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The Future of Afghanistan: A Personal View

Published in "The Hill Times" 9 July 2012.

Whether it’s called soft power, engagement, democratic development and good governance, or just respecting the sacrifice Canadian troops have made, we need to stay engaged in Afghanistan. Rich cultural heritage in Afghanistan may play a big role in unity there, but there’s no doubt Canadian support is also needed.

I came to this conclusion after a long interest in Afghanistan and a recent assignment there.  I was invited to join an Oxford-led archaeological team dealing with Afghanistan’s art and cultural heritage. I represented the team to key partners in Afghan government, the U.S. State Department, and la Délégation archéologique française en Afghanistan.

Terrorist attacks flanked my last visit to Kabul, one in late April and one at the beginning of May. I was woken up by the early morning explosions on May 1 which were intended for U.S. President Barack Obama’s surprise visit. I had never been so close to terrorism before, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared.

But Canadians should know that the Taliban are losing. Each new attack does little or nothing to decrease the world’s population of NATO soldiers, because victims of attacks are overwhelmingly Afghans. This is no way for the Taliban to build up power and prestige. Of course, it’s hard to predict what will happen after the withdrawal of NATO troops, but the Taliban are unlikely to win widespread support.

Kabul nightlife was the most interesting I’ve yet experienced. I suppose the sense of danger made party culture more intense. Friendships were formed and deepened at an accelerated pace, and drugs and alcohol were shared generously. But no there was no sense of frivolity. 

Drinking in Kabul’s Gandamack Lodge (a favorite haunt of Christopher Hitchens) 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 revived trade links with India, China, and Central Asia.

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. 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. There are few countries with so rich a history as Afghanistan. The ancient city of Balkh (near modern-day Mazar-e Sharif in the north) was the birthplace of Zoroaster, the mystic poet Rumi, and the greatest Muslim scientist Avicenna—amongst many other towering figures of mediaeval Islamic culture. The Persian national epic, the Shahnameh, was written for the Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna (modern-day Ghazni) whose empire was centred on Afghanistan. Mediaeval Buddhism had its heartland there, and monastic traditions still used in India, China, and Japan, were first developed in Afghanistan. In terms of cultural heritage, there is plenty of grist to the mill. 

Afghanistan’s heritage has been threatened. The Taliban’s destruction of the giant statues of the Buddha at Bamiyan in 2001 was a sign of profound 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. So this extremely lucrative deal will inevitably destroy the archaeological site as the copper mine expands. As foreign investment in extracting Afghanistan’s 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 attention focused on sites of great historical and cultural significance in Afghanistan.

I’d like to end this piece with a recommendation. Our commitment to withdraw Canadian troops from Afghanistan by 2014 must not end our involvement in that country. Perhaps the best thing we can do in Afghanistan in future would be to establish capacity-building programs designed to repatriate knowledge of Afghan history. Working closely with the University of Kabul, the Ministry for Information and Culture, and the National Museum at Kabul to get such programs going would be an ideal role for Canada post-2014. What better way could we find to build goodwill and clout in Afghanistan and Central Asia? Canada punched well above its weight in Kandahar and thereby won Afghan respect—they told me so. Let’s finish the job and restore pride and confidence in Afghan culture.

Michael Bonner studied Iranian history at Brasenose College in the University of Oxford. He is widely published on pre-Islamic Iran in both English and French, and his master’s thesis was published a year ago by Studia Iranica in Paris. He is a member of the Balkh Art and Cultural Heritage project, an archeological team based in Oxford devoted to the study of the ancient city of Balkh near modern-day Mazar-e Sharif in northern Afghanistan. He was born and raised in Toronto, and has lived and worked in Geneva and Paris.