(II) In Search of National Identity: Afghanistan’s Enduring Rivalry

singularity-carpet-by-faig-ahmed-photo-faigahmed

Singularity. Carpet by Faiq Ahmed (Photo: Faiq Ahmed)

By Elbay Alibayov

Part 2: Contexts, Agents, Ideas

Modernisation vs. Traditionalism

Contrary to prevailing narratives and misconceptions about Afghanistan (which tend to see the current conflict through the narrow frames and uprooted from local contexts), what we witness is a dialectical rivalry inherent to any evolutionary process, be it a lively organism or human society. Depending on the object and its environment this rivalry may take many forms, names and forces striving to outdo each other—all coming in the end to a contest between old and new, decay and regeneration, an outward and inward looking perspectives of the future, between adaptation to the changed circumstances and conservative resistance to and obstruction of the change. Afghanistan is no exception; the dominant rivalry (and thus conflict) here is taking place within its established (and ever evolving) social institutions. The only problem is that it has taken extremely violent forms countrywide, this time round.

The current cycle of this eternal and profoundly dialectical competition in Afghanistan has been inspired by the forces equipped with and aspired by the notions of modernisation and traditionalism. It has at least a century-long history in this country, counting approximately from the date of earning its independence and coinciding with the similar global processes of the twentieth century. The process is following its own logic and dynamics (with highs and lows, and differences and time-specific nuances and those owing to the locality and its population or institutional arena where the contest occurs), being occasionally interrupted or intensified due to external interferences (most prominently, by the 1979-89 Soviet occupation and the post-2001 US-led one).

Both modernisation and traditionalism shall be taken with caution: I use them as terms referring generally to the forces advocating, respectively, for reforming the society through more integration with the world (politically, technologically, culturally) or preserving the ‘purity’ of traditional values, style of life, and political institutions while keeping the exogenous influences to minimum.

This is an inherently political process, and as such does not limit itself to academic discourse but aims at the heart of politics—contestation and exercise of power. This kind of rivalry is never settled ultimately (although a means to achieve it may change over time) and those time-sensitive balances established at certain junctures may be coercive or consensus driven and based on mutual compromises. Anyways, they will be continuously contested and revisited, and new balances established (whatever shaky or fixed) along the way, just to be challenged by new generations.

Important phases

I will summarise below the major phases of this century-long contest in Afghanistan. It has been undertaken by agents—those who hold the ideas and act upon them. Their actions occur through various structures—geographical, political, economic, social, and ideological. It should be noted that this distinction is conditional, as the structures and institutions overlap; moreover, a change initiated in one structure often-time expands to other structure(s) in an ultimate struggle for power. For example, changes aimed at modernisation of education (social structure) would easily spread onto ideological structures in a country like Afghanistan, where education is intertwined with faith and patriarchal worldviews. And here is the essence of this traditionalism vs. modernisation (or any other) political contest—it aims at power which takes different forms under different structures, but all the same, it gives to its owner the ability to impose their ideas on the opponents.

At different times, the proponents of modernisation in Afghanistan ranged from authoritarian rulers to moderate or progressive urban parties to communists—each with their own understanding of the direction, targets, and the scope and the pace of reforms. Similarly, traditionalists is an umbrella term for conservative forces acting at different times and localities alone or in concert such as tribal heads and elderly, representatives of other privileged societal groups, as well as clergy and especially fundamentalist preachers, Islamist parties. It is very important to specify what was meant under each direction at any given point in time, as it makes clear what was actually contested and by which individual and group agents, and how it was supported or rejected by different groups of population. This, in turn, determines in many ways why certain initiatives have been successful while others failed—an important lesson for those involved in the Afghanistan politics.

“Hundred Years of Afghanistan’s Modernisation vs. Traditionalism Rivalry: Amanullah Khan 1920s –> Zair Shah 1950s-60s –> Dawud Khan 1970s –> Communists 1980s –> Taleban 2/2-1990s –> Democratisation post-2001 (Karzai, Ghani/Abdullah) –> What’s next?”

Sovereign kingdom (Amanullah Khan’s 1920s)

  • Contexts (structures and institutions): Political (distribution of authority and decision-making/state institutions, bureaucracy, patronage, tribalism); ideological (worldview/religion, education system, the state); social (tribe, clan, ethnicity, gender/ laws and rules on rights and responsibilities, discrimination, citizenship); economic (systems of production and exchange/property rights, tax system, labour)
  • Power(s) contested: Formal and informal authority, legitimacy. Identity, values, and beliefs. Wealth
  • Agents: Domestic individual and collective agents. A moderniser king opposed by tribal, clan heads, clergy and other elites.
  • Ideas (change attempted/ introduced): Radical for that time social reforms. Governance modification (adoption of first constitution, reforms of the military, education and court systems, reorganisation of public finance and tax collection, as well as an advocacy for the rights of women, the abolishment of certain tribal privileges and slavery)
  • Conflict (forms and solution methods): Fierce but mostly non-violent. Coercion
  • Outcome: Failed to sustain; Aborted (abdication of the king). Followed by localised tribal wars

Constitutional monarchy (Zahir Shah’s 1950s-60s)

  • Contexts (structures and institutions): Political (distribution of authority and decision-making/state institutions, tribalism); ideological (worldview/religion, knowledge, the state); social (tribe, clan, ethnicity, gender/ education system, citizenship); economic (systems of production and exchange/ labour); geographical (land/ land ownership, official status of areas)
  • Power(s) contested: Formal and informal authority, legitimacy. Identity, values, and beliefs. Capital and labour. Border creation (continuous challenge by the mobilising Pashtun tribes). Roles and hierarchies
  • Agents: Domestic agents, with limited, indirect external engagement. A moderniser king, on the one hand, opposed and constrained by privileged class trying to retain status quo and, on the other hand, pushed by movements, parties calling for more reforms.  Financial aid for reform balanced between external agents
  • Ideas (change attempted/ introduced): Limited mostly to socio-economic domain (infrastructure projects like irrigation, hydroelectric power plants, highways, airlines, and telecommunications; bringing new equipment, not technology)—didn’t improve much the local productive capacity. No radical political reform (formally a constitutional monarchy but relying on the support of tribal elderly, since other forms of representation were outlawed). Moderate in depth, scope and outreach (did not extend much beyond Kabul and certain centres).
  • Conflict (forms and solution methods): Non-violent but repressive (through authoritarian rule). But at the same time, persistent and escalating (with the growing role of external actor, Pakistan) both in terms of tension and violence use. Coercion and selective cooptation of opponents
  • Outcome: Interrupted due to internal, non-violent coup. The reform momentum mostly maintained.

Republic (Dawud Khan’s 1970s)

  • Contexts (structures and institutions): Political (distribution of authority and decision-making/state institutions, sovereignty, tribalism); ideological (worldview/religion, knowledge, the state); social (tribe, clan, ethnicity, gender/ education system, discrimination, citizenship); economic (systems of production and exchange/property rights and ownership, tax system); geographical (land/ land ownership, official status of areas)
  • Power(s) contested: Formal and informal authority, legitimacy. Identity, values and beliefs. Capital and labour. Borders (Durand Line, Pashtunistan). Roles and hierarchies
  • Agents: Domestic agents opposing each other, backed by different external actors. A moderniser ruler (president of republic), challenged from different sides by tribal elites and clergy, radical (communist) reformers, nationalists, and Islamic fundamentalists. Reforms implemented with external financial and technical aid balanced between foreign agents
  • Ideas (change attempted/ introduced): Outward-oriented, broader integration. Moderate economic (commercial agriculture, exports promotion, economic infrastructure, transportation and communication networks, socialist-style five-year plans and state-owned enterprises, taxation of privileged class) and social (modern education, emancipation of women) reforms. Political reforms focused mainly on centralisation, strengthening state apparatus and military, gendarmerie
  • Conflict (forms and solution methods): No mass violence, but the army-backed suppression of resistance by tribesmen and fundamentalists. Organised/ targeted violence was imported (Pakistan). Coercion and selective cooptation
  • Outcome: Coup by former allies backed by external agent (foreign country, Soviet Union), with limited/targeted violence at the event
afghan-children-soviet-tank

Children playing on the remains of a Soviet tank, Jalalabad, 2013 (Photo: Rahmat Gul/AP)

Communist regime (1980s-early 90s of Khalq, Parcham, Najibulla)

  • Contexts (structures and institutions): Political (regime type, distribution of authority and decision-making/state institutions, sovereignty, chieftainship, patronage); ideological (worldview/religion, knowledge, the state); social (tribe, clan, ethnicity, gender/ education system, discrimination, citizenship); economic (systems of production and exchange/property rights); geographical (land/ land ownership, borders, official status of areas)
  • Power(s) contested: Formal and informal authority, legitimacy. Status and hierarchy. Identity, values and beliefs. Capital formation, wealth redistribution, organised labour. Concentration of activity (rural vs. urban)
  • Agents:  A mix of domestic and external agents openly contesting the power. Ruling modernisers kept in power by foreign country. Opposed from different sides by agents with own/distinct agendas: nationalists, tribal elites, insurgent Islamists. Reforms financed and supported technically, militarily by one external agent (Soviet Union), while the insurgence by the others (United States, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan)
  • Ideas (change attempted/ introduced): Radical political and socio-economic reforms. Attempts to eliminate economic inequalities in countryside (cancel usury and mortgage debts of agricultural labourers, tenants and small landowners; introduce land ownership reforms and promote cooperatives and agricultural credit and loans). Further the social reforms especially with regards to emancipation and equal rights of women (regulated dowry and marriage expenses, forbiddance of forced marriages) and modern education system. Notable among political initiatives were laws and regulations targeting corruption, patronage and chieftainship.
  • Conflict (forms and solution methods): Fierce resistance from various segments, mostly due to being perceived as driven by alien (moreover, hostile toward religion) ideology. Wide-spread, multi-actor violent conflict. Proxy war by foreign countries. Coercion
  • Outcome: Overthrown by military force, after almost a decade-and-half of brutal fighting as against the occupation, so between local agents

Islamic Emirate (the Taleban’s 1990s, second half)

  • Contexts (structures and institutions): Political (regime type, distribution of decision-making/sovereignty, state institutions, bureaucracy, patronage, tribalism); ideological (worldview/religion, knowledge, the state, sumptuary law); social (religious community/ ummah, tribe, ethnicity, gender/ laws and rules on rights and responsibilities, citizenship, education system); economic (systems of production and exchange/ property rights, contract law, tax system)
  • Power(s) contested: Formal and informal authority, legitimacy. Identity, values and beliefs. Status and hierarchy. Wealth (capital formation and redistribution)
  • Agents: Extreme faction of traditionalists (dominant force, 90 percent territory control) opposed/challenged by other/more moderate traditionalists (some of them former allies). All have their own external backers (foreign agents/countries), at times being proxy of the same agent. The ruling Taleban self-financed through (mainly) smuggling and extortion, tax collection but also the funding from external state and non-state actors (Pakistan, al-Qaeda)
  • Ideas (change attempted/ introduced): Radically regressive from the modernisation achievements of previous decades. Ideology (strict interpretation and imposition of the Islamic Shari’a law) was predominant and thus determined the rest. Politically, it was a dictatorial rule based on allegiance to the movement, patronage; reluctant to share power even at the local level where tribal heads and warlords kept control on the ground; no elections held. Socially, the overarching notions of ummah and mu’mineen; very restrictive on women (work, education). Economically, this translated into total state control of wealth generation and distribution (monopoly of trade, prohibitively high corporate taxation, no salaries, destroyed local industries, instead ran a massive network of smuggling as the major source of revenue)
  • Conflict (forms and solution methods): Repressive, violent, with executions on large scale. Coercion
  • Outcome: Overthrown by external agents (United States, joined by allies), with insurgency and control and contestation of rural territories and certain urban centres following since then

Democratisation (post-2001 Karzai, Ghani/Abdullah governments)

  • Contexts (structures and institutions): Political (sovereignty, regime type, distribution of authority and decision-making/state institutions, judiciary, electoral system, bureaucracy, tribalism, patronage); ideological (worldviews, norms, beliefs/religion, statehood, knowledge/education system, media,); social (tribe, clan, class, ethnicity, gender/ education system, positive and negative discrimination, citizenship, reconciliation, transitional justice); economic (systems of production and exchange, sectoral composition, labour division/ tax system, property rights, contract law, labour laws); geographical (land, urbanisation/ land ownership, borders, official status of areas)
  • Power(s) contested: Formal and informal authority, legitimacy. Identity, values and beliefs. Knowledge. Roles, status, hierarchies. Capital formation, wealth redistribution, organised labour. Concentration of activity (rural vs. urban)
  • Agents: A complicated nexus between domestic and external state and non-state actors engaged through formal and informal institutions, directly and indirectly (through proxies).  Numerous factions broadly falling under the modernisation trend compete with each other both through formal electoral processes and informal, parallel institutions. On the other hand, the proponents of traditionalism (understood differently by various agents), being heterogeneous and competing internally, challenge those in government and threaten to overthrow them.  The lines between factions are blurred however (especially at the local level).  The same rather confusing situation is with the external agents. Some (like the United States as state actor, or the United Nations as an international multilateral actor) firmly support the modernisers in power (militarily, financially, technically), while others (like Pakistan) have more nuanced relations with both camps and with different individual and collective agents within those camps/factions.
  • Ideas (change attempted/ introduced): Large scale, mostly radical, high-paced reforms attempting to introduce simultaneously the changes in political, ideological, social and economic structures. Ideas and solutions mostly imported (not home grown, bottom-up), without taking account of the society’s deeply rooted characteristics and absorptive capacity. This results in (a) foreign driven change; (b) confusion and resistance of patriarchal rural society; (c) thriving informal, parallel structures; and (d) failure to translate the ideas from paper into reality.
  • Conflict (forms and solution methods): Violent, country-wide. Each side controls (governs) certain part of the land, the rest being contested (changing hands). Supported on both sides by foreign (state and non-state) agents. Coercion being the major approach, successive negotiation attempts failed over years (with one recent exemption of the deal between the Government and Hizb-e Islami Gulbuddin).
  • Outcome: Back-and-forth, iterative process almost in all policy domains. Certain progress has been made but at prohibitive cost and hardly sustainable. It seems that all agents, domestic and foreign alike, understand that the violent uncompromising confrontation has paralysed the country, turning the rivalry into lose-lose situation for both the modernisers and traditionalists, and most importantly to the Afghans.

*                  *                  *

I tried to draw the summary of major phases in the rivalry (or conflict) between the outward looking modernisation and inward looking traditionalism in Afghanistan as a map—pointing to key characteristics with regards to structures and institutions where the contest has been unfolding, central ideas promoted by the agents, the rules by which they played, and the outcome of it. This map is a starting (or reference) point for the analysis. It helps understand the Afghan political contexts in their historic development over the past century, draw comparisons and, more importantly, make sense of the current developments (what works and what does not, with some hints on why it occurs as it does).

In the next piece of this series we will look at the sequence of random events occurring as of recent and how they are interpreted by the agents, in order to reveal whether they offer windows of opportunity for both the Afghani and foreign actors on all sides of the contest to move into the next (hopefully less violent, more constructive) phase.

This is the second part of In Search of National Identity: Afghanistan’s Enduring Rivalry. See Part I: Prevailing narratives

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