Understanding Afghanistan through the Prism of History

A Glimpse into Afghanistan Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow at Stony Brook University

On 4 November, just hours after the debate on the Situation in Afghanistan in the United Nations General Assembly, Stony Brook University hosted a crucial discussion on “Afghanistan: The Current Situation through a Historic Lens.”  Introductory remarks were given by Professors Said  Amir Arjomand and Paul Zimansky to welcome a full crowd of students and community members at the Center for Global and Local History.

The theme of the discussion was that in order to understand what is happening in present day Afghanistan, it is essential to recognize the history behind the conflict.  H.E. Dr. Zahir Tanin, Permanent Representative and Ambassador of Afghanistan to the United Nations  gave an enlightening presentation at the event.  While seeking to debunk the common misconception that Afghanistan has always been at war through pointing out a century of relative calm and peace in the nation prior to the 1980s, the focus of the discussion was on the torrential period of conflict from the last three decades.

As Ambassador Tanin outlined, three foreign interventions or invasions, and three civil wars have taken place in the past thirty years.  First was the Soviet invasion of 1979, then the war of resistance against that invasion, followed by the invasion of Afghanistan by al-Qaeda and foreign Mujahideen with the support of Pakistan in 1994, accompanied by the Mujahideen fighting the Taliban in the 1990s.  Interventions by international forces led by the US began in 2001 which led to fighting between Taliban and the international and Afghan forces.  Dramatic regime or ideological shifts have characterized recent history in Afghanistan.  “Each change you see here is a bloody change,” Ambassador Tanin reminded the audience, as he pointed to the timeline of the last three decades.  The millions of deaths, major destruction of economy, and disintegration of state from this complex history have reversed much of Afghanistan’s progress over the previous century, he said.

Nevertheless, Ambassador Tanin expressed optimism about the progress of the country and its future, starting with a new beginning in 2001 which involved increased international support.  He described key human rights successes which include dramatically improved access to health care, advancements in women’s rights particularly in the area of political participation, a rising number of female students, 71% enrollment rates in schools, and the building of 4,000 new school buildings in the last decade.   He also expressed some of the former challenges, particularly in the coordination and adequacy of troops and funding.  Despite ongoing struggles, Ambassador Tanin has hope that with the second term of President Karzai, the strong commitment of the Afghan government to the national agenda, and the sustained role of the international community for a successful transition to Afghan-led ownership and responsibility, peace and progress can be achieved.  However, as Ambassador Tanin expressed, with this optimism comes the burden of hard work, and diligent follow through ahead.

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