WINTER 2001/2002
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conflict and the search for peace


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the main effect of the bombing has been to kill yet more people with already the shortest life expectancy in the world

Kabul TV's first post Taliban image was a barefaced young woman reading the news.
A sign of things to come or a sop to Western sensibilities?


Afghanistan: Minorities, Conflict and the Search for Peace. Peter Marsden. Minority Rights Group International. 2001

Afghanistan has dominated the headlines and news bulletins for the past few months, but in any league table of poverty, famine, displaced persons, refugees, and lack of education, opportunity or the most basic means of subsistence, it is likely to appear as the most deprived country in the world.

This makes it the more poignant that Afghanistan should have become the latest target of intensive US air raids, following upon twenty years of continuous conflict, so that the main effect of the bombing has been to kill yet more people with already the shortest life expectancy, and pound heaps of rubble into even smaller pieces.

The latest in the series of MRG reports, which for thirty years have provided authoritative and unbiassed background information on minorities worldwide, so often the focus of longstanding conflict and war, provides a concise overview of Afghanistan's complex population make-up, and the tensions which have not only given rise to internal conflict, but have been exploited by both neighbouring and western states.

Afghanistan has existed as a state for barely a century, emerging from the chaos of the old Persian empire to become a buffer between Russian imperialism and British India. According to a 1900 encyclopaedia, 'There is no Afghan nation; the population consists of discordant tribesmen, constantly in revolt and only kept in subjection by frequent military expeditions from Cabul'. Military expeditions now come from further afield, but the discordance of the tribal warlords, if not the ordinary people, remains notorious. The MRG report explains that Afghanistan is a constellation of minorities, no single ethnic group having a majority, although the largest group, the Pushtuns, has often been dominant, providing both the former line of kings and the two later political/intellectual movements who looked, respectively, towards the Soviet Union and an increasingly vocal and militant Islam.

The coup by the Soviet-oriented group in 1978. followed by a threatened backlash from conservative Islamists led to the Soviet invasion of 1979, and in turn, to the US fighting a proxy war by supporting the emergent Mujahidin in their jihad against the USSR. The Mujahidin were also supported by Saudi Arabia, including a particular activist named Osama Bin Ladin, and by Pakistan, whose Punjabi province includes many ethnic Pushtuns. Whilst the war brought together some of the ethnic groups in the north of the country in the Northern Alliance, some of the Pushtuns going to Pakistan as refugees came under the influence of madrasahs, teaching an eclectic version of Islam which not only denied any role for women or girls outside the home, but also propagated an extreme puritanism in social and cultural matters.

The eventual emergence, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and their protege government, of the Taliban, as these Pushtun Muslims became known, represented yet another example of western involvement in, and encouragement of, a faction in the developing world, on the basis that 'my enemy's enemy is my friend', only to find, as with Saddam Hussein in Iraq, that the 'friend' is in fact nobody's friend.

Although the notion of 'religious police', execution for matters which are not even crimes in most western states, and the total subjugation of women reflect the extremity of reaction for which the Taliban became notorious, the MRG report points out that cultural values in Afghanistan have traditionally been conservative: education, even for boys, did not become a priority until the 1940s, and the cultural emancipation of women was an extremely slow process, which even the Soviet-oriented government found difficult to implement in the face of both tribal and religious leaders. The international coalition's new found 'friends' in the Northern Alliance, Tajiks, Hazaris and others, have their own reputation for both massacres of opponents and inhibition of female advancement.

The report highlights, among other things, the terrible effects of war, displacement and drought upon children. Not only are the rates of infant and under-5 mortality among the worst in the world, but children, as elsewhere in such situations, are the prime victims of landmines. Schooling has almost completely ceased in many areas, whilst the madrasahs elsewhere continue to educate for war.

The report was published before the latest attempt at establishing a working and unified government, but its recommendations that any government must prioritise tolerance and reconciliation, full rights for women, and freedom for children from forced labour and conscription into armed groups, are clearly the only hope for a peaceful and stable future.

Bill Hetherington





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