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Amin Saikal, Modern Afghanisation: A History of Struggle and Survival (I.B. Taurus, London & New York, updated & revised ed., 2012)

Launch by Gareth Evans, ANU, 20 September 2012

A few days ago, the Harvard international relations scholar, Stephen Walt, posted a well-worth-reading blog entitled ‘Top Ten Things that Future International Policy Wonks Should Learn’. Not surprisingly for my generation – though I’m not so sure about the current one, with heads full of post-modernist discourse theory and the like – the first item on his list was ‘History’: introduced by the comment that ‘trying to understand international affairs without knowing history is like trying to cook without knowing the difference between flour and flounder’.

The force of that observation has really been brought home to me reading this new and updated edition of Amin Saikal’s classic work on Modern Afghanistan. Most readers will, as I was, be tempted to go straight to the last few chapters, dealing with the period of Taliban rule, the U.S. intervention, the Karzai era and what might lie beyond. But that would be a mistake. The richness of this book lies in the way it sets the scene for these recent years, in the first two-thirds of its length, by describing with great thoroughness and lucidity the main currents, since its foundation two and a half centuries ago, that have made the modern Afghan state what it is - and, not to be too unkind, have made it the mess it is.

Apart from referring, as most writers about Afghanistan do, to the geo-strategic location of Afghanistan at the crossroads of three important regions – Central, South and West Asia – and the mosaic nature of the Afghan society, made up of numerous micro-societies, with each of them having extensive cross-border ties with Afghanistan’s neighbours, Amin identifies as crucial three other key variables that have traditionally characterized Afghanistan and have made the process of state building extremely difficult throughout the whole course of its modern history.

The first is Royal polygamic-based rivalries, which plunged Afghanistan into a state of perpetual turmoil for most of the 19th century and opened the way from the late 1970s for the current conflict that has gripped the country. Interestingly he sees very close parallels with the court rivalries of yesteryear in the present ‘Karzai cartel’ dominated by close relatives of the president.

The second is foreign intervention, undoubtedly driven by Afghanistan’s pivotal strategic location in the heart of Central Asia, which has repeatedly exacerbated domestic fragility and in turn facilitated further foreign interference – but in each case, because of the play of the other variables, has not enabled the foreign power in question, be it Britain, the Soviet Union  or now the U.S., to direct Afghansitan in accordance with its geopolitical preferences.

And the third is susceptibility to ideologies justifying the dominance of successive groups of  rulers, ranging from  absolute monarchy, to pseudo-democracry to Marxism-Leninism to Islamic neo-fundamentalism. I was struck in this respect by Amin’s observation, in the context of the turmoil over post-Soviet leadership in the mid 1990s that ‘no Afghan government had ever come to power on a popular base of legitimacy, and…the question of what has historically constituted a legitimate government was a highly academic one’.

Understanding the past as always prelude to the present makes that much more explicable the events of the last ten years: the gradual ebbing away away of all the post 2001 hopes and expectations that this time – with extremist forces dissolved, massive foreign aid support and a real international commitment to creating a workable, stable and responsive system of government – Afghanistan would at last get it right.

Amin’s analysis of the five main factors that have together derailed the new Afghan project is very compelling (and certainly totally consistent, for what this is worth, with the ground-analysis of my own International Crisis Group, which I led for most of this period and which has produced multiple detailed reports on the things that have gone wrong, which unhappily way outnumber the things that have gone right).

First, there has been the inability to accommodate the mosaic nature of Afghan society, not least because of simplistic perceptions by Western policymakers. One of the biggest mistakes was to opt for a presidential, highly centralised, unitary system of government, rather than a parliamentary one, and a distribution of power that would allow microsocieties to have a degree of real autonomy in the exercise of their local affairs. The parliamentary issue is one on which I have long held strong views –  so on the principle that an agreeable person is someone that one agrees with you – I find Amin Saikal a very agreeable analyst indeed.

Second, desperately poor governance – not helped by poorly crafted institutional structures, but made much worse  by President Karzai’s indifference to the constraints of the constitution, democratic processes, electoral law, abundant evidence of corruption, and on top of all that, as Amin encapsulates it, his engagement in ‘political deception, duplicity, patronage, co-optation and erratic behaviour.’

Third, the flawed US and NATO military and reconstruction policy, beginning with inadequate forces initially to properly secure and stabilise the whole country, erratic lurches in strategy, and an approach to capacity-building in the Afghan National Army which looks successful only by comparison with the even more undisciplined and inadequate police force. We are horribly now aware in Australia, with the recent killing of three soldiers by an Afghani soldier they were training – in an environment where one in every six coalition forces deaths is the result of ‘green on blue’ attacks – of just how undisciplined the national army is, and what a slender reed it is for the country’s security future.

On the reconstruction side, there have been, as Amin documents, lamentable shortfalls in the delivery of promised infrastructure aid, and misallocation of much that has been delivered. In the reporting of the International Crisis Group we have over and again found ourselves identifying Afghanistan as an example of what not do to in post-conflict peacebuilding. There has been, among other things, desperately poor coordination among all the international players (between military and military, civilian and civilian, and military and civilian) and as between them and the Afghan government; and hopelessly inadequate delivery when it has come to rule of law and justice issues, and economic governance and anti-corruption measures.

Fourth, there has been Afghanistan’s transformation into a narco-state, with – again, as with the military response ­– erratic lurches in strategy, from compensated eradication, to interdiction to ‘resolute’ eradication, disagreement between the UK (as the lead nation on counter-narcotics), the U.S. and the Afghan government producing a disjointed and largely ineffective suppression effort.

Finally, there has Pakistan’s double game, contributing to the resilience of the Taliban and their associates. It’s been said that whereas most states have an army, in Pakistan the army has a state ­ – and there can be no question that, as Amin documents, the enthusiasm of the Pakistan military for having its own supporters and proxies in power over the years has been a major destabilising factor.

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar comes in for a lot of attention in Amin’s book in this respect, reminding me of my own encounter with him in Canberra when I was foreign minister at a time he was enjoying some favourable attention as a Western as well as Pakistani ally: with the possible exception of a couple of my interlocutors from the Khmer Rouge during the Cambodian peace process, there is no one I have ever met who struck me as more comprehensively evil – perhaps not surprising when one discovers that he began life throwing acid at unveiled women on the Kabul campus and his career went downhill from there…

Amin compellingly describes the confusion the West has got itself into over the question now of finding, in an overall situation that seems to be edging unhappily closer to disintegration as the 2014 exit date looms, some way of healing divisions through some kind of negotiated share in governance of the Taliban: as he puts it, ‘on the one hand the USA and Karzai [have] favoured reconciliation with the Taliban, but on the other they [have] remained focused on fighting and killing as many of them as possible’.

After nearly 11 years of the US-led intervention – in a conflict which, as Amin points out, has  gone on longer than the Second World War, the Vietnam War, the Iraq War and the Soviet occupation of the country – Afghanistan is supposedly now on a path from 'transition' to 'transformation'. The US and its allies are due to hand over the command of all security operations to the Afghan forces in less than a year's time and pull out most of their troops from the country by the end of 2014.

To ensure the success of this strategy and make the Afghans feel that they will not be left in the lurch, at last July's international donors' conference on Afghanistan in Tokyo, the international community, led by the United States, pledged $16 billion in civilian aid to the war-torn country over the next 4 years. The Tokyo pledge followed a promise of $4.1 billion of annual security assistance at the May Chicago meeting on Afghanistan over a similar period and beyond. The Tokyo conference also set up a monitoring mechanism, with an uncompromising call on the Afghan government to tackle the issues of poor governance, endemic corruption, and human rights violations – something that President Hamid Karzai promised once again to fulfil.

It is difficult, unhappily, to believe that any of this will produce a brighter future for the Afghan people.  Overall, it is hard to disagree with Amin’s  conclusion that, as this book went to press a few months ago, ‘Once again, the future of Afghanistan remained shrouded in uncertainty, unpredictability and volatility’.

The first edition of this book was described by The Wall Street Journal as one of the ‘Five Best’ books ever written on Afghanistan, and I’m sure that this revised and updated version will, in a crowded field, maintain and maybe even improve upon that status.

Amin Saikal is one of the ANU finest scholars, with a strong and thoroughly deserved international reputation based on his many books – including that on the rise and fall of Iran’s Shah, which remains an acknowledged classic – and numerous  articles in scholarly journals, as well as innumerable contributions to international and Australian debate in policy-focused opinion articles.

One of the enduring mysteries of academic life for those, like me, with a strong real-world policy orientation, and a hunger for sophisticated policy-relevant analysis, is how little anything seems to count in the competitive research metrics apart from contributions to peer-reviewed journals, the contents of the  great majority of which are not read or cited by anyone other than other academics. I’m not sure that Amin has been given the credit he deserves for an output, particularly in his books like this one, which overwhelmingly meets the highest standards of formal scholarship, but at the same time is read by policymakers and influences the policy debate.

Amin’s writing is of course not the only string to his bow, as the head of this highly internationally-regarded Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, which teaches a formidably broad range of subjects and, unusually for many comparable centres, pays it way because of the number, quality and level of the students it attracts.

We are proud to have Amin Saikal and his Centre as indispensable parts of the ANU  community, and the publication of this splendid book can only add lustre to the reputations of them both. I am delighted to declare it duly launched.