The Ambassadors REVIEW
Afghanistan: At the Crossroads
Michael P. Cohn
Researcher and Analyst, Glevum Associates
ocated on an ancient highway of trade and conquest, at the crossroads of
civilizations, Afghanistan, rugged and remote, has withstood many invasions
and undergone numerous internal changes over the centuries. Today it sits at
the crossroads of history. Physically, politically and culturally, it remains a perplexing mix
of modernity and the past.
Governed by its own rules and codes, deeply averse to order imposed either by an
outsider or a central authority from within, it has always been a uniquely unforgiving No-
Man’s-Land. The population, predominately rural, has always preferred an agrarian social
structure consisting of tribal codes and historical relationships underpinned by Islam to
modern forms of governance and administration. Urban centers maintain social, religious
and trade networks, but government authority rarely extends beyond the city gates.
Force is usually the main engine of power, but popular support is essential for the
long term. Such support demands culturally and religiously specific forms of justice and
security that are sometimes at odds with modern versions. Contemporary structures and
values all too often fall victim to perpetual infighting, religious and tribal reactionaryism,
and various forms of subversive involvement from regional actors. Today, the American-
led project in Afghanistan faces the same problems.
Afghanistan has suffered from instability and brutal conflict for three decades.
Most signs of modern development and infrastructure, so evident by the 1970s, have been
destroyed and left in ruins or at best half-started. No doubt modern sentiments and values
are present, especially in the urban areas, and connections to a larger regional and
worldwide community are fairly common. But this takes place in the midst of a cultural
landscape that originated a thousand years ago, and has changed little beyond the outskirts
of Kabul. One could say that thirty years of war has dragged this country back to an era
more akin to the medieval period; for most rural areas, perhaps a period it never really left.
Most Afghans cringe at the possibility of the Taliban retaking power in the country.
But the Taliban have been very effective at reasserting different forms of influence in the
rural areas of Afghanistan, hampering reconstruction efforts and deterring local co-
operation with the Afghan government and/or Western entities. Previously stable areas in
the west and north of the country are now becoming increasingly dangerous as the Taliban
presence grows. Support and good will for both the Afghan government and Western forces
have diminished and the Taliban have re-stepped into the vacuum. Supported by several
regional interests and displaying a vigorous, effective information campaign, they exert
increasing influence throughout the country by utilizing various modes of intimidation,