Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History
By Thomas Barfield
Princeton University Press, $29.95, 389 pages
Nine years after the United States engineered the ouster of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the fundamentalist Islamic movement is back. Al Qaeda has been displaced and greatly weakened, but America’s attempt to create a stable regime in Kabul is failing.
The U.S. government’s attempt at nation-building risks failure for a number of reasons. Foreign social engineering is never easy — especially because Washington routinely fails to understand other nations, peoples and conflicts. Boston University anthropologist Thomas Barfield’s new book offers a remedy for Americans’ pervasive ignorance of Afghanistan.
The country has the image of “the graveyard of empires” — an ever-violent, never-governed, always-at-war Central Asian black hole. If it is, Mr. Barfield asks, “how did a ruling dynasty established in 1747 manage to hold power over such a fractious people until 1978?”
Other anomalies abound. For all of the ethnic divisions, there is little sentiment for secession. Federalism appears to be what most Afghans desire.
Aiding the Mujahedeen probably sped up the end of the Cold War. But today’s conflict is an example of blowback, an unexpected consequence of that Cold War policy. Particularly problematic was allowing Pakistan to use American money to fund the most extreme Islamist groups.
Moreover, Mr. Barfield writes, “the successful resistance strategy of making the country ungovernable for the Soviet occupier also ended up making Afghanistan ungovernable for the Afghans themselves. While the Afghans had recovered from many earlier periods of state collapse, the body politic was now afflicted with an autoimmune disorder in which the antibodies of resistance threatened to destroy any state structure.”
Mr. Barfield explores the demographic and geographic complexity of Afghanistan that complicates the effort to create a Western-style government in Kabul. The nation is a patchwork dominated by Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Turkmen and Aimaqs. However, Mr. Barfield adds, “ethnic group definitions are based on multiple criteria that are often locally idiosyncratic.”
The people are largely rural, but the geography is diverse, dominated by “the mountainous central massif” that “discourages easy travel” and isolates people in villages. Nevertheless, Mr. Barfield notes, historically “many of the routes through the mountains have been conduits of international trade that have consistently brought outsiders and high levels of culture through these regions.” While Kabul dominates Western attention, such cities as Herat, Mazar and Jalalabad represent very different peoples and experiences.
The history of the territory now known as Afghanistan is more complex than most people assume. Afghanistan “had a positively magnet[ic] attraction for conquerors, not because they coveted the wealth of Afghanistan, but rather because control of Afghan territory gave them access to more prosperous places like India or central Asia,” Mr. Barfield says.
Moreover, outside empires frequently subdued those living in Afghanistan. The “main problem they faced after establishing their power was attacks by rival states, not rebellions by the inhabitants.”
The Anglo-Afghan wars most established the terrifying Afghan reputation. Mr. Barfield explores this fascinating period, including its impact on the creation of an Afghan state. It was the time of “the great game” between Britain and Russia. The British got into trouble when they attempted to impose their will directly and meddle in traditional Afghan society. They had far more success wielding influence indirectly, subsidizing favored rulers, who maintained the veneer of independence while using foreign cash to maintain control. Mr. Barfield tells the story well.
In contrast, the 20th century was a more peaceful time for Afghans. Nevertheless, Mr. Barfield warns against the tendency to idealize this period: “Like most such golden ages, it looks much better in hindsight than it did to the people of the time.” The country was stable, not prosperous, democratic or liberal. And there was a brief civil war in 1929 before another ruling dynasty was established.
Still, that time looks positively idyllic compared to today. Former Prime Minister Mohammed Daud Khan triggered nearly four decades of conflict when he overthrew his cousin and brother-in-law, King Mohammed Zahir Shah. President Daud was murdered in a communist-led coup five years later. Brutal infighting among his successors led to the Soviet invasion in 1979 and installation of Babrak Karmal as president. Then followed the Mujahedeen resistance, Soviet withdrawal, civil war and the rise of the Taliban.
It is no surprise that debilitating conflict and Islamic fundamentalism deformed Afghan society. There were many possible lost opportunities over the years. Several revolved around Ahmad Shah Massoud, perhaps the most respected leader of the resistance against the Soviets. He was assassinated just before the Sept. 11 attacks.
Mr. Barfield even makes the surprising suggestion that Washington should have cut a deal with President Mohammed Najibullah Ahmadzai after his Soviet protectors withdrew. The author argues that only Pakistan benefited from the ensuing conflict, which empowered Islamic radicals and ultimately the Taliban.
He writes: “Had the dead spirits of the British raj arisen to give their advice on the matter they would surely have advised their American cousins to cut a deal with Najibullah now that he had become an Afghan nationalist and proved his staying power.” The problems with such an approach are obvious, but it looks ever better in hindsight.
More than a few mistakes have been made since then by Washington. Some were strategic, including attempting to create a centralized government in Kabul and diverting resources to Iraq. Some were tactical, such as providing aid with “little familiarity with Afghanistan’s culture or history.” The result, Mr. Barfield observes, was that “spending large amounts of money that generated disappointing results at the local level exacted a political price when rural Afghans came to believe that their needs were being ignored.”
At this stage, there are no good options. Mr. Barfield dispassionately discusses the dangers of escalation and risks of disengagement, concluding that “as the second decade of the 21st century dawned, Afghanistan could expect to remain the focus of world attention for years to come.”
Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History is an invaluable book. Mr. Barfield does not give the United States a way out of Afghanistan, but he does provide the context necessary for good policymaking. The next step is up to U.S. officials.