Afghanistan - London: Just 20 Years Late

, by René Wadlow

Afghanistan - London: Just 20 Years Late

On 28 January 2010, over 60 Foreign Ministers of States concerned by Afghanistan met for one day in London to consider the next steps to lower the intensity of the conflict in Afghanistan and to bring greater stability to the region.

One could have suggested another setting for the conference than London. British attempts to extend its sphere of influence into Afghanistan led to military intervention in the First Afghan War (1838-1842), the Second Afghan War (1878-1880) and the Third Afghan War (1919). Often too much history is remembered by some and not enough by others.

The British interventions were largely part of efforts to limit Russian influence — part of the “Great Game” — a term first coined by the British colonial officer Arthur Conolly in 1829 and immortalized by Rudyard Kipling in Kim. Throughout its history, Afghanistan, standing at the meeting place of three geographic cultural regions — Iranian, Central Asian and Indian — has been subject to influences from neighbouring territories.

Throughout its history, Afghanistan, standing at the meeting place of three geographic cultural regions has been subject to influences from neighbouring territories.

Although there are deep cultural differences among the peoples living in Afghanistan, authority is basically clanic in which the senior male can expect obedience from all those under his responsibility. This clanic structure is largely unchanging. However, as in all feudal systems, a clan would give its loyalty to a chief who had influence over a wider region, such as a valley. Loyalty to chiefs would continue as long as the chief was able to offer protection and some material benefits. If the chief became weak, the clans would offer their loyalty to a different chief. Thus, there is a certain degree of flexibility within the feudal order. Although one can speak of “tribes” and “peoples” or “ethnic groups”, it is the clan and sometimes a sub-tribal coalition where real decision-making is taken. The “tribe” is too large a concept for decision-making except in extreme conditions. Reciprocal isolation has usually led to constant friction and conflict over the most valuable resources — land, water, animals, women — in that order. Afghan codes of political culture stress self-reliance, and loyalty to the family and clan.

There are large ethnic groups which usually overlap with populations in neighbouring states. These ethnic groups provide a certain collective identity when in opposition to each other, but the clan is the real operating unit. The major ethnic groups, an estimate of their percentage of the population (statistics in Afghanistan are always estimates) and the tate where they are also found is as follows:

The Pushtun 45 per cent (Pakistan) The Tajik 25 per cent (Tajikistan) The Hazara 10 per cent (Iran) The Uzbek 8 per cent (Uzbekistan) Others 11 per cent Turkmen (Turkmenistan) Baloche (Pakistan, Iran) Animaks (a synthesis of people)

The 28 January London Conference reaffirmed three major policies based on the realities of the situation:

1) There needs to be regional security and cooperation.

2) There should be a broadly-based decentralized government.

3) There should be a basic-needs, ecologically-sound development approach with an emphasis on a vital civil society.

Regional security and cooperation.

There are six states which have a frontier with Afghanistan and thus vital regional interests:

1) China (76 kilometers) 2) Uzbekistan (137 kilometers) 3) Turkmenistan (744 kilometers) 4) Iran (936 kilometers) 5) Tajikistan (1,206 kilometers) 6) Pakistan (2, 430 kilometers)

India has historic links to the area and there are still ethnic Indians who are merchants and artisans. Russia has interests in the Central Asian States that all had been part of the USSR and instability in Afghanistan could flow over into the Central Asian Republics.

In addition, there is the USA and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) under NATO command. There are 26 NATO states plus 14 non–NATO countries such as Australia and New Zealand present in Afghanistan. All were invited to the London Conference. London brought together too many representatives for effective negotiations, but the conference highlighted the need for a regional approach.

A broadly-based decentralized government

The London Conference was an opportunity to stress the willingness of the government of Hamid Karzai to negotiate with some of the Taliban. There have already been some contacts, but “the Taliban” is a general term for a large number of different groups and clans who may have few common interests.

Afghanistan is a country of great cultural diversity and a wide range of local conditions. Therefore political and social decision-making must be made at the most local level possible. There should be policies of local self-reliance based on existing ethnic structures. Such local self-government will mitigate against the “winner-take-all” mentality of centralized political systems. All governments directed from Kabul, no matter what the ideological tendency, have met resistance from some of the provinces. Thus, the internal solution within Afghanistan can come only by reducing to the greatest extent possible the power of the central government and by shifting decision-making to the local unit.

The internal solution within Afghanistan can come only by reducing to the greatest extent possible the power of the central government and by shifting decision-making to the local unit.

The struggles for political and social power will shift from being an effort to control the policies of the central government to trying to control local and regional decision-making. The result will be a recognition of local diversities. This may make it easier to have a government of national reconciliation made of representatives from all regions, ethnic groups and political tendencies. For the moment, we have a weak central government but few strong local structures.

A basic needs, ecologically-sound development approach with an emphasis on a vital civil society.

We will return in a later essay to development planning for Afghanistan. With a high percentage of young people and a high rate of unemployment, education and employment are crucial aspects for a stable Afghanistan.

These three basic issues for a stable Afghanistan were obvious just 20 years ago when the last of the Soviet troops left Afghanistan on 15 February 1989. Then, there was a weak government under the Afghan President Mohammad Najibullah which could have made an effort to save itself through a policy of “reconciliation and reintegration” such as that proposed today. In September 1990, the US Secretary of State James Baker and the Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze met in the USA and set out the broad outline of such an agreement. However the decade-long guerrilla war had drained the Soviet Union financially and militarily and sapped political will. The regional setting and the interests of such countries as Iran and China no longer allowed for bi-lateral solutions. A multi-state conference should have been called at that time.

Twenty years later, the issues are the same but made worse by the violence of the years gone by. There were too many actors in London; the coming and going on the stage drew attention away from the two actors whose coming speeches will set the future of Afghanistan. The future of Afghanistan lies with China and Iran in an informal but real coalition. Both do not want to draw too much attention to themselves as yet. The NATO-ISAF actors still have a few lines left before they exit, but they will not be around for the next act.

Visit also the official conference homepage.

Image: Karzai at London Conference, source: google images

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