Sitting on the Buddha's Head
It was almost a right of passage. When we visited the lush, green, timeless Bamyian Valley, it was expected that we would sit on the head of the Great Buddha. We were the bright eyed, sincerely idealistic American Peace Corps Volunteers of the nineteen sixties and seventies experiencing and contributing to the calmest, most peaceful era in the history of Afghanistan. Today, what remains of the Great Buddha lies in a pile of debris at the base of the mountain that sheltered it for more than fourteen centuries. The rubble that was the Buddha could be a metaphor for the ruined Afghan homeland a victim of the legacy of extremism once disregarded as the West ignored Afghanistan's plea for help. Afghanistan was the first victim of the extremism that now preoccupies international policy.
How could we have known? This special time, our time, this period of cultural evolution when the Afghan nation and its' people were slowly making educational, technological and humanitarian progress even as they were looking westward with expectant hope and understandable fear, poised to join the community of nations as a peaceful partner, was just the calm before the storm?
Linkage with the West never took place. On July 17, 1973 many of us heard and saw the Russian Migs as they flew low over Share e Nau, bombing the Palace and helping Mohammad Daoud Khan implement his republican Coup d'état.Mohammad Zahir Shah, King of Afghanistan, was ousted in an almost bloodless Coup, ending more than two hundred years of Afghan Monarchy. But the die had been cast and the unrelenting wheels of history continued to turn. Five years later the final members of our Peace Corps contingent witnessed the Afghan Communist putsch known as the Saur Revolution displace the Republic with a Communist regime. The SaurPul e Ayraton (the Friendship Bridge) over the Oxus River marking the first time in history that territory acquired by Soviet expansionism was returned to local control. Then, on Christmas Day 1991, a little more than one and a half years after their catalytic defeat by the Mujahedin in Afghanistan and virtually a dozen years to the day after their ill fated invasion of Afghanistan, the nations that comprised the Soviet Union voluntarily ended their affiliation and the Soviet Union ceased to exist, Revolution was a gory counterpoint to the almost flawlessly executed and virtually nonviolent establishment of Daoud's Republic. The Communist Coup, was extremely unpopular with the Islamic authorities in Afghanistan, and faced a rural insurgency almost from the start. The faltering revolution was closely and nervously monitored by protectors and advocates from the North. The clarity of historical hindsight concludes that to some degree, these Afghan events had been a trap of international intrigue set up by Zbigniew Brzezinski and the policy of the Carter Administration. Then, on Christmas Eve 1979, the trump card of the International Great Game was played, and the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, the trap was entered, however reluctantly, by the Soviet Union and in so doing, Soviet Russia sealed its' own fate. Following almost a decade of conflict, with massive US and Saudi financial and military support of the Afghan Mujahedin, Russia's Vietnam came to an end on February 15, 1989 when Boris Gromov walked across the
What Can America & The West Learn?
Since then the people of Afghanistan have endured more than a generation of civil war, social struggle and the travesty of the infamous Taliban. So, what can Western policy makers learn if Afghanistan is viewed in an historical context? Perhaps we should soberly review historical lessons learned by the Persians the Greeks, Arabs, Mongols and Moguls, British and Russians over more than a score of centuries. All invaded but none could hold Afghanistan. What policy changes should the US implement tactically and strategically? Which positive policies should be retained, which policies should be modified and which should be discarded? I returned to Afghanistan in 2003 and in 2006 and saw an interesting trend. Early on after the US invasion there was great hope that the lives of the average Afghan man and woman would change for the better. Upon my second visit it was clear that despite a significant increase in new construction projects, dramatic post war infrastructure improvement and an exciting return to the classroom for Afghan children, especially girls who returned to school in prodigious numbers, the national psyche was depressed. Despite massive influx of capital the personal perception in Kabul and throughout the provinces was that security had declined, corruption had increased and the average person was now in greater danger from insurgents and no better off financially.
So, what should we do?
I will next post some follow up conclusions and policy suggestions based on my perspective as a former resident of Afghanistan. We, Returned Peace Corps Volunteers who served in Afghanistan, should have a special voice in the Afghan dialogue. There is no other community in America, with the exception of the members of the Afghan Diaspora, who have experienced Afghanistan e Sharif with the same reverence, respect, care, concern and love as we have. Perhaps ending with the passionate verses of the Mujahid from the unpublished song Ariana is the appropriate conclusion for today.
"There is no choice for the honest man,
There's no duplicity to Liberty.
Where Honor's more than illusion,
Passion burns in a Soul that's free.
Ariana you're mine,
The Lord gave you only to me.
And, it's my right
To fight and strive
To make you free."
Next, why do Americans owe Afghanistan a moral debt? And, why we must stay in Afghanistan.