Daily Archives: 29 January 2020

Modern Military, Backward Economy

From Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, by Thomas Barfield (Princeton U. Press, 2010), Kindle pp. 160-161:

In the first chapter of this book, I examined Afghanistan in terms of the longue durée aspects of material life and social organization, which had persisted for centuries and even millennia. These included features of agricultural production, exchange relationships, ethnic groups, and cohesive geographic units. From this perspective, most of Abdur Rahman’s achievements were ephemeral—political changes imposed from above at great cost that appeared transformative but were not. The amir had used his access to new military technology to outmatch his opponents, but he resolutely resisted the introduction of other new technologies (such as rail transport, steam engines, and telegraph lines) that were transforming the economic organization and social structure of his neighbors. As a result, the Afghan economy remained overwhelmingly subsistence based, and goods continued to move to markets as they always had—on the backs of donkeys, horses, and camels over unimproved caravan trails. Agricultural surpluses could not be profitable transported from one region of the country to another, let alone easily exported. The state industries that historians use as examples of the amir’s innovations in fact simply equipped his military with modern arms and raised revenues for his government. They had no transformative impact on the Afghan economy because they were located almost exclusively in Kabul and required imported raw materials to function. Most significantly, while the amir had eliminated the old regional elites as political players and gained power over their territories by military force, he did not alter rural Afghan society. The social structure of qawms and the regional ties they represented still predominated at the village and provincial levels. They may have been subordinated to the Kabul government or displaced by warfare, but these social structures had not been eradicated or even greatly changed. Kabul therefore became the leading political and economic center of Afghanistan because it was the amir’s capital and the exclusive seat of government. Yet it was a center only by default: Afghanistan’s level of urbanization was higher in the fifteenth century under the Timurids, when Herat and Balkh were international centers of culture and commerce—something that late nineteenth-century Kabul (with a population of only fifty thousand) never came close to achieving.

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