Picking Up the Pieces

Wednesday, January 30, 2002

The War in Afganistan

Afghanistan today is a weak state that has undergone nearly 25 years of unbroken, high-technology war, the impact of which has been to destroy the physical infrastructure, disperse the population, transform the sociopolitical framework, eliminate the traditional economy, and promote state failure. In many ways, the old order of Afghanistan is gone, and it is unclear how much of it is gone forever.

For most of its history Afghanistan has had a central government that could not intrude very heavily into the countryside, and the struggle between the forces of change and tradition played mostly in Kabul and the other primary urban centers. Strong centrifugal social and political forces existed in an uneasy balance with the tenuous authority of the central government. The communist experiment in Afghanistan projected the authority of the central government too far and ultimately led to the destruction of that balance. Once the balance was disrupted, regaining it was very difficult. Indeed, Afghanistan’s major centrifugal forces have been made resurgent by the long war there, creating a social order in Afghanistan today that is profoundly tilted toward the local. The five most important centrifugal factors are

1. Deep ethnic, linguistic, sectarian, tribal, racial, and regional cleavages

2. Syncretic blending of Islamic interpretations with local customs, and an absence of prominent, state-affiliated ulema (religious leaders)

3. Qawm identity, emphasizing the local over higher-order formations (Qawm refers to the group to which the individual considers himself to belong, whether a subtribe, village, valley, or neighborhood.)

4. Rugged topography and geographic isolation, coupled with collapsed economic development

5. Afghanistan’s modern history, which has provided the framework for the current struggle and, possibly, for its resolution

Collectively, these factors provide the foundation for understanding Afghanistan’s initial state-building, especially during the Abdur Rahman period a century ago (1880–1901); their resurgence today gives us insight into the difficulties inherent in Afghanistan’s state-rebuilding. Afghanistan’s ethnic mélange, reinforced by varying Islamic practices and terrain so rugged that dialects can change from one valley to the next, has produced a country where Pushtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, and 20-odd other groups tend to live in differing areas and reinforce their differences in numerous ways (religious practice, dialect, facial features, dress, etc.). Most important, Afghanistan today is once again a country defined by localism, and every effort to understand it must peel away layers of identity to find the core. The recent Northern Alliance, for example, can be understood as a collection of several militias primarily constructed along ethnic lines; or understood more completely in terms of each militia having several or multiple factions; or understood best as made up of hundreds of small groups of armed men who share qawm identity and who are affiliated with one or another of the larger factions (not always permanently). Afghanistan is also a place shaped profoundly by its history, and although elements of its earlier history are of great importance, such as the traditional national political dominance of the Durrani Pushtuns, its recent history of highly destructive, transformative war has altered the landscape there to the extent that we must be careful drawing too many conclusions about the lessons of Afghanistan’s past.

Impact of Endless War—Physical Destruction, Social Transformation, State Failure

Afghanistan’s recent history of endless modern war has been profoundly, comprehensively destructive of the Afghan state and society, particularly in four major areas:

1. Physical infrastructure and Afghan population

2. Socioeconomic system and political structures

3. Rise of Islamism, overlaid on deepening ethnic divisions

4. Sociocultural change

Each of these areas is important in understanding the impact of conflict on the existing order in Afghanistan—and in helping us to think about what a post-Taliban order will look like. Everything, however, flows from the depth of destruction to Afghanistan’s people and physical infrastructure. The level of destruction has been so complete that it can be summarized simply—no prewar physical entities have been untouched by the war (the country by September 11 was already a mass of rubble and mine-strewn fields). Likewise, the Afghan population has been seriously scathed by the war, with fully 50 percent of the prewar population killed, wounded, or driven into exile (there is now a large Afghan diaspora population that never existed before). Younger Afghans have been raised in the nontraditional circumstances brought about by the long war.

Destruction this profound and widespread—and for such a long period—must alter other important institutions in the society. Much of the economic infrastructure has been destroyed, especially the road network, but also factories, power grids, water supply infrastructure, and orchards; and millions of mines have been sown in populated areas. The struggle between communism and Islamism swept aside the traditional system of political leadership by tribal elders (in the tribal council, or jirga) and the social system that supported them (based on a dominant role for large landowners, or khans), empowering new political elites (mujahideen and Taliban) that are founded on a prominent role for the youth and Islamist ideologues, neither of which is traditional. In the absence of functioning government and social institutions, these new elites utilized their easy access to high-technology weapons to transform the traditional, stylized violence characteristic of Afghanistan’s past into something highly destructive of Afghanistan’s present, and they turned to a new illicit economy based on opium-heroin trafficking and duty-free goods smuggling to fund their constant battles.

Afghanistan’s new elites also represented the victory of Islamism over communism, which from 1978 to 1992 had hijacked modernity and eliminated it as a political option for that generation of Afghans. It is difficult to find any Afghan leaders today who do not make a virulent blend of radical Islam, gratuitous violence, and control of some portion of the illicit economy the foundation of their authority. More-traditional elements of political authority—such as Sufi networks, royal lineage, clan strength, age-based wisdom, and the like—still exist and play a role, but it is unclear how potent or resilient these sources of authority are. Afghanistan’s new interim leader, moderate Pushtun tribal chieftain Hamid Karzai, who is relying on these traditional sources of authority in his challenge to the warlords and older Islamist leaders, embodies this struggle for the soul of Afghanistan. Moreover, Afghanistan’s Taliban were new-age medieval Islamists blending a curious mixture of traditional Pushtun rural customs, Saudi Wahhabism, mutated Pakistani Deobandism, and post-Qutbian militancy that came to be expressed more naturally by Osama bin Laden than Mullah Omar. Nonetheless, Omar and other Afghan Islamist actors demonstrate that there is no fixed formula for how the current Islamism of Afghanistan manifests—it resembles a virus undergoing continual mutation.

Finally, the Afghan Islamist virus, on top of the generalized physical destruction, has sorely wounded Afghanistan’s traditional culture, wiping away ancient monuments and modern media alike, marginalizing the intelligentsia, driving Afghan women into the shadows, and eliminating many elements of popular culture. Although some elements of Afghanistan’s prewar culture have begun to reappear in the post-Taliban society, it is yet unclear what transformed shape they will take.

Regional Factors—the Importance of Afghan Centrality

Another key part of the Afghan puzzle comes from the surrounding regions it connects (Central Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East) and the geopolitical upheavals those regions have undergone since the end of the Cold War. Afghanistan’s centrality is newly crucial, for at least four major reasons:

1. Ethnolinguistic and religious identity groups straddle its artificial and permeable borders, making possible ongoing challenges to its weak state center (and also making possible the spread of conflict and political instability from within Afghan territory to various neighboring states).

2. Afghan Islamism has fed the resurgent role of Islam throughout the region as a foundation of political legitimacy and organization, leading to the "Talibanization" of Pakistan and, partially, of other neighbors.

3. Growing regional economic interconnections, both through licit sources of trade (such as oil and natural gas) and illicit trade (such as narcotics and weapons), imply a central role for Afghanistan.

4. The post–Cold War regional power vacuum emboldened the geopolitical aspirations—fueled by dreams of trade wealth and Islamic zeal—of Afghanistan’s neighbors, especially Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, and a weakened Russia, all of whom meddled in Afghanistan’s internal affairs to their own ends and intend to continue doing so.

Critical to the regional intersection of forces has been the way Afghanistan has been a focal point for regional and international actors, attracted there for a variety of reasons, and the way Afghanistan’s internal forces have spilled over into the region. This complex, multidirectional interplay of forces adds another layer to the traditional centrifugal factors and recent war-induced changes shaping the country and also helps to explain how Afghanistan affects its neighbors. The former process means that Afghanistan remains a very dangerous and important battleground for regional actors, many of which are substate actors (subordinate governments or agencies, businesses, religious organizations, families, individuals). The latter process makes Afghanistan the base for Islamic terrorism worldwide, as well as major regional drug trafficking and smuggling networks. A very significant challenge to reconstructing a post-Taliban Afghan state will be controlling the malignant regional influences into and out of Afghanistan.

Repairing a Failed State—Primacy of the American Role

The various problems spilling out of Afghanistan into the regions it connects—and into the broader world—are all by-products of its state failure, which was caused by the protracted war there. Afghanistan must be made a functioning state again if it is to cease infecting the outside world with religious militancy, criminal networks, and terror. In the absence of a strong international presence in Afghanistan, there is a very real danger of a return to the conditions that prevailed there during 1992–96, namely, warlordism, anarchy, and fragmentation. Already there are some 15–20 different governing forces in Afghanistan. For Afghanistan to escape another round of warlordism, at least three broad challenges must be met:

1. Political nation-building must be deemphasized. Neither by pressure from the international community nor on their own are the Afghans likely to create an acceptable broad-based government in the short run. Nevertheless, there must be a central authority, which must therefore come, temporarily, from the outside. (Even as I write these words, the United Nations and United States have pushed the Afghans to create the interim Karzai government, which has already been rejected by numerous Afghan factions. A transitional international reconstruction regime would have bypassed much factional disagreement, and might yet be an option if this interim Afghan government fails.)

2. Localism, already resurgent, must be emphasized. Political nation-building can occur on this level. Aid for relief and reconstruction must flow to local shuras (councils) or elites, who in return must agree to general principles including no ethnic cleansing, equal treatment for all citizens, and demobilization of heavy weapons from the militias.

3. Physical nation-building must be accelerated and led by the outside powers whose interests are not to occupy Afghanistan but to rebuild its roads, hospitals, schools, farms, and homes; not to promote Western global hegemony or neocolonial imperialism but to make Afghanistan a functioning, if weak, state once again.

As this last point suggests, the United States can and must successfully lead the process of reconstructing Afghanistan. It must do so for four major reasons:

1. Without active American engagement, the United Nations has proven to be too weak, fragmented, and corrupt on the ground to be an effective leader for a post-Taliban Afghanistan.

2. Regional actors all have competing interests in Afghanistan and feel compelled to pursue those interests in a zero-sum fashion and will do so in the event of another power vacuum in Afghanistan as existed in the early 1990s.

3. As noted above, Afghanistan will have great difficulty constructing a viable national government in the foreseeable future, meaning that local power structures must be accommodated and strengthened, leaving a power vacuum at the national center.

4. Successfully rebuilding Afghanistan has the potential for a significant upside for the United States in the public relations battle for the broader Islamic world.

Although many people foresee difficulties for the United States in Afghanistan and would like to find another way to resolve the problem, the United States has a compelling national interest to stay involved there, namely, to create an Afghan state stable enough that it ceases to be a haven for international terrorism. No other option will really work. Thus, a United States–led solution for Afghanistan may not represent a best-case scenario, but it is the least bad scenario, which is good enough.