Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Taliban ought to remind us that history is reversible

The following was first published in The National on 22 October 2009.

At the end of every year Time magazine names its person of the year. The publication gives the award to “the person or persons who most affected the news and our lives, for good or ill, and embodied what was important about the year”.

The award, with some notable exceptions, is a fairly accurate reflection of what was the most important story of the past year. The obvious choice this year is Barack Obama, but the US president would probably prefer not to receive it – he appears to have had enough trouble dealing with a Nobel Prize. Should the editors at Time decide to spare Mr Obama the headache, there is another, more suitable alternative.

December 2009 will mark the end of the first decade of the 21st century, and it seems appropriate for the magazine to mark the occasion by naming a man of the decade. There is precedent for this. In 1999 the magazine named a man of the century, Albert Einstein. But it should have been Adolf Hitler for demonstrating the awful potential of the most important political force of the modern age: nationalism.

Time chose science rather than politics as the defining characteristic of the century. But politics, man’s relationship with other men, more accurately reflects the state of mankind, not his achievements. And nationalism has changed the face of those relationships. Its rise marked the end of the age of empires. No longer is the world controlled by a relatively small group of global behemoths: empires controlling vast swathes of territory encompassing multiple groups of people of various identities. Scientific advances such as the computer, the aeroplane and the mobile phone may have made the world appear smaller, but in many ways it is a much bigger, much more daunting place in which to live.

The postcolonial, post-Cold War world is a far more cluttered place. In many corners of the globe, countries are being divided into smaller pieces and national identity is being more narrowly defined. The process has been often bloody.

There are of course important counter-examples, the United States being the most prominent. China and India also stand out as two populous and diverse but prosperous nation-states, as does what is left of post-Soviet Russia. However, in these countries stability and security are at times strained by violent internal strife, but they are held together by the strength of their respective governments. But, in countries with weak or new governments there is a potential for disaffected groups of people to coalesce into a political force and threaten the existence of a state with violence. Nowhere is this better seen than in the conflict that has taken up the better part of this decade: the war in Afghanistan.

Much of the world is beginning to show signs of recovery after the geopolitical balance of power was upset by the fall of the Soviet Union and before that the end of the imperial age of the 19th and early 20th centuries. New countries are emerging to fill the power vacuum left by the end of the Cold War. But Afghanistan was left out of this process. Or, more appropriately, it regressed.

The insurgency in Iraq ended when people grew tired of vying for control of the nation’s future through violence. They turned to politics instead to settle their grievances. But where the Iraqis had the advantage of a recent memory of a modern state and the collective identity it provides, the majority of Afghans have no experience of modern governance. In fact, more than half of the country is estimated to be under the age of 14 and thus, they have known nothing but near constant conflict. Instead tribal and ethnic identity have supplanted all other forms of identity.

They are certainly not unique in this regard. In many parts of the globe tribal ties and ethnicity are important or, at times, the defining aspects of a state. But the situation in Afghanistan stands out since there has been no modern form of government in the country since the 1970s, and then it dallied with it only briefly.

Afghanistan today is almost a window into the distant past, a Hobbesian world of pre-modernity where life is “nasty, brutish, and short” and a man’s right to another man’s property and life are defined by his ability to take them. And no man better embodies the recent history of Afghanistan than Mullah Omar, the father of the Taliban. He arrived on the scene in the midst of the Afghan civil war, a period of violence where life was literally nasty, brutish, and short, and imposed civic order through the strength of arms. The Taliban are an undeniably abhorrent organisation whose world views are incompatible with modern notions of human rights. But they and their ideological leader Mullah Omar also serve as a warning.

Several centuries of global development have been missed or lost by Afghanistan. In the absence of effective forms of governance and a lack of social and economic development, Afghanistan went backward, quickly. And its decline has had a severe impact on regional and international security. The poisonous effect that the Taliban have had on Pashtun tribal politics has focused and inflamed their nationalist sentiments, which now threatens the stability of Pakistan. Now Pakistan – as Afghanistan became before – is a safe haven for transnational terrorist groups.

But Afghanistan is only the world’s most extreme example. Despite the progress that most of the rest of the world made in the last century and the promise of even more in this one, there remain regions of the globe where our history is their present. And unless these areas are carried into the modern age, history’s bloody heritage has ways of catching up to us.

In support of Hitler’s nomination for man of the century, Elie Wiesel wrote that because of the German leader, “man is defined by what makes him inhuman”. He showed us the horrific potential of man’s hatred.

But Mullah Omar has shown us that man does not really change, and that the relative progress mankind has made in building peaceable civil societies is not irreversible. There is always is a Dark Age lurking somewhere around the corner.