"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 don’t know how many of the people present here  have kept up with reading the wonderful stories of Sherlock Holmes. I would, in any case, like to remind you of the scene, in “A Study in Scarlet”, in which  Holmes and Watson meet for the first time. The story, of course, is told by Watson in the first person:

“Dr. Watson, Mr. Sherlock Holmes”, said Stamford, introducing us.
“How are you? …..You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.”
Even in those distant nineteenth century years, Afghanistan was very much in people’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,  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 to  state that there certainly are connections between the Afghan saga and  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 historical  moments, such as,  for a prime example, the end of World War II.

Since then the terms “momentous” and “historic” 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 examples  (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 “momentous historic” value, or whether, important though it may have been, it was not instead merely  a piece of a much more complex and moving picture.

It is, of course,  true, that  practically all events are “historic”, in the sense of being a part of the human story, and that even the most “momentous” of these events  needs to be placed   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,  none of us, at the time, hesitated to define it as “historic”, as, indeed, it turned out to be.

It is rather easier  to analyse the event today than it was, perhaps  in the  more frenzied light of  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 felt  for a long time and also far from Germany, but only the course of the years  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. I  had, of course, been following events in Afghanistan with interest, albeit somewhat detached because  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 Lebed  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,  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 the  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,  and has been with me ever since, that there was a definite connection  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 “Great Game” had never ceased, even though  the players were different, and that this small, impoverished  far-away land in the Hindu Kush seemed earmarked by destiny to play an important role in world events.

Afghanistan is a country  which lends itself to anecdotes such as the one I heard in Herat about three years ago, which concerned a visit by a senior British  officer to the Elders in the Helmand  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: ”My grandfather knew your grandfather.” 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 message  was interesting and important, for it not only illustrates the long and complex history of Afghanistan’s relationship with foreign powers, but also indicates how closely most Afghans feel connected to their history, albeit with rather uncertain  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 world’s attention.  The period of relative obscurity which the County lived through, bye and large, from the beginning of  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,  Afghanistan had traditionally been a Land of conquest, violence and international intrigue, characterized by a strong resistance to all types of foreign occupation.

Afghanistan’s present state as an unwilling protagonist in the scheme of world politics is the result of a series of events which  followed, one upon the other, each of them triggering a series of far reaching consequences. First came the coup d’état which deposed the king in 1973, followed by the Soviet invasion, then the subsequent civil war and Taliban domination and, finally,  the occupation by NATO led allies as an aftermath of the events of September 11th, 2001.

Although modern Afghanistan has its  dynastic and political roots in the eighteenth century (Ahmad Shah Durrani, ruler from 1747 to 1772 is considered the Nation’s founder), It can be stated – even if it would be historically  debatable - that the Second Anglo-Afghan war and, in particular, the Treaty of Gandamak, (1879), was instrumental in  Afghanistan’s emergence as a modern “nation-state” within borders  quite close to those existing today and as a recognised  and  fully fledged member of the international community. Thus began a new chapter in Afghanistan’s long and complicated history, and, In the ensuing years and decades,  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 a  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 war  ended in 1921), probably inspired by the Turkish experience of Kemal Ataturk, tried to do too much, too soon in “modernising” his country, and was ultimately brought down, also, though not exclusively,  because of his insistence  on creating  a railway, which the religious leaders – possibly inspired by the Soviet Union – considered a diabolical device. There followed a period of instability in which power was seized by a bandit chief – “Batcha e Sackao” or “the Son of the Water Carrier” – who was ultimately defeated and executed  by the followers of Nadir Shah, king Zahir Shah’s father, who was in turn assassinated three years after being enthroned.

The reign of Zahir Shah, and the short-lived “Republic of Afghanistan (1973 – 1979) which followed the bloodless coup  with which Zahir was dethroned by his cousin Daoud and sent into exile, marked a period of relative stability and  some social and economic development even  though, in the eyes of most Afghans, especially in the northern and western Provinces, the king was still viewed as “the Emir of Kabul”. In this period the Afghans mastered the art of neutrality, and were  thus able to resist strong pressures both during and after the Second World War, when they  had to  balance  the blandishments of the Axis  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 the  country’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 the  larger urban areas, eventually led to the dramatic events  subsequent to 1989 which caused  violence, suffering and destruction bringing the country to the brink of being judged a “failed state”..

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 the  intelligent and subtle means by which the Afghans  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 “Arian” roots. In spite of all this, the Afghans  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 of  power and influence among the  main international actors  – a remnant, as it were, of the “Great Game”, albeit with some new contenders – hid an ominous build-up which, only a few years later,  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 country’s very complex realities and inducing some pessimism concerning future developments. The problem  which  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 difficulties  connected to all attempts to impose western style democracy on the country.

Until quite recently a general perception prevailed that the  Taliban phenomenon should be treated as a normal insurgency, led by a hard core fanatical organization bent on recapturing  political power  through the use of terrorist tactics. This perception is, however, only partially true and, therefore,  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 “Pashtunistan”, on both sides of the Afghan – Pakistani border. In this sense, therefore, it transcends the generally accepted  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 Empire’s  coming to terms with the impossibility of maintaining a military occupation in such a mutinous country. Hence the “Durand Line”,  which came into being in 1893, but which has never been accepted by an Afghan Government, and for very understandable reasons. I don’t think that a reliable census  has ever been undertaken in Afghanistan, and estimates vary as to the  real percentage of  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 from  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 Afghanistan’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 become  extremely difficult, have largely contributed to the lack of success of NATO’s effort. In fact, I think that retarded responses have been one of the keys to understand the confusion which  encompasses the military mission in Afghanistan as well as the apparent inability of the military alliance to  extricate itself from the Afghan quagmire.

The Afghans are a patient people: it  took  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,  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 frightful  attacks on foreign troops and – unfortunately – afghan and foreign civilians.

Any  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 NATO’s continued presence.
  • Was the idea behind military-civilian cooperation valid and did it bring tangible results.
  • Can this war be “won” and, in any case, what would we mean by “winning”.
  • 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 with  approval and understanding by  almost all the world’s Governments and also by public opinion. It will be remembered that even Iran actually offered and gave some cooperation in the  effort to  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 into  the struggle, which, instead did involve, and keeps involving in growing measure, the other border State of Pakistan in which  there exist  considerable strata of public opinion  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 Qaida  into a “regime change” venture is open to conjecture, and constitutes one of those subjects which  very seldom seem to be approached by international commentators. In this, perhaps, my previous experience in Uzbekistan enabled me to see  matters from a slightly different angle. Although our perception of the reality behind the origins of the Afghanistan action tends to be  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 “western oriented” Afghanistan would be of extreme  usefulness to the major western powers  because of the greater ease of access to the energy reserves in Central Asia. The passage  of a pipe-line through Iran, to the Gulf port of Bandar Abbas is  obviously more logical and economic, but deemed unsafe because of  Iran’s perceived  lack of dependability, whereas, with “friendly” governments in  the Central Asian republics, in Afghanistan and in Pakistan, the same oil could be pumped  through these countries to Karachi with fewer  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 allies’ insistence on staying on in Afghanistan and building up  military resources there long after the elimination of the Al Qaida centers  - the initial  “casus belli” – had been achieved.

The question is therefore raised on the justification for NATO’s continued presence in Afghanistan, and  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, which  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 Afghanistan   has become an integral, if not a dominating  part of the  world’s struggle against terrorism. As corollaries to this given motive there are extremely valid considerations on the restoration and preservation of basic human rights – particularly for women – 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,  though closely connected and extremely important issue is, of course the  enormous production of opium poppies, with the product being exported  in the entire world and also bringing wealth to the  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 justified  military activity which, it has to be said,  was by and large successful. The question needs to be asked, however, if the current Taliban – and not only Taliban – insurgency in Afghanistan does actually pose an international security threat and is not, instead  a natural, typically Afghan, reaction to the presence of  foreign troops. The core of the Al Qaida inspired  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 become  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 perhaps  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 dogmatic  dictates: firstly that “we don’t negotiate with terrorists” and, in second place, “the Taliban are not interested in negotiations”. 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 – and not only a military – quagmire the Allies, with the best of intentions, have got entangled.  It seems to me that quite apart from military or strategic considerations – on which I certainly do not have any competence – objective and perhaps totally novel thought has to be given to  certain political realities, and here, again, it would be essential to   undertake a radical revision of the International Community’s position.

The main point  which should be addressed is whether the present Afghan Constitution really reflects the social and political needs of the Country. There is  an important historical fact to consider, namely that in the course of its long and tortured history, Afghanistan has very seldom been successfully and  efficiently administered by a strong central Government in  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 the  attempt. This is an extremely complex  problem which would involve careful analysis and much consultation with a credible cross-section of the Afghan population. It is my  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 the  non-military problems which seem to slip  further and further away at this particularly dramatic moment in the history of the NATO and International  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 “war lords”.

The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is a long (162 articles) and complex document, which has been  prepared with great care and approved by the  Afghan Parliament. It  does not, however, fully take into account the Country’s peculiarities, nor does it seem  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 sides  are allowed to participate, and as long as preconceived ideas are abandoned.

As far as the “war-lords” are concerned, it is important to distinguish – in Afghanistan as, indeed in some other societies such as Somalia – between those who have emerged  from the  violent civil war years and are little more than glorified gangsters, and those, instead, who obviously wield an authority greater than  what can be imposed by fear of retribution, but which is based , instead, on family and tribal realities.

The question  has also to be asked if NATO can and ought to be alone in  facing the Afghan problem, and whether further efforts should be undertaken to involve Russia, China and  Iran, all three certainly interested parties but also – at least in the case of Russia and Iran – reluctant to throw in their lot in the aid of NATO.

The fluidity of the current situation makes it almost impossible to come to  firm conclusions at this stage, but I feel that any attempt to come to a solution – other than flight, which seems like a  growing option – has to take all these elements into  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 progress  has certainly been made, but the question arises  if such progress justifies  a massive military presence  with the consequent loss of life on both sides, or whether agreements could be reached to allow  civilian operations to continue even after the cessation of hostilities.

 One aspect of NATO’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 – for that would deserve a separate  talk. There seems no need,  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 in  a discussion group, or in answer to any questions.