Afghanistan is an arena in which the global political conflicts of the 21st century are all written large. Does this benefit the country?
Building a new state in Afghanistan is the first democratic state-building project undertaken by Europeans outside of their own continent. Former colonial powers such as Germany, France, Great Britain and Italy seek to build a country in the Hindu Kush that benefits from lessons learned from the turbulent history of the old continent in the 20th century. Yet other countries like China are also on the ground in Afghanistan with their sights set on economic cooperation. We are now seeing a new globalized competition of ideas unfold in the country. If the West fails here as it has already done in Iraq, this will have unforeseeable consequences for the standing of western-style democracy throughout the world.
The following observations and comments by people were all collected by me during my journey through Afghanistan. Shortly after the parliamentary elections on 18 September I started out on a two and a half week trip which took me to Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif and Faizabad. Most of the time I was on the road with the Bundeswehr. the German Federal Armed Forces, but I also made several excursions into civilian Afghanistan. What I saw on my journey and the conversations I had in Mazar and Faiza gave the background for this article.
Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan more than two decades ago. Yet the scars left by the occupation are still clearly visible. Burnt out armored personnel carriers still litter every town and city, covered with snow in winter and veiled with a light brown layer of dust during the hot months. With the shortage of materials in many places, these wrecks often have an afterlife serving new and ingenious purposes. In an easterly outlying district of Mazar-i-Sharif Afghan engineers have stood the battered underbody of an armored transport vehicle on its head and used it as a bridge support pillar. In Faizabad the armored top of a scout vehicle has been sawn off and used as a manhole cover in a school playground. A few meters away what’s left of the vehicle stands open to all the elements and is used as a climbing frame by the kids.
Armored steel is rust-resistant and slow rusting. But what Mother Nature can’t do, the Chinese look likely to succeed in doing in the near future. Chinese government companies are now busy buying up the old military wrecks. This is the Chinese version of development cooperation of the type they also practice in Africa: A good deal in raw materials is win-win for both sides. Very soon the Soviet army’s scrap iron could well disappear from the streets of Afghanistan. Yet this is only the first stage of Chinese involvement in Central Asia.
What is at stake here is much more than just the issue of who gains control of the none too abundant reserves of raw materials in Afghanistan. A closer look at the country reveals that Afghanistan is now an arena for a competition of ideas in which the global political power games that keep the world on the edge of its seat at the start of the 21st century are played out as though under a magnifying glass.
NATO countries in association with the (pro American) government in Kabul are now trying to establish a western-style democracy. For EU NATO member countries this is very much a political pilot project. “This is the first non-colonial venture in state building that Europeans have attempted outside their own continent” military chaplain Hartwig von Schubert told me who himself was on duty with the Bundeswehr in Mazar-i-Sharif until spring 2010. “Afghanistan isn’t a country of great resources. If it wasn’t for 9/11 none of us would be here. We landed here as an accident of history. Now it remains to be seen whether we really can deliver what we promise.” Nine years after the outbreak of war this is still very much an open question. Especially as even now NATO states still have no very clear idea about how much democracy is good for a country like Afghanistan organized on highly traditionalist lines. Simplistic faith in the exportability of one-size-fits-all democratic principles has already damaged the standing of the West in Iraq.
The adversaries NATOis fighting are radical Islamic insurgents. Even though their military might is far inferior to that of the western forces, the insurgents are deeply rooted in the culture of the country and draw their legitimacy from spiritual rather than secular sources. In various points their struggle can be compared to that of the Mujahideen during the Soviet occupation even though this is something which NATO doesn’t want to hear. In early October I was up in the mountains near Faizabad and I met a policeman who told me that in the 1980s he had been a mujahideen. When I asked him how they had actually succeeded back then in defeating the Soviets, my interpreter looked at me angrily and snapped “What a stupid question!” But I still wanted an answer and the policeman replied. “Because we had a plan and the Soviets didn’t. And because Allah was on our side.” Some reasons never change. But probably it was precisely that reason that gave meaning to the struggle for many insurgents in the first place.
For the past few years the Chinese have been consolidating their own engagement in Afghanistan. Superficially their interests seem purely economic but obviously commercial cooperation is very useful in extending a country’s own sphere of influence – as China has shown so compellingly over the past decade. In doing so China also profits from the stabilization work of NATO troops without having to send in its own military forces. And this has raised some critical voices in the West.
Historically speaking, Afghanistan has never benefited from being a window for global politics – neither during the time of the Great Game in the 19th century nor during the 1979-1989 Soviet occupation. And even today the country is still contending with foreign intervention. Its dilemma is that any quick withdrawal of western troops would only make the security situation immeasurably worse – which is also a lesson that has been drawn from the Soviet-Afghan war.