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Boston University anthropology professor Thomas Barfield is one of America’s foremost authorities on Afghanistan, a country he first visited over forty years ago as a student. He has just published Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, a panoramic study of the nation from the rise of the Mughal Empire to the current Taliban resurgence. I put six questions to Barfield about his book.
1. Blackwater’s former CEO Erik Prince recently said that America’s Taliban adversaries in Afghanistan were “barbarians” who “crawled out of a sewer” with “a 1200 A.D. mentality.” Afghans generally, but particularly the Taliban, are routinely derided as “medieval” by Western analysts. What do you make of this?
Western analysts label the Taliban, and rural Afghans in general, “medieval” because that is one of the few (along with “tribal”) pre-modern typologies in their limited historical repertoire. More commonly it is used as an insult for any backward way of life out of touch with our own modern world. These same “medieval” people shot Soviet helicopters from the sky using American Stinger missiles in the 1980s and are now as addicted to cell phones as anyone else on the planet. Yet the use of the term is insightful if applied to a society where religion still plays a determinative role in culture and politics, much as it did in medieval Europe when religious issues took precedence over economic ones. In Afghanistan, Islamic politics is the default option because its people assume there can be no other type. Afghanistan’s fragmented state authority also resembles that of medieval Europe: leadership is personal rather than bureaucratic, and the state’s power to impose its will quite limited. Since the rise of the modern West was characterized by the emergence of centralized states and the retreat of religion as the dominant influence in society, it now takes a leap of imagination to appreciate a society in which religion continues to play a culturally dominating role and the state is only one of many contenders for legitimate political authority.
2. In your first chapters you apply analytical tools developed by the Arab philosopher ibn Khaldun to Afghanistan. Explain ibn Khaldun’s theory, how you apply it, and what it tells us about Afghanistan that is valid today.
In 1375, ibn Khaldun asked himself how it came to be that so many ruling dynasties in the Middle East and North Africa were the products of people from the margins: the deserts, steppes, and mountains of the region. He attributed their success to a strong group solidarity that was lacking in urban areas where people were bound together largely by economic ties and formal government institutions. In times of good government and prosperity, the cities controlled their marginal regions and made such people subservient to them. In times of poor government and military weakness, new charismatic leaders from the margins swept incompetent rulers from power and established new dynasties. But gaining such unity was not easy. Internal tribal rivalries over leadership among groups like the Pashtuns was so intense that even great leaders always found their positions precarious. (No Afghan ruler of any political persuasion has avoided exile or assassination since 1901.) For this reason ibn Khaldun observed an alternative pattern of pan-tribal political movements founded by charismatic religious figures. This fit the pattern of Mullah Omar’s Taliban. They recruited under the banner of Islam rather than by tribal affiliation, although the movement appealed to few non-Pashtuns. But even that religious movement did not obliterate the rural/urban tension described by ibn Khaldun. The harsh restrictions the Taliban imposed on daily life in Kabul were less rooted in religion than in a cultural clash between luxury-loving urbanites and puritanical rural villagers who had come to wield power over them. But, as ibn Khaldun also observed, if these Pashtun puritans saw themselves as closer to being good in a moral sense than were city people, it was only because their rural life offered far fewer opportunities for corruption. He was convinced that all rural peoples who moved to the cities eventually became more like their urban neighbors than the folks they left behind. And the urban population of Afghanistan today is far higher than it was thirty years ago.
3. In the nineteenth century, Afghanistan was a borderland between two great empires—the Russian, which pushed south through Central Asia, and the British, which pushed north from the Indus Valley. Did this relationship between the empires influence the development of the modern Afghan state?
Afghan rulers in the nineteenth century were most threatened by the expansion of the British, who feared that Afghanistan might serve as a staging zone for invasions against India. Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt prompted their first contacts with the Afghans, but as the French threat receded it was replaced by fear that Russian expansion into Central Asia was part of a long term plan to take India from its rightful European occupier, a fear that was replaced by German threats in the First and Second World Wars. The British alternated between an aggressive Forward Policy that called for the direct incorporation of Afghanistan into British India and a more passive approach that favored an independent Afghan buffer state. The British mounted two wars against Afghanistan (1839-42, 1878-80) to rule the place directly, but these ended badly enough that the governments in London switched to the indirect approach at the end of each war. While the British remained a constant threat, they were able to preserve Afghanistan against other rivals. They forced Iran to give up its claim on Herat. According to one perhaps apocryphal tale, the Russian tsar accepted Afghanistan’s existing northern border because he did not realize where the mountains ended. The British were less charitable on the Indian frontier, demanding that Amir Abdur Rahman (1880-1901) cede what would become the Northwest Frontier Province in 1893. (The Afghans never accepted the legitimacy of the so-called Durand Line, and it remains the biggest dispute between Pakistan and Afghanistan to this day.) In return the British gave the amir the arms and money needed to create the modern state of Afghanistan, one that achieved full independence from British oversight in 1919 under King Amanullah. While there was some talk of incorporating northern Afghanistan into the Soviet Union in the 1980s, this never came to pass. In a bit of historical irony that would have pleased its nineteenth-century rulers, Afghanistan outlasted both the British raj that ended in 1947 and the Soviet Union that dissolved in 1991.
4. At the time of America’s initial direct military engagement with Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002, the Rumsfeld Pentagon distributed vast sums of cash to local Afghan warlords to win their tactical support. Did this strategy reflect, in your assessment, a sensible long-term approach to dealing with the political situation in Afghanistan?
The U.S. victory over the Taliban in 2001 was facilitated by large cash payments to win over Afghan allies and air attacks against Taliban positions. This high-tech/low-tech combination proved deadly to Taliban forces and led to their rapid disintegration. Each side congratulated itself on having used the other to achieve its own ends. The anti-Taliban Afghans did the deals and fought the fights using American money and firepower without having to surrender the country’s sovereignty. The Americans expelled al Qaeda from Afghanistan and crushed the Taliban without deploying any of its regular ground troops. This strategy was an excellent way to win a war with minimal involvement since there were fewer than 400 Americans in Afghanistan in late 2001. Still, most of the so-called warlords fully expected that they would have to enter a new line of work in the coming years as government institutions solidified. Instead, the U.S. found it easier in the short term to rely on the existing militia structure rather than create a proper national army and police force. During 2002 and 2003, the U.S. committed only 7,000 troops to a country that is the size of France with a population of thirty million people. It also initially discouraged other countries from deploying troops, and their willingness to cooperate soon evaporated in the wake of the Iraq war. In the absence of a real Afghan national army (in 2004 it numbered only 9,000, of which only half could be deployed), the existing militia leaders stayed in power. Only with the return of the Taliban to active fighting in 2006 did the consequences of such a short-sighted policy become clearly visible. Had the United States only devoted a fifth of its current effort in 2003 and 2004 and used it to create viable Afghan institutions, we might not be facing an insurgency in the country today.
5. In early April, Hamid Karzai reportedly told a gathering of parliamentarians in Kabul that if he came under more pressure from foreigners, he might well “join the Taliban.” This remark was widely taken by Western reporters as evidence of Karzai’s fickleness or even mental instability, but analysts inside of Afghanistan said it reflected his recognition of the Taliban’s solid position in the Pushtun heartland and the fact that resistance to foreign influences was a popular political theme within the country. How do you see this, and what prospects do you see for a productive political dialogue with the Taliban—such as Karzai has advocated and CENTCOM commanders have resisted?
For the past 150 years, successive Afghan rulers have been dependent on foreign economic and military aid to maintain their governments’ stability. This created a policy dilemma in a country that was never colonized and had a prickly sense of its own independence. To be successful an Afghan leader needed both to curry favor with his foreign backers while appearing fully independent. A true master of this strategy played a double game. He persuaded foreign powers that only he could control the unruly Afghans. He convinced the Afghans that only he had the capacity to manipulate foreign powers on their behalf to preserve the country’s autonomy. This strategy was most difficult to apply when foreign troops were in the country, because a ruler’s enemies could always attack him as a puppet controlled by his foreign backers. Karzai’s attacks on the United States and the coalition are a response to this threat, but not a credible one. No Afghan believes his government could survive without direct U.S. support. He thus wins no domestic credibility for biting the hand that feeds him and loses the confidence of his international backers who now doubt his reliability. Karzai’s overtures to the Taliban are viewed as a sign of personal weakness, not strength. In Afghanistan, the perception of being a winner (or loser) often plays a decisive role in turning that perception into reality. Why should members of the Taliban defect or compromise if they believe that Karzai is not a credible foe? Hasty overtures to the Taliban also alienate the half of the country that is non-Pashtun. They oppose any attempt by Karzai to cut a deal with his co-ethnics at their expense—and the non-Pashtuns constitute the core of the new Afghan National Army.
6. America’s new counterinsurgency strategy for Afghanistan is supposed to focus on shoring up the legitimacy of the regime in Kabul, and it is supposed to be informed by a careful study of social relationships within the country prepared by professional anthropologists. So far, the new approach has little evidence of success. As a scholar of the people of Afghanistan, tell us what they got wrong.
The American military’s counterinsurgency policy (COIN) is caught in a dilemma: in many regions of Afghanistan the Karzai government is seen by the local population as part of the problem, not part of the solution. Had the government not been so highly centralized, this would be less of a problem. Even a badly flawed centralized structure might have succeeded if run by a talented leader, while a more expertly designed decentralized structure could survive the mistakes of a poor one. What a fragile state (and a COIN strategy) cannot easily survive is a badly designed government run by an ineffective leader. The United States needs to decouple its interests from those of the Karzai regime by empowering the local population and dealing with their community leaders directly. Afghans have ruled themselves for generations with little central government participation at the local level in any event. This issue would surely have been front and center had the COIN strategy really been based on a careful study of social relationships prepared by professional anthropologists with direct experience in Afghanistan. But to my knowledge, among the very limited number of people who meet these criteria, few or none were ever contacted for their views when the plan was devised, let alone empowered to devise the strategy.
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