Fireside Chat on Afghanistan

This text is the substance of a talk I gave to the Oxford and Cambridge Society in Toronto on 22 January 2013. It is derived in part from my other articles on Afghanistan posted on this website. The talk was meant to address the following questions: which experience in Afghanistan struck me the most; which was my most fearful experience; what is my dearest memory; what gave me the most hope? Then I was asked to speak about some historical facts that make Afghanistan special, and to conclude with an outlook on Afghanistan's future.

I began academic life as a classicist. I found, however, that my interests were getting more and more modern, and constantly moving east. So when I was an undergraduate, I began to study Middle Eastern languages and developed an abiding interest in Arabic and Persian literature. I left Toronto having taken all available classics courses and all Middle Eastern languages on offer.

Not long after I arrived in Oxford to read Byzantine history, my supervisor steered me headlong into Iranian history of the pre-Islamic era. My MPhil was an analysis of three neglected historical sources for the Sasanian dynasty, the last rulers of Iran before the coming of Islam. My DPhil was a translation of, and commentary on, a long-neglected ninth-century history of pre-Islamic Iran, written in Arabic.

What does this have to do with Afghanistan? Most (if not all) of what is now Afghanistan was part of the Iranian empire that I had been studying at one time or another, the region was of great strategic significance to Iran, and the Sasanian dynasty faced down successive waves of Central Asian nomads in what is now Afghanistan. You’ve probably heard of Attila and the Huns and the trouble they caused to the Roman Empire in Europe. Well, the Huns appeared first along the Iranian frontier in Afghanistan. This should give some idea of the Iranian strategic dilemma in Afghanistan. So it can well be said, without getting into too much detail, that Afghanistan had already assumed high importance in my work before I got involved in the Balkh Art and Cultural Heritage Project a year ago.

This project aims to determine the effect of the coming of Islam on the city of Balkh near modern-day Mazar-i Sharif in northern Afghanistan. My original role was to contribute knowledge of historical texts dealing with Balkh during my period of study. All this changed, however, when it was determined that I would go to Kabul to make contact with our project’s main Afghan partners.

So off I went. Apart from basic reconnaissance, my main tasks were to get MoUs signed with the Afghan Ministry for Information and Culture and the French archaeological delegation in Afghanistan, and to interact with contacts at the US State Department.

What were my most frightening experiences in Afghanistan? Terrorist attacks flanked my visit to Kabul. The first happened just before I left London for Kabul: the Taliban took over an empty building near ISAF headquarters and began rocketing the American embassy. The French archaeological delegation, where I would be staying, is just across the street, so needless to say, I left London feeling somewhat tense. On the day I was to leave Kabul, I was woken up by early morning explosions intended for U.S. President Barack Obama’s surprise visit to mark the death of Osama bin Laden. I had never been so close to terrorism before, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared.

Less terrifying, but no less depressing, is the constant threat posed to Afghan cultural heritage. The Taliban’s destruction of the giant statues of the Buddha at Bamiyan in 2001 was a sign of profound and irrational hostility to Afghanistan’s heritage by Muslim fanatics. Such attacks are unlikely to be repeated now. But Afghanistan’s cultural treasures are arguably in even more danger than ever before. Take for instance the site of Mes Aynak just outside Kabul. Once upon a time, Mes Aynak was the site of a vast Buddhist monastery. The ruins of part of it still stand, but all the statues have been decapitated — probably by Osama bin Laden’s men after Mes Aynak became an al-Qaeda training ground. Mes Aynak is now in danger because of a massive copper mining operation in the area. The mine is owned and run by the Chinese, and their investment in Afghanistan is the largest in that country’s history. This extremely lucrative deal will inevitably destroy the archaeological site as the copper mine expands.

As foreign investment in extracting Afghanistan’s abundant natural resources increases, we are likely to see more destruction of similar archaeological sites. So the clock is ticking. What this situation calls for is increased international attention focused on sites of great historical and cultural significance in Afghanistan.

What were my most memorable experiences? I don’t normally care about partying, but Kabul nightlife was the most interesting and memorable that I’ve yet experienced. I suppose the sense of danger made party culture more intense. Friendships were formed and strengthened at a rapid pace, and drugs and alcohol were shared generously, as I observed. But no there was no sense of frivolity.

Drinking in Kabul’s Gandamack Lodge (a favorite haunt of Christopher Hitchens while he was in Kabul) was an exercise in irony on a grand scale: the pub had formerly been the house of one of Osama bin Laden’s wives. It was in bars and clubs that I met my Afghan friends — all well-travelled and curious about the world. They spoke of how much the country had improved since 2001. Though worried about their country’s future post-2014, they were fiercely optimistic. They spoke almost romantically of reviving trade links with India, China, and Central Asia. This gave me great hope.


Afghanistan is a country of great ethnic and cultural complexity. Tribal loyalties are almost unshakable. Forming a nation-state like France or Turkey is simply impossible in the case of Afghanistan. A country like Switzerland would certainly be a better model. But Afghan ministers and archaeologists whom I met expressed an urgent need to unite their country: they all thought that building awareness of a shared cultural heritage was the way to do it.

They may be on to something. Following the coming of Islam in the middle of the seventh century, Afghanistan was the heartland of several Iranian dynasties which challenged the authority of the Abbasid Caliphate at Baghdad. Each successive dynasty left its mark in art, architecture, and literature. Most notably, the Shahnameh, the Iranian national epic and perhaps the greatest work of medieval literature in any language, was commissioned by Ghaznavid dynasty centered on the city of Ghazni in south-eastern Afghanistan. The city of Balkh in northern Afghanistan is believed to be the birthplace of Zoroaster (prophet of the earliest Iranian religion), the mystic poet Rumi (now a figure of modern spirituality and mysticism), as well as Avicenna (arguably the greatest Muslim scientist of all time) — amongst many other towering figures of mediaeval Islamic culture.

At the centre of a trading network running from Constantinople to Peking, pre-Islamic Afghanistan was also influenced by the culture of India, China, Iran, and the Central Asian steppe. One of the most noteworthy influences was the world’s greatest international religion before Christianity and Islam — Buddhism. Many Buddhist monastic rules still used in India, China, and Japan originated in Afghanistan. This religion is all but extinct in Afghanistan now, but it left such a mark that the Taliban were clearly uncomfortable with any visible sign of it. The destruction of the colossal statues of Buddha at Bamiyan, and the looting of the National Museum at Kabul over the past 20 years or so, are perhaps the most famous signs of Taliban rage against pre-Islamic culture.

The Taliban’s irrational hatred of history means that they view it as a serious threat. Could it be then that teaching history in post- 2014 Afghanistan could be one of Canada’s most powerful instruments of soft power?

Though Canada will end its combat role in 2014, we have pledged continued financial aid. Canada has promised $227-million in assistance between 2014 and 2017 — on top of what Canada has already pledged for 2011 to 2014. Much of our aid will go to advance the rights of women and girls and their involvement in Afghan society. But in my view rebuilding a civilised country takes much more than empowering disadvantaged groups and ‘winning hearts and minds.’

It takes a clear demonstration of our valuing a people’s culture and history. In Afghanistan, there is so much to work with that it is surprising that that the country has a reputation for anything other than being a rich cultural nexus.

Working closely with the Afghan Ministry for Information and Culture, the University of Kabul, and the National Museum, we could establish capacity-building programmes in Afghan culture and history. This could be an ideal role for Canada post-2014. Everything from promoting basic introductions to history at the local level to studies of artefacts, texts, and archaeological methods for university students would foster an identity transcending the last three decades of conflict.

My experience in Afghanistan has led me to believe that, on the whole, Canada and NATO have been doing good work there. From time to time naysayers argue that our efforts in Afghanistan will be wasted, citing British and Soviet failures there. But such thinking often shows an ignorance both of Afghan history and of NATO’s role there.

There is, of course, a long history of destructive foreign meddling in Afghanistan. The so-called Great Game, played out between Britain and the Russian Empire in Afghanistan, is an object lesson in the destructive power of imperial paranoia. Nineteenth-century British fears that an expansionist Russia might use Afghanistan as an invasion route into India grew into a strange contest of diplomatic maneuvering and military posturing, and into three Anglo-Afghan wars.

It is often forgotten, though, that the most meddlesome foreigner in Afghanistan (within recent memory at least) was none other than al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. The Taliban too, who rose to power in 1996, trace their roots to Pakistan. Because of this, NATO’s mission to remove bin Laden and to wrest power from the Taliban and al-Qaeda cannot be compared to any other military engagement or conflict in Afghanistan. Nor should NATO’s involvement there be compared to the USA’s war in Vietnam, which was a war against an indigenous portion of that country’s population — not a war on foreign meddlers. But this is oddly a common comparison...

Though it is impossible to say for certain what the future of Afghanistan will look like, I think the country will, in the long term, muddle through. The Taliban are unlikely to make much of a come-back in all parts of Afghanistan, though they will probably try hard. This is what they are doing now, but each new terrorist attack tends to kill more Afghans than NATO soldiers, and this is no way for the group to rebuild its power and prestige.

Resumption of civil war, not a universal Taliban take-over, may be the greatest threat to Afghanistan after NATO leaves it forever. Before that time we must take steps to unite the country beyond religious, ethnic, tribal, and linguistic lines.

Canada’s performance in Kandahar means that good will is already on our side. What better way could we find to increase it than by restoring pride and confidence to Afghanistan?