1969: The State of the Nation

Here is a discarded preface from an earlier version of the novel I am working on. It’s an overview of the ‘state of the nation’ of Afghanistan at the end of President Kennedy’s ‘Development Decade.

The year is 1969.

A spectre is haunting the Afghan project of a ‘New Democracy’: the spectre of Daoud Khan, the dynamic, dogmatic and autocratic former Prime Minister ousted in a palace coup six years earlier by his cousin, the Shah.

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Kabul’s last brief experiment with democracy – the Seventh Parliament of Dr. Yousuf – had barely begun to make itself felt before Daoud’s ascendancy to the premiership ushered in a decade of modernising authoritarianism. Barred from politics for life by the 1964 Constitution, Daoud must choose between the life of a recluse and that of a revolutionary: there is no third way.

Under his shadow, the elites of a new era squint at its multitude of failures.

Undercutting the aspirations of the new urban intelligentsia, executive inaction has left the Afghan economy to stagnate for over a decade. In agriculture, still the bulk of the national economy, the great valleys and plains yield half their potential bounty. Most small farmers cannot feed themselves. Meanwhile illiterate landowners in the Shura block any taxation of land and livestock, and any redistribution of land which might motivate proper irrigation.

In towns and cities, plants and factories sit idle for want of an efficient banking system to direct strategic investment. Representatives of rural moneylenders obstruct all attempts to break their exploitative monopoly on usury. As the years drift, a growing trade imbalance fuels price instability for Afghans thrust into a new cash economy. Governments in Kabul depend on foreign aid in lieu of domestic tax revenue, a dependency that threatens their claim to rule in a country where independence is still imagined to be the supreme historical fact.

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Why, ask so many disillusioned foreign visitors, does this catalogue of manmade problems appear immune to manmade solutions?

In short, there is a vacuum where leadership should be. Administrations come and go, paralysed in office and torn between the invective of a Parliament that is constitutionally empowered only to criticise – and is thus busily engaged in exhausting its negative power – and a King temperamentally unsettled by such criticism, though determined to rule merely by appointment and dismissal. A go-to for inquisitive Parliamentary deputies, the government bureaucracy is clogged with corruption, degenerating into government-by-signature. No longer an automatic absorber of recent graduates, the government machine is incapable of generating new opportunities for them elsewhere. A source of hope has become a locus of recrimination.

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The political core of Kabul pulsates with negative energy.

The King has banned political parties – which might otherwise support governments in combating vested interests. To his fretful mind, the institution of the party threatens to deflect hostility from individual ministers to the Constitutional architecture itself – and against himself, its pinnacle. His Afghanistan is a land of gradual progress guided by a paternalistic sovereign; he believes that Afghanistan will ‘get there’ – to material comfort, justice, independence, and nation-state sovereignty – in the end. But the price of this steady, rupture-less transformation is a silent future.

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Alternative visions of modern Afghanistan, such as those articulated by fractured parties of the far left and the new Islamic Youth movement, are firmly suppressed. Driven underground, these movements percolate through Kabul society, supplementing kinship networks strained by social upheaval and substituting for a free press and competitive elections. Like the exiled Daoud, they inhabit a shifting and shadowy realm where their dreams and nightmares can roam untamed.

Real politics has vacated the Parliament and entered everyday life. Islamists and Communists recruit Afghan army officers. In the absence of legalised ideological parliamentary groupings, the Kabul University Student Council has become a raucous, frequently violent epicentre of political activism in the capital. Dissatisfied graduates from Kabul return to provincial schools to radicalise the next generation. In the capital, students and workers stage solidarity strikes to demand better living standards. Each protest ends with minor concessions by the government and a quiet retreat from the barricades. But already the young are more feared than the clergy, whose protests against social reforms are regarded as temporary aberrations of the modernisation process.

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In a society bound tightly by bonds of blood, whether real or imagined, the decade-long widening of opportunities for social advancement – in the armed forces, in the civil service, and in education – has brought the majority of Afghans outside of the ruling Mohammedzai clan face to face with the socioeconomic limits defined by this single fact about themselves. Non-Mohammedzai Afghans may rise through the ranks on merit, but unlike their Mohammedzai counterparts they are forbidden from sharing the spoils with their relatives. As long as members of the royal family continue to treat public offices as private resources, this inequality of nepotism seems set to endure.

For ordinary Afghans trying to make their way in the capital, this situation entails the most basic and acute inequality of status and prestige. What in the past was normally a distant, theoretical inequality has, in the Kabul of the late 1960s, crystallised as a tangible inequality of dignity, fuelling resentment among the literate urban population.

The Kabul graduates of 1969 are the first generation who have lived out their adolescence amidst the hopes and promises of the New Democracy. Most of them have parents with little or no formal education. Earlier graduates entered middle-class professions with relative ease. But this generation is being told by its teachers to demand ever more from the state at a time when the state is distracted with devising a strategy for its own survival.

Again, as with Daoud, this contradiction cannot – will not – be long overlooked.

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No Blank Spaces
No Blank Spaces

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