Warsaw, December 2001


Afghanistan at the cross-roads

An introduction to an interview

with Ahmad Shah Masood

Piotr Balcerowicz


The article discusses the current situation in Afghanistan and the question whether terrorist attacks and American response can be justified; what political, historical and ethical assumptions distinguish the fundamentalist worldview and the concept of open society; in what way American military actions against Afghanistan may destabilise the whole region. The author vehemently criticises US military involvement in Afghanistan.


I met Ahmad Shah Masood, the legendary commander of democratic anti-Taliban opposition and a charismatic Afghan national hero, during my three-week long visit to Afghanistan in July and August 2001, i.e. a month before his assassination. At that time, no one could have predicted our conversations would be one of the last interviews in Masood’s life, and shortly the WTC in New York as well as cities of Kabul, Kandahar etc. would be bombed for disparate reasons, even though both sides of the conflict would ascribe terrorist intentions to the adversary’s actions.

My recent visit to Afghanistan was a part of a series of my research tours to Central Asian countries in recent years, which included such countries as Afghanistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Eastern Turkestan / Xinjiang under Chinese administration, as well a lecturing at Osh State University in Ferghana Valley / Kyrgyzstan.



Shadeless black-and-white game?


Without much ado, the bombing of WTC was an act of unprecedented and contemptible atrocity. Dubious seems, however, any attempt to justify military steps undertaken by US against Afghanistan, either ethically or politically in wider perspective.

In the first place, it is an instance of outrageous short-sightedness on the part of George W. Bush to partition the world into to camps: “those who are with them” and “those who are against them”. This is precisely what is desired by terrorist camps, but this not the case of tertium no datur. One may condemn terrorist attacks without supporting military actions against Afghanistan.

The call to war against world terrorism should not mean common responsibility of the whole Afghan nation. Would a Parisian during the World War II unhesitatingly approve of American carpet bombing of Paris and Rheims, undertaken in order to expel the Nazis or their Vichy collaborationists under Marshal Pétain? Any civilised European would have shivered with a twinge of resentment at such an action, because the means would have been in stark disproportion to the ends, because the individual lives of civil inhabitants would have been considered too costly, because alternative methods could have been envisaged that would lead to ultimate victory and, lastly, because the cities are considered world cultural heritage. Certainly all these considerations do apply to Afghan context as well: Kandahar, Kabul or Herat are places of great historical importance that enshrine priceless monuments and artefacts and are populated by masses of innocent people. What makes the difference is that Kabul or Kandahar are not considered to represent Western heritage. They are imaginary, aloof places, far removed from Western tradition. So are their inhabitants. The complete misunderstanding of the region’s culturally-specific character and its complexities, the permissiveness of Western populace that acquiesce to such acts of violence as well as discrepant treatments of the conjectural bombing of Paris and actual assault in Afghanistan imply racist background behind the military decision, “racist” not in the outspoken sense, but implied, that can be conjectured on the basis of one’s own actions.

Clearly, Osama bin Laden’s organisation al-Qaida should not be taken to be tantamount to the Taliban. The latter have had different objectives and different methods that only partly overlap with those of al-Qaida. The Taliban invoke the principles of the “primordial” Islamic state based on their “genuine” interpretation of Koranic principles, which they would call fundamentalist, thus they have striven to revive a true union of political, social and religious aspects in the miscarried form of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, an emirate one among many. Their rule has indeed proved a barbarous abuse of human dignity and the devastation of the whole country and its culture. At the same time, the Taliban have successfully managed to channel resentments of the Pushtu population of the frontier belt of Afghanistan and Pakistan, who have found themselves deprived - in their own eyes - of any real political influence since 1992, viz. since the seizure of power in Kabul by the alliance formed of mostly Tajik leaders.

In contradistinction to them, the ideology - but not the methods - of the former derives directly from the ideology of Pan-Islamism explicitly formulated by a Persian thinker Jamal ad-Din al Afghani (1838-1897), to be taken up by Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905) in Egypt, and Abd ar-Rahman al-Kawakibi (1849-1902) in Syria. The goal was to unite all Muslims in the world, to embrace them into one supra-ethnic and supra-national state, governed centrally by a caliph whose main concern would be to reify religious ideals of obedience to Islamic fundamentals. In the case of terrorist groups of “bin Laden” type, the general concept of one Muslim “nation” has been practically moulded by appending it with a practical “active” method to achieve the desired end. Analogous to the colonial era when Al-Afghani’s ideas were propounded, this new development has been shaped by neo-colonial resentments. “Neo-colonial powers” of today are considered the main hindrance to the ideal religious state on at least two levels. Firstly, with their social and political institutions, such as free press, tolerance, individual freedom of choice of behaviour, cloths, worldviews, sexual inclinations, dietary ingredients etc., they are not only regarded inadmissible, but a potential source of negative influence that might continue to disrupt virtuous society, even in a bipolar infidel–Muslim world. Secondly, Western powers are believed to provide political, military and economic support to the governments of countries with Muslim majority, thus practically preventing the establishing a new Pan-Islamic state. Therefore acts of terrorism are, from the advocate’s perspective, justifiable insofar as they contribute to the collapse of a global system of religious, economic, political injustice.

Afghanistan happens to be the place where the interests of Islamic fundamentalists and Pan-Islamic terrorists meet.


Clash of reasons and civilisations?


Western authorities use reason to justify morally the attacks on Afghanistan and appeal to the belief in the pre-eminence of irrevocable human values, freedom and ratio. Terrorists do reason, too. However, their presumptions are different than those of a Western reasoner. Resorting to the idea of common responsibility, both parties take it for granted that violence can be exculpated as long as it serves either the preservation or the instituting of indisputably lawful order. But both parties appeal to entirely different, incommensurable sets of values and ethical assumptions. Both parties are ethical in their own eyes, which only demonstrates relativity of ethical approach to the question of war per se: one always wages a just war which is justified only within the horizon of one’s own presumptions. Is it therefore what we encounter here a clash of ethical approaches? Not necessarily.

American government and terrorist organisations appeal to the same catchwords of justice, the imperative to uproot the evil and - in the final perspective - the mission to bring peace, whereas the authentic concepts underlying the verbally expressed values do not always match.

Also the seeming clash of civilisations is merely a result of mutual misunderstandings.

All this may sound like an attempt to justify terrorism. I am deeply convinced that there can be no justification of terrorism or acceptance of terrorist means. There is, however, a subtle distinction between justification of terrorism and understanding the motives and assumptions of terrorists.

In rational discourse arguments retain their argumentative value and logical relevance. With emotional bias - variously engendered by the feelings of historical injustice, economic exploitation, unequal redistribution of material goods in the world, cultural imperialism, technological and civilisational neo-colonialism, clandestine proselytisation, disruptive Christian missionary activities etc., that all lead to the deeply instilled sense of deprivation of one’s own dignity - emotion-backed arguments grow out of proportions into accusations, suspicion, invectives, making any discourse impracticable.

American revenge military steps have been primarily taken to appease US public opinion, and in their motives they are as tribal as the Taliban’s “cultural devolution”. Alas, they follow a series of miscalculations and misestimations of US foreign policy in the region since their reluctance to accept independence of Afghanistan. USA needed 15 years to formally acknowledge the state of Afghanistan in 1934. Their prolonged misjudged policy of 1940s and 50s, their refusal to grant professional, economic, engineering and military assistance to Afghanistan - with the emerging nucleus of semi-democracy in the form of “Liberal Parliament” that gradually transfigured into not so democratic but modernist government of Mohammad Daud after 1953 - pushed the Afghan state into the sphere of influence of Russia, that was sealed by a series of contracts signed after Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev’s visit to Afghanistan in 1955. Afghanistan desperately seek any form of help at that time, in vain. That miscalculation of USA paved the way to subsequent KGB infiltration of Afghan political structures, that finally led to 1978 and 1979 coups d’état and Soviet invasion.

What a perfect justification to the poverty of historicism and instantiation of new generations that are unable to learn from history present policy of US administration is!

Military actions in the region on the part of a foreign power aggravate the feelings of being violently deprived of one’s dignity, cultural tradition, sovereignty and societal or political self-determination, instead of facilitating future inter-regional reconciliation. They do not only pertain to the direct human targets, viz. the Taliban authorities and members of Osama bin Laden’s organisation, or fortuitous victims, which are by and large the civil population of Afghanistan. The bombing also affects all those in the region who until recently have still been uncommitted in their attitude towards the West and its role played on the global scale. Crowds that cheered the bombing of WTC did not in fact applaud the fate of the victims. They gave vent to their dissatisfaction with Western, especially American, authoritarian policy. The bombing of Afghanistan not only reassures them in their hostility, but it also demonstrates “true” imperial intentions to the masses of the heretofore indifferent. This in no way contributes to intercultural dialogue and does not bring the world closer together.

How can we demonstrate the benefits of the Western way of life to someone who feels a potential target of our guns? Instead, two paramount Western ideas of democracy and human rights have been entangled into Western neo-colonial attitude and military assaults, and are being taken as export ideological commodity.



Alarming impact


Even when the military aim is finally achieved, and the Taliban are defeated, Osama bin Laden exterminated, the results will be far-reaching and are likely to destabilise the whole region for years to come, even after a short illusionary period of peace and stability. The list of possible hazardous and unpredictable consequences is long.

Alone in Afghanistan, it will undermine both the legitimacy of any future Afghan government buttressed by Americans as well as the principles of democracy. There are strata in the Afghan society that are already convinced about validity and indispensability of democratic institutions or free elections, as the interview with Ahmad Shah Masood clearly shows. Their numbers will in the long run dwindle, when democracy is imposed with the help of air raids. The Pushtuns who have so far sided with the Taliban, when defeated with the help of Americans, are more reluctant to enter any serious peace talks. Even if the negotiations culminate in a peace agreement, which they are bound to, the wounded pride and self-dignity of Pushtu groups may rebound in future into a process that is likely to threaten future stability and democratisation process in Afghanistan itself.

At the same time US bombing contributed to the rapid change of the front situation. The victory has come speedily that the filled the victors of various ethic military units with overwhelming enthusiasm. The units that have seized various districts attribute the victory to themselves and are less willing to cede their power to an Afghan government. What results is the reigning chaos and banditry in many regions that makes any effective humanitarian aid impossible at the moment. These units have had no time to realise that they are mutually dependent and their aim is not merely military victory but a long-term policy of stabilisation and ethnic balance.

American administration seems not to take into account such notions as ethnicity and pride, vital in Central Asian and Afghan context, because they do not play any important role in America itself.

Military actions will polarise Muslim societies world all over, and consequently the fundamentalist ideas will score more support, making it difficult for semi-democratic, or democracy-prone governments with Muslim population to follow democratic guidelines in a society where majority wants the contrary. A perfect illustration is Pakistan, where the anti-government opposition has grown from a quarter to 90 per cent since the first bombs fell on Kabul and Kandahar. Pakistan is not an exception in the Muslim world. Paradoxically, Western democracies are already forced to protect a non-democratic minority government of President Pervez Musharaff against the assaults of the overwhelming majority. The American warships stationed in the Indian bay are not only meant for military actions against the Taliban. This is the unpredictability of developments within Pakistan, a nuclear power, and the likelihood of toppling the present government that brings them to the shores of Pakistan.

Similar developments are likely to threaten the fragile stability of Central Asian countries, such as Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan or Uzbekistan, where Islamic fundamentalist organisations are growing rapidly, which is not surprising in areas where practical unemployment reaches 90 per cent, where infrastructure ranging from health service to transport and road maintenance has practically collapsed. That region is an exemplar of how human rights can be curtailed in the name of fight against terrorism. Countries such as Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan top the lists of human rights violators.

The deprivation of basic human rights, silencing any political opposition etc. is already notoriously done in the name of protection against fundamentalism, and the tendency is likely to escalate. The same argumentation has already been used by the Russian administration in their attempt to extinguish the flares in Czecznya. There can be no doubt that such infringements of human rights will proliferate. Any discussion on human rights in China and the condemnation of their policy against Tibetan or Uighur minorities is loosing ground, for they may claim they are fighting the terrorism on their own territory. The same argumentation is very likely to be taken up by various dictatorships and regimes in the world.

Western societies, scared of a possible terrorist attack, are prone to accept various limitations to their civic rights, ranging from strict personal control at airports to the surveillance of their electronic mail, phone conversations etc. At the moment it is done for the sake of peace and stability, but it may alienate into beingcarried out under the guise of protection of democracy.

This is indeed what is now happening in the Western world. In last two months administrations of such countries as USA, Italy, Germany, Great Britain and others have been preparing anti-terrorist laws that at the same time pose serious threat to human and civil rights. A range of solutions is proposed: eavesdropping and invigilation, monitoring of correspondence and email; expulsion of a foreigner, merely suspected of co-operation with a terrorist organisation, by an undisclosed administrative decision of an officer, not even a court decision, without informing him or her about the true reason for the expulsion from the given country; a possibility of a prolonged detainment / arrest of a person suspected of terrorist activity without court decision; obligatory controls at airports for citizens of certain (mostly Arab and Muslim) countries; temporary ban to enter Western countries for certain groups of Muslim societies (e.g. preachers); serious limitations for asylum seekers; plenipotency for intelligence officers to misuse law (including menace, torture and robbery, with the sole exception of direct murder!), etc.

Is this only a hypothetical danger that such law will alienate and will strike back against civic freedom? It should suffice to recall the infamous times of the notorious investigations of alleged Communist infiltration in the early fifties, inspired by the US Republican senator Joseph Raymond McCarthy (1908-57), to realise that it is not.

That this threat is serious and real we are alarmed by actions taken recently by representatives of USA administration. After 11 September, members of academic communities across the U.S. who have participated in teach-ins, colloquia, demonstrations, and other events aimed at developing an informed critical understanding of what happened and why, have been accused of undermining U.S. foreign policy, threatened and attacked for speaking out. Trustees of several American universities (the City University of New York, the University of Texas at Austin, MIT, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and elsewhere) are planning formal denunciations of faculty members. In a letter of protest against such disturbing developments, signed by a number of renowned professors[1] and circulated by concerned faculty members, we can also read that presently “colleges and universities are being pressured by agencies of the federal government to hand over confidential information from student files. And there are moves in Congress to limit visas for students from abroad.” Such actions undermine the very fundaments of democratic system and open society, ensnares academic freedom and academic institutions - by definition designed to foster independent and critical thinking - are being reduced to merely training centres for future indiscriminate office workers, who are disciplined to think along economic lines and follow commercial system of materialistic and technological values.

Is it not threatening to discover that Western governments exercise pressure on relatively free TV stations such as al Jazira, that they should cease to broadcast certain news? The Americans applauded BBC-trained professional journalists of al Jazira as long as they criticised Iraq government in the time of the Gulf crisis. They have become undesired after they have ceased to support American policy.

Is it not symptomatic that any attempt nowadays to read certain web pages in the Internet, even for purely scholarly or journalistic reasons, are failed, because the access to them is blocked, by web masers or otherwise, to comply with the demands of American administration? The list of web pages that have for long provided information on current situation in Muslim countries, presented various points of view - an indispensable tool in ethnic, cultural and social research - and which are no longer accessible is long. The justification is ready at hand: the web sites contaminate the minds and enable to spread coded messages to terrorist organisation cells in the world. But is this not how global censorship is born? Is this not the true failure of Western civilisation with its mission to spread the message of freedom of speech?

By definition, open society ends where ends begin. This is indeed a suicidal way to inculcate the ideals of democracy and of open society!

Military actions and the propaganda campaign against global terrorism detract people’s attention from genuine reasons of this threatening phenomenon, which is in the first place uneven distribution of goods, the aggrandisement of wealth in the name of globalisation the widening gap between “the rich North” and “the poor South”. This is augmented by US rejection of international treaties such as those concerning the curtailment of greenhouse gases, ban on the production of land mines and cluster bombs and tests on biological weapons etc., as well as their disrespect for international agreements, including reluctance to pay its UN dues, hypocritical treatment of human rights abuse (suspension of USA from the UN human rights commission early this year is self-evident) and double morality regarding patent laws (e.g. the condemnation of attempts of African countries to decrease the price of AIDS drugs by restricting medical patent laws and US demands to do the same as regards anthrax cures) etc.



An alternative to US bombs envisaged?


Was there then any alternative to the American attacks to uproot terrorism from the Afghan soil? There has been the Northern Alliance fighting against the Taliban. Indeed, they have never guaranteed their loyalty to the American government. Nevertheless, the only reasonable solution was to provide them with support: Afghans should solve the problems in Afghanistan with Afghan hands. That would be a positive sign to all Muslim communities, but not only, that the sovereignty of their decisions is not a mirage.

Despite the public opinion and convictions of the political establishment in the West, Muslim societies contain traditional democratic elements that should only be enhanced and helped to develop. A good example is the institution of shuras, self-government council system, alluded to by Ahmad Shah Masood in the interview below. The system varies considerably, depending on the region and historical background. However, even in such a conservative region as Badakshan of Northern Afghanistan, shuras are inestimable nuclei that naturally instil the sense of democracy.

Any attempt to export Western ready-made patterns of democracy is doomed to fail, as history shows. Democracy by definition corresponds to the needs of the community in question, hence it must rest on intrinsic complexities of the community. Whereas we may endeavour to search for immutable theoretical underpinnings of open society principles, the practical instantiations of democratic institutions are not universal and culture-independent, but are rooted in particular culture, customs and history. That is what makes it imperative to enhance the kernels of democratic institutions, inherent in a given cultural and geographic context. That applies to local mass media such as al Jazira as well. Perhaps the opinions disseminated with their help may not directly be amicable to military purposes of America, nevertheless their freedom of expression is a training ground where free exchange of views can be exercised and a living proof of a variance of opinions, i.e. the prerequisite of democracy.

Despite certain cultural relativity, the difference between open society and terrorism lies in assumptions. The assumptions do not have to be defined explicitly, in the sense of “stable” definitions or a list of invariable values. Neither is their validity determined once and for all. Rather they should be defined dynamically, viz. via their practicability, or as a “formula with variables”, which boils down to the freedom to discuss and question the very validity of the assumptions. In other words, what dynamically makes any set of assumptions superior is the amount of freedom that allows us to critically evaluate and incessantly subvert these assumptions.

The legitimacy of a given set of assumptions ends when our freedom to question them is impoverished or curtailed. The very act of questioning the assumptions is reflexively constrained so that it may be repeated, which eventually preserves the equilibrium of open thinking.

In the present conflict, this criterion is met neither by terrorist ideologies nor by American assaults.

[1] Edward Said, Columbia University; Anatole Anton, San Francisco State University; Dana Cloud, University of Texas at Austin; Donna Flayhan, Goucher College; Phil Gasper, Notre Dame de Namur University; Richard Gibson, San Diego State University; William Keach, Brown University; Tom Lewis, University of Iowa and others.





Originally published as “Afghanistan at the Cross-roads”,  in the Journal Dialogue and Universalism 11-12 (2001) 97-105:


For the full text of the last interview with Ahmad Shah Masood see: