Our Echoes Come From You

First published in the New York Times, 24 March 2007.

Afghanistan is now both more and less than a nation. Dialects of its official language are spoken from Iran to India. Its greetings and rituals are recognizable in Chechnya. Kabuli woodwork incorporates motifs from Syria, the Mughal Empire and pre-Islamic Uzbekistan. On Tuesday, I heard a song from a mystical order, founded in Afghanistan, which was played by musicians from the borders of Nepal.

But Afghanistan is internally fragmented. It contains diverse Turkmen, Uzbek, Tajik and Baluch people, who dominate the neighboring ‘stans.’ The Pashtun majority was split with Pakistan in the 19th century. The recent civil war has eroded nationhood further.

Government policy must respond to this fragmented pluralism. The myriad social organizations, histories and experiences of isolated Afghan communities should be liberated, and the state should become less centralized. This is because Afghans do not want to be ruled by an overbearing, alien government, and the civil service does not have the capacity to govern effectively across the country.

Devolution, however, should be counterbalanced by a new idea of a nation. President Hamid Karzai has embraced ethnic diversity in his elaborate Uzbek robes and Pashtun prayer beads. He must rebuild Kabul as a national symbol. He needs a new unifying definition of Afghanistan to replace the old and still powerful myth of jihad against foreign occupation.

Afghanistan is defined by its organic relationship to wider Muslim Asia. It is a barren country that first flourished as a trading station, connecting Central Asia, Iran and Pakistan, taking silk to Rome and cotton to China. It is historically entrepreneurial, adept at exploiting foreign financial support and finding varied irregular incomes. It is now supported by the cash of four million recently returned refugees and many remittances. Afghan carpets, tiles and calligraphy are attractive to neighboring markets because they draw on a regional tradition. Afghanistan should benefit from the overland trade between its resource-rich or rapidly growing neighbors.

This trade can be developed by increasing the United States investment in building roads. A year ago, it took nearly a day to get from Kabul to Peshawar, Pakistan — which was the time it took in 1933. Now the journey can be done in half the time.

But Kabul airport, which could easily make money, is pathetic; imports are taxed 15 times as they move from the borders to the capital; exports are crippled by cumbersome regulations and transportation costs.

Karzai’s largest problem lies with his Muslim neighbors, Pakistan and Iran. He must use everything that Afghanistan shares with these countries: linguistically, historically, culturally and religiously to charm, outwit and influence them. He should do the same throughout the Islamic world. The Middle East has never been so wealthy or so generous. Yet Afghanistan has failed to win its financial support.

The United States must, like Karzai, approach Afghanistan consistently as part of a wider region. There are identical tribal and political groups on both sides of the Afghan- Pakistan border, separated only by colonial line. We emphasize democracy and human rights and pursue an aggressive counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan, but we support Pervez Musharraf, a military ruler, who takes a political, negotiated approach to the same groups in Pakistan. As a result of this schizophrenia, Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders base themselves in Pakistan and attack our interests from there.

Actions in one country spread quickly to neighbors. The invasion of Iraq disturbed Iran, then the election of a Shiite government emboldened it to finance other Shiite groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Concessions to India frighten Pakistan into financing the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Our response to the Taliban angers Muslims in Europe and Indonesia. Yet Afghanistan’s influence can also be positive. Shiite-Sunni violence has spread from Pakistan to Iraq. But the Murad Khane district in central Kabul, which contains five Shiite and Sunni ethnic groups, has, like the rest of Afghanistan, recently avoided sectarian violence.

This year is the 800th anniversary of the poet Rumi, who was born in Afghanistan, traveled through Central Asia, Persia and Arabia and died in Turkey, without being aware of leaving a single country. Tens of millions can recite his poetry. His line applies well to Afghanistan:

“Ma chu kuhim o sada dar ma ze tust.”

“We are mountains, our echoes are from you.”

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