Category Archives: Central Asia

How Earlier Empires Ruled Afghanistan

From Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, by Thomas Barfield (Princeton U. Press, 2010), Kindle pp. 10-11:

Chapter 2 examines the premodern patterns of political authority and the groups that wielded it. During this period nation-states did not exist and regions found themselves as parts of various empires. This chapter focuses on how (and what kinds of) territory was conquered, how conquerors legitimated their rule, and the relationship of such states with peoples at their margins.

In Turko-Persia, rulers did not seek to impose their authority uniformly across the landscape. Instead they imposed direct rule only in urban areas and on productive agricultural lands that paid more than it cost to administer them. They employed strategies of indirect rule when dealing with the peoples who had poor subsistence economies. These did not repay the cost of administration, and their location in remote mountains, deserts, and steppes provided natural bulwarks against attack. But the relationship between the center and these hinterlands was of great significance because when state authority weakened, it was tribal groups from the hinterlands that most often toppled existing regimes. The tribal groups that most commonly succeeded at this task were the Turks of central Asian steppe origin. Their hierarchical tribal structure gave them an advantage over more egalitarian tribal groups, which had more difficulty unifying and supporting a single leader. The Turks were also heirs to a horse cavalry tradition that remained militarily decisive against people who fought on foot until gunpowder weapons entered the picture.

The long-term dominance of Turkish dynasties in the region has been underplayed in a modern Afghan history that gives primacy to the Pashtuns as the country’s rulers. But in reality the Pashtuns were never rulers in Afghanistan before the mid-eighteenth century. Only at that time, after serving as military auxiliaries to the Safavid and Afsharid empires in Iran, did the Durrani Pashtuns come to power by adopting the governmental structure and military organization of their former overlords. Indeed Ahmad Shah Durrani, the founder of the Afghan Empire, inherited the lands he ruled only after his Iranian patron, Nadir Shah Afshar, was assassinated. He and his heirs imposed the Turkish tradition of royal succession that demanded the ruler be chosen from only within the royal lineage. During this period the Afghan Empire slowly lost its most valuable provinces and retreated into the boundaries similar to those of today’s Afghanistan.

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How Afghanistan Became Ungovernable

From Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, by Thomas Barfield (Princeton U. Press, 2010), Kindle pp. 6-7:

More than any other set of events, the Communist coup and Soviet invasion opened the question of political legitimacy in Afghanistan. The old dynastic tradition was in ruins, but there was nothing to replace it. This issue of who had the right to rule and on what basis was not resolved even after the Soviet Union withdrew in 1989 and its client regime collapsed in 1992. Lacking any overarching political unity among themselves, the various mujahideen resistance factions led the country into civil war and lay the groundwork for the rise of the Taliban. These conflicts eviscerated the formal state structure they were fighting to control and engulfed an ever-larger part of the Afghan population into political struggles from which they had been previously isolated. All the ethnic and regional groups in Afghanistan became politically and militarily empowered, reversing the process of centralization that had been imposed by Abdur Rahman.

Unfortunately the successful resistance strategy of making the country ungovernable for the Soviet occupier also ended up making Afghanistan ungovernable for the Afghans themselves. While the Afghans had recovered from many earlier periods of state collapse, the body politic was now afflicted with an autoimmune disorder in which the antibodies of resistance threatened to destroy any state structure, regardless of who controlled it or its ideology. Compounding this problem was a centuries-old structural weakness: the dependency of all Afghan governments on outside aid for financial stability. In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Afghanistan found itself without world-power patrons for the first time in 150 years and hence had no significant sources of outside revenue with which to fund a central government. In the face of indifference and a lack of aid by the major foreign powers and the international community in general, the country could no longer right itself as it had done so many times in the past.

The stalemated mujahideen civil war opened the door to interference in Afghan affairs by neighboring states, strengthened regional ethnic power brokers, and facilitated the exploitation of Afghanistan’s weakness by foreign Islamist groups. At the forefront of these Islamist groups was the Afghan Taliban, which with the support of Pakistan and foreign jihadists, took power in Kabul in 1996. Although they justified their rule in Islamic terms, the Taliban were largely Pashtuns who saw all other ethnic groups as enemies. Even after they had conquered almost all the country, they never created a real government, and Afghanistan became a classic failed state. As an ally of Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda, the Taliban were the immediate target of U.S. retribution following the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, DC. The Taliban fell even more quickly than they rose: once it became clear that they would lose, every region of the country (including the Pashtun south) turned against them. Foreign troops were welcomed, against all expectations, because the Afghans saw them as a bulwark of protection against the very Afghan forces that had driven the country into ruin. More pragmatically it was equally clear that the Afghan government and economy could not be revived without massive infusions of foreign aid. If other wars had driven Afghans out of the country, the end of this one brought back about four million people, the largest repatriation of refugees ever seen (and one done largely by the Afghans themselves).

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Foreign Effects of Hard Soviexit, 1991

From Moscow, December 25, 1991: The Last Day of the Soviet Union, by Conor O’Clery (PublicAffairs, 2011), Kindle pp. 44-46:

Yeltsin’s team has already taken possession of the Soviet foreign ministry in Moscow, seized its bank accounts, evicted the last Soviet foreign minister of the Gorbachev era, Eduard Shevardnadze, and installed Yeltsin’s foreign minister, Andrey Kozyrev. Throughout the day, Soviet embassies in different time zones around the world receive a communique from Kozyrev informing them that they all are about to become the foreign missions of Russia. Non-Russian Soviet diplomats will have to set up separate embassies for their own republics, which is the privilege and price of their independence. The communique instructs the diplomats that by December 31 the Soviet flag is to be lowered for the last time on every embassy building around the world and the Russian tricolor hoisted in its place. Some envoys are anxious to declare their allegiance to the new order without delay. Already the white, blue, and red emblem is flying prematurely at the embassies in New Delhi, Teheran, and Kabul.

In Washington, DC, on Christmas morning the red flag with hammer-and-sickle emblem is hanging limply from the mast above the first floor of the Soviet embassy on Sixteenth Street. It is a still, mild day with the temperature 12 degrees above freezing. Inside, the three hundred staff are dividing themselves into ethnic groups and claiming temporary diplomatic space by putting up the names of their republics on office doors. There is considerable chaos, compounded by a shortage of cash. Senior diplomats have had to give up comfortable homes in Maryland and Virginia and move into rooms in the embassy compound because there is no hard currency available from Moscow to pay their rents. Ambassador Viktor Komplektov has been in office only nine months, and he knows that, unlike his counterpart at the United Nations, his days are numbered. He is not trusted by Yeltsin because of his failure to condemn the coup in August. For three days before it collapsed, he enthusiastically disseminated the press releases of the putschists to the American media and peddled their lie to the U.S. government that Gorbachev was ill and unable to continue his duties. The fifty-one-year-old ambassador decides to use the remains of his Soviet-era budget to hold the embassy’s first ever Christmas party as a “last hurrah” for the USSR.

With caviar, sturgeon, champagne, and vodka, the Soviet embassy in Washington goes down like the Titanic. “Enjoy yourselves,” Komplektov tells the four hundred guests. “This is the way we celebrate a grand occasion.” Afterwards the red flag is lowered, and the Russian colors are raised in its place, signifying it is now the Russian embassy. Komplektov is recalled within three months.

Perversely, in Israel a new Soviet mission opens this morning. As if nothing has changed in Moscow, the first Soviet ambassador in thirty-four years presents his credentials to President Herzog, and the red flag with hammer and sickle is hoisted over the ancient Russian Compound in Jerusalem. This anomaly arises from a promise Mikhail Gorbachev made two months previously, when he still had some authority, to his Israeli counterpart, Yitzhak Shamir, that he would restore Soviet-Israeli relations broken off at the time of the 1967 Middle East War. The credentials of the envoy, Alexander Bovin, are the last to be signed by a Soviet leader. Bovin’s destiny is to be Soviet ambassador for a week and then become ambassador of Russia, based in Tel Aviv, where he will remain in office for a further six years.

In Santa Cruz de Tenerife, the largest port of the Canary Islands, a Soviet cruise ship docks this Christmas morning. The passengers disembark for a day’s sightseeing. When they return they find that the hammer and sickle on the side of the funnel has been prised off by the Russian crew, and they sail away, citizens of a different country than when they boarded.

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Rise and Fall of Chinese Silk Trade

From Yangtze: Nature, History, and the River, by Lyman P. Van Slyke (Stanford Alumni Assn., 1988), pp. 97-100:

Not long after the time of Christ, the straitlaced Roman philosopher-orator Seneca voiced a frequently heard denunciation: “I see silken clothes, if one can call them clothes at all, that in no degree afford protection either to the body or the modesty of the wearer, and clad in which no woman could honestly swear she is not naked.” If salt was China’s premier domestic product, silk was China’s first international trade commodity. This remarkable textile gave its name not only to the route (the Silk Road) across which it was traded to the Near East and the Mediterranean but also to the Latin name for China (Seres or Serica). Silk was an ideal product for long-distance trade: high in value but low in bulk and weight, and not subject to deterioration in transit.

Before the time of Christ, high quality silk fabrics had made their way westward in sufficient quantities to motivate some of Alexander the Great’s campaigns and then, as we have seen, to become the subject of denunciation in Rome for their extravagance and for their sheerness. Large amounts of silk fabric were periodically exported to the rough nomadic peoples living north of China, as part of the price paid for peace along the Great Wall. From China, the technique spread to Korea in the fourth century and thence to Japan. India probably learned the technology at about the same time. Finally, around A.D. 550, Bombyx mori eggs were smuggled into the Byzantine Empire in hollow canes carried by certain Indian monks who had lived for a long time in the Central Asian oasis city-states on the Silk Road. But the mere possession of eggs did not assure the successful development of sericulture.

Silk has always been an elite product, amounting to less than 1 percent of cotton and 3 percent of wool production in the twentieth century. In world trade, it reached its peak in about 1920, when its major use was for women’s silk hosiery—perhaps the only mass use of silk in its history. Thereafter, artificial fibres—rayon, nylon, orlon, etc.—were developed and replaced silk in many of its previous uses. Although silk technology was developed in China, by the mid-1930s Japan was the dominant Asian and world producer, partly because of aggressive adoption of the best production methods, especially quality control, and partly because Chinese production was seriously disrupted by unrest, revolution, and Japanese invasion.

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Notable British Consuls in Kashgar

From The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China, by David Eimer (Bloomsbury, 2014), Kindle p. 59:

Kashgar’s consulate was the most remote of Britain’s diplomatic outposts in Asia, a three-week ride on horseback from India. The people who passed through included some of the most remarkable figures from the colonial past. The half-Chinese Sir George Macartney, whose same-named ancestor was Britain’s first ambassador to China in the eighteenth century, served as consul here between 1890 and 1918. Sir Percy Sykes, who effectively ran Persia during the First World War, relieved Macartney briefly in 1915.

Great Game players, both legendary and unsung, were regular visitors. Francis Younghusband stayed a winter. He went on to lead a British invasion of Tibet in 1903–4, only to experience an epiphany on the roof of the world that transformed him from an empire-builder into a soldier-mystic. In 1918, Colonel F. M. Bailey was at the consulate en route to an extraordinary series of adventures in central Asia. They included helping to propagate the revolt among Muslims which resulted in so many Kyrgyz crossing into Xinjiang after the Russian Revolution.

Bailey was such an effective spy that he was recruited by the Cheka, the forerunner of the KGB, to hunt himself, the British agent who was stirring up the peoples of central Asia against their new communist masters. He was also a noted naturalist, just as Sykes and Eric Shipton, the last British consul in Kashgar, were part-time explorers. In the days of empire, it was possible to serve your country and collect rare butterflies on the Tibetan plateau, conquer unclimbed mountains or cross unmapped deserts.

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Persian Nader Shah vs. Moghul Empire

From A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy (Basic Books, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2997-3027:

Crowned shah, with his western frontiers secure and in undisputed control of the central lands of Persia, Nader set off eastward to conquer Kandahar. The exactions to pay for this new campaign caused great suffering and in many parts of the country brought the economy almost to a standstill. Nader took Kandahar after a long siege, but he did not stop there. Using the excuse that the Moghul authorities had given refuge to Afghan fugitives, Nader crossed the old frontier between the Persian and Moghul empires, took Kabul, and marched on toward Delhi. North of Delhi, at Karnal, the Persian army encountered the army of the Moghul emperor, Mohammad Shah. The Persians were much inferior in number to the Moghul forces, yet thanks to the better training and firepower of his soldiers, and rivalry and disunity among the Moghul commanders, Nader defeated them. He was helped by the fact that the Moghul commanders were mounted on elephants, which besides proving vulnerable to firearms were liable to run wild—to the dismay of their distinguished riders and anyone who happened to be in their path.

From the battlefield of Karnal, Nader went on to Delhi, where he arrived in March 1739. Shortly after his arrival there, rioting broke out and some Persian soldiers were killed. So far from home, and with the wealth of the Moghul Empire at stake, Nader could not afford to lose control. He ordered a ruthless massacre in which an estimated thirty thousand people died, mostly innocent civilians. Prior to this point, Nader had generally (at least away from the battlefield) achieved his ends without excessive bloodshed. But after Delhi, he may have decided that his previous scruples had become redundant.

With a characteristic blend of threat and diplomacy, Nader stripped the Moghul emperor of a vast treasure of jewels, gold, and silver, and accepted the gift of all the Moghul territories west of the Indus River. The treasure was worth as much as perhaps 700 million rupees. To put this sum in some kind of context, it has been calculated that the total cost to the French government of the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), including subsidies paid to the Austrian government as well as all the costs of the fighting on land and sea, was about 1.8 billion livres tournois (the standard unit of account in prerevolutionary France). This was equivalent to about £90 million sterling at the time—close to the rough estimate of £87.5 million sterling for the value of Nader’s haul from Delhi. Some of the jewels he took away—the largest, most impressive ones, like the Kuh-e Nur, the Darya-ye Nur, and the Taj-e Mah—had a complex and often bloody history of their own in the following decades.

Nader did not attempt to annex the Moghul Empire outright. His purpose in conquering Delhi had been to secure the cash necessary to continue his wars of conquest in the west, for which the wealth of Persia alone had, by the time of his coronation, begun to prove inadequate.

Nader’s campaigns are a reminder of the centrality of Persia to events in the region, in ways that have parallels today. A list of some of Nader’s sieges—Baghdad, Basra, Kirkuk, Mosul, Kandahar, Herat, Kabul—has a familiar ring to it after the events of the first years of the twenty-first century. It is worth recalling that Persians were not strangers in any of the lands in which Nader campaigned. Although he and his Safavid predecessors were of Turkic origin and spoke a Turkic language at court, the cultural influence of Persian was such that the language of the court and administration in Delhi and across northern India was Persian, and diplomatic correspondence from the Ottoman court in Istanbul was normally in Persian, too. Persian hegemony from Delhi to Istanbul would, in some ways, have seemed natural to many of the inhabitants of the region, echoing as it did the Persian character of earlier empires and the pervasive influence of Persian literary, religious, and artistic culture.

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How Persia Turned Shi‘a

From A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy (Basic Books, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2546-69, 2585-99:

It is uncertain just when the Safavids turned Shi‘a; in the religious context of that time and place, the question is somewhat artificial. Shi‘a notions were just one part of an eclectic mix. By the end of the fifteenth century a new Safavid leader, Esma‘il, was able to expand Safavid influence at the expense of the Aq-Qoyunlu, who had been weakened by disputes over the dynastic succession. Esma‘il was himself the grandson of Uzun Hasan, the great Aq-Qoyunlu chief of the 1460s and 1470s, and may have emulated some of his grandfather’s charismatic and messianic leadership style. In 1501 Esma‘il and his Qezelbash followers conquered Tabriz (the old Seljuk capital) in northwestern Iran, and Esma‘il declared himself shah. He was only fourteen years old. A contemporary Italian visitor described him as fair and handsome, not very tall, stout and strong with broad shoulders and reddish hair. He had long moustaches (a Qezelbash characteristic, prominent in many contemporary illustrations), was left-handed, and was skilled with the bow.

At the time of his conquest of Tabriz, Esma‘il proclaimed Twelver Shi‘ism as the new religion of his territories. Esma‘il’s Shi‘ism took an extreme form, which required the faithful to curse the memory of the first three caliphs that had preceded Ali. This was very offensive to Sunni Muslims, who venerated those caliphs, along with Ali, as the Rashidun or righteous caliphs. Esma‘il’s demand intensified the division between the Safavids and their enemies, especially the staunchly Sunni Ottomans to the west. Recent scholarship suggests that even if there was a pro-Shi‘a tendency among the Qezelbash earlier, Esma‘il’s declaration of Shi‘ism in 1501 was a deliberate political act.

Within a further ten years Esma‘il conquered the rest of Iran and all the territories of the old Sassanid Empire, including Mesopotamia and the old Abbasid capital of Baghdad. He defeated the remnants of the Aq-Qoyunlu, as well as the Uzbeks in the northeast and various rebels. Two followers of one rebel leader were captured in 1504, taken to Isfahan, and roasted on spits as kebabs. Esma‘il ordered his companions to eat the kebab to show their loyalty (this is not the only example of cannibalism as a kind of extreme fetish among the Qezelbash).

Esma‘il attempted to consolidate his control by asserting Shi‘ism throughout his new domains (though the conventional view that this was achieved in a short time and that the import of Shi‘a scholars from outside Iran was significant in the process has been put into doubt). He also did his best to suppress rival Sufi orders. It is important to stress that although there had been strong Shi‘a elements in Iran for centuries before 1501, and important Shi‘a shrines like Qom and Mashhad, Iran had been predominantly Sunni, like most of the rest of the Islamic world. The center of Shi‘ism had been the shrine cities of southern Iraq.

But Esma‘il’s hopes of westward expansion, aiming to take advantage of the Shi‘a orientation of many more Turkic tribes in eastern Anatolia, were destroyed when the élan of the Qezelbash was blown away by Ottoman cannon at the Battle of Chaldiran, northwest of Tabriz, in 1514. A legend says that Esma‘il vented his frustration by slashing at a cannon with his sword, leaving a deep gash in the barrel.

After this defeat Esma‘il could no longer sustain the loyalty of the Qezelbash at its previous high pitch, nor their belief in his divine mission. He went into mourning and took to drink. Wars between the Sunni Ottomans and the Shi‘a Safavids continued for many years, made more bitter by the religious schism. Tabriz, Baghdad, and the shrine towns of Iraq changed hands several times. Shi‘a were persecuted and killed within the Ottoman territories, particularly in eastern Anatolia where they were regarded as actual or potential traitors. The Safavids turned Iran into the predominantly Shi‘a state it is today, and there were spasmodic episodes of persecution there too, especially of Zoroastrians, Christians, and Jews—despite the ostensible protected status of at least the latter two groups as “People of the Book.” One could make a parallel with the way that religious persecution intensified either side of the Roman/Persian border in the fourth century AD, in the reign of Shapur II, after Constantine made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire.

The Safavid monarchs also turned against the Sufis, despite the Safavids’ Sufi heritage. The Sufis were persecuted to the point that the only surviving Sufi order was the Safavid one, and the others disappeared or went underground. In the long term, the main beneficiary of this were the Shi‘a ulema. This was important because the Sufis had previously had a dominant or almost dominant position in the religious life of Iran, especially in the countryside.

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