females from leaving their homes without a male escort could not be justified in Islamic law, Daoud took steps to end these traditions. Some women followed suit, others didn't--but a precedent of choice was reestablished.

When Daoud returned as president in 1973, his pilgrimage to Mecca four years later was broadcast on state television, silencing the religious fanatics who had branded him a Communist.

In the 1920s, Queen Soraya became the first Muslim queen to appear in public with her husband, before the wives of the monarchs in Persia and Egypt. When King Amanullah lifted the custom of the veil during the same period, he proclaimed: "Religion does not require women to veil their hands, feet and faces or enjoin any special type of veil. Tribal custom must not impose itself on the free will of the individual."

Against the wishes of the religious conservatives, he opened coeducational schools and championed the inclusion of women in society. In the constitution, Amanullah declared, "Jews and Hindus residing in Afghanistan would be entitled to full protection of the state."

Tarzi, the king's mentor, was heavily influenced by the enlightened Islamic thought of the era in Syria and the Ottoman Empire. His nationalist ideology, which was discussed before, was articulated within a framework of Islamic principles. According to Nawid, Tarzi believed that "Afghan Islamic identity would transcend tribal, ethnic, regional, and sectarian loyalties."

Today, religious extremists in Afghanistan, and throughout most of the Muslim world, have drowned out the voices of the moderates and intellectuals. Fundamentalist Islam has muffled spiritual Islam, which in a traumatized country like Afghanistan can help heal the damaged psyches of its population.

The millions of Afghans who have suffered through 30 years of warfare, forced migration, homelessness, torture, terrorism, death, and near collapse of cultural identity are in need of some form of collective healing that can come from their leadership. Nelson Mandela did it in South Africa, and Mahatma Gandhi in India.

According to recent figures, 81 percent of the Afghan population currently owns a radio, making it the most accessible form of media in the country. Like Franklin Roosevelt's fireside chats that reassured a dispirited nation that it was going to get through the Great Depression, an Afghan president can employ a similar method to unify and give hope to a people struggling through their darkest age.

In an effort to counter the voices of extremism, while at the same time reinvigorating the national soul and helping to form a bond between this hypothetical leader and the nation, an innovative approach should be considered.

Regular "fireside prayers" conducted in Dari and Pashto that address the tragedies of everyday Afghans, and which invoke Divine intervention and remembrance of the Divine, could reach millions of households. With the high illiteracy rate, these kinds of connections to a faithful public in their local languages would be invaluable. This alternative approach is one way that the pulpits of the religious zealots can gradually be dismantled.

Of course, this leader must also embody the ideals of an enlightened human being who pursues education, arts, reconstruction, energy and economic programs that respect the environment and take positive local traditions into account.

Along with the ethereal, such an individual should produce practical results on the ground through a transparent government that is corruption-free. Many will call this vision a pipe dream, but this period of crisis requires an extraordinary leader and a team of people who think practically and spiritually.

Today, Afghanistan is an Islamic Republic, a middle path between a secular and theocratic form of government. It's time to realize the potential of this compromise, and to allow the great powers of democracy and Islam to finally reconcile in Afghanistan. Its survival as a nation depends upon it.