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Paradise Forgotten

Apr 20, 2012 Written by  Whitney Grespin, Contributor

SAM 2047The beauty and prosperity that Afghanistan knew in the mid 20th century has been forgotten, but may be not yet lost.

Many would suggest that the Afghan people have lost much of their collective identity in the last 30 years, but there is a man – and a Ministry – devoted to ensuring this does not happen. Deputy Minister of Information and Culture for the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan Omar Sultan has dedicated his position to remembering, reminding, and re-teaching Afghans about what their country was before three decades of war, and inspiring those he works with by exploring what it can become again.

Following Soviet invasion, Taliban rule, civil wars, and the longstanding presence of international forces, many Afghans have forgotten – or simply never learned – what it meant to be an Afghan. Beyond the obvious dividers of a tribal-based society, like geography and language, Afghanistan also faces the challenge of overcoming a discrepancy in generational identity. The last two generations have known little but conflict and insecurity, whereas older generations remember an Afghanistan that allowed mini-skirts in universities and hippie caravans hitchhiking the Silk Road.

The lack of a cohesive Afghan identity is a missing piece in the puzzle of putting Afghanistan back together. As Deputy Minister Sultan has said, “Using culture to unite is a slow process but a concrete way. If we’re going to make an Afghanistan that stands on its own feet, it’s going to be through culture.”

Although the nation-state of Afghanistan only came into being following the withdrawal of British colonial oversight in 1919, archaeological excavations indicate that the towering mountains and lush valleys of the region have been inhabited for over 5,000 years. The forces of Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan ravaged the country, and Greek, Hindu, and Buddhist societies bloomed and wilted before the arrival of Islam. The new cultures absorbed the old, and the monuments faded into the landscape as naturally as any tree or river. Much of what survived the test of time was intentionally destroyed by the iconoclastic Taliban, who deliberately eliminated their nation’s last physical links to its rich cultural past.

“Who are we?”

In the great scheme of things, the human side of this war has been largely overshadowed by political rhetoric. There is a human element to this story that goes beyond oft-told stories of soldiers taking up arms. That element is the civilians who have had to carry on through wars that they often wanted nothing to do with. There are clearly enough fighters to keep the conflict going, but overwhelmingly Afghanistan is a country of people just trying to live their lives.

The erasure of an entire generation’s identity was perhaps best characterized by Azar Nafisi in her work, Reading Lolita in Tehran. In this book about forced identity transformation she reflected on the younger generation: “These students were different from my generation in one fundamental aspect. My generation complained of a loss, the void in our lives that was created when our past was stolen from us, making us exiles in our own country. Yet we had a past to compare with the present; we had memories and images of what had been taken away … This generation had no past.” This loss of identity might be recoverable with a generational separation of one degree, but what of subsequent generations with no institutional memory of living in peacetime?

The last thirty five years have seen the Afghan people pitted against one another in myriad ways; Afghan/Soviet, government /Taliban, western/anti-western. These choices were often made under duress, and as the society moves forward to redefine itself there is new freedom for the citizenry. Afghans should have the right to disagree with their neighbors, but those decisions should be within the universal framework of doing so as citizens of Afghanistan with a clear collective identity. A democratic dialogue cannot be achieved if the people don’t think that they are working to achieve the same end goal – the opportunity for their children and grandchildren to pass along a better life to the next generation.

The Good Stuff

As an Afghan friend once said, “What happens in the media is they just show war. Afghanistan is not only death.” Deputy Minister Sultan echoed that sentiment, “There is a history that Afghans are proud of. The Afghans would like to share their history with all the world.” And they have begun to.

Through multilateral efforts, Afghan treasures like the Bactrian Gold have begun traveling internationally. Although tragic in their popularity, some of the most sought-after antiques on the market (many of which were illegally obtained and illegally traded) came from the Kabul Museum and other archaeological sites. As leading Afghanologist Nancy Dupree has remarked, her book A Guide to the National Museum has come to be used as a shopping list for those in the international art black market.

Afghanistan is home to millennia of rich archaeological sites, diverse places of worship for multiple religions, generations of pottery artisans, and Afghan textile traditions that have been highly valued since trade began along the Silk Road. Perhaps most notably, Afghanistan’s Bamyan valley was home to the tallest standing Buddhas in the world, until the Taliban destroyed them using tank guns and other munitions in 2001. Only three years ago the unique Band-e-Amir lake system was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site and became the country’s first national park. Scores, if not hundreds, of caravan shelters still line old trade routes in various states of reuse or disrepair, and that is not to speak of the monuments and mosques, both grand and humble, scattered across the countryside. These attributes are complemented by rich centuries-old literary and musical traditions.

Ways and Means

The Ministry of Information and Culture is practicing what it preaches in an effort to revive subscription to a common national identity. A number of prestigious positions within the ministry are held by women, and the ministry is actively promoting higher education by securing scholarships for employees and aspiring students. Within the state museums, they are beginning to see field trips by elementary school children, and university students are taking greater interest in studying their cultural heritage.

Strategically, the Ministry has articulated that youth programming is a targeted initiative. The government understands that the Afghan states needs buy-in from youth to have a peaceful future and avoid a violent one. It’s also understood that in many ways they are competing with extremist networks to provide membership to a larger society and access to future opportunities – all the more reason to champion the common past of the Afghan people.

Their efforts acknowledge that some of the most important places to reach – those with the lowest educational levels, least outside exposure, and highest risk of radicalization – are also the most difficult to communicate with. The Ministry endeavors to provide radio programming in all languages spoken throughout Afghanistan, not only the dominant Dari and Pashto tongues, in order to encourage citizen buy-in to the common inheritance of the Afghan people. Furthermore, public campaigns run by the government have focused on TV and visual campaigns instead of print in an effort to reach the large population segments that are illiterate or underserved by print media.

The diversity of the people of Afghanistan is seen by some as the biggest innate threat to the state of Afghanistan – a country carved out by arbitrary colonial territory horse-trading – but there are commonalities that need to be emphasized and advertised, which the Ministry is striving to do. As one Afghan general lamented to me, “In the past a husband and wife from Iran, from Europe, could walk together from village to village.” Much of the older generation mourns the loss of their past way of life and the freedom they had to do simple things like take their kids picnicking in the Panjshir Valley or on weekend holidays to Bamyan or Band-e-Amir. If those opportunities existed before the wars, they have the potential to exist again.

Following the international community’s drawdown in 2014, Afghanistan will still be an underdeveloped country struggling to recover from four decades of conflict that destroyed institutions and infrastructure. Now that the narrative of being the oppressed, the occupied, the disenfranchised is being worn away as civil society rebuilds itself and the international community readies to withdraw, the Afghan people more than ever need to pull together to rediscover their national character.

The insurgency that is being waged is a people’s war, and there cannot be an insurgency without the complicity of the people. Whoever wins the hearts, minds, and support of the people will win the war, and that buy-in to a wider society can be steered by a common identity. If the west truly wants a viable Afghan state that will continue to exist as a single nation in the years to come, then we should be doing more to support initiatives such as those promoted by the Ministry of Information and Culture.

Whitney Grespin has worked in contingency contracting and international development on four continents. She currently specializes in intelligence sector reform and capacity building.

This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier's March/April edition.

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