WARFARE AND CIVIC CULTURE
The Soviet-Afghan war has caused grave injury to the civic culture
of Afghanistan. The destruction and disruption wrought by the
magnitude of the lethal technology employed was exponentially
greater than that of any previous invasion in the past. In addition
to extensive ecological damage, including the vicious destruction
of Kabul that dwarfs anything previously experienced, the war
stretched taught the fabric of the society, threatening to undermine
National traits once honored hallmarks of Afghan character were
jeopardized. Tolerance for others. Forthrightness. Aversion to
fanatics. Respect for women. Loyalty to colleagues and classmates.
Dislike for ostentation. Commitment to academic freedom. All were
Two generations of children have grown up without knowing the
joys of childhood, their lives concentrated instead on how to
avoid death and deal with emotions associated with death. The
war has left terrible scars on minds as well as bodies. These
scars threaten to undermine the traditional social infrastructure
which served for decades to dampen ethnic, religious, cultural
and linguistic differences in this complex multicultural society.
The deep apprehensions, amounting to fear among many, that prevail
under Taliban rule despite an acknowledged improvement in security,
have resulted in the breakdown of trust which makes the organization
of cooperative community projects difficult. This compounds the
fact that many Afghans who benefitted from largely free services
while in exile developed complacent attitudes leading them to
expect others to do for them what once they expected to do for
themselves. Their vaunted self-reliance was thus eroded.
The spirit of jihad that initially sustained the leaders as a
vital animating force deteriorated as spirals of continuing conflict
and individual struggles for self-aggrandizement created a previously
unknown lust for money in the pursuit of which hallowed values
were violated without precedent. The very soul of Afghanistan's
cultural heritage was assaulted by the systematic looting of the
Kabul Museum and pillaging of archaeological sites throughout
the country. These were not spontaneous acts committed by victorious
armies, but calculated thefts for profit without regard to national
pride or the preservation of its cultural identity.
Fueled by this voracious appetite for illicit gains, the production
of opium in Afghanistan tripled during 1979-89, and then again
quadrupled from 1989-96 accounting for 40 percent of the world's
opium production. Afghanistan stands now just below Burma on the
international narcotics scene, accounting for about 30 percent
of global production. The largest areas under poppy cultivation
are in the provinces of Hilmand and Nangrahar where 80 percent
of Afghanistan's opium poppies are grown in fields formerly producing
food and cash crops. The absence of law enforcement facilities
makes these one of the least controlled narcotics trafficking
areas in the world.
Happily, although many believe that the number of Afghan heroin
addicts has increased, no reliable data indicate that the abuse
of hard drugs is yet a significant problem. Nevertheless, those
Afghans who are partners in this industry are eager to subvert
any individual or institution that would restrict their operations.
The Taliban seek to redress this situation but the breakdown
of governance hampers their efforts. Senior authorities are untrained
and thus incapable of formulating consistent policies or strategies
for reconstruction; even when policies are announced, the intent
to carry them out is not always clear. As a result, the bureaucracy
is overcome with inertia, except for the imposition of external
forms of selective Islamic conduct, such as beards for men and
veils for women.
To revitalize this otherwise turgid bureaucracy will require
monumental efforts. Institution-building with concomitant human
resource development are urgent priorities. Almost two generations
of young Afghan men opted for war instead of education; educational
opportunities for women were severely curtailed for many years
and are now all but nonexistent; the education system is in shambles.
Thus those who should be most productive today are emotionally
and mentally unprepared and highly vulnerable to the temptations
of anti-social activities.
The collapse of the old order of governance highlights the artificiality
of the systems conceived by rulers in building a framework of
unity in the name of a nation-state on the unstable foundation
of Afghanistan's multifaceted society. Whether the systems were
expressed in terms of constitutional or Islamic principles, the
controversies and contentions between the state, the religious
establishment and local leadership arrangements have never been
While acknowledging the truth of social aberrations and political
intransigence, it must also be noted that Afghan society continues
to exhibit a dynamic meld of change and continuity. Old values
have by no means been discarded by the bulk of the society who
still hold fast to the standards detailed throughout this chapter.
The concepts of honor and hospitality, combined with the essence
of Islam's teachings embodying honesty, generosity, frugality,
fairness, tolerance and respect for others still underlies the
every day life of most Afghans. A spirit of courageous conviction
that viable solutions will ultimately evolve is abundantly evident
as the Afghans face their uncertain future with quiet dignity.
This characteristic of Afghan society remains inviolate.
The current challenge before the Afghans is indeed daunting.
But, so too were the challenges presented after 1978 by coups,
invasion and occupation. Although many may now call for the UN
to find solutions, others are equally convinced that as Afghans
they cannot wait for others, that peace cannot be brought by outsiders.
For them, solutions lie in the patient rebuilding of confidence
and trust within individual communities.
Recent events have brought about sweeping changes. There can
be no return to what was pre-war Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the
society that will emerge will be rooted in the past. Despite the
virulence of the recent onslaughts, despite current deplorable
erosions and perversions, continuity will in the end permit shared
sets of values to prevail along with the variations and varieties
that constitute the richness of Afghanistan's cultural heritage.
Afghan culture has been constantly changing; adaptability is a
measure of its strength.
* * *
Louis Dupree's Afghanistan remains the most comprehensive
discussion on cultural patterns, from the prehistoric through
1980. Among the many analytical studies of the jihad
period since 1978, Asta Olesen in Islam and Politics in Afghanistan
provides a clear picture of tribal ideologies and their relationships
with ruling authorities since Ahmad Shah Durrani in the eighteenth
century. For the Russian perspective on the conflict after 1978,
Gennady Bocharov's reflective Russian Roulette: Afghanistan
Through Russian Eyes recreates the atmosphere and moral enigmas
In a novel approach using stories told about the lives of three
prominent historical figures in the late nineteenth century, David
Edwardes in Heroes of the Age sheds new light on the
contemporary strife by examining values in Pushtun culture, especially
as they contend with state encroachments during the imposition
of the concept of nation-state on such a diverse culture. The
fourteen contributors to Fundamentalism Reborn?: Afghanistan
Under the Taliban edited by William Maley, address the origins
of the Taliban Movement as well as the cultural dilemmas inherent
in this most recent attempt to fuse society's diverse segments
into a confined mold.
An overview of the cultural traumas experienced by Afghan refugees,
especially women, may be found in Disposable People? The Plight
of Refugees by Judy Mayotte, while the complexities and challenges
involved in reconstruction is provocatively described by Asger
Christensen in Aiding Afghanistan: The Background and Prospects
for Reconstruction in a Fragmented Society.
Of the many specific ethnographic studies listed in the bibliography,
those by Barfield, Boesen, Canfield, Christensesn, Dor, L. Dupree,
Ferdinand, Frederiksen, Glatzer, Harpviken, Olesen, Pedersen,
Rao, Shahrani, N. Tapper and R. Tapper are particularly recommended,
as is the comprehensive study on the variety of house-types illustrated
in Afghanistan: An Atlas of Indigenous Domestic Architecture
by Albert Szabo and Thomas Barfield.
People cannot be understood in isolation from the landscape which
shapes their lives. The stunning vividness of Afghanistan's environment
captured in the work of Roland and Sabrina Michaud is published
in Afghanistan and Mirror of the Orient.
Data as of 1997
Data as of 1997