Wednesday, January 14, 2015


You may think I have begun with Afghanistan because of its predominance, indeed its centrality, in the political media over the past several years; but no, I have begun with Afghanistan only because of its primacy in the alphabetical list of countries. Had I drawn this list on a basis of countries that were once great civilisations, but which had collapsed into decadence and barbarism, Afghanistan would likely have come first on that list too, though several others offer stern competition (I leave you to make that list yourself!). Nonetheless, it merits a paragraph on the pre-21st century Afghanistan, because few people seem aware of just how sophisticated the country and the people once were, and how far it has slid back into the primitive. First the political history (a fuller account can be found at

Arab, Baluch, Chahar Aimak, Hazara, Kirghiz, Nuristani, Pashai, Pashtun, Persian, Tajik, Turkmen and Uzbek make up the majority of the population, though of course there are other ethnic groups; of the ones listed here, the Pashtun are the dominant group politically, having provided the monarchy for centuries, and around a half of the total population. Tajiks provide another quarter, and the rest are the rest. Islam arrived in the 8th century, when the new religion was first spreading its wings in search of a global Caliphate. By the 12th century the Mongols had conquered the land, and they remained in power for the next several hundred years, after which the country was squeezed between the Mughals of India and the Safavids of Iran, until the time of Ahmed Shah, who seized power in 1747 and established the Pashtun monarchy. By the 1800s the British Empire in the East had become interested in Afghanistan, and fought with the Russians, who had similar ambitions; nothing has really changed since, except that the British have been replaced by the Americans, and the Russian Czar is no longer named Romanov. That fight included the First (1838) and the Second (1878) Anglo-Afghan Wars (which should really be named the Anglo-Russian Wars in Afghanistan), as well as anti-British rebellions in favour of Russia after the Communist Revolution, secession from Britain by King Amanullah in 1917, and finally independence, after a protracted war, in 1919. But independence only led to internal fighting among ambitious warlords, and the king was forced to abdicate in 1929. His successor was assassinated in 1933, which brought to the throne Muhammad Zahir Shah, who would rule for forty years, and who would be the last king, an autocratic tyrant like every king before him. When Zahir Shah was overthrown by a popular rebellion in 1973, a republic was declared, though it was really meaningless, because another member of the same family was elected President, and tyrannical autocracy remained in place, because Daoud was supported by the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan, which was pro-Communist (the PDPA becoming thereby another first in this blog: the first of what will be dozens of political parties which deceitfully include the name of the people as a form of camouflage for their tyrannical autocracy; by the end of this blog it will become clear that the use of the word 'people' in any party or country name should be automatically mistrusted).

Once in power, President Daoud had no further use for the PDPA, so he...once in power the PDPA had no further use for President Daoud so 1978 a military coup resolved the crisis, and unusually for a land ruled by its generals, this incipited a period of liberalism unprecedented in Afghan history: land reform, secularism, gender equality, even the prohibition of the purchasing of brides. The PDPA did not like any of this, and turned to their Russian comrades, and staged a rebellion; once it was successful the Soviets invaded, to ensure their brand of Communism was the one that dominated, and surprisingly this meant a more moderate version than the one the leadership of the PDPA were intending - though we should understand the concept of moderate Communism within the laws of relativity: Brezhnev was moderate when compared with Stalin, as an atom bomb is moderate when compared with a hydrogen bomb.

The rest, I hope, is the history with which all readers are familiar: the rise of Islamic Mujahadeen (paramilitaries) who opposed President Karmal's Communist regime; the arrival of the CIA and Pakistani Intelligence to train and support the anti-Communist struggle; the creation of the Taliban by the USA; the funding of all this by key players in the Arab world, of whom the most generous and most significant was one Osama bin Laden, for several years the CIA's leading operative in this proxy war against Communism. Ah the paradoxes! Mediaeval Islam of the most radical kind versus a corrupt oligarchy made up primarily of warlords who pretended to be Communists because they needed a populist flag that they could hang in front of their elitist tents. The Soviets finally left in 1989, Afghanistan having proven the final nail in the coffin of its own Communist regime. But the Mujahadeen went on fighting, overthrowing Karmal's government in 1992, at which point the country broke up into the condition of regional warlords and theoretical centrality that it has today. US and European troops are due to complete their pull-out any day (update: the British left in October 2014, the Americans on January 1 2015), after which we can expect the country to descend into civil war again, with repression on both sides, and radical Islam at war with democratic secularism. The argument over the Presidential elections in September 2014 did much to support this sad conclusion; though the two rivals for the presidency, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, did finally sign a power-sharing agreement, following a two-month audit of disputed election results, and Ashraf Ghani has now been sworn in as President.

And as to the sophisticated culture which I made the high-point of my opening paragraph. Islamophobes around the world are encouraged to read my novel "The Persian Fire", which is scheduled for publication in 2016; they will be astonished to discover almost a millennium of intellectual sophistication across the Moslem world, extending from Granada in the Spanish west to its most easterly point in Afghanistan, a miraculous enlightenment of mathematics, architecture, engineering, chemistry, physics, astronomy, literature, poetry, philosophy, music and medicine, at a level which Europe did not obtain until the late 19th century, in some cases not even then, and in most cases only because it had finally broken the taboo and allowed itself to learn from Islamic culture. One of the greatest Moslem thinkers in the realm of science, Abu Raihan Muhammad al-Biruni, a Persian by birth, lived most of his working life, and died, in Ghazna in Afghanistan, the birthplace of his royal patron. Even greater than al-Biruni was ar-Razi (Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Rhazes), the first man to identify smallpox (in the year 278 of the Moslem era, which is the year 910 of the Christians), and who later discovered measles and suggested that the source of infectious diseases lay in the blood (it would be another seven hundred years before William Harvey would confirm the circulation of the blood and thereby enable European Christians to accept the same understanding). Ar-Razi too was Persian by birth, but spent many years at Herat, which was the centre of intellectual life in the east at that time, on the level of Haroun al-Rashid's Baghdad previously, and Paris in the 1930s. The writer al-Hamadhani and the poet Jami were both Afghans, as was the poet al-Rumi, though he left the country while still quite young.

Marks For: 3

Marks Against: 7

No comments:

Post a Comment