“A World Without Walls“:
An International Congress on "Soft Power", Cultural Diplomacy and Interdependence
(Berlin; November 6th - 9th, 2009)
Speech - Amb. Carlo Ungaro
(Former Italian Ambassador and Former adviser to the Italian contingent of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Herat, Afghanistan)
I donâ€™t know how many of the people present hereÂ have kept up with reading the wonderful stories of Sherlock Holmes. I would, in any case, like to remind you of the scene, in â€śA Study in Scarletâ€ť, in whichÂ Holmes and Watson meet for the first time. The story, of course, is told by Watson in the first person:
â€śDr. Watson, Mr. Sherlock Holmesâ€ť, said Stamford, introducing us.
â€śHow are you? â€¦..You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.â€ť
Even in those distant nineteenth century years, Afghanistan was very much in peopleâ€™s minds, especially in Britain and in the Empire.
A question may arise to the effect of what possible connection do the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, or, indeed,Â Afghanistan have with the event we are commemorating these days; and, while I assure you that this is the last you will hear of the Baker street duo, I would like toÂ state that there certainly are connections between the Afghan saga andÂ the fall of the Berlin wall.
Those of us who have reached a certain age can safely state to have lived through several momentous or historicalÂ moments, such as,Â for a prime example, the end of World War II.
Since then the terms â€śmomentousâ€ť and â€śhistoricâ€ť have slightly cheapened, thanks to the mass media, and I remember feeling a sense of shock when, in 1982, I kept hearing these adjectives applied to the Italian victory in the football World Cup. But quite apart from such specious examplesÂ (and they are in growing numbers, and not only in Italy) it has often been difficult to ascertain whether a specific event had a really â€śmomentous historicâ€ť value, or whether, important though it may have been, it was not instead merelyÂ a piece of a much more complex and moving picture.
It is, of course,Â true, thatÂ practically all events are â€śhistoricâ€ť, in the sense of being a part of the human story, and that even the most â€śmomentousâ€ť of these eventsÂ needs to be placedÂ Â within an historical framework, because history is never static but is an endlessly dynamic process.
Although these considerations certainly apply to the event which we are commemorating these days,Â none of us, at the time, hesitated to define it as â€śhistoricâ€ť, as, indeed, it turned out to be.
It is rather easier Â to analyse the event today than it was, perhapsÂ in theÂ more frenzied light ofÂ the then existing political spectrum. We realised already then, of course, that it was much more than a local occurrence and that its effect would be feltÂ for a long time and also far from Germany, but only the course of the yearsÂ gave us the possibility of seeing just how far reaching and how profound it would be and also how distant, in time and space, its causes lay and its effects would be felt.
In 1989 I was in Switzerland, as Minister Counsellor in our Bern Embassy, and had been absent from Central Asia for many years. IÂ had, of course, been following events in Afghanistan with interest, albeit somewhat detached becauseÂ all this seemed so far away, belonging, as it were, to a totally different reality. I had been particularly fascinated, early in the same year, by the image of the Soviet troops, with the late general LebedÂ at their head, crossing the Oxus into Soviet Uzbekistan, and thus leaving my beloved Afghanistan, where I had already spent over fourteen years of my life, Â to its own devices, but I certainly did not imagine then that this was actually a very epochal moment and that within a very short time theÂ Berlin wall would disappear, the Soviet Union would dissolve and that I would find myself again in Central Asia, this time, however, on the other side of the Oxus, in Uzbekistan.
The thought occurred to me then, Â and has been with me ever since, that there was a definite connectionÂ between the Soviet debacle in Afghanistan and the events that followed only a few months on, and I was amazed at the realisation that the â€śGreat Gameâ€ť had never ceased, even thoughÂ the players were different, and that this small, impoverishedÂ far-away land in the Hindu Kush seemed earmarked by destiny to play an important role in world events.
Afghanistan is a countryÂ which lends itself to anecdotes such as the one I heard in Herat about three years ago, which concerned a visit by a senior BritishÂ officer to the Elders in the HelmandÂ region. The purpose of the visit was to explain that British military activity in the area, directed against the Taleban insurgency, would take on a more intense dimension. At the end of the interview one of the Elders approached the officer and told him: â€ťMy grandfather knew your grandfather.â€ť What the Elder actually meant to say was that his ancestors had met the British many decades back and had beaten them and expelled them from Afghan territory. The messageÂ was interesting and important, for it not only illustrates the long and complex history of Afghanistanâ€™s relationship with foreign powers, but also indicates how closely most Afghans feel connected to their history, albeit with rather uncertainÂ grasp of chronology.
After some decades of obscurity as an all but forgotten backwater in Central Asia, Afghanistan has now returned to the forefront of the worldâ€™s attention. Â The period of relative obscurity which the County lived through, bye and large, from the beginning ofÂ the forty year reign of Zahir Shah (1932 - 1973) until the Soviet invasion of 1979 constituted an exceptional state of affairs, because, even before, and most certainly during the nineteenth century,Â Afghanistan had traditionally been a Land of conquest, violence and international intrigue, characterized by a strong resistance to all types of foreign occupation.
Afghanistanâ€™s present state as an unwilling protagonist in the scheme of world politics is the result of a series of events whichÂ followed, one upon the other, each of them triggering a series of far reaching consequences. First came the coup dâ€™Ă©tat which deposed the king in 1973, followed by the Soviet invasion, then the subsequent civil war and Taliban domination and, finally,Â the occupation by NATO led allies as an aftermath of the events of September 11th, 2001.
Although modern Afghanistan has itsÂ dynastic and political roots in the eighteenth century (Ahmad Shah Durrani, ruler from 1747 to 1772 is considered the Nationâ€™s founder), It can be stated â€“ even if it would be historicallyÂ debatable - that the Second Anglo-Afghan war and, in particular, the Treaty of Gandamak, (1879), was instrumental inÂ Afghanistanâ€™s emergence as a modern â€śnation-stateâ€ť within bordersÂ quite close to those existing today and as a recognisedÂ andÂ fully fledged member of the international community. Thus began a new chapter in Afghanistanâ€™s long and complicated history, and, In the ensuing years and decades,Â the principal powers opened Diplomatic missions (as Legations, not Embassies) and Afghanistan embarked upon a long career as a fiercely neutral independent state, enhancing its role as aÂ valuable buffer between empires.
The path, particularly in the first decades, was not easy. Amanullah, perhaps the first king of a truly independent Afghanistan (the Third Anglo-Afghan warÂ ended in 1921), probably inspired by the Turkish experience of Kemal Ataturk, tried to do too much, too soon in â€śmodernisingâ€ť his country, and was ultimately brought down, also, though not exclusively, Â because of his insistenceÂ on creatingÂ a railway, which the religious leaders â€“ possibly inspired by the Soviet Union â€“ considered a diabolical device. There followed a period of instability in which power was seized by a bandit chief â€“ â€śBatcha e Sackaoâ€ť or â€śthe Son of the Water Carrierâ€ť â€“ who was ultimately defeated and executedÂ by the followers of Nadir Shah, king Zahir Shahâ€™s father, who was in turn assassinated three years after being enthroned.
The reign of Zahir Shah, and the short-lived â€śRepublic of Afghanistan (1973 â€“ 1979) which followed the bloodless coupÂ with which Zahir was dethroned by his cousin Daoud and sent into exile, marked a period of relative stability andÂ some social and economic development evenÂ though, in the eyes of most Afghans, especially in the northern and western Provinces, the king was still viewed as â€śthe Emir of Kabulâ€ť. In this period the Afghans mastered the art of neutrality, and wereÂ thus able to resist strong pressures both during and after the Second World War, when theyÂ had toÂ balanceÂ the blandishments of the AxisÂ with the growing threats of retribution by the Allies (particularly Great Britain and the Soviet Union).
The apparent stability of those years, however, masked underlying tensions. The unresolved rivalry between tribes and ethnic groups, the uneven development of theÂ countryâ€™s economy and, perhaps most of all, the growingly overt hostility of the more conservative part of the clergy against the progressive, albeit slow, westernisation of Afghanistan, at least in theÂ larger urban areas, eventually led to the dramatic eventsÂ subsequent to 1989 which causedÂ violence, suffering and destruction bringing the country to the brink of being judged a â€śfailed stateâ€ť..
I have been privileged personally to witness some aspects of this evolution. During the years of World War II, although still a child, I was able to notice some of the interaction between Afghanistan and the Axis powers, with the strong additional interference of the Empire of Japan on the one hand, and of Great Britain and the Soviet Union on the other, and to appreciate theÂ intelligent and subtle means by which the AfghansÂ avoided being caught in any ideological trap. The memory of the Third Anglo-Afghan war was still very vivid, and some of the weaponry used then was still paraded on Independence day. This tended to make the Afghans rather sympathetic towards the Axis, and the feeling was reciprocated, both by the Italians and the Germans who actually sent scientific delegations to Afghanistan in search of â€śArianâ€ť roots. In spite of all this, the AfghansÂ kept to their neutrality and avoided any open show of favour for either of the conflicting sides.
A quarter of a century later, I was again in Afghanistan as a young diplomatic officer. The place was an apparent haven of tranquillity, but the delicate balance ofÂ power and influence among theÂ main international actorsÂ â€“ a remnant, as it were, of the â€śGreat Gameâ€ť, albeit with some new contenders â€“ hid an ominous build-up which, only a few years later,Â caused the Soviet invasion with all its grim consequences.
My third stint in Afghanistan, this time in the western city of Herat, took place recently, between 2005 and 2007, giving me further insight into the countryâ€™s very complex realities and inducing some pessimism concerning future developments. The problemÂ whichÂ receives the greatest and most immediate attention is, of course, the continuing insurgency, but there are other aspects which should not be neglected, such as the complex relationship with neighbouring states (particularly Pakistan) and the difficultiesÂ connected to all attempts to impose western style democracy on the country.
Until quite recently a general perception prevailed that theÂ Taliban phenomenon should be treated as a normal insurgency, led by a hard core fanatical organization bent on recapturingÂ political power Â through the use of terrorist tactics. This perception is, however, only partially true and, therefore, Â flawed. While it is, indeed, an undisputable fact that the Taliban, as such, are a relatively new element on the Afghan scene, a product of the foreign assisted resistance to the Soviet occupation of the eighties, the mentality, however is deeply entrenched in the social structure of the area informally known as â€śPashtunistanâ€ť, on both sides of the Afghan â€“ Pakistani border. In this sense, therefore, it transcends the generally acceptedÂ parameters of religious fundamentalism.
The issue of Pashtunistan, which has close and very relevant links to the Taliban, has existed since the early days of the Empireâ€™sÂ coming to terms with the impossibility of maintaining a military occupation in such a mutinous country. Hence the â€śDurand Lineâ€ť,Â which came into being in 1893, but which has never been accepted by an Afghan Government, and for very understandable reasons. I donâ€™t think that a reliable censusÂ has ever been undertaken in Afghanistan, and estimates vary as to theÂ real percentage ofÂ Pashtu versus other groups (mainly Tajik). However, with very few, short-lived exceptions the Country has been governed by Pashtu's, as, indeed both the Royal family and the current President come fromÂ Pashtu tribal areas. It would be impossible to imagine an Afghan ruler voluntarily accepting the separation of people belonging to his tribal group by an artificial political line, which has no bearing on the ethnic or cultural reality of the land.
I have taken the liberty to undertake this rapid and perhaps too superficial run-down of Afghanistanâ€™s recent history because I tend to believe that the early refusal to come to terms with Afghan historical reality, as well as obstacles encountered at a later stage, when these realities began being perceived, but acting on them had becomeÂ extremely difficult, have largely contributed to the lack of success of NATOâ€™s effort. In fact, I think that retarded responses have been one of the keys to understand the confusion whichÂ encompasses the military mission in Afghanistan as well as the apparent inability of the military alliance toÂ extricate itself from the Afghan quagmire.
The Afghans are a patient people: itÂ tookÂ almost ninety years for them to convince the British that any attempt permanently to occupy the country would be futile, and they also fought the Soviet invasion for almost a decade. NATO has been there, now, for eight years, and has yet to consolidate its presence, even in the capital city, Kabul, which, at times,Â appears totally occupied and blockaded, with checkpoints every few hundred meters and foreign military presence visible at every corner, but yet can be the theatre of frightfulÂ attacks on foreign troops and â€“ unfortunately â€“ afghan and foreign civilians.
AnyÂ attempt at analysis of the Afghan situation has to consider, among others, the following questions:
- was the military action in Afghanistan justified, and, if so, were there any other covert reasons to explain the initiative.
- Was there any good strategic reason for staying on with massive military presence after the expulsion of Al Qaida.
- Is there a valid strategic justification for NATOâ€™s continued presence.
- Was the idea behind military-civilian cooperation valid and did it bring tangible results.
- Can this war be â€śwonâ€ť and, in any case, what would we mean by â€świnningâ€ť.
- How can NATO leave Afghanistan without abandoning the country to renewed chaos and civil war.
Contrary to what happened some months later in the case of Iraq, the invasion of Afghanistan was greeted withÂ approval and understanding byÂ almost all the worldâ€™s Governments and also by public opinion. It will be remembered that even Iran actually offered and gave some cooperation in theÂ effort toÂ destroy the Al Qaida network which had found hospitality in Afghanistan, and it was perhaps a misreading of history and a bit of a blunder not to draw Teheran intoÂ the struggle, which, instead did involve, and keeps involving in growing measure, the other border State of Pakistan in whichÂ there existÂ considerable strata of public opinionÂ sympathetic to Islamic militancy.
Whether or not there were also covert reasons to encourage the United States and at least some of its NATO allies into extending the Afghan operation from a simple surgical strike against Al QaidaÂ into a â€śregime changeâ€ť venture is open to conjecture, and constitutes one of those subjects whichÂ very seldom seem to be approached by international commentators. In this, perhaps, my previous experience in Uzbekistan enabled me to seeÂ matters from a slightly different angle. Although our perception of the reality behind the origins of the Afghanistan action tends to beÂ distorted by the event that ostensibly was the basic cause of the military operations, it would be a mistake to ignore the fact that a â€śwestern orientedâ€ť Afghanistan would be of extremeÂ usefulness to the major western powersÂ because of the greater ease of access to the energy reserves in Central Asia. The passageÂ of a pipe-line through Iran, to the Gulf port of Bandar Abbas isÂ obviously more logical and economic, but deemed unsafe because ofÂ Iranâ€™s perceived Â lack of dependability, whereas, with â€śfriendlyâ€ť governments inÂ the Central Asian republics, in Afghanistan and in Pakistan, the same oil could be pumpedÂ through these countries to Karachi with fewerÂ political problems. This solution was already the subject of speculation in the pre-Taliban days, and is probably high on the agenda of many of the interested parties.
These considerations also shed new light on the alliesâ€™ insistence on staying on in Afghanistan and building upÂ military resources there long after the elimination of the Al Qaida centersÂ - the initial Â â€ścasus belliâ€ť â€“ had been achieved.
The question is therefore raised on the justification for NATOâ€™s continued presence in Afghanistan, andÂ here a number of aspects have to be taken into account, primarily, of course the rapidly deteriorating situation in neighboring Pakistan.
There are valid reasons, other than economic interests, whichÂ appear to justify the continued NATO presence in Afghanistan, but these should be formulated, perhaps in more realistic terms.
Firstly, of course, there is the suggestion that NATO presence in AfghanistanÂ Â has become an integral, if not a dominatingÂ part of theÂ worldâ€™s struggle against terrorism. As corollaries to this given motive there are extremely valid considerations on the restoration and preservation of basic human rights â€“ particularly for women â€“ as well as a more general concept of enabling Afghanistan to stand on its own with valid Government and Administrative structures and, of course, some hope for economic development. A separate,Â though closely connected and extremely important issue is, of course theÂ enormous production of opium poppies, with the product being exportedÂ in the entire world and also bringing wealth to theÂ main adversary, the Taliban.
There is no doubt that the Al Qaida headquarters, and some of its training facilities, were in Afghanistan, and that the Afghan Taliban-led Government's refusal to cooperate with their elimination justifiedÂ military activity which, it has to be said,Â was by and large successful. The question needs to be asked, however, if the current Taliban â€“ and not only Taliban â€“ insurgency in Afghanistan does actually pose an international security threat and is not, insteadÂ a natural, typically Afghan, reaction to the presence ofÂ foreign troops. The core of the Al Qaida inspiredÂ terrorist activity seems to have spread to Pakistan and, possibly, Somalia, and, in any case, Afghanistan, for a variety of reasons, seems ill-suited to becomeÂ an active, efficient Headquarters for an International terrorist conspiracy.
At this moment negotiations with the Insurgents would be conducted from a position of relative weakness, but do still remain an option. Some three years ago, when I was in Herat, I was actually approached by people connected to Mullah Omar, and there seemed to be a willingness to discuss some matters. At that time the Taliban were in a weaker position than now and it would perhapsÂ have been a more favorable moment. When I reported these contacts I came upon a firm veto, which was based on two contradictory, but very obtuse and dogmaticÂ dictates: firstly that â€śwe donâ€™t negotiate with terroristsâ€ť and, in second place, â€śthe Taliban are not interested in negotiationsâ€ť. I am sure that I was not the only person approached, and a greater flexibility would perhaps have been a better idea.
The recent electoral drama which has played itself out in Afghanistan, and which should reach its conclusion today, indicates clearly in how intricate a political â€“ and not only a military â€“ quagmire the Allies, with the best of intentions, have got entangled. Â It seems to me that quite apart from military or strategic considerations â€“ on which I certainly do not have any competence â€“ objective and perhaps totally novel thought has to be given toÂ certain political realities, and here, again, it would be essential toÂ Â undertake a radical revision of the International Communityâ€™s position.
The main pointÂ which should be addressed is whether the present Afghan Constitution really reflects the social and political needs of the Country. There isÂ an important historical fact to consider, namely that in the course of its long and tortured history, Afghanistan has very seldom been successfully andÂ efficiently administered by a strong central Government inÂ the capital.
The question should therefore be considered as to whether a centralized presidential republic is really the ideal system for that country or, indeed, if it could be made to work no matter how much effort is put into theÂ attempt. This is an extremely complexÂ problem which would involve careful analysis and much consultation with a credible cross-section of the Afghan population. It is myÂ idea, however, that by creating a number of more autonomous regions it would be possible to enhance the differences, which already exist, in the approach to some of theÂ non-military problems which seem to slipÂ further and further away at this particularly dramatic moment in the history of the NATO and InternationalÂ operations in Afghanistan.
This, among other things would entail two very delicate issues, the necessary reformulating of the Afghan Constitution and the renewed involvement of at least some of the so-called â€śwar lordsâ€ť.
The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is a long (162 articles) and complex document, which has beenÂ prepared with great care and approved by theÂ Afghan Parliament. ItÂ does not, however, fully take into account the Countryâ€™s peculiarities, nor does it seemÂ founded on the basis of local and tribal traditions. A radical change in the Constitution need not be a traumatic event, as long as all sidesÂ are allowed to participate, and as long as preconceived ideas are abandoned.
As far as the â€śwar-lordsâ€ť are concerned, it is important to distinguish â€“ in Afghanistan as, indeed in some other societies such as Somalia â€“ between those who have emergedÂ from theÂ violent civil war years and are little more than glorified gangsters, and those, instead, who obviously wield an authority greater thanÂ what can be imposed by fear of retribution, but which is based , instead, on family and tribal realities.
The questionÂ has also to be asked if NATO can and ought to be alone inÂ facing the Afghan problem, and whether further efforts should be undertaken to involve Russia, China andÂ Iran, all three certainly interested parties but also â€“ at least in the case of Russia and Iran â€“ reluctant to throw in their lot in the aid of NATO.
The fluidity of the current situation makes it almost impossible to come toÂ firm conclusions at this stage, but I feel that any attempt to come to a solution â€“ other than flight, which seems like aÂ growing option â€“ has to take all these elements intoÂ cool and careful consideration, also taking into account the few, but meaningful, positive aspects of the NATO venture.
In terms of Governance and human rights some progressÂ has certainly been made, but the question arisesÂ if such progress justifiesÂ a massive military presenceÂ with the consequent loss of life on both sides, or whether agreements could be reached to allowÂ civilian operations to continue even after the cessation of hostilities.
Â One aspect of NATOâ€™s presence in Afghanistan which is seldom touched upon, but which has its points of interest is the attempt at formalizing and improving the concept of Civilian-Military cooperation in issues of Development aid, and the few but meaningful achievements must not be lost.
I have purposely neglected to speak about the dramatic situation in Pakistan â€“ for that would deserve a separateÂ talk. There seems no need,Â however, to confirm that what is happening in Pakistan will have an immediate and heavy influence on events in Afghanistan, and that, perhaps, attention should shift from Kabul to Islamabad.
If there should be the time and sufficient interest, I would be very glad to speak on these subjects inÂ a discussion group, or in answer to any questions.