Journal Archive > 2002 > January

© Mark Morelli

The world can learn much from Afghan history

On September 11, the world was shocked by the terrorist attacks in Washington, D.C., and New York City. Thousands of innocent lives were lost, each one dear. The terrorists targeted civilians and public property in the name of Islam, but the terrorists proved that they do not belong to any religion or nationality. Islam preaches tolerance, brotherhood and peaceful coexistence. The Taliban's treatment of women, perversion of Afghan culture and human rights violations are some of the reasons why the outside world should realize that the Taliban is breaching the very principles of Islam.

Although it is good to see the world united in wiping out terrorism, so far, the military actions are not addressing the root causes of terrorism. The air strikes, which are supposed to be aimed at military personnel and installations, have produced civilian casualties. An already-bleak humanitarian situation is being made worse as the relief activities are severely hampered due to the military actions. According to the World Food Program, eight million people need food aid, and half of them are on the verge of starvation as winter approaches. The daily struggle of ordinary Afghans, as a consequence of protracted war, concerns finding their next meal, and they hardly know of cities called New York or Washington.

Meanwhile, there is not yet a viable alternative to replace the Taliban. A vacuum of power in absence of the Taliban forces will plunge the country into another wave of anarchy and war-lordism. The international community supports the armed opposition forces that have been fighting against the Taliban. These forces are widely divided, do not represent Afghan masses and lack public support. Simply being against the Taliban does not make them good. Their own record of human rights abuses, torture, rape and murder of innocent Afghans is well known. Human rights organizations already have warned about the possibility of bringing to power those anti-Taliban commanders who committed massacres in Kabul and surrounding areas from 1992 to 1996.

History has shown that money and military aid are not the solutions to our problems. Billions of dollars through the years have been poured into Afghanistan, and the international community still has difficulty dealing with its intended and unintended consequences. During the Cold War, Afghan freedom fighters were considered heroes who challenged the entire communist bloc and received enormous political and military support. The world stood behind Afghans in their struggle to drive back the Soviets. The support was not limited to funds, arms and advance warfare. A significant number of volunteers from across the world—the vast majority from Islamic countries—were deployed to train Afghans how to fight in the war against the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union was finally pushed back and sent home as the communist empire was on the verge of collapse. The Cold War ended, and the long-time enemy was miserably defeated. It was, of course, at a heavy price: Millions of Afghan lives and total destruction of social, economic and governance infrastructures. The war produced 400,000 disabled and hundreds of thousands of widows and orphans. Up to 15 million landmines were planted, almost one for each Afghan.

The war-time friends suddenly turned their backs, leaving Afghanistan at the mercy of hostile regional powers, 15 different warring Afghan factions, thousands of militants from all over the world, drug traffickers, landmines and a culture of war and war-lordism. Afghans did attempt to work for the return of peace and normalcy and to heal the wounds of protracted violence. Unfortunately, the country received negligible help with its reconstruction and political resettlement. The militant groups took over the governments one after another, turning the country into a haven for lawlessness, oppression, ethnic cleansing and the use of religion to suppress minorities and women. The Afghan people were taken hostage by militants and were subject to miseries of all kinds in a silent but torturously long tragedy, particularly in the aftermath of a decade-long Soviet invasion.

There is now a chance to learn from history and adopt a course of action that will solve the world as well as Afghans' dilemmas. Instead of unilateral use of force with repercussions for civilians, the international community should use the United Nations to help empower civilian Afghans to make decisions, get rid of terrorists hiding in Afghanistan and embark on an overdue and belated reconstruction process. The commitment of leaders from the United States, European Union and Japan in funding a large-scale reconstruction and repatriation program in a post-Taliban scenario would be a glimmer of hope for Afghans who want to see their country transformed into a normal state. As it stands now, Afghans are afraid that after helping to fight yet another superpower war, they will be left alone to deal with its consequences.

The unfortunate September 11 events finally awakened the military and political strategists that those responsible for torturing innocent civilians in Afghanistan can disrupt the lives of ordinary people in the United States. If the warnings signaled by various international organizations, pro-peace public figures in Afghanistan and the sufferings of the Afghan people had been taken seriously, the recent incidents may have been avoided. Perhaps we have forgotten that the human community is like a single body—pain in one part discomforts other parts. Sa'adi Shirazi, a 13th-century Persian poet, reminds us:

All human beings are in truth akin;
All in creation share one origin.
When fate allots a member pangs and pains;
No ease for other members then remains.
If, unperturbed, another's grief canst scan;
Thou are not worthy of the name of man.

Humayun Hamidzada, a former United Nations Development Program official in Afghanistan, is pursuing an M.A. in humanitarian assistance through the Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.