Index > Briefing
Tuesday, August 17, 2021
The Future of Historical Realism
Chan Kung

The recent rapid rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan has shocked the world, and there are much for the world to ponder about.

It is of no wonder that the current situation in Afghanistan makes one recall the Afghan leader Mohammad Najibullah. Born in 1947 in an aristocratic family in Kabul, Najibullah’s family was well-off; his grandfather was a tribal chieftain and his father was a diplomat. With such privilege, Najibullah received good education from an early age and eventually obtained medical degree from the Kabul University.

Najibullah however, did not have the desire to be a medical practitioner. When he was 18 years old, he joined the Parcham (Banner) faction of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), which leaned towards the Soviet Union, and became a crucial member. For this reason, he was arrested and imprisoned twice. In 1977, after Najibullah was released from prison as a 30 years old man, he was elected to the PDPA Central Committee and formally entered the top political ranks. In 1978, a coup took place in Afghanistan. The PDPA overthrew the Mohammed Daoud Khan regime and took over the country. In a PDPA’s internal conflict, Najibullah was ousted, forced to exile in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and expelled from the party. Thereafter, in 1979, Hafizullah Amin launched a coup d'état to overthrow the PDPA and embarked on the path of opposing the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union then officially sent troops into Afghanistan in 1979, assassinating Amin, and brought Najibullah who was in Eastern Europe back to Afghanistan, who later became the president of the Afghan communist regime.

At the end of the 1980s, with the imminent Soviet Union’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, Najibullah changed his political tone, as he had to make plans, arrangements for his own, and his country’s future. Being a skillful orator in Pashto and Dari, he was also charismatic. Discarding the pro-Soviet pretense, he began to portray himself as a nationalist. He talked about unity and proposed comprehensive plan for national reconciliation against the Islamic jihadist rebels. This national reconciliation plan is nothing short of politically avant-garde. It involves protecting the rights of women and children, or protecting human rights for that matter, and involving education and other social aspects. In order to heal the chaotic situation in Afghanistan, Najibullah also courageously declared the legalization of the political parties and initiated the process of national reconciliation. He advocated that the negotiations of various factions and join the government to end the state of confrontation, so that peace may return to the country. At the same time, he pledged to reform the government system, and establish electoral system, including presidential elections, thereby promoting the democratization of Afghanistan.

Yet, it should not be forgotten that there were those who were tortured and killed under the Najibullah regime by his secret police, and it was doubtful if they were willing to reconcile. Of course, his Islamist opponents would not be less cruel.

On September 27, 1996, Taliban soldiers broke into the UN office in Kabul and dragged Najibullah out of it, accusing him of apostasy and castrated him in public, then dragged his body behind a truck through the streets of Kabul. Died at 49 years old, Najibullah’s dead body was later hung on a traffic light pole to show the public the advent of a new era. Even more gruesome, his mouth was filled with banknotes and all his fingers were chopped off. His brother Shahpur Ahmadizai also suffered the same fate.

The most difficult thing when one faces history is to remain objective, to abandon the pre-established position, and to adopt a truly realist attitude. The complexity of history cannot and should not conceal the objectivity of history. History after all, is a social experiment, and it is a real objective existence.

It is worth pointing out that the cycle of history has repeated itself. Those who opposed Najibullah’s national reconciliation plan were the Taliban supported by intelligence agencies of the United States and Pakistan in the past, where they won the final victory. The Afghan government, which the United States fully supports today, is now collapsing at an unprecedented speed. It is interesting to note that after the Taliban occupied Afghanistan, they now proposed their own version of the national reconciliation plan, which is roughly the same as the one by Najibullah.

The "inclusive government" proposed by the Taliban claims to guarantee social stability and security, allow women to be educated and work, and even declare a general amnesty. While the governments of Western countries remain skeptical, most are still observing the situation before taking further actions.

When it comes to the understanding of such situation in Afghanistan, we cannot avoid the dichotomy of realism and idealism. Realism is understood to be an objective process that focuses on real interests and uses the so-called "facts" or "reality" as reasons, and transcends above idealism, morality, subjective positions, or emotional influence. Realism deals with all affairs objectively and without emotion, and opposes speculative trading and balance that are deemed to be "unrealistic". In the field of international relations, realism, as a kind of theory and practice, pays particular attention to the balance of power between countries, rather than the basis of public opinion such as ideals, credibility, morality, and justice. The problem is that the latter is precisely the key to the huge Afghan army surrendering without a fight.

The main problem of realism, as it stands, is that it inappropriately reduces the history, ethnicities, cultures, traditions, and public opinions of a country to mere simple geopolitical game, and the only goal is to win or lose in the game. The reality of Afghanistan, as well as the vicious cycles of other parts of the world, remind us that this type of realist theory is outmoded. The world cannot, and should not get stuck in such cycles, and certainly ought not to create them.

Today Taliban’s swift victory in Afghanistan reminds us of the importance of public opinion in historical scenarios. Such public opinion includes a large number of traditional and historical factors. If realist theory cannot be constrained within the historical framework, then this kind of realism can be extremely dangerous and harmful. In other words, what the future world needs is a kind of valuable realism, one that can eliminate such vicious cycles and self-denial. In short, we need a kind of historical realism.

What exactly is historical realism? While there is no consensus on its definition, but basically it means that if history is defined as a social experiment, then the realism built on the framework of this social experiment is historical realism. In other words, realism must be measured in the framework of history, and must rely on the objective experience provided by history to explain and understand the world. Therefore, historical realism will iron out some factors that have been neglected by previous realisms and maintain the most basic dignity of humanity, society and civilization. Historical realism therefore, is true realism.

The theories that merely and blindly emphasizes on geopolitical game are now proven to be unsuccessful by history and reality. In contrast with it, historical realism will belong to the future era.


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