the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2001 November 11


I remember well the promise of the latest African renaissance, just a few years ago. It had begun with the miraculous storm of liberalism that transformed the world in 1989. This left the continent’s most prosperous economy in the hands of the African National Congress, instantly reversing the apartheid regime’s policy of undermining black governments in the region, and eventually, it seemed certain, would lead to further liberalization in the region, but led, this time, from within, by black democracies asserting their own human desire for freedom and justice. Later, two rebel movements based in the Tigre cultural region united to overthrow Mengistu Haile Mariam in Ethiopia. The groups then did something extraordinary: the new power in Ethiopia as a whole conceded the independence of Eritrea, peacefully. Later still, when a brutal regime in Rwanda organized a horrendous massacre of hundreds of thousands, it was an African force that brought the massacre to a halt. That force, the new government, allied with Uganda and Burundi, and supported the insurrection of Laurent Kabila in Zaire, in a long-overdue effort to end the rule of Mobutu Sese Seko.

That was an astounding event. The forces led by Kabila swept over the continent in a short period of time, routed the Mobutists, and took Kinshasa. I personally rejoiced at the fall of Mobutu. And while none of the states in this new alliance was democratic, there seemed hope in the history and rhetoric of their governments. But Kabila abandoned his promise of elections, became an autocrat, and imposed harsh control over the country. And that has led Rwanda and Uganda, still led by dictators, to aid those seeking to overthrow him and, after his assassination, his son Joseph. And Rwanda and Uganda are at each other’s throats as well. And Ethiopia and Eritrea, both still ruled by their revolutionary autocrats, have fought a senseless territorial war that neither could afford. So in practice, little has changed.

That is why today’s news of the fall of Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan is no comfort. I was sorry when it fell to the Taliban, a few years ago, given that that meant extension of the Taliban’s control. Strangely, the war I expected at the time between the Taliban and Iran, ten of whose diplomats were killed by the Taliban after taking Mazar, did not materialize. But, actual or expected, that war would have been too much the story in Afghanistan, and in the world. Mazar has fallen back to the Northern Alliance. So much the worse for the Taliban; and it is probably a good thing, and probably more in line with what the locals in Mazar want, as their ethnic kin are now in control. But the commander who has returned to his old headquarters in Mazar-e-Sharif is no hero. Abdel Rashid Dostum, probably the most influential leader in the Alliance after the assassination of Ahmed Shah Massoud on September 9, has all the integrity of a Laurent Kabila. If he takes Kabul, there will be no democracy, no liberalization, no justice, for the people of Afghanistan.

To speak of the people of Afghanistan is to fall into a trap, though. There is no Afghan nationality. The US concept of nationality is seriously warped, and, I am genuinely convinced, a product of simplemindedness, beginning with an inability to distinguish, linguistically, between a nation and a state. The “states” in the US were originally just that, independent political entities with sovereign control over a territory and a population. But now they are merely provinces, administrative subdivisions of the real sovereign entity, the US. And yet they are still called ‘states’, which leads the US to term other states in the world ‘nations’, blurring the previous meaning of culturally self-identified populations. And, of course, the existence of the US as a nation, as a culturally self-identified population, was a result of that population’s political segregation. We were British, originally; after achieving sovereignty, we began to think of ourselves as a people distinct from the British, and the extent of that people was perfectly defined by the political control of the new US government. In fact, it was some time before we started to think of ourselves as a single nation, rather than as nationals of Virginia, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and the like.

The European states were closer to nation-states, though each, to be sure, had its conquered and subjugated nations living on the metropolitan homeland, and each ultimately had its empires abroad. As they extended their control, they rewrote the geography of nations and states in America, Africa, Asia, and Oceania, and for that reason as well it is difficult for US nationals to understand the nationality that obtains in the rest of the world. States in the formerly-colonized lands generally have many component nations, and many of the world’s nations are divided among numerous states. The Kurds are a nation, Kurdistan their homeland, and as most know, the Kurds have never controlled much of Kurdistan. Most of it, at present, is controlled by Arabs, Turks, and Iranis, and brutally so. But George Bush the father did not want an independent Kurdistan, because that would have meant fragmenting the Iraqi “nation”. Rubbish, but well-entrenched rubbish.

George Bush the son is a plain old cold warrior, and like his father is pursuing geopolitics without a real understanding of, or at least concern for, human aspirations in the rest of the world. He does not want to see Afghanistan fragmented. He has certainly never heard the word ‘Pashtunestan’, and probably not ‘Hazarajat’ or ‘Baluchistan’. He thinks he knows where Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are. But if he allowed the individuals living in “Afghanistan” to order themselves as they chose, he would see it divided among Pashtunestan, Hazarajat, Baluchistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, to name just a few. Instead, he wants to see the whole thing ruled from Kabul by an intertribal council headed by a king, of all things.

George W’s cold-war credentials go beyond uneducated support for the post-colonial order. He is also following a policy of realpolitisch support for friendly dictatorships. Start with Pakistan. Pervez Musharraf is a military dictator who overthrew an elected premier, Nawaz Sharif. His motive for doing this was simple: Nawaz fired him. It is true that Nawaz was corrupt, but so is Pervez, albeit in a different way. And yet Bush has just lifted the last of the sanctions against Pervez’s government.

Take, then, Uzbekistan. Autocrat Islom Karimov is not the most disturbing ruler in Turkestan ― that would be Turkmenistan’s self-proclaimed “Turkmenbashi” Saparmyrad Niyazov. But Karimov is a close second. And now he is our closest friend, seemingly. He is playing the right side of the field. When this war is over, we will leave him a note: “Thanks for the air base; it was most helpful. Feel free to oppress the Uzbeks for another twenty years.” And I honestly don’t believe George Bush gives a damn about that.

And so the military success of Abdel Rashid Dostum means to me only that we may be closer to the end of the war. I want the Taliban to be ousted, certainly, but I don’t have false hopes for the future. Dostum is holding back from taking Kabul at the moment, but that is probably more prudent than benevolent. Perhaps he could conquer Kabul; but he could only govern by terror, and while I think he is not above that, it would be a tenuous governance, and at the first opportunity the locals would tear him apart. And even if the residents of Mazar-e-Sharif admire him, he is unlikely to do them justice either.

The resolution of this current conflict will amount to only one thing. There will be a new order in Afghanistan. Even if there is democracy, there will not be liberalism, but more likely the sort of traditionalist, theocratic statism that dominates the rest of the world, including the US. Our fellow stewards in central Asia will have a better idea of whom they must oppose to achieve something like liberalism, a better idea of who is oppressing them and how they must resist. And they will have to make the time to do that among all of their other tasks, ordinary needs like farming, cooking, and caring for the sick, but also rebuilding their homes, removing landmines and cluster bombs, and educating a generation of neglected girls. And perhaps one day in the future a woman who knew what it was like to live under constant war and constant theocratic oppression will speak a message of liberation and hope and find herself heard and heeded. But that day is not in sight at the moment.


Original version


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