Afghanistan: Forged by a continually shifting cauldron of empires, cultures and ideas

Afghanistan: Forged by a continually shifting cauldron of empires, cultures and ideasRuins of the German-designed Dar al-Aman Palace, Kabul. (Photo: Nile Green.)

The multilayered history and culture of Afghanistan was the focus of a workshop for K–12 teachers held July 29–31 at Bunche Hall on the UCLA campus.

The modern Afghan state has been characterized by a destabilizing multiplicity of political models, which have shifted according to the ruler in power and the historical circumstances of the era, says UCLA Professor Nile Green.

By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

UCLA International Institute, August 16, 2013 — The International Institute hosted the "Afghanistan Institute" for K–12 teachers from July 29 to July 31. Designed to provide accurate, deep background on Afghanistan by noted scholars, the three-day educational workshop also offered numerous resources and pedagogical suggestions for incorporating information on ancient and modern Afghanistan into the Californian standards-based curriculum. A baker’s dozen of educators from throughout the state — mostly middle and high school history and social studies teachers— attended. 

Workshop participants and UCLA Center X teacher-leader Sandy Line (far right) listen to a lecture. (Photo: Peggy McInerny.)
The workshop was jointly organized by the Center for Near Eastern Studies, the Asia Institute’s Program on Central Asia and the Center for European and Eurasian Studies, with funding from a Title VI federal grant of the U.S. Department of Education. The Center X History-Geography Project (part of the UCLA Graduate School of Education & Information Studies) provided pedagogical support and its co-director, Mary Miller, facilitated the workshop.
Looking from the present to the ancient past
Most Americans are familiar only with the facts of Afghanistan’s most recent history. Invaded by the Soviet Union in 1979, the country found itself at the heart of the Cold War in the 1980s, when the United States covertly funded an Islamic-based resistance movement of mujahideen. The withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989 was followed by a civil war (1989–96) among regional warlords (former mujahideen), eventually producing the extremist Islamist Taliban regime (1996–2001). 
Following the 9/11 bombings in 2001, the United States invaded Afghanistan, aided by former Afghan warlords returning from exile, to rout the Al-Qaeda forces based in the country and remove the Taliban from power. The U.S. is currently drawing down its troop levels in the country in anticipation of a final 2014 combat withdrawal. 
Despite the major U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan over the last 13 years, workshop participants said middle and high school history textbooks offer little to no information about the country, which has a long, rich and dizzyingly complex history. 
The site of continually shifting empires and invasions from both west and east, the territory of modern Afghanistan was frequently on the edge of both pre-modern and modern empires that did not completely control it. It has been subject to alternating periods of rule (or influence) by Persian, Macedonian, Sasanian, Sogdian, Islamic and, later, British and Russian powers, as well as by a long and varied list of nomadic tribes (including Saka/Scythian, Kushan, Mongol, Mughal and Turkic). 

UC Irvine Professor of History Touraj Daryaee.
The conquest of Alexander the Great and, subsequently, the Seleucid and Bactrian kingdoms endowed the country with a strong Hellenic heritage, including the Bactrian language —an eastern Iranian language written in Greek script that endured until the ninth century. According to Touraj Daryaee, professor of history at UC Irvine; it was in the Bactrian kingdom (roughly 250 to 125 BC) where the Hellenic and Central Asian cultures met and merged.
The country has also historically been home to various religions, many of which co-existed peacefully for centuries under empires dedicated to trade. Those religions included Zoroastrianism, Hellenic cults, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and, ultimately, Islam. Yet the cultural identity of the region remained firmly Central Asian even under Islam, as Arabic never became the lingua franca. Persian remained the language of state through the 1930s, despite a series of Pashtun leaders in modern times (a number of whom did not actually speak Pashtun).
Modern Afghanistan

UCLA Professor of History Nile Green.
The modern state of Afghanistan did not emerge until the late 1800s. According to historian Nile Green, UCLA professor of history and director of the Program on Central Asia, that state has been characterized by a destabilizing multiplicity of political models, which have shifted according to the ruler in power and the historical circumstances of the era. 
These models have included direct experience of rule from afar by a shah or emperor; rule by the khans of local Central Asian city states (northern Afghanistan); and local rule at the village level by tribal maliks (headmen). The country has also been exposed to the Persian and Turkic traditions of the Central Asian steppes, where tribal societies were ruled by a leader who was first among equals; the Islamic model of a sultan governing with the advice of the ulama (Islamic clergy); and the religious notion of a political leader as the “commander of the [Islamic] faithful.” 
Later, the paradigms of Indian imperial princedoms, European sovereign kings, and even modern European dictatorships were added to the mix, often as the result of Afghans traveling abroad and returning home with new ideas and philosophies.
In dynamic lectures that mixed primary source documents with video clips, journalist and UCLA lecturer Nushin Arbabzadah examined the complex political and cultural landscape of Afghanistan since the Soviet invasion of 1979. She noted that experimentation with new political models has continued unabated— from Soviet occupation and Afghan communist rule, to secular warlords, to fundamentalist Taliban rule, to the present-day Islamic Republic. She judged all these models equally unsuccessful. 
In her view, the overthrow and assassination of President Mohammad Daoud Khan in 1978 by forces aligned with the Afghan Communist Party marked the end of traditional Afghan politics. That coup initiated an ongoing period in which global powers became directly involved in the country’s governance, introducing significant structural change into its politics. Who has the right to rule Afghanistan remains an open and contested question, said Arbabzadah, as do the reasons for both the Soviet invasion and withdrawal.
The tumult of the last 30 some years has displaced 6 million Afghans from the country to Iran and Pakistan, as well as to the United Kingdom, the United States and other western countries. Arbabzadah, who grew up in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation, reflected that the common experience of many contemporary Afghans is to live and study in many countries and speak four to five languages. Many people educated abroad have now returned to the country to play leading roles in society, she commented, returning with still more new ideas.
Arbabzadah emphasized that Afghanistan has enjoyed peace and prosperity in modern times only when it had a treaty with Pakistan. Border issues with its neighbor have remained a continual problem, as Pakistan inherited the Pashtun center of Peshawar from British-ruled India (the result of a boundary imposed on Afghanistan by the British after the second Anglo-Afghan War of 1878–80.) 
Bringing an accurate picture of Afghanistan into the classroom
At regular intervals between presentations at the workshop, Sandy Line, a teacher-leader from the UCLA Center X History-Geography Project, led discussions and modeled lessons about Afghanistan for students at different levels. 
Karna Cruz, who has been teaching history for eight years at Concord High in Concord, California, remarked, “I didn't really know much about Afghanistan before coming to this conference. . . . I've received a lot of really great information that I can take back and use for lesson planning for all different levels of students.” One thing she specifically aims to do is correct the misinformation about Afghanistan that she believes is common among her high schools students.
Cindy Mata has been teaching U.S. history and government/economics at Edgewood High School in West Covina, California (Los Angeles Country), for five years. “Because I [cover] modern U.S. history, I've been keeping up-to-date with what's going on currently with the war in Afghanistan,” she said, “but the [workshop] has been really helpful in going all the way back to medieval and ancient periods.
“This idea that Afghanistan has been constantly going through all these different rulers — I think that's something that I can bring in [to my classes]. It makes it more relevant to today. So it's not just happening now — it's been happening throughout the course of history.”
Both teachers greatly enjoyed the teaching techniques employed by Nushin Arbabzadah. “I love Nushin’s technique of incorporating lectures and primary source analysis and making the lectures more interactive with the students,” said Cruz, “I'll be definitely using that, as well as the techniques that the [Center X] teachers have been showing.” Added Mata, “I liked the human aspect of Nushin's presentations — not just the primary [source] documents, but primary documents from the view of the people [involved in events]. . . being able to have access to that for a period like the [Afghan war] is really important to me.”
As these teachers begin to incorporate their deeper understanding of Afghan history and culture into their lessons, the students of California can only benefit. 
For more than 30 years, the Center for Near Eastern Studies (CNES), the Asia Institute and the Center for European and Eurasian Studies have been training K–12 teachers to become more effective educators and leaders in their classrooms and schools, and among their peers and colleagues. Their accredited teacher workshops (LAUSD and UCLA Extension provide salary points and continuing education credits) deliver State of California standards-based content, together with pedagogical suggestions for cultivating students’ higher-order critical thinking skills. 


Pre-Modern Afghanistan: Who Are These People?

A Lecture by Nile Green, UCLA

Contested Central Asia: Alexander to the Great Game

A lecture by Touraj Daryaee, UC Irvine

Contested Again: Afghanistan Since 1979

A lecture by Nushin Arbabzadeh, UCLA

Emergence of the Modern Afghan State

A lecture by Nile Green, UCLA

image for printer

Published: Friday, August 16, 2013