Recovering the Frontier State

In one of the last scenes of Charlie Wilson’s War, the film based on George Crile’s book about how one US politician rustled up enough resources for Afghan fighters to vanquish the occupying Soviet forces in the 80s, we find the Democrat Texas Congressman Wilson sitting in a room with a few other fellow Congressmen.

Wilson is asking these men holding Washington’s pursestrings for a measly $ 1 million “for school reconstruction” in post-war Afghanistan. The reply is frank. “I was in the Roosevelt Room with the President last week,” says the man next to Wilson. “You know what he said?” “He said, ‘Afghanistan? Is that still going on?’”

The jibe is well-founded. The Soviets have lost. Afghanistan is no longer facing the spectre of communism. So why should America bother to pump money into Afghanistan? Wilson points out that half the population is under the age of 14 and that these youngsters are “going to come home and find that their families are dead, their villages have been napalmed”.

“And we helped to kill the guys who did it,” interjects the other guy.

“They don’t know that, Bob. They don’t get home delivery of The New York Times.”

With the hindsight of 9/11 and its aftermath, of course, Charlie Wilson’s demands sound bang on. But were the signs of a country going under, being sucked into a vacuum and that vacuum filled by fanatical religious fundamentalist forces, who in turn raged against the outside world — former ally America, in particular — always there? Political scientist Rasul Bakhsh Rais certainly thinks so. In his book, Recovering the Frontier State, he joins the dots to make a convincing case.

At the core of Rais’s thesis is the fact that the Taliban, which resurfaced in 2003 from the debris of Aghanistan thanks to the US being busy in a digression called Iraq, is not only a crazy bunch driven by religious zeal. As Rais points out, “…the ethnic undertones of the movement cannot be dismissed as irreverent to the analysis of its social support base”.

The author takes the still-unfolding story back in time and details the ethnic and tribal tectonic rifts and shifts that have taken place for most of Afghanistan’s history. In fact, ‘outside wars’ have only spurred ethnic imbalances even further, to the point of not allowing the notion of the Afghan Nation-State to form outside the perimeter fence of Kabul.

The national unity, peace and stability that the ‘Pashtun Taliban’ had promised — and certainly brought in good measure but with drastic consquences for many Afghans, especially women — after the Soviet withdrawal were contested by the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras. In the political-tribal bloodletting that followed, the baby of an Afghan Nation-State was thrown out with the bathwater of warlord politics. The chapter ‘Rise of the Taliban and Civil War’, goes into this aspect as well as portends to the tribal calling — as seen in Pakistan’s Swat Valley coming officially under the sway of the ‘Pashtun Taliban’ last week — eclipsing anything remotely resembling a national identity.

Rais goes over some well-established facts about the conditions that allowed Pashtun and Pashtun Taliban hegemony. Readers of Rashid Ahmed’s ‘standard text’ on the Taliban and his book, Descent Into Chaos, will find little new here about the black-turbaned religious militia and their growing influences in Pakistan’s Balochistan and NWFP areas (where they not only have their fellow ethnic groups but also their former teachers, colleagues, financiers and peers).

But where this book goes well beyond the trodden path is its extensive study of, ‘Ethnicity, Political Power, and Fragmentation’. That tells a longer, more worrying story of Afghanistan. It also tells us much about those 14 year olds that Charlie Wilson was worried about.

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