To understand any culture or country it is necessary to look at its history. Afghan written history can be traced back to the Achaemenid Empire ca. 500 BCE. Alexander the Great arrived with his army in 330 BCE. He famously failed to conquer the country and instead sued for peace as he was intent on moving down the Indus Valley to the Gangetic plains to India.
Afghanistan was chosen by several powerful empires as their capital. Such empires include Greco-Bactrians, Kushans, Indo-Sassanids, Kabul Shahi, Saffarids, Samanids, Ghaznavids, Ghurids, Kartids, Timurids, Mughals, Hotakis, and Durranis. The reason Afghanistan was favored was because it was seen as the ‘Central Asian roundabout’. Several trade routes converge in the area: the Tigris-Euphrates Basin via the Iranian Plateau, the Indus Valley through the passes over the Hindu Kush, from the Far East via the Tarim Basin, and from the adjacent Eurasian Steppe.
Two things are apparent from this history so far. First is that the people of Afghanistan are ethnically diverse. The Central Asian people (who arrived in the late 20th Century BCE) left the Pashto and Dari languages. Middle Eastern invasions have also influenced the culture of Afghanistan bringing first Zoroastrianism and Buddhism and then Islam. The Ghaznavids, Ghurids and Timurids made Afghanistan an important center of power in medieval times. It was during this time that Afghanistan’s famous scholar Avicenna lived. With so such a mix of cultural influences and different races, it is not so surprising that Afghanistan is a fractured country.
Even though America and its allies since 2001 have tried to unite Afghanistan, and the Soviets tried to make the country a socialist satellite, no one has really managed to make Afghanistan a cohesive and united state with a strong centralized government. It has always been the case that the country has been held together by a series of alliances between autonomous fiefdoms. The Taliban also made the mistake of trying to bring the country under its yoke. The resentment lead people like General Dostum (an Uzbek) to side with the Americans against the Taliban.
This is the first point about what history shows us about re-building Afghanistan: reconstruction must take account of regional differences and ethnic differences. Autonomy must be given to the provinces and the different ethnic peoples must not be made to feel hard done by.
The second point about Afghanistan that can be drawn from its history is the importance of its geographical location. There are those who say America was keen to conquer the country not in retaliation for 9/11 or to catch Osama bin Ladin (which they didn’t manage during the war for control of the country) but for the strategic importance of the country.
During the Cold War Afghanistan was the buffer between the Soviets in the north and the non-aligned countries of Pakistan and India in the south. Before that Russia and Britain saw Afghanistan as the dividing line between their interests. Much of the ‘Great Game’ between Russia and the British Empire focused on Afghanistan. Eventually a treaty was signed between the two superpowers of the day to treat the country as the de facto border to their respective interests. It is instructive to note that there were two Anglo-Afghan wars both of which ended in ignominy for The British Empire.
Afghanistan is vital to trade routes and oil routes. Much of the income of the country comes from its opium harvest which can be moved overland easily into China, Pakistan, India and Iran. The opium business could not be curtailed by either the Taliban or the Americans who are presently trying to negotiate an ordered retreat.
The nation has been militarized and heavily armed ever since the Soviet Invasion. The CIA trained the Mujahedeen. A military solution does not exist for Afghanistan. Its mountainous terrain and its fiercely independent and militarily gifted people make total control of the country impossible. All outside influences are greatly resented.
The solution to rebuilding Afghanistan must involve replacing the opium trade with food agriculture and by making the effort of reconstruction Afghan led. Both foreign governments and NGOs should tread very lightly to avoid patronizing the Afghanis and giving the impression that foreigners ‘run the show’.
Education and other aid initiatives are essential to rebuilding Afghanistan. It is hoped that farming initiatives as well as a certain amount of industrialization will improve the fortunes of the people and create a middle-class that cuts through ethnic and regional differences. The West will have to accept a certain amount of fundamental Islamic activities in the country. It is only when the Afghanistan people decide to address this matter themselves and collectively that the likes of the Taliban will feel their influence wane.
What Alexander failed to do, and Russia, Britain and America have all failed to do is conquer Afghanistan. This is the lesson from history. We can only respond to the requests of the various regions of the country and aid them in building the society that they want, not what the West wants. At the same time more must be done in tightening the borders of Afghanistan to take the heroin dollar out of the equation. Only then can Afghanistan hope to rebuild itself.
It’s amazing to see along a certain streen in Herat in Afghanistan, the long line of used car lots. The wierd thing is to see where the cars have actually come from, many still have stickers from their previous lives. Hollywood bumper stickers or fancy Texan logos stuck to their back windows, many also have the orange sticker which marks a US – ’Total right off’.
All along the long road which ends up in Iran, literally thousands of unwanted cars from America, Europe and Canada end up starting another life. The dusty tracks and roads of Afghanistan are packed with all sorts of cars bought up from auctions. The simple fact that the country doesn’t manufacture it’s own cars, in reality it doesn’t manfacture anything much. So cars are bought up from auctions in Europe and North America and shipped over to start their new lives here,
They normally land in the Middle Easter ports of Dubai and the transferred onto ships bound for Pakistan. Then normally resold and transported via transport truck to Afghanistan by road. The most popular brand are Japanese for a couple of reasons – they are economical and easy to find parts for. American built cars are here but not so popular, mainly because they simply use too much petrol to run. Many of the US cars here have been involved in crashes – the European ones are normally in better condition.
It’s a lucrative business for the dealers here, but unfortunately like many parts of the world the Afghanistan economy is beginning to slow. Much of the problem is due to the uncertainty filling the country, when foreign combat troops are starting to leave. This is reflected across all areas of the country as people worry that their new freedom like TV and internet will be taken aways again. The worry is that that the Afghan security forces won’t be able to cope and the Taliban will start to return to power in certain areas.
In this country the cars are repaired over and over again, they will rarely find their way into a scrap yard. As such you can see a myriad of all different makes and models which you won’t find anywhere else. Although many dealers are struggling with this new uncertainty some are making a good living. In Kabul one dealer uses a DE proxy to order old Mercedes and Audis over the internet, which are supplied to the rich families of the Capital.
If there’s one thing that shows that the Taliban influence is falling (albeit slowly) it’s the increasing amount of entertainment available in the country. Of course, the changes are mainly restricted to the big cities like Kabul but every other day seems to be an announcement of something new in Afghanistan.
The latest announcement which caught my eye is that of Globox.tv. This latest company launched in the media revolution of Afghanistan, is an online TV station. It is sobering to remember that only a few years ago there was no TV, music and cinema anywhere in the country – all banned by the fun-hating Taliban.
It’s been twelve years now and the average Afghans love of entertainment of all sorts is everywhere to see. When I was first there briefly I showed an Afghanistan journalist how to watch BBC Iplayer outside the UK using a VPN program and an iPad and he was instantly addicted. Now we see all sorts of shows on Afghanistan TV, often cheap copies of Western shows like the X Factor but staggeringly popular all across the country.
Globox however broadcasts online, and is squarely aimed at the younger market. There are lots of modern sounding shows like – “What’s New in Kabul” which reviews different leisure activities in Kabul each week. In years gone passed this would have been the shortest runing programmes ever made but now there are all sorts of things to do and see in Kabul.
The channel is meant to be optimistic and deliberately light hearted. Fashion, movies and nights out are the sort of subjects they cover. The topics of religion, politics or even sex are deliberately avoided but according to the owner apart from those anything goes. It’s only small at the moment but for Kabul to have it’s own web TV station is a great sign for the future.
It’s now been over 10 years since the invasion of Afghanistan, 2001 when the Allies forced the Taliban government from power. The year after in 2012, the then President Bush promised to help rebuild the country, to repair it’s infrastructure – a modern equivilant of the Marshall Plan from after the second world war.
The ordinary citizens of the country probably expected some huge building and infrastructure program, led by the US and other allied nations. There has of course been huge investment but the reality is that this has not been reflected in the countries infrastructure many suspect due to the rampant corruption throughout the higher echelons of the Afghanistan Government.
The capital Kabul has had billions of dollars pumped into it, however it still looks a long way from a 21st century capital city. Power cuts are routine, the building standard is poor and the roads are still often mud rather than tarmac. Commerce has improved, but the lack of basic services and that feeling of prosperity you see throughout European capitals is a long way from here.
Sanitation and running water would you expect be a very basic infrastructure need, yet many families have neither in their homes. There is electricity for most people but the supply is erratic and often disappears for long periods of time. Many still rely on wood stoves and gas burners, filling the air with a thick smog and adding to the polluted and heavy air.
Many people who returned from exile when the Taliban where defeated hoping for a better life have found nothing. You’ll find many of them in refugee camps, begging or relying on hand outs – years after their return hoping for a chance to help rebuild their country. Most blame the corruption throughout the administration, the tens of billlions seeing only a trickle ending up actually being used to improve the country.
If you want to keep up to date with the conditions in Afghanistan, the BBC has maintained a strong presence throughout the war years in Kabul and the rest of the country. Most of the reports are filed and accessible through the middle east section of their web site or can be replayed through the BBC Iplayer application. If you’re not in the UK you may have difficulty accessing these – but you can watch them using a BBC proxy. You just need to use a UK based proxy or VPN server in order to get full access to all the content on the BBC.
For many developing countries there is a huge problem with the internet. There is no doubt that it represents progress, opportunity and a chance to engage easily in a global market. a country simply cannot compete in todays modern world without a decent telecommunications network and widespread access to the internet. Of course this is where the problem lies allowing your citizens unfettered access to something like the internet gives them a huge chunk of freedom – both to trade, explore and express themselves. This is why it is so sad to see the very countries that could benefit the most from the internet implementing controls, filters and restrictions on using the technology.
However although plenty of countries implement such controls easily on a whim not all of them are in the position to completely block access to any website or to shut down the internet completely. We saw last month that the Syrian Authorities reduced internet access throughout the country to virtually nothing for a few days because all the ISPs and communication companies are under the control of the state.
Although many of us worry that the Afganistan authorities would be quite quick to shut off all digital communication if required, the reality is that they really couldn’t do it. If you look at the mix of ISPs controlling access to the internet throughout Afghanistan it contains a wide mix of ISPs in Iran, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and a few more too. The decision and the ability to turn off the internet switch is not really available to the policy makers in Kabul.
Whether this infrastructure has been created by design or merely luck, it is surely a postive thing that whoever is in charge cannot simply turn of the web for the whole of Afghanistan . Sure they can probably influence filtering and put specific blocks particularly to prevent access to anything offensive to the religious (e.g. the Islam parody released in the US last year). But the majority of access would remain unaffected, indeed most tech savvy Afghan people already utilise technology to bypass content filtering like these sites - http://www.theninjaproxy.org/.
There is an awful lot of investment being put in to the internet infrastructure in Afghanistan but it’s still at a relatively low level. It is important that they take a ’hand’s off approach’ to management of content filtering. The internet represents a real chance for economic development in the country and this is only possible if more and more citizens get access and are not afraid to utilise the internet.
One aspect of the rebuilding process that needs to be addressed is that of medical health for the people that have been most severely affected by the troubles here. Little regard was given to the population in general when so much focus was on the power struggle between different factions and the insurgence of foreign troops and their machines of destruction.
The rebuilding of the nation will invariably involve the construction of new hospitals and the refurbishment and modernisation of existing ones. One can only hope that sufficient funds are made available and released for these important projects. For there is great importance in ensuring the well being of the population and that people have access to the main medical facilities that are often taken for granted in many other countries.
But aside from the need for improved medical facilities across the country, there is also much that people can do to help to improve their own health in general. For instance, with better access to a wider selection of fresh foods, families can at least ensure they eat as healthily as possible. In some respects there is some benefit to the simple fact that the fast food industry that is helping to fatten up the western world has not managed to get a foothold in Afghanistan just yet.
The health of the population is extremely important if they are to resist many of the illnesses that are apt to be spread by the apparent lack of hygiene in many areas. There are many simple ways of overcoming this problem, but better education and access to better facilities and conditions are paramount.
When it comes to catching up with the rest of the world following the stabilization of the country and its political system, much can be done to ensure that the people who have suffered for far too long are given the chance to improve their standard of living. The basics of civilized existence; food, shelter and protection are things that can make a huge difference to the standard of lifestyle that people deserve.
With aid from the West in so many areas to help rebuild the infrastructure of the country, it is hoped that sufficient emphasis is placed on the development and improvement of the medical sector. Providing essential medicines and treatments as well as hospital equipment and expert staffing levels is certainly a high priority. Let’s hope the people are not disappointed in this area.
It is a common feeling that every generation feels like they are living in the final throes of civilzation. There is always some prohecy coming up that the the end of the world is nigh. It was 200o; before that Nostradamus’s predictions of major upheaval and now in 2012 it is the end of the Mayan calander in December that has got the doomsday soothsayers reaching for their planetary guides.
In 2011 we had major earthquakes in Haiti, Japan, New Zealand, Chile and Turkey. The Japanese earthquake on March 11th was particularly devastasting because it was followed by a tsunami that claimed thousands of lives and wiped away towns, cities and villages. Rebuilding after the Japanese tsunami has been particularly difficult because of the damage done to the Fukushima nuclear reactors. The damaged reactors continue one year later to emit radioactive particles that are contaminating all the debris caused by the tsunami destruction. This has made it very difficult to dispose of the debris since few municipal governments will accept the contaminated rubbish for processing. It seems at the moment that Japan faces a re-building task akin to the situation they faced after World War Two when they suffered two nuclear strikes.
Prior to the Japanese earthquake the most devastating natural disaster was the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. This wiped out large coastal areas of Indonesia, South East Asia and then spread over to the east coast of Africa. Majot tourist centers such as Khao Lak and Phuket in Thailand were badly affected. Many tourists and locals lost their lives. Hotels and guest houses were swept away. These were areas, however, with huge commercial potential. As a result hotels on Nang Tong beach and elsewhere were quickly rebuilt and opened for business.
Those areas in west Africa and in Indonesia such as Aceh that were not famous beach destinations have been much slower to recover. This is a key lesson to rebuilding. Government funding is limited – without private development rebuilding after a natural disaster can take years if not decades. This is particularly true in developing countries.
America is the World’s only superpower. Since the collapse of the Soviet block (partly caused by the ruinous, costly and demoralizing military campaign in Afghanistan), America has stood unchallenged as the leader in the world in terms of its armed forces and its huge economy. China is quickly emerging as a threat to America’s hegemony in these two fields. While the world is aware of China’s economic might, its leaders are keeping the true extent of its miltary might and ambitions very much under wraps. It is a good thing for the world that at least ostensibly America and China are friends and only economic rivals not miltary rivals.
One of the challenges for America at pressent is to gain some dignity and some lasting good from going into Afghanistan in 2001. They have caught their man – namely Osama bin Laden, who is credited with masterminding the 9/11 attacks on New York and elsewhere in the US; but, what else can they achieve?
The answer is to successfully and permanently improve the lives of ordinary Afghanis, especially Aghanis living in rural situations. A lot is talked about winning the hearts and minds of the occupied people. One way this can be achieved is by developing relevant technologies to help everyday people. A good example of this is Amy Smith’s invention to turn farm waste into fuel to prevent children dying of acute respiratory infection.
If the battle to stop poppy production in Afghanistan is going to have any lasting impact, then new forms of agriculture in the country need to be developed, and that means new and suitable technology to make it work.
It is no use just pouring money into the country. What Afghanistan needs is good design and suitable technology to help establish itself as a credible and stable state rather than a place of continual conflict and drug production.
The country of Afghanistan is a real challenge when it comes to the norms of modern development. Having never been fully conquered by a foreign power, and having been without the benefits of a strong central government for many centuries, in many ways it is a relic of history.
Due to a combination of mountainous terrain, strong tribal groups, and a tradition of fierce independence; Afghanistan is – and likely always be – a patchwork country. Overlaying a centralized administration over a nation like this is never going to be easy.
Efforts to establish schools, roads and hospitals require a certain amount of stability if they are to succeed. In the absence of a strong state they are all subject to failure any time that a group with some power takes offence at what is being done.
Whether it is religious objections to Western style educations, or simply resentment of foreign do-gooders, there are unfortunately many people who have a vested interest in rolling back attempt at progress in order to preserve traditions that are considered backwards in most nations.
Even more troubling, some groups will simply see development as an opportunity for pillage. Consider the construction of a new hospital for example. A building like this will have all sorts of valuable equipment – from beds to refrigerators – that a warlord or tribal chief might think would be more appropriately located in the home of himself or one of his supporters. In the absence of a strong government they are quite likely to simply take possession of these items by force.
While in most places development considerations might take into account factors such as what refrigerator reviews say to determine the best models for a particular application, in Afghanistan the chief development goal must be how to make sure the refrigerator doesn’t get stolen. For this reason NGO’s have their work cut out for them!
Myanmar formerly known as Burma has not suffered from a war of aggression from outside influences. Rather it has struggled for several years from a military junta that has sought to imprison opponents of the regime and has waged an unofficial war with minority peoples who have been suing for independence. At the same time the junta is no doubt partly behind a huge meta-amphitamin business that is smuggled over borders to neighboring countries. It is a drug that is cheap, addictive and that has ruined many lives in South East Asia.
For 15 years the Nobel laurate Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest. Her father is credited as being the father of modern day Burma as he negotiated the independence of Burma from Britain. She had won the last free and open election in Burma but was immediately arrested. She was released in 2010. Although the military junta has allowed new elections to be held they are careful to keep hold of the reins of power. Although many Burmese remain wary of the junta’s interntions there is a new cautious note of optimisim in the country.
The result of the military dicatorship in Myanmar has been to deny the people of basic human rights. It has also impoverished the people. One of the main results of a broken country is mass emigration. Young and old leave the country both legally and illegally to find a better life in a new country. This causes a brain drain and holds back the re-building of a country.
In 2004 the Thai ministry of labor estimated there were over 1 million illegal Burmese workers in Thailand. That figure has probably nearly doubled by 2012. Many Thais have a very discriminatory attitude to illegal Burmese workers. They are regularly beaten and murdered and the authorities make little effort to investigate.
As with other countries, illegal workers are advantageous to business because they work for minimum wages and don’t require any type of social benefits to be paid into the system on their behalf. The tourist industry in Thailand from Chaweng on Samui Island to Phuket to Changmai employ a large amount of Burmese as waiters, cleaners, cooks and drivers. The booming construction industry also takes advantage of the cheap labor offered by Burmese.
It is time to re-build Burma by getting Aung San Suu Kyi in power and rebuilding the economy of the country so that the Burmese can come home.