Arnold Toynbee once described Afghanistan as a "roundabout of the ancient world"-a huge Piccadilly Circus with roads fanning out to China, Pakistan, Iran, and Russia, via the Central Asian republics.
But the Afghanistan of more recent times resembles another place in the round: Dante's ninth circle of hell, the abode of sinners, devoid of human warmth, guilty of treachery again kin and compatriots, obtuse to the moral demands of familial ties.
Sixteen U.S. soldiers died in initial combat in Afghanistan in 2001; 80 people have died in war-related violence in the past month. The latest casualties included eight U.S. soldiers killed in an explosion near Ghazni on Jan. 29, the deadliest day for Americans since the fall of the Taliban.
As U.S. forces work to deepen stability in Afghanistan, they face a difficult question: how much to trust the Afghans? Lingering Taliban moles are capitalizing on better relations between soldiers and locals to lure U.S. forces into their traps. Uncovering weapons caches is tricky. The blast last month occurred as soldiers examined a store of rifle ammunition and mortar rounds. Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty, a spokesman at U.S. military headquarters in Kabul, said the explosion could have been an accident, but said the United States would investigate to determine whether it was a booby trap.
In the 20th-century Afghanistan, no fewer than 11 rulers were unseated in unseemly fashion: assassination (1919), abdication (1929), execution (1929), assassination (1933), deposition (1973), execution (1978), execution (1979), execution (1979), removal (1987), overthrow (1992), overthrow (1996). Genuine reformers have entered that arena before. But their efforts have been thwarted at each turn by countervailing powers seemingly guided by the dictum of Milton's Satan: "better to reign in hell, than serve in heav'n."
With focus shifted to Iraq, Afghanistan nonetheless faces a crucial test to show the nation can now settle into constitutional, representative government. If not, yet another circular image comes to mind: the oriental view of time. Can Afghanistan overcome the cycle of meaningless and bloody events?
The current government needs to rely on a strong constitution to begin the process of reform in Afghanistan-a document that incorporates adequate checks and balances for competing interests and protects the human rights of all, particularly in the area of religious freedom. Yet so far, more questions have been raised than resolved by the new document.
Afghanistan's grand assembly, the loya jirga, approved a constitution early this year, and President Hamid Karzai signed it on Jan. 26. The three-week delay in the signing ceremony prompted opposition leaders to accuse the president of making last-minute unauthorized changes to the document. Already, human-rights advocates say the document will not provide full religious freedom.
If constitutional government can be strengthened in the months ahead, then a bigger challenge can also be addressed: to promote a worldview-through schools, religious organizations, and mass media-that balances the human needs of freedom and order.
When U.S. educator Daryl McCarthy arrived in Kabul last year to lead workshops in philosophy at Kabul University, he said some of his students-all university professors-had not held a book in 20 years. "The university system was completely shut down," he said. "This was their first chance to reconnect with the West in any way." He said some female professors described being locked in their apartments for years. From their perspective, he said, the new constitution and the current government is a miracle.
"They love Americans and they are very loyal," said Mr. McCarthy. "They say, 'You rescued us from the Soviets, and now you have rescued us from the Taliban.'"
For U.S. forces in the region, currently numbering around 10,000, that rescue is incomplete without the capture of Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar. With spring thaws beginning this month, the Pentagon is planning a spring offensive to rout Taliban and al-Qaeda holdouts. U.S. soldiers, according to Lt. Col. Hilferty, are "sure" they will catch the chief suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks this year, and perhaps within months.
-with reporting by Mindy Belz;
Paul F. Scotchmer, Ph.D., is a consultant on international education and board member of the International Council for Higher Education, USA