Photograph of a gunship
It's not just about defeating a physical enemy but defeating the ideology of intolerance and violence. Kabul. Photo ©

Eric Lawrie.

September 2018

Eric Lawrie, British Council Director, Afghanistan, speaks about the country’s troubled recent history - and the part the UK can play in building hope for the future.

At the entrance to the Afghan National Museum is a plaque which says ‘A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive’. Nothing could be more fitting than these words to describe the hope young Afghans have for the future. Over the decades the museum had 70% of its contents plundered. Meanwhile, the iconic destruction by dynamiting of the 6th and 7th century, rock-cut Buddha sculptures in the Bamiyan Valley made newspaper headlines around the world. But now young Afghans are looking to put their cultural heritage back on track. There is a resurgence of pride in Afghan culture in general. Street art is adorning cities, popular theatre and music can be heard from community centres, and film is making a comeback. Young Afghans are looking outward as much as inward. For example sport, banned by the Taliban, has a huge fan base - particularly in football and cricket. When they won their first Cricket World Cup match by one wicket, people celebrated the victory in the streets.

At the entrance to the Afghan National Museum is a plaque which says ‘A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive’. Nothing could be more fitting than these words to describe the hope young Afghans have for the future

Afghanistan is a tapestry of cultural richness. There are two major languages, Pashto and Dari, and 40 tribal ones, including over 200 dialects. There are Sunni and Shia believers split across 13 different ethnic groups. This diversity should be something for the country to celebrate. Instead, circumstance and history have turned it into mistrust, ultra-conservatism, and violent extremism.

Military intervention by itself cannot be successful in routing out extremism and breeding grounds for terrorists, seen as key threats to modern democracies, because the battle ground is not just military but also cultural

Military intervention by itself cannot be successful in routing out extremism and breeding grounds for terrorists, seen as key threats to modern democracies, because the battle ground is not just military but also cultural and ideological. It's not simply about defeating a physical enemy, but defeating the ideology of extremism, intolerance and violence. However, exporting democracy from the West does not work for cultural reasons. It cannot be imposed. What military action against extremists has done is create the space for politics and debate to take place, and it is in this space that cultural and educational programmes play their biggest role. They can do this by strengthening education systems, opening up to alternative points of view, and giving young people alternative pathways to self-development.

The history and future of a shattered country

Since the invasion by the Soviet Union in 1978, Afghanistan has had a miserable half-century where Afghans have seen their country ravaged by butchery and slaughter. First the helicopter gunships which mowed down civilians, then the Mujahedeen who persevered to remove the Soviet troops but then turned themselves into power-hungry warlords, funded by foreign payments. The country became a breeding ground for extremism and allowed the Taleban to exert their brutal form of Sharia law and control. In 2001, after the attack on the Twin Towers in New York, a 17-year war ensued, which toppled the Taleban from power, but has seen 500,000 civilians killed and four million refugees - a quarter of the population - flee into Pakistan. A further 80,000 migrants have arrived in Europe. The rise of the Taleban created a boom time for the narcotics industry, which flourished when they were in power. Only Afghans over the age of 60 or 70 can remember a time when there was stability.

What is clear is that Afghanistan faces many challenges in the years ahead. Insecurity is still a major issue on the agenda. Efforts to strengthen civil society, employment, and skills will need to continue, along with scrutiny from international governments to hold the Afghan government to account. British cultural and educational engagement with Afghanistan matters, as it builds hope for young Afghans seeking to make their contribution to a stable country with a peaceful and prosperous future. But it is necessary to be patient. This is not a quick fix, and what the UK is able to do is only one part of a very large and complicated puzzle. What is needed is international engagement aimed at winning hearts and minds. Through long-term relationships and sustained dialogue, it is possible to make a positive impact through education and culture. These will ultimately benefit future generations by giving them the tools to further their skills, knowledge, and prospects for employment.

Image of people playing football
Cultural discourse & engagement… a platform in which moderate debate can occur. Photo ©

British Council.

What the UK can do

Cultural discourse and engagement are vital for facilitating a platform in which moderate debate and social improvement can occur. More work must be done on the structural impediments to dialogue, such as language training, safe spaces, membership of global fora, and access to communications. In the area of language, for example, President Ghani (who studied English at the British Council in Kabul in the 1960s), has commented that learning the language was a life-changing experience, giving him the tool he needed to further his education overseas and expand his horizons. Cultural, educational, and societal opportunities, particularly those aimed at young people, can make a real difference ‘upstream’ of the economic, civic, and social factors which fuel violence and instability. Promoting debate and critical thinking through education can have important long-term benefits in divided or unstable communities, as can providing entrepreneurial, citizenship, and ‘soft’ skills (see Building Young People’s Resilience (APPG for the British Council report, 2017)). Only once these sorts of opportunities are in place can the country reap the benefits from international collaboration in important areas like tackling youth unemployment or strengthening civil society. These will in turn help to make inroads into the battle with extremism.

There is recognition of the fact that to make true peace one has to talk to and reach agreement with the enemy. Many feel uncomfortable with this, having lost friends or family in the conflict, but they acknowledge that both sides need to come to the table if peace and reconciliation is to win through.

Increasing resilience will mean that young Afghans are better able to withstand the pressures that are pushing them towards extremism and violence. This can be done in a more direct way, for example by improving employment prospects so young people are no longer motivated to find economic opportunity with the Taliban. By giving young people the tools to engage positively with their communities, it is possible to mitigate their political and social marginalisation, and tap into the potential of a flourishing and culturally vibrant future for Afghanistan.

Eric Lawrie, British Council Country Director, Afghanistan

See also