It’s Much Bigger Than Afghanistan: U.S. Strategy for a Transformed Region


by Barnett Rubin | War on the Rocks

“It is time to recognize that the United States might be able to maintain an open-ended military presence in Afghanistan or stabilize the country, but not both. A permanent military presence will always motivate one or more neighbors to pressure the United States to leave by supporting insurgents — and forestalling stabilization. Currently, Pakistan, Iran and Russia — which together control access to all usable routes to landlocked Afghanistan — are trying to exert such pressure. Precipitous withdrawal without a settlement, of course, could lead to even more violence.”

Read more


Changing the Global Order: Give as Much as You Take


Reflections on the week past

by Elbay Alibayov

There is reading and reading. There are things you have learnt to read and watch, and subsequently process with impartiality. This concerns (all) the media and (most of) “independent” think-tank publications, on a broad range of contemporary power contestation events and processes—from elections & referenda to international conferences and negotiations, rhetoric of politicians big and small, wars and covert actions, and so forth.

Majority of these pieces are being produced with intention to appeal to our emotion in a certain way, and therefore one would do well keeping them under control. You do not enjoy much reading or watching this intentionally tailored stuff, but definitely find pleasure in analysis. And then there are pieces you enjoy reading and re-reading, numerous times. Always with excitement. And always with intellectual benefit.

For me, this week was of The Gift by Marcel Mauss. It happened by accident: I read an interesting post by Dan Ariely where he described a gift he had asked his friends for his fifty-year birthday. In my comment, I enquired (with the reference to and quoting Mauss’ masterpiece) whether he was ready to reciprocate, and to do so with even higher value (“We must give back more than we have received”) of the gift he has so humbly suggested (a favourite book with explanation why the giver loves it so much—what I called the key to their soul). Naturally, it served as a trigger… the next thing I did was retrieving the soft copy of The Gift from my archive and diving into its so familiar and still mysteriously so precious content…

Three episodes, the same philosophy

Life is going on however, and the geopolitical game’s current phase was unfolding with three episodes linked to each other, to indicate an abrupt shift in the strategies and tactics the major players opt to employ.

In one episode, which started with the use of chemical weapons in Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun, the moves and counter-moves by key players (Americans and Russians in this case) haven’t resulted in any tangible alteration of the previous balance on the ground: the UN Security Council failed to pass a resolution (vetoed by Russia); initial enquiry by Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has established that sarin or similar gas was used, but further investigation is under question mark (Russians demanding “an objective investigation” by a body representative of all sides concerned); meanwhile, chemical weapons were used by ISIL in the vicinity of Mosul, Iraq, against the Iraqi military (with American and Australian advisers in presence); and it seems that the American airstrike only emboldened the stands of Assad and his allies.

In another episode, the largest non-nuclear bomb in the US Military’s arsenal ever used in combat, the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB, aka Mother of All Bombs) was thrown on the ISIL-Khorasan Province (ISIL-KP) base in Nangarhar, Afghanistan. According to initial reports, 94 militants had been killed in the strike. No civil casualties were reported, while the Pentagon has not released any information on the physical and environmental damage caused.

The bombing has evoked mixed reactions. The Government of Afghanistan demanded even more MOABs. The opposition (for example, the former president Hamid Karzai) strongly condemned it. Some speculated that the seemingly bold move was in response to the Russians’ and Pakistanis’ attempts to negotiate with the Taleban, and thus to broker an Afghanistan deal in own favour.

Russians, in their turn, responded with reports about their Father of All Bombs, which they claimed to be four times as destructive. While the global players were engaged in power showcasing, the Taleban proceeded with attacks: At least 140 soldiers were killed and many others wounded in Mazar-e Sharif—the deadliest attack ever on an Afghan military base.


The third episode is unfolding around the U.S.-North Korea stand-off. This confrontation thus far is about muscle flexing and trash talking. Examples of muscle flexing include North Koreans launching, albeit unsuccessfully, yet another missile test; while Americans, in addition to demonstrating their resolve in the previous bombing episodes described above, started the inspection of their nuclear arsenal and ordered an “armada” of the USS Carl Vinson strike group to the Sea of Japan as a warning.

In turn, the trash-talk on both sides is exemplified by numerous verbal attacks and warnings of a devastating “pre-emptive attack”, including Vice President Mike Pence’s bombastic rhetoric all through his Asia-Pacific tour, reiterating that “the era of strategic patience” was over and that Kim Jong-un would do well not testing the President Trump’s resolve; North Korea responding with accusations of America’s warmongering and warning that they were “ready to react to any mode of war desired by the U.S.” and so forth—but in all instances it has been much beyond the “usual” limits, rather recklessly pushing the boundaries.

And to be sure, this go playground is not solely about America vs. North Korea. A lot of pressure the U.S. puts on China (one would wonder, why the bombing of the Syrian airbase had to be conducted exactly at the time of Xi Jinping’s visit to the U.S., and announced over a “beautiful piece of chocolate cake”). China feels uneasy and struggles to keep the balance, because it is going to bear most of consequences of the war between the two. Obviously, Japan and South Korea are in game; and even Russia is concerned and has reportedly moved some of its defence systems to the Korean border.

Towards new principle

Three episodes of geopolitical game of go are developing simultaneously in three discrete hot spots (Middle East/Syria, Central Asia/Afghanistan, South East Asia/North Korea) and with involvement of different sets of global and regional players (U.S., Russia, China, Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, Japan, South Korea, to name a few) in each case. What is common though is the resolve of all the players to engage in zero-sum game where winner takes all. (And not only in these three episodes—in foreign engagements we seem to be guided by only one principle, that is “give as least as necessary and take as much as possible”.) This raises the stakes while increasingly making clear to anyone that with such an attitude we as humanity risk ending this game with losers all around.

Good books are always relevant. They are always contemporary. They are always insightful. Every time you read them you find something new, which leaves you wondering how it come you have not found it out in your previous readings of the great thing. Take for example one of concluding notes of The Gift: “Thus, from one extreme of human evolution to the other, there are no two kinds of wisdom. Therefore let us adopt as the principle of our life what has always been a principle of action and will always be so: to emerge from self, to give, freely and obligatorily. We run no risk of disappointment.”

Mauss then proceeds to illustrate his thought with a Maori proverb: “Give as much as you take, all shall be very well.” Sounds as perfect principle for international relations and a new global order to me.


Under the Radar: Tajikistan on track to be the next Afghanistan


by Jeremy Luedi | Global Risk Insights

Tajikistan, the world’s leading exporter of suicide bombers to ISIS has the potential to become the next terrorist hotspot as a host of factors converge to put the small Central Asian nation at serious risk.

The recent publication of an expanded list of alleged terrorist groups and their sponsors by the National Bank of Tajikistan highlights the country’s growing concern about both domestic and international terrorist threats. The list includes over two hundred individuals as well as fifteen organizations; including the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT). The inclusion of the IRPT on this list is important as it further highlights the de-legitimization of Tajikistan’s only recognized Islamic political party.

In the 1990s, the IRPT was part of Tajikistan’s formal political scene, with the moderate party garnering a place in government as part of the united opposition following the country’s 1992-1997 civil war. Since then President Emomalii Rahmon (who has ruled the country since 1992) and his People’s Democratic Party have slowly marginalized the IRPT, with the party outlawed in 2014, and declared a terrorist group in 2015.

Tajikistan’s anti-radicalization measures backfiring

The fall of the IRPT has been part of the government’s ongoing campaign against Islamism and overt faith in general. Motivated by fears of radicalization, the government’s slew of heavy-handed – and at times, bizarre – measures have only increased resentment among the population and provided ample recruitment material for radicals. In recent years, Tajikistan has: shut down hundreds of non-government sanctioned mosques and preachers, banned Islamic dress in schools and offices, limited public prayers, shuttered 160 stores selling Islamic clothing, banned children under 18 from mosques, restricted students from studying Islam abroad, and made it difficult to register Muslim organizations. In 2015 the government even went as far as to forcibly shave 13,000 bearded citizens.


These measures have been directly cited by radicalized Tajiks as the motivation for their decision to join radical groups. A major blow to the government came in 2015 with the defection to ISIS of U.S-trained special forces commander Colonel Gulmurod Halimov. Halimov has allegedly become ISIS’ supreme military commander and has been a major influence in encouraging other Tajiks to join the organization. In part due to Halimov’s influence, Tajikistan has become the world’s leading exporter of suicide bombers to ISIS’s battlefields: 27 Tajik suicide operations were carried out in Syria and Iraq between December 2015 and November 2016.

The irony of the situation is that “when the IRPT was part of the government, one of their main tasks was to educate people not to go to [radicals]. Once [the party was] forbidden we had an enormous increase [in the number of Tajiks joining ISIS] – students, and in one case, 40 people from the same village,” notes University of Heidelberg researcher Sophie Roche.

Around 1,100 Tajiks are believed to be fighting in Syria and Iraq, with an additional 300 having been killed there in recent years. Two Tajiks were also behind the March 8th Kabul military hospital attack that left at least 49 dead. More recently, a suspected terrorist attack was orchestrated in the Tajik city of Qurghonteppa on March 12th, with an explosion killing one person near the military prosecutor’s office: Qurghonteppa’s outskirts also saw a mysterious explosion on January 30th.


Only ten days before on January 20th, the Tajik interior ministry announced that the government had foiled 36 terrorist attacks in 2016, with over 400 people detained for suspected terrorist links. Tajikistan is facing a serious terrorism threat, as its citizens become radicalized at home due to the government’s hardline measures, and as hundreds of fighters in Syria and Iraq return home as ISIS loses ground in the Middle East.

Alongside the recent incidents already mentioned, a Tajik native was also arrested in Russia on March 8th after authorities discovered a plan for a suicide attack in Moscow. This incident demonstrates another risk vector for Tajikistan – its large migrant worker population. Over a million Tajiks work in Russia as migrant or seasonal workers, with remittances comprising a major revenue stream for Tajikistan. Poor working conditions, abuse and a sense of hopelessness puts many Tajik workers in Russia at risk of radicalization. The convergence of these risk factors has already led to the radicalization of a substantial number of Tajiks in Russia, with Islamists using Russian social media sites like Odnoklassniki and Vkontakti to recruit followers.

With Tajikistan’s economic growth slowing from 7.4% in 2013 to 3.8% in 2016, combined with an 8.5% annual inflation rate, economic hardship will force more Tajiks to seek work elsewhere, with those who stay not faring much better. Tajikistan’s economic hardship will only continue, especially with the recent cancellation of China’s Line D oil and gas pipeline. The cancellation of Line D means Tajikistan will lose out on millions of dollars in oil and gas transit fees, thus only further weakening the economy.

Stuck in a horrible neighbourhood

While these problems would be more than enough for any country, Tajikistan has the unfortunate luck of being situated in the middle of one of the most volatile regions on Earth. With its entire mountainous southern border facing Afghanistan, which at its narrowest point is also only 40 kilometers from Pakistan’s tribal north, Tajikistan faces serious risks. Add to this Tajikistan’s border with China’s restive Xinjiang province and things look grim. China’s Kashgar prefecture is home to 40,000 ethnic Tajiks, and the local government is hiring an additional 3,000 police to reinforce the border as officials increasingly intercept weapons, drugs and extremist media. Moreover, the Pakistani military’s offensive in Waziristan has pushed Central Asian ISIS supporters into northern Afghanistan, with Tajik radicals resettling in Afghanistan and others returning back home.

Radio free europe

Tajikistan’s Interior Minister Ramazon Rahimzoda has estimated that there are between 10,000-15,000 militants along the Afghan-Tajik border, many of whom have cross-border connections. Indeed, Asadullah Omarkhail, governor of Afghanistan’s Kunduz province argues that “around three thousand Taliban fighters are active in Kunduz [and are receiving] Russian and Tajik support.” While claims about state assistance from Russia and Tajikistan to the Taliban are suspect, the group undoubtedly receives support from individuals in both countries, many of them Tajiks.

Tajikistan’s government takes these cross-border links seriously, and has recently ordered mobile phone providers to being re-registering all SIM cards in the country in order to thwart terrorists. First deputy head of the State National Security Committee, Mansurdzhon Umarov explained the move, stating that “we have information that on the border with our country, insurgents with the Taliban movement are actively using Tajik SIM cards.” Tajik SIM cards are popular in the region as they are cheaper, and some cases provide better service than those issued by Afghan service providers.

Tajikistan on the brink of multiple insurgencies

While the Afghan-Tajik border presents the greatest security challenge, the situation in neighbouring Uzbekistan holds important lessons, and warnings for Tajikistan. Like in Tajikistan, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) emerged out of resistance to a long-time leader and vehement anti-Islamist, in this case Islam Karimov. Likewise the IMU has long had cross-border dealings with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Despite this, the leadership of the IMU pledged loyalty to ISIS, with IMU emir Usman Ghasi aligning the group with Daesh in June 2015. This move caused a split in the IMU, with a splinter group retaining the IMU name, and re-affirming its allegiance to the Taliban. The existence of Jamaat Ansarullah, a Tajik IMU splinter group further connects events in Uzbekistan and Afghanistan to Tajikistan.


What happened in Uzbekistan could easily happen in Tajikistan as ISIS supporters return home and continue to push radical Islamist goals. If the government continues its hard-line approach, these radicalized individuals are likely to act against the very government whose actions initially pushed many towards radicalization in the first place. This will create tensions between these returning ISIS expats and established local, anti-government groups. The latter has ties with ethnic Tajiks in the border regions of Afghanistan and China as well as with the Taliban.

Given the existing Taliban-ISIS rivalry, Tajikistan could well see the development of a proxy-war among rival Islamist groups, with ISIS and Taliban-backed groups attacking each other as well as the government. This would in turn transform Tajikistan from an exporter to an importer of radicals, as international supporters of both ISIS and the Taliban heed each side’s respective call for support.


This article was originally published on Global Risk Insights on 19 March, 2017.

Under the Radar series of Global Risk Insights uncovers political risk events around the world overlooked by mainstream media. By detecting hidden risks, we keep you ahead of the pack and ready for new opportunities.

Under the Radar is written by Senior Analyst Jeremy Luedi.

Global Security: Governance and Benevolence


Munich Security Conference 2017, 17-19 Feb 2017 (Image credit: MSC/Mueller)

Reflections on the week passed

by Elbay Alibayov

I was following the Munich Security Conference this week. There was a bit of everything, which is perhaps only natural. My initial impressions (not an analysis or a detailed account of the event):

A lot of open discussions, good judgement and right, if not uneasy, messages (particularly coming from European representatives; I liked the address by EU’s foreign affairs chief Mogherini and Angela Merkel’s confident leadership, especially in the face of rather cautious, if not modest presentation by the US team).

Some narrow agenda driven stances and accusations (for example, an orchestrated attack of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel against Iran as the only source of security problem in the Middle East; it is no doubt, but only part of the problem, the rest being contributed by themselves). It is time to recognise that there is not going to be peace, order and prosperity in the Middle East unless the region’s most influential actors learn to cooperate in spite of differences and disagreements on particular issues.

Some eyebrow raising events (like the formal meeting, at the sidelines of the conference, of two delegations from Iraq led respectively by PM al-Abadi and Kurdistan’s president Barzani) and inconsistencies (like both the Afghanistan’s President Ghani and Pakistan’s Defence Minister Asif rightfully claiming that their countries are at the forefront of fighting global terrorism, while on the same very day Pakistani military conducting border shelling and, according to local sources, crossing the border under the pretext of destroying the terrorist base in Nangarhar).

Some awakening calls on new global threats (namely, the warning of bio-terrorism by Bill Gates) and some disappointing news (like the admission by Thomas de Maiziere that there is no meaningful cooperation between European security organisations and the UN counter-terrorism body).

Whether this will translate into constructive and well thought out and coordinated action remains to be seen. One thing was clear is that the way international affairs are conducted has changed. Perhaps this was most explicitly stated by the Russian FM Lavrov in his call to embrace a new world order. Otherwise, the spirit of changed international affairs was expressed in the title of the security report published prior to the Conference: “Post-Truth, Post-West, Post-Order.”

It seems that everyone agrees that we are living in a sort of “ante” era of global governance—in between the “post” (as represented by the system established after World War II and amended after the end of Cold-War) and before the new system is established and functional. What this new global governance system will look like nobody knows yet; it only takes shape (also through various tests undertaken here and there by global and regional actors) but as an objective process moves forward, whether some like it or not.

There is also one thought that does not leave me for many years, since the early 1990s when I first saw the face of human suffering in real life, not through the TV screen (shockingly, these were hundreds thousands of refugees and displaced people in my country, among them my relatives, forced from their places of residence by the Nagorno Karabagh conflict). After that, living and working in Bosnia (from Srebrenica to Sarajevo), in Kabul and Baghdad… it does not leave me alone… Isn’t this all suffering enough? What sort of moral impetus do we need to be humans?

Something is wrong with us as humankind. We may be (and are most of the time) benevolent as individuals but lack Humanity as organised groups. As groups, we easily humiliate, torture, kill. We feel little empathy for other’s sufferings. We fail to see the loss of a single life as tragedy. And when it happens en masse, it is only statistics and labels to us that matters. This is something that has not changed through the millenia of human history…

In the words of Hitchens, we have “downgraded” people to the level of “problems” (thanks to Shadi Hamid for sharing through Twitter this brilliant essay, A Valediction for Edward Said, written by Christopher Hitchens back in 2003). He wrote it about Palestinians, but his observation holds true to many other people: “People may lose a war or a struggle or be badly led or poorly advised, but they must not be humiliated or treated as alien or less than human.” No global security or development agenda will be working and delivering peace and prosperity unless we understand this.


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


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

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

In Search of National Identity: Afghanistan’s Enduring Rivalry

“All day I think about it, then at night I say it. Where did I come from, and what am I supposed to be doing? I have no idea. My soul is from elsewhere, I am sure of that, and I intend to end up there.”           

—Jalal-al-Din Mohammad Rumi



Kabul, 1961 (Photo: AP/Henry Burroughs)

By Elbay Alibayov

The recent developments in Afghanistan indicate that the conflict there may have entered a new phase, which has a potential of setting ground for gradually ending the violence and establishing a lasting peace. A series of events at first glance look rather random and business-as-usual, but they send messages that taken together imply that something new is in making at the background beyond the events.

To appreciate the significance of these developments, one has to place them into a right analytical framework where local contexts (structures, institutions) and political actors contesting the distribution of power continuously interact and keep interpreting these interactions and the opportunities they offer at any critical juncture in time. At the end of the day, whatever large-scale and intensive, this is not the external factor that will decide the final outcome of the Afghan war and the destiny of the Afghan state—but the local political actors.

This article is an attempt to reflect on the political conflict in Afghanistan in the context of an enduring rivalry between modernisation and traditionalism, which is itself a manifestation of a search (and shaping and reshaping) of national identity for a country as culturally diverse as Afghanistan. The topic is not new, but it has not been explored at the interface of a long-lasting process and momentous opportunities opening up at some crucial points. These moments are impossible to foresee, let alone to engineer. But it is possible (and imperative, for political agents) to be ready to take advantage as soon as they avail themselves.

The political conflict in Afghanistan reflects an enduring rivalry between the proponents of modernisation and traditionalism, in their search for national identity

I put an effort to keep it concise (hope you would appreciate that ;- ). The paper consists of four parts. In the first post I will give an overview of current narratives about Afghanistan, resulting models, and their flaws. In the second part I will position the conflict in the context of enduring rivalry between modernisation and traditionalism in Afghanistan. The third part will look at coincidence of the current, most recent events and how they are interpreted by the agents as offering them opportunities for further action. And in the final part I will look beyond the events, to make some conclusions and outline the possible directions to explore.

Part One: Prevailing Narratives

The hidden works of narrative fallacy

There are scholarly works by historians and anthropologists written mostly in the past century, offering valuable insights into the Afghan history and culture (among them my favourite Afghanistan by Louis Dupree). There are also various narratives created over time (especially in post-2001 era), about Afghanistan’s institutions of power and statehood tradition, political actors, their interests, and the drivers of lasting wars.

The difference between the two is that the first group was written by people who based their studies on the primary sources collected through the field work in-country and with an intention to learn (and if possible, to understand) the culture of people inhabiting this ancient land; while the latter, to the contrast, were produced mostly by people who intended to explain (and do it authoritatively) all those complex matters of a distant culture and offering concepts backed by the narratives often-time built upon incomplete, or unconfirmed secondary and tertiary sources.

The second group of works and concepts was and still is driven by the day’s practical demands, as they have been produced to inform action by international actors (quite heavily) involved in Afghanistan. As such, they simplify and frame the reality to offer (if not impose) a logical model that makes sense of the otherwise random sequence of events and seemingly unrelated to each other, at times interrupted processes—with an ultimate aim of defining effective solutions to existing problems. And this is where the risk of falling into narrative fallacy (Nassim Taleb) is hidden and where theories turn into myths.


The modern myths

There are many myths created about Afghanistan in the last decades with various degree of uptake by policymakers, but three of them are most persistent (interestingly enough, they have been accepted fully or in considerable part by various foreign actors over time, in spite of difference in their ideological stands and interests).

Central among them is the myth claiming that there has never been an Afghan state, only a mass of continuously and fiercely warring tribesmen who do not recognize any form of central power or unification. It rightly notes that in terms of loyalty for Afghans of all groups and subgroups first comes their kin and then clan or tribe, but makes a wrong conclusion that they lack (if have at all) any allegiance to the state. As all across north of Africa and west, central and south Asia tribes have historically played significant role both socially and politically. This centuries-long tradition sits deep in bone of anyone having origins from these regions; however it does not (and has not) exclude the possibility of having a functional state, whether strong or less effective, centralised or not.

Another myth goes on to say that there had been a somewhat state in Afghanistan but it was annihilated in the wars of the 1980s-90s, and the attempts to rebuild it won’t work as the balance of power has changed from the capital to the rule of ethnically and sub-ethnically diverse (and largely Islamist) countryside that is too heterogeneous to be united.

It correlates with the tendency to see the stand-off between the government and insurgents as merely medieval war waged by local warlords, criminals and terrorists against the legitimate central government (albeit backed by foreigners and dominated by foreign ideology), without taking account of ideas and aspirations of the warring parties, and of the history of propagation of and resistance to reforms (such as claiming that the Taleban’s ‘attitude  toward the state and reforms are not the continuation of some “tradition”, but the result of their own uprooting’).

And finally, there is a myth which holds that Afghanistan is ‘not a natural state‘, pointing to ‘very special’ culture and social institutions of Pashtuns as politically dominant faction and their (deemed) irreconcilable differences with other ethnic groups and tribes. Moreover, some authors also marry this notion of Pashtun tribalism with the legacy of historically more recent ‘Afghan Jihad’ to arrive at totally biased portrait picturing Pashtuns as hostile to anything different (if not alien) from their own.

Common to these myths is that they oversimplify the historic processes and the present-day situation, focus only on one arbitrarily selected element while ignoring the rest, and above all, deny the Afghans (comprised as they are of diverse and distinct ethnic and sub-ethnic groups) their history of coexistence, political traditions and institutions. Taken together they lead to yet another misconception, this one with practical implications—the false assumption of the possibility to control the end state of the Afghan war.

The prevailing narratives created about Afghanistan deny its diverse populations their history of coexistence, political traditions and institutions.

This ‘control of the outcome‘ myth, first, implies that there is a military solution to the conflict and thus feeds into the dominant doctrine seeing the end-state in coercion. And second, this myth impedes the possibility of finding a workable solution to assist the country in establishing peace and state-building as it suggests that a state model can be imported to Afghanistan and sustained through pouring abundant money and technical advice into its structures. Thus far it has not worked well as we can see, if not served contrary to the purpose claimed.


Kabul, 1995

The models: imported and (revived) home-grown

Fifteen years after the intervention, Afghanistan is still in the process of seeking a political settlement to state-building and an administrative structure and mechanisms that would be compatible with its political culture and institutions—and thus viable. I will briefly outline the concepts in play with regards to (a) general approach to state-building, (b) vertical distribution of power within public administration, and (c) options proposed as alternatives to the present constitutional set-up in Afghanistan.

Deconstruction vs. co-optation

Of broadly defined two available (or practiced in post-conflict state-building) alternatives the international community decided to pursue the path of (partial) deconstruction of existing state apparatus in Afghanistan and then building a new one, instead of taking the approach of co-opting ‘all social forces and power centres into state-building within the existing institutions and trying to redirect their competition for power and [resources] from violent to peaceful channels.’ In so doing (given the nature and the initial justification for the military occupation and overthrowing of the government and political factions behind it) the intervening authorities (US and allies) have effectively excluded the Taleban and some other influential actors from the process (starting from the Bonn conference of 2001 and the creation of interim administration), and thus setting the entire endeavor in a direction of zero-sum game and coercion.

After the departure of Hamid Karzai from the helm of the state (but not from the politics) in 2014, Afghanistan has had even more troubling period following the contested elections and months of tortuous negotiations which resulted in the creation of a Government of National Unity (GUN) between two (tempted to say “former”, but they effectively still are) rivals, President Ashraf Ghani and the Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah.

Among other contextual and institutional challenges, the problem with the Government effectively fulfilling its functions lies in the lack of its legitimacy and credibility with large segments of (predominantly rural) population. Limited political representativeness of the central government, due to exclusion of other key players from decision making, will remain the major barrier to stabilisation and development in Afghanistan.

The biggest fallacy about Afghanistan is the view that the conflict can end in coercion through decisive military victory, and then an imported statehood model implanted and sustained.

Sub-national governance

Strong central government in Kabul, as initially supported by the international community, may have seemed as easy-to-go option and also appealed to personal and group aspirations of certain political actors holding power, but it very quickly proved as a nonworking model. In order to enable the government reach down to the villages and across the country while keeping intact the territorial integrity of the state within the constitutional provisions, decentralisation was promoted and introduced as a concept since 2007.

The implementation of sub-national governance reform, even accepted as critically important, has proven problematic for many reasons, including such systemic and institutional challenges as corruption, dominance of politics over bureaucracy, unclear distribution of functions, lack of real delegation of power, and competing interests and overlapping mandates of various bodies in charge.

Key legislation is either pending (lost in the procedures for years) or not implemented. The system itself is quite complex owing, in part, to the difference in conceptual approaches of donors (such as United Nations, World Bank, and USAID) and different government bodies in charge at all levels, from central ministries through provinces, districts, and municipalities (under the overall responsibility of Independent Directorate of Local Governance, IDLG).

Add to this a parallel system of sub-national development councils (operating at village and district level through community, district and cluster networks—all managed by the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development, MRRD) with own governance ambition—and you have a complex structure which is difficult to map on a piece of paper, let alone to manage. [*I have witnessed and went through all this confusion when assisting the MRRD in their work with District Development Assemblies, back in 2011].

Federalisation and partition

Devolution of power is imperative in Afghanistan—this seems to be appreciated by both foreign and domestic actors involved in state-building. But this is where the views are divided. Some observers and practitioners advocate and keep turning into reality the administrative decentralisation efforts (whatever cumbersome).  Others are sceptical about the success of this endeavour and have come up with scenarios which go beyond the present structure set by Afghanistan’s Constitution. The discussion, and even very light critique of those proposed constructs and their justification is a topic in its own right, therefore I will only touch upon it here. Roughly, there are two groups of options proposed over time that demand the amendment or even the adoption of new constitution.

One group comprises various scenarios of organising Afghanistan as a federal state. This effectively takes one (albeit significant) step further to the current administrative organisation of Afghanistan with thirty-four provinces, with much more power and authority and resources devolved to the federal units. The number and administrative borders may vary but in essence this is an approach to which the Afghan state is not prepared yet, as the vacillations over the implementation of sub-national governance reform have shown.

Another group of option can be subsumed under partition banner, whether suggesting a confederational set-up or the creation of new sovereign states. This is not a new idea either. Back in the 1960s, there was a proposition to set a confederation comprising three entities—Afghan, Pakistani, and Iranian. Today, the proponents of this idea offer a number of other scenarios (dividing the country along ethnic lines), such as a two-entity confederation of South (Pashtun) and North (Uzbek-Tajik) or three entities, with Hazara state added to the two.

These ideas mostly are deriving from the narratives discussed in the beginning of this paper, especially the one justifying the creation of a separate Pashtun state. Indeed, Pashtuns today are estimated at about 45 million, as per mid-2016 estimates: they comprise 15.42 percent of Pakistan’s population (approx 31.2 million) and 42 percent of Afghanistan’s population (approx 14 million). The idea of independent Pashtunistan has been entertained by various local political actors since 1947 (with or without relation to the disputed but still respected by both countries Durand Line); this always made the Pakistani authorities feel uneasy, with periods of escalated tensions, such as in the 1960s-70s.

*          *          *