Tuesday, March 22, 2011


Everything is tragic in Afghanistan, but perhsps nothing more so than reminders of the past and what could have been . . .


The car had nearly reached the top of the low hill overlooking Kabul before a single strand of barbed wire, concertinaed across the road, brought us to a halt. We got out of the car and continued on foot. A couple of Afghan National Army soldiers manning a checkpoint at the top picked up their AK-47 rifles as we approached. In cases like this, it’s always best to smile. Generously.

Waving happily (as if we’d just encountered some good friends again) we slowly walked to the pick-up parked in front of the small sand-bagged bunker. My translator, Nasim, spoke briefly to the three soldiers and a 100 Afghani note fluttered quickly between them. Smiling now, they enthusiastically pulled back the second barrier. We were waved through to inspect the empty wreck of the Darulaman palace, stretching ostentatiously behind the barrier; a reminder that this was once a real country.

The shell of the building sits incongruously on the edge of the capital. At one time, when it was built in the 1920s, it appeared to signal the beginning of Afghanistan’s renaissance. Darul Aman literally means “house of peace” – the building marked the foundation stone of the new city that King Amanullah Khan was planning to construct at the edge of the old. And, for years, that’s the way it functioned. Its soaring classical dome, pointing to the heavens, seemed to demonstrate that the old backward country had finally turned the corner and was moving forward. Then the religious became alarmed. Amanullah was forced from power and the Palace was left empty. But the building was too beautiful to be left to decay and so, eventually, it was again used for its original purpose when the country again had a king and, after a coup, a president.

It’s still possible to see marks, cut into the concrete by the tracks of the BMP armoured vehicles when the Soviets invaded in 1979. It was night when the spetsnaz (special forces) stormed up the battered, rutted road we’d just walked up and made swift work of the little resistance that was put up by the President’s guards. Shortly afterwards the palace was restored again, this time functioning as the military and political headquarters of Afghanistan. By the time the rival Mujahideen factions were closing in on the capital in the early 90’s the building was empty. It then played a symbolic role as the rival groups squabbled, fought, and blasted each other, fighting for control of the city: guttering the building until only the thick brick walls remained.

Today the building is still empty. The huge iron dome has collapsed and sunlight streams in on the wreckage. Rafters drop down from the ceiling and the walls are pockmarked by bullet holes. No one has bothered to clear the unexploded weaponry from the rooms and the floors are covered in dust and broken masonry. The carcass of a dead dog is a reminder not to poke to inquisitively into the mess.

We walk from the central hallway into the huge oval throne room overlooking the city. Kabul lies in a flat, dusty pan that is ringed with breathtakingly beautiful snow-capped mountains. In the Palace it feels as if you could reach out and touch them. Nasim has walked over to the window and I suddenly become aware he is emotionally moved.

My pleasant exploration has become, for him, utterly gut-wrenching. The mess of shattered stone around us represents his nation’s past. And, increasingly, its future. He turns to me. “I have not been here before,” he admits. I’m not sure whether he is merely stating a fact or if his words represent something more.

And this is, of course, the problem for Afghanistan. For foreigners this country is nothing more than a part of “the great game”. It provides the territory across which the superpowers have fought since the time of Alexander the Great, deploying our forces and proclaiming our victories. Even today, the Western intervention is marked not merely by the moral certainty our cultural approach, but also our structural one. We ‘know’ democracy works. This fact is an absolute that, quite correctly, cannot and should not be challenged. But democracy has many variations. Australia and America both call each other democracies, and yet the political structure of the two countries is radically different.

Ever since King Amanullah’s early attempt to graft a new structure onto the traditional arrangements for organising the countries affairs, Afghanistan has been paralysed. Only so much of the current backwardness can be explained by insisting that the country is too poor to develop (geographic determinism) or by reference to the religious and ethnic divides that traverse the country (a cultural variation of the same argument). There is a way forward. But, as we have found after nearly a decade of occupation, this will not be accomplished by attempting to force a political structure onto the country that is in no way reflective of the power, economic or cultural arrangements that construct the society.

Yet this is exactly what the intervention has done. Western governments are surprised that corruption has become endemic and riddles every economic action. Yet, without the prerequisite of a functioning civil society being in place, it’s difficult to see why the old powerbrokers would have ever been prepared to relinquish their authority and control to others. Particularly when they didn’t have to; particularly when it was so easy to work around the na├»ve westerners who really just wanted to say they’d won and then depart.

The ruins of the palace speak of what the country once was. Today it’s a cleptocracy – a country ruled by thieves. A few individuals use their power to accumulate wealth, and then use that wealth to accumulate more power. The cycle is closed, and it’s being perpetuated by the West which (did I mention?), just wants to get out.

As we leave the palace a fragment of beautiful marble on the floor catches my eye. I bend down and pick it up thinking it will make a nice souvenir. Nasim is watching. “Take it”, he urges, turning back to the windows. I place the stone back on the floor. “No”, I reply. “This is not part of my story. It is for you to decide how this palace will be re-built again, not for me to loot.”

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