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.