Afghanistan in the 1970s thus offered a textbook example of what the economists like to call a “rentier state”—one that lives by exploiting the advantages of good fortune (natural resources or favorable strategic position) rather than capitalizing on the talents and skills of its people. There were deep-seated historical reasons for this. Afghan rulers had long governed according to a somewhat minimalist philosophy, dictated, to some extent, by the country’s bewildering ethnic diversity and its fantastically rugged terrain. Roads were few and far between. The high mountains and deep valleys fragmented the population, exacerbating differences of language and custom. When the Soviets finally completed the Salang Tunnel in 1964, the world’s highest traffic tunnel at the time, they supplied the missing link to a road that connected the northern and southern halves of the country for the first time in its history. The Americans, meanwhile, had already built the first east-west highway, from Kabul to Kandahar. This new infrastructure transformed Afghanistan’s economy and dramatically simplified the government’s ability to communicate with the interior.
Even so, the average Afghan’s dealings with Kabul remained shallow and infrequent. The primary function of the local administration was less to provide people with public services, few of which were available in the countryside to begin with, than to prevent them from organizing opposition. Most people correspondingly regarded officials as a remote and somewhat unnecessary presence, better avoided than engaged. American anthropologist Thomas Barfield, who conducted field research in Afghanistan in the mid-1970s, noted that, for most Afghans in the countryside, “government” meant not a concept but a place, namely, the local government compound. “On passing out its front gate, and particularly after leaving the road that led to it, ‘government’ ended,” he wrote. (And this, in turn, helps to explain why literacy rates in the country were so shockingly low. In the 1970s, only 10 percent of the population could read or write—and only 2 percent of women.)
The real power in most communities came from traditional leaders, usually tribal notables or landowners. The local khan might provide jobs, adjudicate disputes, or allocate resources (especially water, that scarce but vital commodity for this overwhelmingly rural population), and his authority rippled through the intricate networks of kinship that structured most of society. The leader’s followers judged his legitimacy in part according to his success at distributing wealth. In the old days, that might have meant the booty from battle, but in the 1960s and 1970s, this often translated into access to a cushy government job or a place in the university in Kabul. Afghanistan is often described rather loosely as a “tribal society,” but the reality is more complex, given the fantastic ethnic and social diversity of the place. The word Afghans use for the defining characteristic of their society is qawm, which can refer not only to networks of blood relationships but also to linguistic, religious, and geographical traits that shape the group to which an individual belongs. A Turkic-speaking Uzbek might define himself above all by the dialect that he speaks, a Persian-speaking Tajik by the district that he hails from, a Pashtun by his tribal affiliation.
If anything could be said to unite them all, it is religion. Virtually all Afghans are Muslims, most of them Sunnis. (The most prominent exception are the Hazaras, an ethnic group, descended from the Mongols, who happen to be Shiites.) Even in the 1960s and ’70s, observers often remarked upon the simple piety of the people in Afghanistan. All activity stopped whenever the call to prayer sounded from the local mosque. References to God and the Prophet punctuated everyday speech. Public figures were expected to invoke the supremacy of the Almighty at every turn.
Yet this did not mean that religion and politics seamlessly overlapped. Throughout their history, Afghans had known rule by kings, not religious leaders. Village mullahs, who performed a variety of religious services in exchange for fees, were often regarded as corrupt or buffoonish, the butt of jokes rather than figures of respect. There were, of course, some religious figures who enjoyed privileged status—Islamic scholars, perhaps, or pirs, Sufi spiritual leaders. But none of these individuals had any clearly defined institutional power over the others. The diffuse quality of Afghan Islam was also a product of practices that many other Sunni Muslims would have regarded as heterodox—such as the veneration of saints, whose graves, beflagged and decorated, were treated as holy places. In Iran, the Shiite religious elite presided over a clearly defined hierarchy, which greatly increased the power of the clerics. In Afghanistan, there were no central religious institutions to speak of. Islam was flat, localized, and fragmented.