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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 22

Valuable Addition to Literature on Past and Present Afghanistan

Friday 23 May 2008, by Amna Mirza



State Building in Afghanistan: Linkages with International Politics by Uma Shankar; Academic Excellence Publishers; 2008.

To understand the significance that Afghanistan commands in international politics, here comes a compilation by Dr Uma Shankar. The book spans considerable period, beginning with the conceptualisation of state building, tracing the genealogical trajectory of the Afghan state from the Durrani monarchy to Mohammadzai, the fall of the Daoud republic, the Soviet intervention, the US policy, the Taliban regime and the present state of affairs. This colossal task is made easy by his knowledge of the area from the days of working on his doctoral thesis.

There are pertinent issues highlighted as to how ‘state failure’ is a matter of concern , and in the case of Afghanistan, the state building exercise runs into the problematique with absence of resources, domestic impulses juxtaposed with foreign interventions.

A narration of the genealogy of Afghanistan comes up in Chapter 2 where the author points to the demographic composition, the relation of collapse of the Durrani empire with the assassination of Ahmad Shah Abdali, the ascendancy of the Barakzais. He narrates well the Arthur Connolly idea of the great game between Russian and Pax-Britannica ambitions, where Afghanistan became a pawn in their quest for territorial annexation. An interesting account of the role of tribal chiefs comes up in the description of Barakzais reign, and how the Amanullah regime imposed reform bypassing the grassroots. This makes up for a detailed account about the historical foundation upon which the state was based.

How the Afghan state became a play-thing under the whims and fancies of its leaders, like Nadir Shah’s carrot and stick policy, Mohammad Daoud’s reign leading to greater tilt towards the Soviets, the sudden ‘top down’ transition from constitutional monarchy to a republic is elaborately described in Chapter 3.

The following chapters are crucial and merit attention with regard to the interplay of foreign powers in Afghanistan owing to its geographical proximity with the Soviet Union and tensions simmering between the two superpowers in the Cold War era. The geographical location of Afghanistan, within the interplay of power politics, made it easy prey to the superpowers’ game-plans. With the ascendancy of Hafizullah Amin, Kabul tilted towards non-alignment which acquired traditional Islamic overtones during the Karmal regime.

HOW the roots of Islamic jehad came up in Afghanistan is elaborately dealt with in the context the triangular axis of the Reagan Administration, its proximity to Pakistan, and the Soviet desire to further its strategic interests to save the PDPA Government which was the anti-thesis of the United States’ interests in the Persian Gulf.

With the end of the Cold War, international politics was assumed to become the unilateral hegemonic domain of the United States. Afghanistan had to ironically bear the brunt due to the bullying ‘big-brother’ attitude of the US, which funded the mujhahideen to counter the Soviet forces. The prospects of untapped energy resources in the Central Asian region made the scenario grim further. This had significant ramifications for India, with the presence of NATO forces in Afghanistan working to the advantage of Pakistan and adding to the thorny relations between India and its neighbours.

The entire nation was revamped as the ‘Franken- stein’ of the United States—the Al-Qaeda—worked for the destruction of its creator by its infamous 9/11 attacks. And the daunting task of drafting the Constitution in the post-Taliban days was a serious challenge in Afghanistan in the historic Loya Jirga 2002.

However, there are missing links in the book. The author points to the lack of fiscal resources in state building but overlooks the issue of rampant corruption of the civilian Karzai administration, while the mounting insurgency of the past few years speaks volumes about the hollow nature of state building in Afghanistan. With many youth planning to leave the country, and people being more afraid of sending their children to schools than being robbed or killed (see reports of Elizabeth Rubin, New York Times magazine) there are severe doubts about the credibility of Afghan resurgence. There is no mention of the failure of US foreign policy from ‘prevention to pre-emption’ as to how seven years in Afghanistan have heightened the stakes of the Bush Administration.

The author refers to the improvement of security conditions as the pre-requisite to reconstruction but this vision is narrow. Security has a wider ambit transcending the traditional realms of defence and troops. How the state would overcome corruption, ecological imbalances, demographic differences, unemployment have been left unaddressed.

While dealing with the failed state issue, there is a glaring lacuna—no analysis of nationalism in Afghanistan. Laws and the Constitution do not exist in vacuum; it is the people’s sanction by their democratic rule and participation that lends them strength and vitality. The issue of civilian causalities and the additional burden on NATO troops, the geo-strategic motives of aid-donors, India’ s imperatives to help the neighbour vis-à-vis its relations with this the United States are vital subjects that have been glossed over.

To sum up, this is a valuable addition to the existing literature on Afghanistan’s past and present from the standpoint of international politics. However, the glaring editorial and spelling errors could have been dispensed with.

The reviewer is doing her M.Phil in Political Science at the University of Delhi.

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