My country has occupied Afghanistan for over two decades. Long before it was called Afghanistan, the geographical area that we know of as the country today, was a clattering crossroads for ethnic and religious groups from across South and Central Asia.
In the late 19th century, England colonized Afghanistan and implemented a Western model of government. Eventually, Afghanistan declared its independence and as often happens in post colonial states, the central government crumbled with corruption, inexperience and instability. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States jockeyed for control of the region.
Soviet invasion left one million Afghans dead and hollowed out the central government. The extremist Taliban eventually rose to power in the mid 1990s. Human rights groups reported on horrific violations against women and ethnic minorities under Taliban rule. Usama Bin Laden, the Taliban and the tragedy of the September 11 terrorist attacks hang together with Afghanistan in the American mind. The footprints of American boots hitting the ground in the mountains of Afghanistan in October 2001 highlighted the building polarization of the Muslim and American worlds.
Taliban rule toppled in early 2002 and Hamid Karzai was put in place as President. Political stability was a tall order given the nature of governance in Afghanistan as a milieu of deeply entrenched local, religious and ethnic customs separated from each other by mountains and dust, and encapsulated under the azure Central Asian sky. In 2012, American forces killed Usama Bin Laden in Pakistan. American troops continue their decade long reconstruction efforts and are incrementally leaving Afghanistan.
I read a memoir a couple of years ago called The Places in Between by Rory Stewart, a writer and highly decorated British foreign service officer. Mr. Stewart walked across Afghanistan in 2002–just after the fall of the Taliban. His journey places him in the footsteps of Babur, a Central Asian conqueror who is famous in the establishment of Afghanistan in the 16th century. Mr. Stewart says this about the country: “…Afghanistan was the missing section of my walk, the place in between the deserts and the Himalayas, between Persian, Hellenic, and Hindu culture, between Islam and Buddhism, between mystical and militant Islam. I wanted to see where these cultures merged into one another or touched the global world.”
I have eaten Afghan food only once–in Jackson Heights, Queens where I was treated to the delicious Afghan kebab. In my limited experience, the food of Afghanistan seems to be a mix between Persian, Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine. It is heavily focused on rice based dishes; chalow and palao among them. Raisins, carrots, pistachios and lamb are popular mix ins to rice dishes. Afghanistan does not specifically have a pastry tradition as dessert is usually a plate of dried fruit and nuts. But there are some sweet treats including firnee–a sweet cardamom pudding with pistachios, carrot pudding, Khatai cookies and Afghan baklava.*
On a final note, while I am not an expert on the Afghan case, I work at a research center at Columbia University that studies the resolution of conflict and the sustainability of peace. The conflict in Afghanistan is (or was) highly intractable and resistant to resolution for decades. The hatred that a powerful extremist group felt for the Western world brought great tragedy to my own country and unfortunately incited the vengeance of war. Usama Bin Laden and his followers also disfigured Islam and perpetuated an erroneous and offensive image of Muslims.
I hope that the future of Afghanistan is marked by a stable government that manages to balance respect for religious and ethnic traditions and improvements in health, education and women’s rights. I also hope that Afghanistan can do this on its own–without the whirring of Blackhawk helicopters on the horizon.
*Special thanks to this site for opening my eyes to Afghan desserts.