Letter from Kabul – Part 1 of 2
This is part one of a two-part guest post by Paul Smith, Director of the British Council in Kabul, Afghanistan. Thank you to Paul for taking the time to share insights from such a remarkable position and place. The image below is one taken from the Kabul Museum
I suppose if there’s a British cultural attache in Afghanistan, well, as Director of the British Council here in Kabul, that proud position is probably mine. But, despite a lifelong commitment to the efficacy of international cultural relations, even I wouldn’t care to bandy the cultural attache title around with too much brio. The guffaws of disbelief would be inevitable. Culture? Arts to cheer up a warzone? Some dilettante offering to an Afghanistan craving baseline development in every sector and suffering at the depths of every poverty, health and education indicator list? Most reactions would bellow that there’s no space for cultural entertainment and fripperies in this environment of hard-graft nation building. So, focus on the things that matter and get real about the things that so obviously don’t. Don’t insult a traumatised people with your laughably peripheral agendas.
With the British Council I’ve spent 27 years trying to stimulate cultural collaboration in societies as different as Kano and Rangoon, Mumbai and Berlin, Cairo and Dhaka. But I’ll confess that promoting the cultural agenda in Afghanistan, a terrain of continuous high alert security, hostility and mortality, certainly does focus the mind and force the issue of relevance. Even as I’m writing this aesthetic piece of punditry, I’m sitting at a rickety table in the desert dust of a UK military basecamp in Helmand, with helicopters hovering above and UK troops psyching themselves up for their next mission over a fag and a plastic cup of tea. At moments like this, I’m inclined to keep my latest Afghan contemporary dance strategy out of sight in my back pocket. This context unquestionably prioritises the issues and strips out the irrelevancies. If cultural attaches can advocate and activate the relevance and validity of cultural engagement and cultural relations here, they could surely do this anywhere.
9/11 –as too often now – was the iconic date. Amongst the many things that changed was that culture moved from the feelgood outer nimbus of international relations to find itself at the core. Culture became the primary determinant of global interaction, with politics virtually a subset to this. Even the writing of history textbooks began to change. Previously the chapter on culture appeared as a final obligatory afterthought and followed the heavy duty chapters on politics, constitution, economics and commerce. Now arts and culture became an organic part of the narrative, rather than an add-on. Culture entered the biology of geopolitics.
At the turn of the millennium, planes were slamming into corporate skyscrapers and armies invading foreign fields due to mutual distrust and bigoted, misinformed revulsion against globally disseminated cultures and their constituent faiths, sociologies and value systems. The dominant worldwide pull between, on the one hand, the forces of globalisation and, on the other, the myriad secessions and retractions against the global was a pull that was more cultural than commercial. Whilst politics and economics headed macro, with a welcoming homogenisation and consolidation, culture, in a not unhealthy equal and opposite reaction, headed heterogeneously and dislocatingly micro. The new challenge was the confirmation of common values but alive with the celebration of diverse ones. This dichotomy, this demographic global-local pull seems – from my desert viewpoint in southern Afghanistan – to be even more acute in a warzone of conflicting determinations than anywhere else. We must, it seems, ironically sanctify the sickening Goebbels cliche dictum; when we hear the word gun, we must reach for our culture.
What is happening here in Afghanistan? Essentially diversities of geographically aligned peoples are reasserting their common sense of cultural identity after decades – centuries – of ravaging invasion, of ravaging intervention, even of ravaging goodwill and help. Over the past three decades in particular, external imposition and internal revolt have destroyed economic and social infrastructure along with professional and human resource, and left Afghanistan one of the most poverty-ridden and least developed countries in the world. In 2001 the government and people of Afghanistan commenced the climb back to self-reliant democratic nationhood, resisting extremist interference and determined to improve socioeconomic indicators increasingly to assure future stabilisation and security.
This is not just a developmental and socioeconomic enterprise. Reinforcing national cultural identity and strengthening the professional and educational capacity of the Afghan peoples are critical to this determination. Despite war and dereliction, Afghanistan remains a vibrant conflux of ethnic identities with an equal diversity of urban, rural and provincial governance and social traditions. The path to new nationhood will be as much a cultural as a constitutional and developmental mission. The role of cultural relations, internally amongst the Afghan people and externally within the family of nations, will be critical to Afghanistan’s future stability, well-being and international positioning.
End-2014 will be a critical focal juncture for Afghanistan. By then most NATO combative forces will have departed, handing over responsibility for security and insurgency suppression to the Afghan national security forces and the Afghan police. Though the international development agenda will continue beyond the transition, the pressure is now on to enable Afghanistan to be independent and self-reliant by 2014 across all major governance and socioeconomic sectors.
2011-14 international interventions must strengthen infrastructure and human resource to ensure Afghan capacity to sustain security and to win the battle of ideas amongst the Afghan populus for a future democratic and well-functioning society and economy. This society must be founded on a robust sense of diverse but integrated nationhood and shared cultural meaning and pride. In whatever ways international media and public perception may ossify brand-Afghanistan into a warzone, a terrain of terror, a developmental right-off.
Afghanistan actually is 30 million ordinary men, women and kids who live for their families, their friends and their faith and who are proud of their vibrant ethnic diversity, their mature social identity and their astounding cultural legacy which, despite recent suppression, is again ripely contemporary. Afghans have learned over millennia to sustain their values of life and livelihood despite being the geographical nexus of other peoples’ imperial ambitions. Militarism is only the surface wave motions to the deeper swells of the Afghan cultural story.
Many of the major bullies of ancient, mediaeval and more recent history were bruised and buffeted on this Afghan crossroads between the Indus Valley, the Fertile Crescent and Europa. Alexander to-ed and fro-ed here more than anywhere else. Genghis Khan and Tamerlane fought some of their toughest campaigns in these valleys and mountains. Babur, the founder of Mughal India, was returned to Afghan Ghazni for burial. Victorian Britain three times suffered ignominy in war. 80’s Soviet imperialism is iconically rendered by the graveyard of a thousand abandoned tanks, dustblown beneath the Kabul hills. And how will the footnotes of Western history books, in 50 years time, describe current good intent in Kandahar and Helmand? The second part of this post will be available on the blog early next year