After completing his A.B. at Princeton in 1970, Michael Barry came back to campus in 2004 to serve as lecturer in the Near Eastern Studies Department. His signature course, NES 307: Afghanistan and the Great Powers 1747-2001, explores social and political dynamics within the country as well as the ways in which Afghan culture has intersected with the interests of its neighbors and those of the European powers.
Barry emphasizes that outside powers all too often treat Afghanistan as a “negative space,” conceiving of it as either a volatile tribal hinterland to be contained or as a strategic zone that must be denied to the enemy at all costs. As long as one’s enemy does not control Afghanistan, it does not matter who does. As long as whatever happens there stays within the country’s borders, who cares?
Barry cares, and he knows why it should matter to us as well. Though it tends not to prejudice the sobriety of his historical calculations, underneath his scholarly discourse there runs a deep current of compassion.
In the following interview we ask Michael Barry to reflect on the changes he has witnessed in Afghanistan since his childhood and on the rapidly evolving situation there today.
The Nassau Weekly: Professor Barry, were you born in France?
Michael Barry: No, no. I was actually born in New York City.
NW: Then why do you publish in French?
MB: Par-ce que j’ai grandi en France, I grew up in France.
NW: And when did you move there?
MB: When I was three months old. My parents were very keen to have me born in the United States so that one day I could become President.
NW: Ah. So what was your connection to Afghanistan as a child?
MB: A friend of my mother married an Afghan prince, and when I found out about it as a teenager, I was so excited by this strange country over there whose photographs I was seeing that I begged to be invited. I spent my summers there.
NW: When you go to Kabul today, do you see the Kabul of your childhood surviving anywhere?
MB: The Kabul that once existed now, in a sense, no longer exists. The Kabul that once existed was a little city of 300,000 people with pristine mountain air and most of the population living a very traditional life in mud wall compounds with drinking water they got out of their wells. You had a small core that was beginning to be westernized, but the majority of the population was still very traditional. The city was intimately connected with its surrounding countryside, fresh vegetable produce being brought in by peasants with their donkeys, which would trot out of the city in the evenings with refuse, including human refuse for the fields. The city was essentially flushing itself out in the traditional way. This city basically survived intact under Soviet rule, because the Mujahedeen were unable to accomplish more than pinpricks on Kabul itself, even though Kabul failed to control the countryside. When the Soviets withdrew, however, Kabul began to be destroyed between opposing factions, one of which was supported fully by the Pakistani military that gave the Islamist factions, namely the Pashtuns, overwhelming firepower, which leveled part of Kabul. So Kabul, physically, was to a large extend damaged in the 1990s after the Soviet withdrawal. The Northern Alliance withdrew from Kabul in September 1996, realizing that Pakistani supplied firepower was such that the Taliban would be able to flatten the city completely. They withdrew in order to avoid the complete destruction of Kabul, so the Taliban moved in and occupied it.
Meanwhile, the degradation of Afghan life that had begun under Soviet rule and continued during the factional fighting, the seeding of the Afghan countryside with anti-personnel mines made so much of the countryside unsafe that peasants poured into the city, trying to find safe refuge and perhaps a place where the international presence might handout food. The population of Kabul today is more than four million people. To me the abiding disgrace of the American period that replaces the Taliban period—remember that we own it, in the sense that we have militarily occupied it since the end of 2001—is that the water supply of Kabul and the sewage system have not been expanded.
The result is that Kabul is a colossal mess of raw sewage seeping into and further polluting the central river, which is a bed of typhus and cholera. The people who live in low-rent mud shanties hugging the sides of the hills that surround Kabul must collect their water from what spigots they can find in the city center. The city center itself is occupied by the foreign quarter where rents are now as high as $10,000 a month for a decent compound with security, which means that the only people who are there—well, it’s become a kind of international ghetto in the heart of the city, which ordinary Afghans can’t even penetrate. That ghetto has all the modern amenities including water that is flown in from the United States or Europe, but outside that there is a seething cesspool of absolute misery, worse than in 1960s or 1970s. The local discontent in Kabul itself has fed into anti-foreign perceptions throughout the country:
“If this is the way our capital is treated, then obviously the United States and its allies have no interest in the Afghan people as such. They demonstrated that by diverting their resources to Iraq in 2003, when we had been promised a Marshall Plan type buildup. The disgrace, physically, that Kabul is today feeds directly into Taliban propaganda.”
NW: How did you come to be in Afghanistan around the time of the Soviet period? You were there in lieu of doing what, if you take my meaning?
MB: In lieu of nothing. I was interested in the archeology of the area, and when the pro-Soviet government took over in April 1978 I was already in academia at McGill working with both the English and the French. I was beginning to get many, many stories of repression and mass executions being carried out in Kabul. And I was contacted increasingly in 1979 by international organizations like Amnesty International and the International Federation of Human Rights. I took a very fateful decision: I said that I cannot go on in academia in medieval archeology and art. I cannot turn my back on a people whose language I speak and with whom I lived as a young person.
So, I became involved in humanitarian work. First, I was the representative of the International Federation of Human Rights, with whom I investigated human rights violations from 1979 to 1984. I was based in Paris, but constantly going into Afghanistan clandestinely until a saturation point in 1984, when I knew that I did not want to register another human rights atrocity; I wanted to do something more constructive, like humanitarian assistance.
I was then contacted by Bernard Kouchner, who’s currently the French Foreign Minister, but who at that time was the head of Doctors of the World. He asked me to take over their Afghani and Pakistani operations, which I did. We were bringing in food, medicine, and medical volunteers clandestinely across from Pakistani to Afghanistan and were helped by those populations that are now revolting against us. They were anti-Soviet, and I was able to move through large portions of the country until the Soviet withdrawal. I continued doing this with the United Nations between 1989 and 1994 as a team leader delivering assistance; I got to see a lot the country that way.
After the Taliban takeover, I felt that I really had no further purpose in Afghanistan; I wouldn’t work for that type of government. I did whatever I could from Europe: supporting girls’ schools, speaking at fundraisers, these kinds of things. I finished my PhD, and I thought that when the Taliban was overthrown in 2001 that chapter was closed and that Afghanistan could carry on with international assistance.
NW: Where you at all surprised by the recently reported news that President Obama is seriously reconsidering the troop surge promised in January, particularly under pressure from his Vice President?
MB: No, the United States is paying the price of the Bush Administration’s humanitarian neglect and has to consider the fact that while more troops will provide security for technical reconstruction, they will also provide fodder for xenophobic resentment, alienation, and the sense that the United States is an occupying force. The United States is caught in the horns of a dilemma, much like the British or the Russians were. They chose to withdraw, figuring that Afghan hostility could be contained geographically and even modified by assistance to this or that chief. Bin Laden’s plan in allying himself with the Taliban has been to threaten the United States explicitly and to turn, once again, Afghanistan into a base, impregnable now, from which to launch attacks against American interests. He may not carry out those threats, but bin Laden and Al-Qaeda are doing their very best to make those threats credible in order to force the United States into staying as an occupying force in Afghanistan. He wants to bleed American troops. That’s bin Laden’s plan. So I can understand any American administration weighing whether it is wise to pursue a strategy that Al-Qaeda seems to be inviting.
NW: Is there any chance that Afghanistan will eventually be given back to Pakistan as it essentially was before the Taliban régime? Could there be an understanding that Islamabad can again organize the government in Kabul, but this time they can’t prop up Sunni fundamentalists?
MB: Anything can happen, truly anything can happen, but we’re also seeing in the region a shift in the pieces of the puzzle, a return to major preponderance of certain regional powers…
NW: India and Iran?
MB: Yes and Russia, which may be coming back if only because of the Iranian-Russian tie, which brings them right to the heart of the region anyway. These players will be extremely active in the Afghan field with or without an American withdrawal.
NW: Is anything better than the Taliban?
MB: I would compare the Taliban in Islamic terms to the Khmer Rouge in Marxist-Leninist terms. So nothing gets worse than that, which means that if America withdraws from Afghanistan and the kind of Taliban régime we saw in the 1990s returns to power, then it will be a humanitarian tragedy of Cambodian proportion. That may not happen, or it very well may.
NW: Professor Barry, thank you so much.
MB: Thank you.