Tuesday, November 9, 2010


I just finished this morning Barfield’s Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History. I mentioned it before, but wanted to return to it as I think it is currently the definitive book on Afghanistan’s history out there right now. Barfield comes to a few conclusions about the current state of Afghanistan that I think are worth noting.

First, Barfield believes the Karzai government has squandered their opportunity and is losing legitimacy with every day that passes. Inevitably in Afghanistan, the key to ruling the country by the acquiescence, if not the allegiance of the populace has been the perception of legitimacy of one’s right to rule. This legitimacy has not historically come through elections, but familial, religious, or nationalistic claims.

Second, the Karzai government (and initially his international backers) believed that Afghanistan had to have a strong centralized government to hold together disparate ethnic groups. This belief came despite the recorded demise of every regime that has tried to wield significant power over the entirety of the country from Kabul. Indeed, the most effective regimes have declared supremacy from Kabul, but allowed the historical regions to be largely autonomous. The key has always been to limit the actual footprint of the Kabul government in the day to day lives of the Afghans.

It was also a misreading of the ethnic divisions. They exist, to be certain, but have not manifested into the kind of dynamic we have seen in the Balkans. There is an Afghan identity, which may be secondary to ones ethnic or tribal identity, but not so inferior as to foment a nationalist uprising in specific ethnic regions.

Third, every regime in Kabul that tried to enact sweeping social changes has faced opposition from the rural areas of Afghanistan. The social changes are seen as an assault on Islam and, in some regions, Pashtunwali that have defined relationships and local governance for hundreds of years. Successful and stable regimes have fostered social change in major cities, but largely left social custom unchanged in the rural areas. This goes back to the issue of a strong central government. If social changes are enforced at the local level, then the government footprint isn’t light and resentment arises, oft leading to rebellion.

Given these observations of the current state of affairs in Afghanistan, Barfield makes two key recommendations on how to get a handle on the situation.

1) Don’t look to have a strong central government. Instead, create a federal or pseudo-federal system where governance is largely handled in the historic regions of the country. This federalization should not look like the districts or whatever that Karzai has created. Instead, the historic power centers of Herat, Khandahar, Kabul, and Mazar should be empowered to handle much of the governance. This is how Afghanistan has worked historically and there is little reason to believe it wouldn’t work now. In fact, it would feed nicely into the dogma that Afghanistan is trapped in the middle ages.

2) Everyone needs to slow down on the social changes. This is hard to listen and abhorrent to many in the West, but Barfield makes note of the failure of all regimes that tried to change social custom dramatically and uniformly across the country. Instead, he notes the shifting demography, the large number of young people, the increasing urbanization, and he recommends a model adopted by the most stable of Afghan regimes in the 20th century. Embrace social change in urban areas, but don’t enforce it in the rural areas. Over time customs and culture change. Rather to have the people choose to change, then to have the government enforce change.

I think both of these suggestions are pretty solid, though maybe a tough political sell. Overall, I greatly enjoyed the book and it satisfied what I wanted. I wanted something that took me back to square one in Afghanistan. Barfield does that and does it well and he brings you all the way to the present and gives some great analysis of the current situation and some recommendation on how to move forward. Will American, and perhaps more importantly Afghan, policymakers learn the lessons that Barfield offers? I have my doubts, but if you want to know more about Afghanistan and put the book down with a sense of hope that there is a path out of the wilderness then I recommend picking up Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History.

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