The underlying constants of Afghan crisis

Afghanistan remains one of the most widely covered crises of modern times


Inam Ul Haque September 24, 2020

Afghanistan remains one of the most widely covered crises of modern times. True to 21st-century fad, there is a mushrooming army of so-called 'Afghan experts'. These experts — to quote former Afghan cabinet minister Mohammed Ehsan Zai — "read ‘The Kite Runner’ on [the] plane and believe they are [an] expert on Afghanistan." There are desk officers with no ground experience who cobble together books from hearsay and claim greatness. These tenure-based bureaucrats tend to make faulty assumptions. There are military veterans with limited/sectoral exposure, who end up creating personality cults. Then there are freelance writers who tend to become outright racist and bigoted in their description of Afghans and Afghanistan.

It is strongly felt that in the absence of a multidisciplinary approach, cutting across political science/economy, international relations, sociology, and anthropology… for example; such analyses risk becoming personal experiences with limited universal applicability. Sociology strongly rebuffs sweeping generalisations about people and countries. Unless backed by rigorous analysis, academic adroitness, and fieldwork; Afghans and Afghanistan would remain an enigma.

The following Op-Eds continue my earlier work on Afghanistan and aim at distilling some 'constants' gleaned from some three centuries of Afghan history. These have helped shape attitudes and policy formulation in Afghanistan and are by no means exhaustive.

First, the nature of the Afghan monarchy. Unlike the contemporary monarchies, the Durrani monarchy created by Ahmed Shah Baba around 1747 was a 'tribal confederation' with the king deriving power from the tribes, and not the other way round. This shaped subsequent Afghan approaches towards authority and governance.

Second, and following from the above; modern state formation in Afghanistan has, therefore, remained a failed exercise, whether under the erstwhile farangi , later Shoravi (Russian) or modern Amreeki tutelage. Afghan political culture abhors a strong centre, especially if it is imposed.

Third, Afghans (the term by extension covers Pashtun tribes on both sides of the Durand Line) are almost entirely Muslim, converted en-bloc around the times of the pious caliphs. They did so, as they find no major deviations in Pukhtunwali/Pashtunwali — the operative code covering everyday life — and the teachings of Islam. Both reinforce each other in major areas. All Pathan tribes are Sunni except the Bangash tribe west of Kohat and Turi tribes in Parachinar, Pakistan. The latter are actually Turkic.

Interestingly, the Taliban worldview of Islam is essentially the rural Pashtun worldview... although interaction with the wider world, as refugees, has introduced reform and changes in this outlook.

Fourth, paradoxically if ever there is a conflict between code (riwaj) and Islam, Pukhtunwali would prevail. Literature aplenty to substantiate that major decrees of the Peoples' Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) — during the 1979 Saur Revolution — were reinforcing Islamic teachings; yet the society revolted. The white-bearded elderly cadre (spin-geeree masharan) scoffed at the clean-shaven, Moscow-educated young communists, who asked them to change the social status quo. They fumed at these young zealots telling them how to live.

Efforts to speed up societal change in riwaj-bound Afghan society would eventually fail, even if the change is good overall. The 'nation-building' plans of the US — launched with much fanfare later, lie in the dust. The world still doesn't seem to have learned any lesson. Outsize emphasis on women/minority rights, freedoms, and constitution, etc would complicate the ongoing intra-Afghan dialogue.

Fifth, it is interesting to see self-appointed experts criticising Afghans for being undemocratic. They need to know that Afghanistan had the representative Loya Jirga (Lower House) and Masharano Jirga (Upper House) since much earlier. Afghans are extremely egalitarian. It is only in the developed democracies that federating units enjoy greater autonomy like in the present political dispensation of Afghanistan. Therefore, the imposition of a strong centre in an intensely democratic Afghanistan has and would never succeed.

Sixth, despite inter and intra-tribe differences and conflicts, all Afghans (including the non-Pashtuns) subscribe to a unique sense of nationhood. This is the binding glue, preventing any touted division of Afghanistan along ethnic lines.

Seventh, like all tribal societies, Afghanistan has an inherent conflict resolution mechanism in the form of the jirga. This mechanism works effectively in the absence of foreign interlocutors, with no Afghan faction looking over the shoulder. Repeated interference has battered this system, hence the prolonged conflict and instability.

Eight, under the tenets of Pukhtunwali, khegara/shegara (doing favour/good to others) occupies a central place. But the favour has to be returned in order to re-establish the social equilibrium that is disturbed when an Afghan receives a favour. Having done so, the Afghan feels being on an equal footing, unencumbered by complexes. The Afghan does not feel to be perpetually indebted. Pakistan's hope of Afghanistan remaining grateful to us in eternity is, therefore, a misplaced over-expectation, based on lack of sociological understanding.

Ninth, following on from the above postulation, it is instructive to sometimes listen to the Afghans about our continued harping on hosting Afghan refugees and Pakistan's help in the Jihad since the Soviet times. They reckon, Afghans fought Pakistan's battle, as, without Afghanistan, the Soviet Bear would be sunbathing on the beaches of Karachi. And for refugees — they cite — it was Pakistan's religious obligation to provide refuge in line with our lofty claims of Muslim solidarity.

Lastly, massive migration and continued life under different social underpinnings have changed Afghan society marginally. The newer power elite have emerged, as during my fieldwork in a refugee camp in the 1980s; 'ration malik' was the emerging power elite, responsible for the camp's ration distribution. Afghans have otherwise tried to jealously guard their traditions. Dead bodies are still sent back as far as possible and there are negligible inter-marriages with locals.

The continued conflict has exacted a deadly cost in human and material terms from Afghanistan, yet to be accounted for. The hapless, ragtag but determined Afghans have forced two superpowers in our lifetime to bite the dust. Faith and commitment were central to their success, besides other reasons. The Afghans deserve empathy in the world, not disdain or racial-profiling.

Moulvi Abdul Ghani Baradar standing next to Mike Pompeo is an epoch in the making. Afghan Baqi, Kuhsar Baqi. Alhamdo-Lillah, Alhamdo-Lillah [Afghans and their mountains would keep standing, praise to Allah].

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