Cowboy Hats Do Not Make Magic: South Sudan’s Endless War and Suffering


by Elbay Alibayov | Reflections on the week past

After decades of the struggle for independence (and infighting that began back in 1955), we thought that finally the South Sudanese earned what they had fought for so hard. It was a big day, for all of us—back in 2011. The world celebrated a new member of the United Nations family, and we felt it was the beginning of new era for this troubled place and its diverse populations. However, things did not work as expected.

Instead of engaging in nation-building and offering its fellow citizens the long-awaited safety and quality of life (for which the country has plenty of natural resources), the South Sudanese politicians drew their newly born country into a civil war, chaos, political fracturing, and immense human suffering. According to Andrew Green’s article in the World Politics Review,

“At least 100,000 people living in areas of northeast South Sudan that have sustained the most fighting are currently experiencing a famine, and more than 1 million more are on the brink. By July, 5.5 million people—nearly half of the country’s population—could face severe food insecurity, according to the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification.”

What is troubling is that the tragedy of South Sudan is somewhat forgotten; it is overshadowed by other (supposedly “bigger”) crises in Africa and the Middle East. Moreover, as the fighting and mass killings and human suffering ensue, the world leaders and many donors turn the blind eye towards the youngest state on the face of the earth. In short, the independence of South Sudan came at an overwhelming price—the price that not many countries and organisations want to share nowadays, under various excuses. And this is at the time when it needs this help urgently. Writes the International Crisis Group in its recent briefing on South Sudan:

“There are no simple solutions in South Sudan, and moves toward genuine peace require compromises both among South Sudanese and between international actors and the government. Given the multiplicity of factions, peace is more likely to be a local affair, in which progress in some areas may occur at the same time as stagnation in others. There is little appetite beyond South Sudan’s immediate neighbours to support local dialogue, however, whether to promote peace, reconciliation or humanitarian access.”

That is a very bad news for South Sudanese people. But not only for them. It is also very bad news for international community, as it means that we do not want to recognize our own mistakes and even worse, shy away from taking responsibility to clear up the mess we have encouraged and helped creating. The bitter truth of this story is that instead of turning into a symbol of how fairly the global governance acts in terms of self-determination and sovereignty, South Sudan has effectively turned into the worst case of state failure. We should have anticipated this coming. Any political and political economy analysis of the new country at the time would have determined that it was ready for independence but not for sovereignty, and would have flagged the developments there as alarming and deserving continuous assistance and care.

A black cowboy hat (even if it is the gift from the American president) cannot replace political institutions. And that is what South Sudan lacked at the time and still badly is in need of building. Without institutions this young nation stands no chance of ceasing the “endless war” and suffering, and moving towards well-being and prosperity as anyone else does. To contain and then gradually end South Sudan’s civil war, the country’s political leaders at central and regional levels should engage in a more inclusive political process and create more representative transitional governance arrangements and bodies. This requires a certain degree of political maturity, something that South Sudan’s actors severely lack… and the international community does not seem to rush with the helping hand.

*                             *                             *

Check out the piece in World Politics Review, Will Uganda’s Open-Door Refugee Policy Survive South Sudan’s Endless War? Yet another evidence of how things are bad in South Sudan and how difficulties mount even for those who stand to help, like neighbouring Uganda:

“The bigger problem here is that South Sudan is breaking up more and more,” says Alan Boswell, an independent analyst. “With each passing moment, a solution gets harder and harder. To get back to where we were in 2011 is impossible,” he added, referring to the year the country declared its independence from Sudan. “Just trying to get back to a place where you can even have some sort of outreach and political dialogue is extremely challenging.”


Nobody is in Charge in Libya


by Mohamed Eljarh | The Cipher Brief

The Cipher Brief’s Bennett Seftel sat down with Mohamed Eljarh, former political consultant to the Libyan Mission to the European Union, to discuss the ongoing conflict in Libya, the current terrorist threat in the country, and prospects for peace.

The Cipher Brief: What is the current state of political affairs in Libya?

Mohamed Eljarh: It has been more than 16 months since the signing of the UN-brokered Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) in the Moroccan city of Skhirat and more than 12 months since the arrival of the UN-backed Presidential Council headed by Prime Minister Faiez Serraj in the capital of Tripoli.  However, Libya remains a deeply divided and polarized country – one that lacks any representative or fully legitimate government – and it has witnessed various camps compete for legitimacy and control of key state institutions, such as the Central Bank of Libya (CBL), the National Oil Corporation (NOC) and Libyan Investment Authority (LIA). In addition, an ongoing armed struggle is taking place in various parts of the country. [The conflict] is linked to the ongoing political struggle for control of resources and state institutions.

Within Libya, there are three centers of political power: the UN-backed Presidential Council based in Tripoli, the State Council (formerly known as the General National Congress), which is also based in Tripoli, and the House of Representatives based in Tobrouk. The failure of these three institutions to implement the Libyan Political Agreement has resulted in significant deterioration in living conditions and a precarious security situation where the risk of a full-fledged civil war and reemergence of violent Jihadist groups, such as ISIS, is real.

Additionally, these institutions and competing governments failed to unify key state institutions that were divided back in 2014 when certain Islamist and revolutionary factions in control of the capital Tripoli refused to recognize the June 2014 national election results and the subsequent move of the newly elected House of Representatives to the eastern Libyan city of Tobruk where it has been sitting ever since. Today, Libya has two central banks, two national oil corporations and three competing managements of the Libya’s sovereign fund, the Libyan Investment Authority.

As a result of these failures and the ongoing conflict, a growing number of Libyans, as many as 40 percent, are now living under the poverty line. The poverty issue in Libya is exacerbated by the ongoing conflict and deteriorating economic and financial situation plagued by widespread corruption and poor governance. Three different governments are printing and spending their own cash and allocating their own budgets.

The value of the Libyan dinar has dropped significantly from a rate of 1.32 Libyan dinars to 1 U.S. dollar to as low as 10 Libyan dinars for 1 U.S. dollar in recent weeks. Additionally, there is a major cash liquidity crisis and shortages in fuel, medicine, cooking gas, and basic goods supplies with significant hikes in prices throughout the country.

TCB: Last year, ISIS was kicked out of the coastal city of Sirte by Libyan forces, but there are reports that ISIS may establishing a base in southern Libya. Does the group still maintain a presence in the country?

ME: Political instability, poverty and conflict are key contributing factors to the emergence and rise of jihadist groups. Although ISIS was defeated militarily in Libya and does not control any towns or cities in the country, the environments and factors that gave rise ISIS still exist today, and if not dealt with urgently and properly, will give rise again to ISIS or a much worse Jihadist phenomena.

Currently, there is violent escalation between Libyan National Army forces under the command of General Khalifa Haftar on one side and forces loyal to the authorities in Tripoli and Misrata on the other. There is no doubt but that ISIS and other al Qaeda-linked jihadist groups will aim to regroup, strengthen their presence, and potentially expand their control over territory in the southern region.

Local forces in the southern region of Fezzan have already spotted an increase in jihadist activities. There is a real threat that jihadist groups will form deep-rooted connections and networks with criminal gangs in southern Libya. [These gangs] are involved in human and drug trafficking and smuggling activities [that] would provide jihadist groups with a generous source of income to fund their activities and regrouping efforts and would have dangerous consequences not only for Libya, but the entire Sahel and North Africa regions, and of course Europe.


TCB: Has Russia become involved in Libya in any capacity? If so, how?  Should the U.S. play a role in Libya, either militarily or by helping to broker a peace deal? If so, to what extent? 

ME: Instability in Libya and the legitimacy crisis have created a vacuum in Libya that since 2014 has been filled by jihadist groups such as ISIS or Ansar al-Sharia. But it is not just Jihadist groups that are filling the vacuum in a chaotic Libya. Regional players such as Egypt, Turkey, UAE, and Qatar have been backing opposing sides in the Libyan conflict.

Last year, Russia started to weigh its options in Libya.  It seems that Libya is now part of Moscow’s expansionist ambitions in the region. Initially, Russia seemed to favor the Eastern Libyan Commander Khalifa Haftar, as the Russians treated his wounded soldiers, have him medical supplies, and provided private contractors to help with war related activities. However, recently, Russia started to reach out to all Libyan stakeholders and has been working to push forward the peace process and the Libyan Political Agreement. Regionally, Russia is coordinating efforts with Algeria, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates.

It is clear that Russia is neither keen nor capable of getting involved militarily in Libya. Hence, political and diplomatic involvement is the best option available for Moscow. However, it is important to keep in mind that Libya is important to Russia for obvious economic reasons. Libya is also important to Russia because it is very important to Europe. For Moscow, Libya is another battlefield where [Putin] could twist Europe’s arm.

Russia is getting more involved in Libya while everyone waits to see the Trump Administration’s strategy towards Libya. On April 20, President Trump said, “I do not see a (U.S.) role in Libya” during a joint news conference, moments after Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni called the U.S. role in the country “critical.” This confirms fears of many EU leaders that the U.S. might be heading for disengagement in Libya.

However, Trump’s position on Libya could easily flip, as it did in Syria. But it is important for the Trump Administration to have the right strategy in Libya and not just a reactionary, ad-hoc figure-it-out-as-you go approach.

There are two key issues that any strategy towards Libya has to deal with. First, the legitimacy crisis that led to the current constitutional and legal vacuum. Second, there is the issue of political participation of all Libyan factions in producing a legitimate and representative government. The UN-led peace process was meant to solve the legitimacy issue through the dialogue and consensus process, but has failed.

TCB: Where do you see the situation headed in the short term?

ME: It is very likely that the current status quo will continue throughout 2017. It is important to point out that the term of the LPA and the UN-backed government of national accord ends on December 17, 2017. The president of the House of Representatives has already called for the Higher National Elections Commission to prepare for general presidential and parliamentary elections in February 2018. Given that negotiations based peace process did not yield the anticipated results, a democratic, free and fair elections could be the best way to solve the legitimacy and participation issues highlighted above.

What the United States, Europe and the international community at large can do is to put in place mechanisms and guarantees to support the election processes and ensure they are transparent and fair. Most importantly, the international community, through the UN Security Council, must ensure that elections results are respected and protected.

Additionally, Libya would require two key agreements that need to happen simultaneously:  first, a Libyan Economic Agreement that deals with the management and distribution of Libya’s wealth and ensures equitable and efficient management and distribution of oil revenues between Libyans; and, second, a Libyan Security Agreement that deals with the issue of disarming militias, collection weapons, and the rebuilding of Libyan Armed Forces under civilian oversight and authority, as well as the protection of borders, vital sites, and installations.

TCB: What do you make of the recent meeting between Prime Minister Serraj and General Khalifa Haftar in the UAE earlier this week.

ME: The meeting in Abu Dhabi and the joint communique issued by Prime Minister Serraj and General Khalifa Haftar is a major breakthrough and a significant step in the right direction. However, there are still many details to be worked out. Additionally, there are enough spoilers in Libya that could ensure the meeting does not result in any real progress on the ground. Some Islamist factions that are loyal to the Libyan Grand Mufti in Tripoli, Jufrah and the city of Derna are likely to reject the meeting and its outcomes. Within the city of Misrata some hardline factions have forcefully closed down the city’s democratically elected municipal council and the city is extremely polarized and divided. The hardliners within the city of Misrata are likely to reject the meeting and its outcome. Most importantly, the meeting must be followed by other steps that widen the participation and support base for the new agreement and the upcoming elections.

The key obstacle facing Libya today is the legitimacy crisis that resulted in institutional and legal vacuum. One way out of this conundrum would be holding parliamentary and presidential elections after speeding up the constitution drafting committee and agreeing a constitution for the country. This will ensure the end of the current institutional divide and restore some confidence in governance and the economy. However, any democratic elections will require guarantees from the international community that the electoral process would be free and fair and that the election results are respected.


This piece was originally published on The Cipher Brief

(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.

*          *          *