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Afghanistan must shed the myth of independence

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Posted 25 May 2011 - 05:25 PM

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A strong sense of independence does indeed make Afghanistan a graveyard – but not of empires. It divides and destroys us

In an interview with the Guardian, Afghan human rights activist Orzala Asharf-Nemat said it was the responsibility of the Afghan people to create their own national identity. Her point is absolutely valid. But since transnational concepts such as socialism (1980s), Islam (1990s) and democracy (2000s) have all failed to create a stable nation, we need to ask ourselves what is the single idea that resonates with all Afghans?

Unfortunately for Afghans, the idea that makes them feel that they are part of a distinct nation is the myth of their independence. This myth was the narrative upon which the Afghan state was founded in the late 19th century. Since then, it has continued to serve as the key story for political legitimacy and nation-building.

But the myth of independence is a double-edged sword that can be turned against foreign invaders and legitimate local governments alike. When turned against local governments, the myth of the Afghans' natural right to independence turns into licence to riot and rebel but without any sense of wrongdoing.

The myth of independence is the sole idea that resonates with all Afghans, regardless of their age, gender and ethnicity. The jihadi leaders, their Taliban enemies and vocal dissidents such as Malalai Joya all draw on this myth for legitimacy and popular appeal. In the mood for rebellion, Afghan MPs at times have threatened to "hit the mountain", a euphemism for justified rebellion against an oppressive state.

The strong sense of independence has historically served to legitimise many acts of anarchy and subversion which is why even the president sometimes threatens to join the Taliban rebels.

A myth that is as old as the country itself is obviously hard to shake off. Most Afghans are emotionally helpless against the call for independence which is why they desert the army, rally around subversive clerics and plant bombs that blow up their own people. The myth's power is such that it makes the legitimate question of what will happen once independence is achieved sound ridiculous.

Afghans should be forgiven for allowing the myth of independence to deprive them of their only chance to rebuild their country with the help of international allies. After all, generation after generation were raised with the idea that what made them unique was their martial qualities, their ability to be independent even to the point of defeating empires.

In reality, Afghans did not defeat any empire, as both the British and the Soviet empires were already in decline and in the process of disintegration. But Afghans could not let go of the myth and were instead encouraged to take pride in their country as the graveyard of empires. But Afghanistan remained a graveyard while the capitals of the former empires, Moscow and London, thrived and flourished after their so-called defeat by Afghans. The myth persisted even after the entire country had turned into a giant cemetery.

Afghan jihadi leaders still talk proudly about a nation that gives birth to independence-seeking martyrs. The myth is politically useful as it turns subversive rebels into heroes, thieving highwaymen into politicians. Ironically, international writers and journalists have also adopted the myth, perpetuating it by publishing books and articles about "the graveyard of empires".

At times, it feels as if the whole world wants Afghanistan to be just that: a massive graveyard and symbolic two fingers to superpowers. That a country incapable of sustaining itself is further destroyed in the process seems to matter little. Neither does it seem to matter that those who destroy cannot rebuild and hence expect the population to live in ruins and feed themselves with the pride of a myth rather than actual food.

The uncomfortable truth is that Afghanistan has never been a truly independent country and has always relied on outside resources and expertise for survival. Historically, much of the country's limited wealth came through control of trade routes by local tribesmen who also acted as highwaymen, making travelling in Afghanistan a famously dangerous endeavour.

Other sources of income included military raids into richer neighbouring territories and foreign subsidies in return for implementing superpower policies. The government in Kabul has always received foreign aid and subsidies to implement modernisation projects. The border tribes have always been hard to control and repeatedly undermined the central state, refusing to pay tax or supply soldiers to the army, again drawing on the unspoken right to independence.

The myth of independence also legitimised internal rebellions. Hence, in 1919, King Amanullah was declared a ghazi in recognition of his jihad against the British which won Afghans' independence. But in 1929, new rival strongmen had emerged, contesting Amanullah's power. They called the amir an infidel, which amounted to a declaration of war.

That a heroic Muslim leader could willy-nilly be declared an infidel is alarming, but not in Afghanistan where the clergy has always been subversive, often siding with the enemies of the state. After all, the absence of a strong state empowers both clerics and rebels, which is why both groups traditionally join hands, appealing to the myth of independence to mobilise the masses against the state. The recent riots in Mazar, Kandahar and Kabul were a continuation of this historical trend.

Independence, the national narrative that binds Afghans together, is simultaneously the force that helps mobilise rebellions, undermine the state and destabilise the country. If there is one lesson Afghans should learn from the past, it is that the inclusion of the myth of independence in their national narrative has to be done with great care, or the endless cycle of internal independence-seeking rebellions will never end.
http://www.guardian....of-independence

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