Category Archives: Central Asia

Afghan National Budget Sources

From Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, by Thomas Barfield (Princeton U. Press, 2010), Kindle pp. 311-312:

Despite Afghanistan’s well-deserved reputation for independence, no government there was ever stable without access to foreign sources of revenue. While such income took many different forms, obtaining it remained a high priority for every Afghan regime. Ahmad Shah Durrani mounted raids on India and took tribute from there in the eighteenth century. Nineteenth-century rulers made peace deals with the British raj in exchange for substantial subsidies and access to modern weapons. The Musahiban rulers of Afghanistan exploited the cold war rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States to modernize Afghanistan’s military and develop its economy. The PDPA was entirely dependent on resources from the Soviet Union to keep it afloat. The Karzai government was equally dependent on the United States and other Western countries.

The problem for Afghan rulers was that under ordinary circumstances, there was little incentive for foreign governments to provide the assistance that was vital for their regimes’ survival. The only way to overcome this obstacle was to make Afghanistan seem important (or dangerous) enough to justify these payments. But here Afghan rulers were faced with a difficult task. They were acutely aware that they lived in a world where their country’s primary interests were always at the bottom of someone else’s agenda. Even taking the country seriously earned the rebuke of critics in nineteenth-century Britain; they coined the term “Afghanistanism” for those who exaggerated the significance of events in distant and obscure places. Yet time and time again, Afghanistan returned to the world stage with an importance that always belied this gloss and generated the revenue it was seeking. In the nineteenth century, Afghanistan’s successful resistance against the British gave it a central place as the frontier of the raj—negatively as a potential threat to India’s NWFP, and positively as a barrier to Russian expansion. In the latter part of the twentieth century, the Soviet Union and the United States each feared “losing Afghanistan” to the other. This gave a country with no developed resources or vital strategic location a remarkably crucial significance until the cold war ended with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It recovered that position when Islamic terrorism became a new world security issue and keeping Afghanistan free of it an international priority.

The U.S. invasion that expelled the Taliban and al Qaeda from Afghanistan created an odd circumstance in its wake. The usual priority among the Afghans of expelling foreign invaders was replaced by a tacit strategy of keeping them there to guarantee security and finance the development of the country. This was because the Afghan population was looking for stability after decades of war and protection against predation by factions within Afghanistan as well as from neighbors seeking to exploit its weaknesses. But accepting such assistance needed to be carefully balanced: a Kabul government that was dependent on it could be labeled a puppet regime unless it proved itself independent enough to protect Afghan interests and values. It was also dangerous to assume that the initial willingness of the Afghan people to accept foreign intervention had no expiration date. To be successful, foreign military assistance to the Afghan state needed to be self-liquidating, and foreign economic assistance needed to improve ordinary lives.

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Centralization in UN Afghanistan

From Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, by Thomas Barfield (Princeton U. Press, 2010), Kindle pp. 302-303:

Although Afghanistan’s regions had become autonomous during the Afghan civil war, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and the United States both pushed to reestablish a highly centralized government of the type that had failed repeatedly in the past. Abdur Rahman created the first centralized Afghan state in the late nineteenth century only after many bloody military campaigns, but his political goals had been limited to destroying internal rivals, preserving his supremacy, and maintaining order. Later rulers who thought they could use his state model to impose change on the country soon found that it was not up to the task. The reforming King Amanullah was overthrown, and his state collapsed in 1929, requiring two generations to fully restore. Only the Soviet invasion in 1979 preserved the unpopular PDPA regime from a similar collapse after it too found the Afghan state institutions weaker than expected. During the civil war that followed the dissolution of the PDPA in 1992, Afghanistan reverted to its older pattern of regional autonomy that even the Taliban could do little to change. Arriving UNAMA officials saw the lack of a strong centralized state as a symptom of Afghanistan’s problems and moved to restore it. Though written to serve monarchs, the constitutions of 1923 and 1964 were used as templates for the constitution of 2004. This new constitution made the Karzai government responsible for everything from appointing provincial governors to paying local schoolteachers.

The enthusiasm for restoring a highly centralized government was confined to the international community and the Kabul elite that ran it. Many other Afghans saw such governments as the source of Afghanistan’s past problems. Critics contended that decentralization better suited Afghanistan because such governments had so badly neglected the rest of the country. The nondemocratic regimes that had ruled Afghanistan previously saw this as an acceptable price for the greater political control it gave them, particularly by preventing the reemergence of powerful regional elites, which had characterized Afghan politics before 1880. But the impact of twenty-five years of warfare changed this situation. Regions wanted a direct choice in how they were to be governed at the local level. The international community saw assertions of such regional autonomy as signs of disorder that needed to be curbed. They dismissed decentralization proponents as supporters of warlords who would bring the country to ruin. In fact, establishing governmental order and services by region, rather than centrally from Kabul, had considerable merit. It would have proven more effective and given people more of a stake in local administration. In addition there was always the risk that if a highly centralized government faltered, the consequences would be nationwide.

Any prospect of central state failure was dismissed by those who touted Karzai as a sure bet for success after he steered the country through the constitutional process and his own election as president in 2004. Afghans were less sanguine because they saw Karzai in a different light, as a vacillating leader who was unwilling to confront his enemies or discipline his allies.

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Crucible of the Taliban

From Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, by Thomas Barfield (Princeton U. Press, 2010), Kindle pp. 255-257:

The Taliban was a cross-border movement led by Afghan Pashtuns trained in Deobandi madrasas in Pakistan. Its ideological roots lay there, and its Afghan leaders had close ties with religious parties in Pakistan. The madrasas had grown at a tremendous rate in Pakistan under Zia al Haq, attracting a large number of Afghan refugee boys by offering free room and board along with education. During the Soviet war, the schools’ graduates joined the mujahideen to fight in Afghanistan in defense of Islam through the existing Peshawar party structure. But because the civil war now pitted Muslim against Muslim, the Taliban movement’s goal shifted to ending the disorder while also reforming Afghanistan’s religious and cultural practices by creating a pure Islamic state along Salafist lines. This ambition was shared by the religious parties within Pakistan, but the disorder in Afghanistan gave the Taliban a better chance of achieving it.

The Taliban was unlike other Afghan political movements not only in the exclusively clerical origin of its leaders but in the refugee origins of its followers too. The Soviet war lasted for so long and the refugee flow into neighboring countries was so great that over time they created a new class of people: refugee Afghans born in Pakistan who had never seen the country or experienced life there. Refugee camps are notorious hotbeds for radical movements of all types because they are generally poor, provide few opportunities for young people, and are under the control of political factions that manipulate their populations. The hope of recovering a lost homeland is a particularly powerful ideal, but as time passes the view of this homeland becomes more and more mythical because refugee children know of it only by hearsay. The past is idealized because the present is so miserable and the future is so uncertain. Groups with extreme messages, whether their ideologies are political, ethnic, or religious, galvanize their followers not only with the visions of reclaiming a lost homeland but also of then transforming it. Refugees in Afghanistan did better than most. They experienced a tactical victory when the Soviets withdrew and in theory could return to their homeland.

But the fighting among the mujahideen foreclosed that option for most. Even when the refugees did return, their homeland was not what they had known when they left it. Although poor before the war, the Afghan economy at least functioned, and there was general security for life and property. Now there was none. The mujahideen, who had been heroes in the anti-Soviet jihad, lost respect when they became mere factions engaged in self-interested and violent struggles for power with other similar groups. The Taliban drew on this discontent in two ways. First, they recruited men who had been too young to participate in the anti-Soviet war and gave them a chance to participate in a new type of jihad—one that would bring a “truer version” of Islam to Afghanistan. Jihad had been the focal experience for young men throughout the Soviet war, and a new generation of refugee youths was looking for a goal that was equally as idealistic. That the Taliban’s view of Islam was far more radically reactionary than any existing in Afghanistan previously meant little to people who had nothing to compare it with. For them it was far easier to imagine an ideal Afghan way of life, and to enforce it on others, because they drew their lessons from religious schools rather than the give-and-take of everyday life. Their hostility toward women may well have stemmed from being removed from their families and female relations at an early age to grow up in all-male religious schools. Second, the Taliban drew on the discontent of the population living in areas where chaos prevailed. For them, any ideology or regime that could bring about stability was preferable to the status quo.

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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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Afghanistan’s New Class

From Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, by Thomas Barfield (Princeton U. Press, 2010), Kindle pp. 167-169:

Abdur Rahman’s imprint would remain surprisingly strong over time, as Barnett Rubin discovered through a statistical analysis of who held prominent government positions eighty years later.

The ethnic composition of the old regime [of the 1970s] was remarkably similar to that of the court circles originally recruited by Amir Abdur Rahman. The most salient characteristic of that elite was that it included more than ten times the concentration of Muhammadzais and Kabulis than the population as a whole. Other Pashtuns were also over-represented, and the overrepresentation of Pashtuns and Muhammadzais was greater among the core power holders than it was in the elite as a whole. Tajiks (mostly Kabulis) were also quite predominant, but mainly in the legal, financial, and social ministries; Pashtuns held the core of power.

The power base of this new elite stood in sharp contrast to the old feudal aristocracy, although it remained largely Pashtun in origin. The feudal aristocracy’s economic power had rested on its landed estates in the provinces, and its political power was derived either from the troops that it could muster or its ability to mobilize its own people in support of (or opposition to) the national government. Abdur Rahman’s elite drew its wealth and political influence either from state patronage that could be withdrawn at any time or their ability to influence state policy. Unlike previous Afghan elites, these people were not masters of a national government but rather its servants. It was a rentier aristocracy that would live in a hothouse world in which everyone knew everyone else (and where everyone not related by birth appeared to be connected by marriage). Members of the Muhammadzai clan in particular would come to display a paradoxical air of aristocratic hauteur undercut by a political servility that ill befit either Afghanistan’s egalitarian ethos or its tribal emphasis on preserving personal autonomy. More significantly for Afghanistan’s future, they were city people in a land where the vast majority of the population still lived in rural villages. Their ties to, and understanding of, this “other Afghanistan” were weak. For the next eighty years, national politics would be restricted to the city of Kabul and the state-dependent elite that held the reins of power there.

Like a similar prerevolutionary aristocracy in France, a small but influential minority of their members were supporters of radical social and political change. They assumed that they would be the leaders of any progressive movement because they were the only educated people in the country. Yet the expansion of the government and economy in the 1960s began to produce a larger class of educated people, who lacked the same access to power and wealth, and the respect for the existing structures of power. Previously, the number of such people was so small that they could be incorporated into the older aristocracy directly or at least co-opted into its patronage network with government jobs. But by the 1970s, their numbers had become too large and their social origins too diverse for this tactic to be effective. The dominating role of Kabul in Afghan political life instead had the perverse effect of creating a mirror counter-elite that Rubin labeled “rentier revolutionaries.” While these groups spoke of radical socialist change that would transform Afghanistan, their means of achieving this goal were the same as their royal predecessors’: to control the state’s assets and use its power themselves.

Based almost exclusively in Kabul, this counter-elite had few ties to rural Afghanistan, even though many had provincial origins. They certainly had no political base there. Rather, they saw themselves as a socialist vanguard party that would use the state to reorganize the economy and Afghan society from the top down. Although more radical, they shared with the Muhammadzais a dependency on state institutions and state power to implement such changes. After taking control of the state structure in 1978, they assumed that they could use its power to impose their policies on the rest of the country at a rapid pace. Never was an assumption more unwarranted. The realities on the ground in Afghanistan would prove much more challenging and difficult, as this and all future governments would come to learn through hard experience. It would also raise questions long buried: What made a government legitimate, and who had the right to rule?

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Religion and Rebellion in Afghanistan

From Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, by Thomas Barfield (Princeton U. Press, 2010), Kindle pp. 122-124:

Until 1840 religion had played a minor role in internal Afghan politics because fighting had always been Muslim on Muslim. Raising the banner of jihad had been a popular way to mobilize Afghans outward for invasions directed at the polytheists on the Indian plain or their Muslim rulers. But the British occupation of Afghanistan in support of Shuja raised the question of whether his regime had lost the authority normally inherent to a Muslim ruler. If Shuja’s government was just a cloak for the rule of foreign infidels, then rebellion against it would be justified. The charge that the government had betrayed Afghanistan’s Muslims and deserved to be toppled was therefore a constant theme in the propaganda directed against the British and Shuja. It had surprisingly little resonance when the British first invaded. It gained traction as the occupation continued, particularly as the British began to direct more of the government’s workings themselves. Putting Afghan opposition in a religious framework also made it more difficult for the British to mobilize previously willing allies among the Ghilzai chiefs. These chiefs declared that it would be politically fatal to take a public stance against a popular jihad opposing foreign occupation when it was so strongly supported by their followers. Of course, as ibn Khaldun had observed, religion had always been the best way to unite tribes that were otherwise too divided to unite on any other basis. It also ennobled more self-interested political, economic, and personal motives. Shuja himself complained that “these men are not influenced by considerations of religion, they give their lives for the wealth of this world and do not fear death.” That may have been true, but leaping to a “defense of Islam” to justify resisting a regime in Kabul or its policies would henceforth become a sword that was rarely sheathed in Afghan politics, regardless of whether foreigners were actually present on Afghan soil.

The rebellions against the British did not originate within Afghanistan’s Durrani elite. Although those who had experienced a loss of power may have incited others to violence, they took on leadership roles only well after the fighting had started. Instead, the first rebellions were mounted by more marginal groups that had their own grievances. The most important of these were the Pashtun Ghilzai tribes to the east and south of Kabul, and the Tajik Kohistanis of the plains and mountains north of Kabul. Chiefs and clergy from these regions who mobilized their own fighters were at the center of the resistance, not the existing forces of the irregular cavalry that were commanded by the Durranis. The trouble was also localized. The Durranis in Qandahar did not rise at all until two months after Kabul had fallen and then failed to take the city. Nor were there uprisings among the Hazaras, the Uzbeks, or in distant Herat. But in spite of their crucial contributions to the success of the war, neither the Kohistanis nor the Ghilzais took the opportunity to put themselves into power. They instead sought out military and political leadership from the existing (and politically vacillating) Barakzai and Sadozai elite. For example, the Kohistanis initially raised troops in the name of Shuja until he denounced them for using his name and forged seals to justify their rebellion. When it became clear that Shuja was sticking with the British, the Ghilzais and Kohistanis then rallied around Akbar when he took command of the forces besieging their cantonment in Kabul. Although it was he who took the lead in dealing with the British politically, Akbar’s power then and in the months that followed depended more on his Ghilzai allies than his Barakzai kinsmen.

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Afghan Superiority

From Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, by Thomas Barfield (Princeton U. Press, 2010), Kindle p. 42:

Few peoples in the world, particularly the Islamic world, have maintained such a strong and unproblematic sense of themselves, their culture, and their superiority as the Afghans. In abstract terms all foreigners, especially non-Muslims, are viewed as inferior to Afghans. Although the great powers might have been militarily, technologically, and economically stronger, because they were nonbelievers, or infidels, their values and way of life were naturally suspect. Afghanistan’s Muslim neighbors, however, fared only slightly better in (Sunni) Afghan eyes. The Uzbeks must have been asleep to allow the Russians to occupy central Asia for more than a century; Pakistan is a suspect land of recent Muslim converts from Hinduism (Pashtuns and Baluch excepted) that never should have become a nation; and Iran is a nest of Shiite heretics who speak Persian with a ludicrous accent. Convinced they are natural-born Muslims, Afghans cede precedence to no one in matters of religion. They refused to take doctrinal advice from foreign Salafis, who claimed they had a superior vision of Islam, coming as they did from the Islam’s Arabian heartland. Instead, even under the Taliban, Afghans continued to bedeck graves commemorating martyrs with poles and flags, tied cloth swatches to sacred trees, made pilgrimages to the shrines of saints reputed to cure illnesses or help women conceive, and placed magical charms on their children and valuable domestic animals to ward off the evil eye. Afghans responded to any criticism of these practices by arguing that since there are no purer or stronger believers in Islam than themselves, their customs must be consistent with Islam. Otherwise they would not practice them. Islamic Sufi orders (Nakhshbanidya and Chisti particularly) are also well established in the country and give a mystic turn to what sometimes appears to be an austere faith.

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