New Internationalist

Afghanistan

Issue 156

new internationalist
issue 156 | February 1986

COUNTRY PROFILE

Afghanistan

Map of Afghanistan

Leader: President Babrak Karmal

Economy: GNP per capita US$175
Monetary unit: Afghani
Main export: natural gas

People: 14.3 million (about a quarter are now estimated to be in Pakistan and Iran)

Health: Infant mortality: 200 per 1,000 live births.
Percentage of population with access to safe water 20 (urban), 3(rural).

Culture: Ethnic groups: Pushtuns (Pathans) major tribe. Smaller tribes are Uzbeks, Tadzhiks, Nuristanis
Languages: Pashtu and Dari (off shoot of Persian) Religion: 99% Muslim (mainly of Sunni sect)

Sources: South 120, Europa Yearbook 1985, Asia & Pacific Review 1985, State of the World's Children 1985.

HAD the Soviet Union paid more careful attention to history, it might have thought twice about occupying Afghanistan. Over the years, waves of invaders have unsuccessfully tried to tame the unruly and fiercely independent Afghani people, themselves divided by mountains, tribal loyalties and language.

The snaking road through the Khyber Pass is littered with crumbling British forts, symbols of one of the more recent attempts to control the area. Persians, Greeks, Huns, Turks and Mongols have all occupied Afghanistan in the past. Its strategic location as the 'crossroads of Asia' made it a desirable catch.

Yet the cosmopolitan influences of the old silk route to China and the caravan route to India scarcely touched the strongly traditional tribes people. Nor did Buddhism and Hinduism, although both were influential at different times. It was Islam that finally took root.

Islam's discipline and unifying nature is in stark contrast to the warlike inclinations of Afghanis. Tribal shoot-outs, using the oddest assortment of ancient rifles and invasion. Later, over cups of steaming black chai (tea), the survivors would conduct a post mortem on the battle and its casualties.

Buzkashi, a ferocious horseback sport played by the Uzbeks in the north, epitomises the Afghanis' pugnacious and independent spirit. Space and freedom are what the people are used to. Eighty per cent live in the countryside and many are nomads. They haven't been affected by what little modernisation has taken place this century. Mainly pastoralists, they cultivate only about 12 per cent of their arid and mountainous country to grow wheat, fruit and vegetables.

Today, Afghanistan serves as a handy propaganda weapon for the US to bludgeon the Soviets with. But its relationship with the Russians goes back a long way: for instance it was the first nation to recognise the fledgling Bolshevik government. Gradually the Soviet Union became Afghanistan's major trading partner and foreign aid supplier. And it was the Russians, with the British, who drew the artificial boundaries of modern Afghanistan along the 1893 Durand Line, after both sides had failed to quell the Afghans with arms.

Watching over the grubby city of Kabul, the old royal palace of Bala Hissar has seen some colourful history: coups, assassinations and betrayals within ruling circles. No matter what the style of government - monarchy, republic or post-1978 communist dictatorship - there has been little stability or consensus.

Ideological blueprints, whether of right or left, which ignore the nation's scarred history and cultural idiosyncrasies seem doomed to failure. The unquenchable Afghans, for whom killing is a pastime, are unlikely to settle comfortably into communism. The Karmal regime and its Soviet mainstay are learning that lesson now.

Mike Rose


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Low monetary income; barter system

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Wholly reliant on USSR

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Formal liberty belies Islamic traditionalism

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Soviet-backed dictatorship

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Men 26%, Women 6% - lowest in Asia

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Repressive occupying force

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At 37 years,
Asia's lowest

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