Afghanistan: Strategies for the Future

1. Introduction Today many analysts, both inside and outside Afghanistan are saying that success in Afghanistan is not achieved by military alone. I believe that the military option is extremely important and there is no success without the military. But here tonight I am going to talk about what defines this 'non-military' part for me, as someone who has been living there for the past 6.5 years and who is committed to success in Afghanistan.

As far as I can tell not much has been written about defining the strategy itself.

My own vision is for Afghanistan to be a legitimate, self-ruling, independent country with a modern democratic state that is stable, peaceful, and developing, without the degree of vulnerability that it has today. I think this vulnerability today has reached a critical level and is at the core of the many problems that plague Afghanistan - - both for the Afghans and the world.

Afghanistan in 1893How can we reduce this vulnerability and get to this modern democratic state? Obviously, there are many things that need to be done (and I have talked at length about some of them in my writings). Here I am concentrating on three areas that in my view most affect this vision and need to be addressed: the international dimension, the governance dimension and the ideology dimension.

2. International/Regional Dimension

Public recognition of the Durand Line through internationally-backed negotiations. Afghanistan has recognized the Durand Line in a de facto manner and the two countries have had embassies for a long time. But now there is a good opening to extend the de facto to the de jure recognition. In August of this past year there was the Peace Jirga in Kabul. There, President Musharraf laid down Pakistan's conditions. To my knowledge this is the first time that Pakistan has publicly proposed a solution: Afghanistan to recognize the territorial integrity of Pakistan and give Pakistan permanent secure land access to reach Central Asia, and in return Pakistan will give Afghanistan permanent secure land access to the Gawadar Port. I think this is a good opportunity for a negotiated settlement of the Durand Line. Afghanistan now should develop its own terms and the two sides should have a conference and settle the issue. Of course, the first point from Afghanistan must be that in return for this recognition, Pakistan will cease to aid the Taliban and Al Qaeda groups and will not allow these groups to come into Afghanistan from its own territory. To do this Afghanistan will certainly need its international friends to help her develop the points and actively participate in the conference, something the international community has thus far shied away from. A negotiated recognition will help alleviate some of the fears that exist in the tribal areas of both countries. But it will also remove once and for all the most basic and deepest excuse for the continuation of hostilities and for the mistrust that now exists between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pakistan will then have to rethink its strategic depth policy as it can no longer play the card of the Pashtuns on the two sides of the border as being the same tribes but rather as being citizens of two different countries.

I must add that in the last six years there have been several public debates on this point inside Afghanistan and the desire to resolve the problem has been very clear.

The second point in the international arena is Iran that also has a very long border with Afghanistan. During the entire period of conflict in Afghanistan, Iran's door to our international friends has been closed. Iran as another option to get to Afghanistan has been non-existent. This has made the world's Afghanistan policies a hostage to the only door open, namely Pakistan. Resuming better relations, in whatever form, with Iran will really help us in Afghanistan on many levels.

3. Governance Dimension

Today, the moral authority of democracy does not exist in Afghanistan. Let me illustrate by touching on four points. First, we must insist on correct democratic relationships within the state. Currently, relations between the executive, legislative, judiciary and the citizenry are at an impasse. We have emphasized mostly the executive at the expense of the other three. For example, I was appalled that the recent report by the Afghanistan Study Group, which has many good assessments and recommendations, did not address the Parliament at all. If we want to improve the rule of law, which is the backbone of good governance, we must give as much importance to the legislative and judiciary as has been given to the executive.

Then too Afghan governance, especially in the executive branch, has developed so many horizontal and vertical organizations that it is hard to know what the government is. Ministers, minister councilors, presidential advisors, ministry consultants, committees, commissions, zsars, super administrations, tribal councils, development councils, women's councils, elders' councils, ulema councils, state and non-state actors, are proliferating, all at the expense of teaching Afghans what a democratic state apparatus is all about. The responsibilities of the state, the accountability of the state and the obligations of citizens are all diluted in this manner and confusion reigns. To remedy this, we must change the constitution to institute the office of the prime minister and better define the provincial administrations while at the same time reducing these other extraneous bodies to a manageable size and clear delineation.

Many analysts are also pointing to a lack of capacity. In one respect, this is absolutely not true. Currently, we do have thousands of Afghans who are either experienced or educated or both, but who are without a job because of some perceived political consideration. This includes many intellectuals and bureaucrats as well as many many Mujaheddin who are not only versed in how to fight the Taliban and Al Qaeda but also know every inch of the country. Bringing these political discards back into the fold of the establishment, to my mind, is a big step in ameliorating the situation.

But perhaps the strategy that has made governance most vulnerable and has backfired is the ethnic strategy. Today the spirit of the Bonn Agreement that required inclusion of all Afghans in Afghanistan is totally shattered. It is replaced by promoting governance by one ethnic group, i.e. the Pashtun ethnic group. Some say this was from the beginning at the behest of Pakistan. Several books written about post 9/11 Afghanistan talk about this. It started in the guise of bashing and marginalizing and excluding the Mujaheddin, and has now reached into a painful and divisive ethnic situation. However, this has actually made the Afghan Pashtuns more vulnerable and put them under tremendous pressure; many of them feel very defensive; and many of them do not feel it is a right strategy to make Afghanistan the land of the Pashtuns alone. This situation has resulted in the creation of so many groups, even among the Pashtuns, that reaching consensus on any issue is becoming extremely difficult.

Afghanistan is no longer the country of 40 years ago. Today each ethnic group is fully politicized, fully experienced in struggle and fully willing and able to contribute. Each feels entitled to the equality that democracy requires. On a daily basis, these ethnic groups talk, write and voice their unhappiness about the situation.

Let me emphasize that nobody in Afghanistan thinks that the Pashtuns are not entitled; on the contrary, everyone thinks that the Afghan Pashtuns are legitimate citizens. But most think that the other ethnic and social groups are also entitled, can also offer benefits, and that Afghanistan is the homeland of all of them. This unfortunate strategy has led many Afghans to think that the new international friendships are a modern rerun of nineteenth century colonialism and at the very least another way of implementing in Afghanistan what Pakistan failed to do with the Taliban. They feel cornered by their international friends. It is this unspoken, divisive situation that is fueling corruption, discontent and distrust, and it is creating unwillingness in Afghans to cooperate with the state.

On this point also the Afghanistan Study Group remains silent perhaps because it still continues as an underlying strategy. In my view we must rethink this strategy and really insist that the Afghan state and the international friends actually walk the talk of democracy - - and yes, it does mean we renegotiate with Pakistan. But, if we go forward with the Durand Line negotiations that I mentioned earlier, this strategy then becomes moot. So, before investing too much more on this that will eventually push us into a corner, we must realize that in the current realities of Afghanistan no one ethnic group can perform all that is necessary. Creation of a democratic and durable Afghanistan is the responsibility of all Afghans. We must proceed to develop new ways of truly including all Afghan ethnic and social groups equally and holding all of them responsible for Afghanistan.

Otherwise, another Kenya may not be so far fetched. (For example, as a starter, we must change the national anthem to include other languages as well. The current anthem that is all in Pashto signals the wrong intentions. Or, in the provinces, assign their own natives as governors. I mean really, what catastrophe, what calamity would befall Afghanistan or the world if the national anthem is in several languages or if the governors are natives of their own provinces?).

4. Ideology Dimension

On the ideology front, I think the vulnerability lies in not understanding and not giving social legitimacy to modernity. All the talk is about the deep traditions, the cultures and the way of life of Afghans and how to leave a light footprint. Most people talk about modernization equating it to Westernization. This view of modernization as Westernization carries with it a loss of indigenous identity, a move from what is known and familiar, and an imposition of others' ideas. However, the sociological reality is that modern traditions, social change and multiple ways of life are all unavoidable and legitimate characteristics of any human society - - including the Afghan society, and there is nothing foreign or untoward about it.

The Afghan state and friends of Afghanistan have to find ways to incorporate this idea in all our dealings in Afghanistan. Modernity i.e., updating your own way of life and values and traditions in order to respond properly to the requirements and conditions of time and place must become a motto. Otherwise, the concepts of Westernization, traditions, culture, tribalism will all continue to be abused by all sides to create impasse and endgame.

Many Afghans have complained to me that their interlocutors have preconceived notions of them and so they cannot express themselves in modern' ways. Their interlocutors do not believe them to be capable of such ideas. And so, they feel too boxed in and only rise to the level of their interlocutors' expectations. We must empower Afghans to take ownership of their modernity; indeed we must demand it.

Finally, in fighting the extremist ideology we must give social legitimacy to women. The Taliban and Al Qaeda's treatment of women as property is at the core of the extremist ideology for social control. We must counter it by treating women as equal citizens active in the life of society with dignity. I am disheartened by the silence that pervades the issue of women since the adoption of the Constitution of 2004 - - both by the state and by the international friends. It is as if these decision makers want to appease the Taliban, want actually to show the Taliban that they - the decision makers - are accommodating extremism. As if the Taliban ideology has been effective in creating fear among these decision makers. As if women, half of Afghanistan, have already been bartered – of course, so blatantly, to no avail.

I hold the opposite view, the more we show that society is comfortable with and benefiting from women's presence and the more we show that the role of women in society is ethical and legitimate, the weaker the extremist ideology will become - - and the weaker its actions and moral messages. I know politics is still patriarchal but on this, make no mistake about it; this is most certainly the axis to durable success in Afghanistan.

5. Conclusion

I do believe that we must develop a new paradigm of dealing with countries. The old concept of divide and rule, or the newer one of confuse and conquer no longer create results that promote correct and enduring success. We must develop relationships that deal with peoples and cultures and countries on an equal footing and with the same standards of caring and dignity. (For example, we must find a solution to the question of how we should approach if all groups in a country are on our side.)

We must also not be afraid to promote and acknowledge our own belief in modernity and democracy, and not fall back to the lazier concept of Westernization. In Afghanistan, with all these course corrections, the road will still be long and hard and painful. But at the end of the day we will have lowered the vulnerability and helped achieve a more peaceful and viable Afghanistan - - for my beloved Afghan people and for the cherished humanity at large. The time to start is now.

Nasrine Gross is an Afghan American writer and women's rights activist who lives in Afghanistan. She can be reached at

For more of her writings visit

The above article was presented on February 6, 2008 at a conference organized by the American University of Paris entitled 'Afghanistan: Strategies for the Future'.