Afghanistan is a country where poets are revered as national heroes and yet nearly three out of every four people is illiterate. Glittering wedding palaces line the main streets of Kabul, while homeless children waving incense-filled cans offer to bless passers-by for a coin. The roads are shared by trucks and donkeys, cars and camels. Reconstruction money pours into the country and accumulates in the hands of an elite.
Afghanistan as we know it today is an amalgamation of former tribal regions. “Afghan” is another name for the Pashtun people, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. “Stan” means place, and so we get “place of the Pashtuns” or “place of the Afghans”. The other major ethnic groups are the Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek. It was not until the country wrested full independence from the British in 1919 that ‘Afghanistan’ became the official name for the combined tribal areas.
For most of us, our images of Afghanistan are dominated by the upheavals of the past 30 years. The 1978 leftist coup; the subsequent Soviet invasion and retreat; the overthrow of the remnant Soviet puppet government of Najibullah by an alliance of mujahideen; the destructive in-fighting of the mujahideen, which opened the door for the Taliban to take control; the terrible oppression of the Taliban. Then 9/11, the Taliban’s refusal to hand over Bin Laden, the US military response and the establishment of a government which remains, to today, riddled by divisions and claims of corruption and beleaguered by the Taliban forces still strong in much of the country.
This recent catalog of invasion and internal turmoil is repeated throughout much of Afghanistan’s history. Situated as it is in Central Asia, landlocked by Iran to the west, a necklace of post-USSR ‘stans’ – Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajkistan – along its north, a tiny border sliver with China in the northeast and Pakistan to the southeast, Afghanistan has been a crossing point for trade routes and conquerors for thousands of years.
It has also brought many of those would-be conquerors to their knees, through a combination of inaccessible terrain and a population accustomed to fighting for survival. With the Western end of the Himalayan mountain chain spilling across northern and central Afghanistan, much of the country is rugged and some parts are almost unreachable.
This terrain has made for an almost impregnable base for fighters familiar with their home territory. The Taliban is merely the most recent group to profit from this local advantage.
The legacy of the last 30 years
An entire generation of Afghans has grown up knowing nothing but invasion, war, bombing, repression and insurgency. Those years of war have left a terrible legacy in Afghanistan. It has always been a poor country; today it faces huge challenges. According to UNICEF:
- Afghanistan has the second highest infant mortality rate in the world.
- One in seven children is an orphan.
- One in eight women die in childbirth.
- Only 28% of adults are literate. Women’s literacy rate is less than a third that of men.
- Average annual income is $US250.
- Life expectancy is 44 years.
- 30% of children aged 5 to 14 years are forced to work.
- More than 70,000 Afghans have been killed or maimed by landmines since de-mining began in 1989.
“In the first half of 2008 alone, 445 mine incidents were reported. Tragically, many involve children, who mistake the deadly hardware for toys or valuable scrap metal. Of the 48 incidents reported in the first two months of 2009, 31 involved children.”
Thousands of years as a trade center have bequeathed Afghanistan a rich heritage of art and architecture. The past 30 years have stripped Afghanistan of many of its treasures and much of its architectural beauty and littered large sections of the countryside with mines. Still, there are indications that things are turning around a little, especially in the central northern regions where the Taliban’s presence is not as strong.
A sign of this turnaround was the dedication in April 2009 of Afghanistan’s first national park, Band-E Amir National Park, in Bamyan province. Band-E Amir means “Dam of Amir” and the new park centers around a string of brilliantly colored lakes created by natural dams. The founding of the park not only marks a desire by Afghanistan to welcome tourists, it also heralds a shift towards a more conservation focused approach to the country’s ravaged natural resources.
The opening of Band-E Amir National Park is a welcome development, but it is premature to hope that Afghanistan’s economy will be primed by tourism. At present, the country’s most profitable industry is its illicit opium trade. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) about 92% of the world’s heroin originates in Afghanistan and opium accounts for 53% of the country’s GDP. Most of that heroin is consumed in the USA and Europe. Opium poppies are not a traditional crop; it is the economic hardships of the last decades that have seen a dramatic shift in agricultural production away from crops such as grains, cotton, fruit and nuts to opium poppies.
A crucial factor in addressing many of Afghanistan’s most pressing problems – poverty, dependence on the drug trade, a destroyed infrastructure – is the need for education. Under the Taliban, girls schools were closed, women were barred from universities and boys schools became madrassahs – religious schools. Afghanistan cannot afford another generation of young people to grow up without education or skills. Without a serious investment in the children of Afghanistan, any security gains will be ephemeral.
In the words of Dr Sima Samar, Chairperson of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission:
“A comprehensive, multi-dimensional strategy for the reduction of poverty will reduce the ability of terrorist organizations to recruit young Afghans and Muslims. We cannot reduce poverty without investing in education, the primary tool for changing the mentality of a society. One of the reasons the war in Afghanistan has been so long and violent is the population’s lack of education.”