Afghanistan and Nepal are two faraway mountainous countries about which most Canadians know very little. In this section, we hope to go some way toward rectifying that collective ignorance.
The population size of the two countries is nearly identical – roughly equal to Canada’s. Both are desperately poor. Nepal’s per capita income is half that of India; Afghanistan’s is estimated by the CIA to be half that of Nepal. (Any estimate for Afghanistan is confounded by the problem of estimating income from illegal poppy production.) Both countries have experienced protracted civil war. Both have national governments that are weak and bedevilled by corruption, with only a feeble diktat beyond the capital city.
Afghanistan shares with other countries, notably Iraq, the historical burden of borders defined by past imperial masters. The result is a country of divided ethnicities and contingent loyalties. The Pashtun in the south are more than 40 per cent of the population; the second largest group, the Tajik in the north, are more than a quarter. Like the Iraqi Kurds, who have a stronger affinity to the Kurds of Turkey, Syria and Iran than to Iraqi Arabs, many among the Pashtun in Afghanistan identify with neighbours in Pakistan. Some in the south dream of a Pashtun state carved from southern Afghanistan, northwest and western Pakistan (see the accompanying map).
Marc André Boivin, Doug McArthur and Hakan Tunç analyze the state of Afghan politics, economy and war from different academic disciplines. That said, all three conclude that Canada should remain engaged militarily in the country’s civil war. The fourth contributor, Ernie Regehr, is torn as to whether Canada should remain or withdraw.
All four write without illusions, mindful of the country’s history and insistent that progress in civil society – better governance, better schools and health care – is as essential as military force if Afghanistan is to escape the torment of war that has been the country’s fate since the Soviet invasion of 1979.
To visit Kathmandu in 2006, as I did in August, is to hear echoes of what the political life in Aleksandr Kerensky’s Petrograd must have been in 1917. Hence the title of Dominic Cardy’s article, in which he introduces readers to Nepal’s political complexities, much as he did with Cambodia’s in a previous issue of Inroads (summer/fall 2005). In Nepal today, as in Petrograd nine decades ago, a discredited monarchy has yielded power to a weak “bourgeois” government that, in turn, is being effectively challenged by a well organized, ideologically driven insurrection. In both cases, the peasantry was tired of war.
In November 2006, the Maoists and the government reached a deal. In the words of the BBC’s correspondent: “The deal offers huge gains. until May they were regarded as terrorists here; their leaders were wanted men. But by 1 December they will take their place in a temporary cabinet, sharing ministerial posts equally with each of the other main parties.” The Maoists have emerged from the jungle, led by a reincarnation of Lenin. Will their leader, Prachanda, try – God forbid – to apply the economics of Pol Pot, another guerrilla leader who emerged triumphant from the jungle? Or will he pursue policies compatible with Bukharin? Most Canadians know even less about Nepal than they do about Afghanistan. And most would be embarrassed if asked to answer these questions. The political future of the country is highly uncertain, and potentially violent. In addition to Dominic Cardy’s article, Inroads is pleased to publish two shorter pieces by people who, like Dominic, know Nepal’s potential and troubles first-hand: Shrishti Rana, a Nepalese development worker and journalist, and Dane Berry, a graduate student at Simon Fraser University who worked with Dominic and Shrishti in Nepal in the summer of 2006.