by Thomas Barfield
Princeton University Press, 2010, 400 pp., $29.95
In the public debate about Afghanistan, most have focused on the question of how to fight the war. Too few have thought through the political formula for establishing an enduring peace based on a legitimate political order and effective institutions. In Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, Thomas Barfield, a professor of anthropology at Boston University, has provided a rich discussion of the anthropological and historical context for developing such a formula, which is a critical missing piece in the Obama Administration’s policy in Afghanistan.
Barfield does a good job of clearing away many myths about Afghanistan. While pundits argue that Afghanistan is ungovernable, he notes that it has been a continuous polity since the late 18th century and enjoyed notable political stability during the 20th century, until the Communist coup in 1978 and the Soviet invasion in 1979. Rebutting the claim that Afghanistan has never had a strong central government, he observes that Amir Abdur Rahman—the “Iron Amir”—established a highly centralized regime in the late 19th century that not only subordinated all regional and tribal groups to his regime but also ensured their continuing allegiance even after the coercive power of the center weakened under his successors. Barfield also counters the assertion that Afghans lack a national identity: “Few peoples of the world, particularly the Islamic world, have maintained such a strong and unproblematic sense of themselves, their culture, and their superiority as Afghans.”
The upshot is that Afghanistan is a polity with sufficient social coherence, both at the local and national levels, to resist the onslaught of militant Islamist extremists based in sanctuaries in Pakistan. However, as Barfield notes, this resistance requires that Afghanistan’s leaders, as well as their supporters in the international community, develop a formula that establishes political legitimacy and state institutions suited to the complex social context of the country. Such a task is not easy, but it is doable.
Though Barfield’s Afghanistan is largely a history of the tribulations of Afghan politics from pre-modern times to the present, five threads run through the author’s account, forming the basis of his policy prescription.
First, Barfield argues that Afghanistan is a “Swiss cheese” polity. The modern Western state, in his view, is monolithic, with state control universal and absolute within its borders, akin to “processed American cheese.” However, in the Turko-Persian world to which Afghanistan belongs, a different model obtains:
[E]mpires were cobbled together with large stretches of sparsely populated territory separating the main centers of agriculture and urban life. Rulers here sought direct control of these centers and lines of communication among them while largely ignoring the rest. They employed a Swiss cheese model of the polity that did not assume uniformity across the landscape or their control over it.
Afghanistan, with its dispersed, rural population organized in self-governing villages centered on clans and tribal groups, fits this pattern.
As a result, a key task for any regime that establishes itself in Kabul is to determine whether and how to extend its governance to the periphery. Barfield documents the variety of possible answers applied by past Afghan rulers. Some regimes, including many pre-modern empires, sought to control directly only economically productive areas, using carrots and sticks as needed to manage upstart elements in the periphery. Others, such as the Iron Amir, forcibly extended Kabul’s control to the country’s entire territory. Still others, particularly Zahir Shah in the 20th century, used patrimonial politics—a light footprint and modest services to secure local loyalties. Though Barfield sometimes overstates the degree to which groups on the periphery were looking to challenge the center, he rightly identifies the imperative for leaders to find an effective formula to activate the allegiance of Afghans outside the areas that a relatively poor state can rule directly.
Second, Barfield argues that modern Afghanistan is composed of four regional building blocks centered on Kabul in the east, Kandahar in the south, Herat in the west and Mazar-i-Sharif in the north. These regions, all of which include well-irrigated plains supporting an urban center, are socio-political units of long historical standing. As he puts it, “These, like toy Lego blocks, have been fitted together in many different ways over the course of time, but each block has always remained recognizable as such.” At various times, each has been a province of world empires, centers of their own empires, independent principalities or contested regions in wider imperial competitions. In his view, this history gives these regions social coherence, thereby possibly providing a basis to decentralize political power today.
Third, Barfield sees challenging political dynamics arising from the dichotomy formed by Afghanistan’s desert civilization in the south and its sedentary civilization in the north. The former, largely in Pashtun areas, involves segmented, kinship-based politics in which no one group leader has the “right of command” over the whole; the emergence of a paramount leader requires either a difficult-to-generate consensus or superior force. The latter, mostly among Afghanistan’s minority groups in the north, arises based on agricultural systems capable of producing surpluses that then enable the development of hierarchical societies with accepted differentiation between ruler and ruled.
The implication of the dichotomy is that the northern groups are culturally best suited to create a modern state, while the southern Pashtuns, representing the largest but most internally fissiparous ethnic group, are not thus suited. The fact is that, nonetheless, for most of the history of modern Afghanistan rulers arose from leading Pashtun groups. This legacy is still powerful; it shaped the selection of Hamid Karzai as the leader of the post-Taliban government. As his rule has faltered, Barfield senses the political system fragmenting, with northerners questioning their subordinate role and fractious southerners unwilling to continue supporting one of their own.
Fourth, Barfield observes that over the past two centuries a secular trend of expanding participation has challenged the capacities of the political system. When Afghans were part of larger empires, they were largely passive, accepting the overlordship of whatever Leviathan could provide general order, and looking to clan and tribal structures to manage matters close to home. In early Afghan dynasties, politics was restricted to the royal family, court and army. However, when Afghan rulers mobilized elements of the population to fight against the British and other foreign powers, the issue arose of whether the people should have a voice in politics. As Barfield explains, “With each succeeding crisis and popular military mobilization, the restoration of state authority became harder and harder and disputes over who had the right to rule the state became fiercer.” This culminated in the national resistance against the Soviet occupation, after which the Afghan people as a whole wished to shape their destiny. The challenge, recalling the third threat of Barfield’s analysis, is that the nation has had limited experience in forging workable politics at the national level.
Fifth, Barfield observes that outside powers have long played a critical role in Afghan politics. When Afghanistan was the center of a larger empire, the wealth of more prosperous areas funded the central state. When confined to its present geography, rulers have typically depended on subsidies by foreigners to maintain state institutions. Since Afghanistan will not be economically self-sufficient in the short or medium term, a high premium remains on securing and maintaining an external economic base for the future.
Against this challenging backdrop, Barfield sees a workable solution. The Afghan state should exercise direct rule in urban and more densely settled areas while governing indirectly over peripheral areas through ties with self-governing tribes and communities. He urges the decentralization of control over economic development and services to Afghanistan’s traditional four regional power centers, thus empowering minorities and diminishing the winner-take-all dynamics of a centralized system. He recommends that efforts aimed at encouraging popular participation focus less on the process of elections and more on the substance of working with local communities to improve security and economic well-being. And he sees a potential for sustaining the state economically by means of harnessing regional trade connecting Central and South Asia, establishing energy conduits for hydrocarbons in Central Asia, and exploiting the country’s vast deposits of valuable minerals.
One need not agree with all aspects of Barfield’s analysis to conclude that the Obama Administration needs urgently to reflect on the broad contours of his account. The principal lesson is that President Obama cannot escape the hard but necessary work of state-building if he wants to succeed. The only way to prevent the re-emergence of a terrorist sanctuary in Afghanistan over the long haul is to work with Afghans to establish a government capable of policing its own territory. Americans will not secure Afghanistan. Only Afghans can, as Barfield shows them to have done for centuries in the past.
The policy question for today is whether Afghans, with U.S. and international support, can reconstitute an effective Afghan polity in modern circumstances. If they can do so, the terrorists lose. If they cannot, the terrorists will prevail and could, if they choose, return the country to the dynamics that produced the attacks of September 11, 2001. In his 2009 policy review, President Obama adamantly pressed for a narrow focus on military action to defeat al-Qaeda. He dismissively rejected more ambitious state- or nation-building goals. He failed to see that these two impulses are contradictory and self-defeating.
Another lesson of Barfield’s book is that successful state-building in Afghanistan turns on creating legitimacy for the new order. Success in those terms will generate the active allegiance of Afghans—not just in general but in distant rural communities—and this will create strong immunities against the Taliban and other insurgents. If we do not succeed, popular indifference or alienation will lead either to passive submission to insurgency, or it will create political entry points for armed extremists and their foreign backers.
In this respect, Barfield sells short the political maturity of Afghans as well as the success in building legitimacy that was achieved immediately after the fall of the Taliban. Afghans embraced the Bonn Process, the U.N.-led effort to re-establish the Afghan government through a series of power sharing agreements, loya jirgas and elections, each stage of which expanded the level of popular participation. They made historic compromises at the constitutional loya jirga on the structure of the state and on sensitive issues concerning national language. The people turned out in huge numbers for elections in 2004 and 2005. The Afghan government, with the support of the international community, established the National Solidarity Program, which created councils in thousands of villages to identify and fund local reconstruction needs. The National Health Program established a network of primary clinics that has already started to improve the country’s woeful health indicators. Afghan leaders, with U.S. facilitation, demobilized formal militias and reformed the Ministry of Defense into a national and more professional institution, enabling the development of the Afghan National Army, which today fields more than 130,000 personnel. The failure of the Karzai government after 2005 to build on this good beginning, and the inability of Afghan government and NATO forces to provide security against escalating enemy attacks, both led to growing popular disenchantment.
Barfield also gravitates to the faddish belief in decentralization as a silver bullet. In doing so, he overlooks how decentralization can undermine legitimacy. At the constitutional loya jirga, most delegates sought a stronger national government—an understandable desire in the wake of the anarchy of the 1990s. Many associated regionalism or federalism with warlordism, then the principal challenge to good governance. Incautious decentralization also runs afoul of the historic problem of localism or tribalism. In Afghanistan, almost all localities, whether a district, a province or a region, are composed of a variety of ethnic, tribal or clan groupings whose members have tight loyalties to each other. If a District Administrator or Provincial Governor is selected locally, whether by appointment or election, the risk is that he will favor his own community, thereby alienating others or even triggering conflict. For this reason, the historic formula has been for the central government to deploy local officials selected from other regions in the expectation that they will treat all groups equitably. As local community leaders in Afghanistan have told me on more than one occasion, “The national government needs to select good people as local officials—but they have to be from outside our communities.”
Another threat to governmental legitimacy is the way the Obama Administration has approached its relationship with Afghan leaders. It is remarkable that, given the challenging nature of Afghan politics, U.S. officials appear to believe they can make progress without a constructive relationship with President Karzai and other leaders. The tragedy is that Karzai had high expectations of improving relations when Obama took office. However, the humiliating treatment of the Afghan President in initial meetings with Vice President-elect Biden and special representative Richard Holbrooke, which degenerated into shouting matches, dug a deep hole. When Obama Administration officials actively worked against Karzai’s re-election, the building of a constructive relationship with U.S. civilian representatives became almost impossible, though the appointment of excellent Generals Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus and a skilled CIA station chief helped mitigate the damage. While President Karzai has his limitations and has underperformed in recent years, it will not be possible to improve governance without engaging him productively.
The Obama Administration is still on the wrong track in this respect. As reprinted in Bob Woodward’s book, Obama’s Wars, President Obama’s policy directive to his principals baldly states that one element of his approach is “[w]orking with Karzai when we can, working around him when we must.” This demeaning formulation, undoubtedly familiar to readers in Kabul, will ensure that the relationship with Karzai becomes rockier still. More generally, it runs counter to the obvious common goal of working collaboratively to restore Afghan sovereignty. To the extent that the U.S. government circumvents its Afghan counterpart, it is placing foreigners in the role of leading the Afghan state. Even a cursory reading of Afghan history will tell you that this approach is unlikely to end well.
A final lesson from Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History is that textbook counterinsurgency, based on protection of the population, is a necessary but not sufficient condition for success in Afghanistan. Local, traditional structures have enormous authority and power; in fact, the national resistance to Soviet occupation was mobilized through networks of tribal leaders, local elders, respected landowners and esteemed religious figures. The standard approach of “clear, hold and build” focuses solely on working through modern state structures and leaves the potential of traditional leaders untapped. Some American officers on the ground have figured this out, and some attempts are underway to develop village-level security forces with the cooperation of legitimate local leaders. However, Afghan leaders and NATO officers in the field could do more to mobilize the Afghan people systematically from the grassroots up. This approach has enormous potential to strengthen resistance to the Taliban and other insurgents and to involve the people in supporting a new order in which the people are vested.
Barfield has given us a valuable effort by a Westerner to decode a very foreign society—never an easy task. As a prism through which to understand the current conflict in Afghanistan, this book reminds us that war is about politics and that politics is about who rules and how rule is legitimated. By looking for an easy way out and fumbling its relationship with the Afghan leadership, the Obama Administration has created a severe deficit in its political strategy. It can only right itself if it finds a way to arrive at a joint political strategy with Afghans and commits itself not only to fighting al-Qaeda but also to working with our Afghan partners to develop an effective state suited to local circumstances. This is the only path to success.