Originally posted December 2009
Over the last 30 years, the polity of Afghanistan has undergone several overlapping transformations. The structure of power at the center has collapsed, causing the center-periphery relationship to evaporate. The movement of economic and human resources from various regions of Afghanistan to locations across international borders, especially in Iran and Pakistan, has intensified. Ethnic, sectarian, and regional cleavages have deepened. The framework of political discourse and processes has become increasingly grounded in Islamist ideology, and the Afghan periphery has become heavily weaponized.
The colonially imposed state structure of modern Afghanistan emerged during the 1890s. From the onset, the state apparatus at the center was heavily subsidized by the British colonial government of India, enabling it to build a monopoly over physical force, institute an incipient Islamic judiciary, deal with organized internal political opposition, exert a modicum of political influence over the non-tribal population in the periphery, and maintain a strategic distance between the center and the Pashtun tribal groups straddling the eastern and southern borders. The British subsidies continued to the year 1919. During the 1920s, there were limited attempts at Westernization and rising opposition to the state by Islamist ethnic and tribal groups. This culminated in the collapse of the Afghan monarchy in 1929. The monarchy was restored in 1930 with the covert assistance of the British Government of India. During the next two decades, the Afghan government gradually implemented a limited amount of Western-style changes in the center, including the modernization and expansion of the armed forces.
Throughout the history of the state apparatus of Afghanistan, its center and periphery remained essentially independent of each other. The Afghan state did not serve as the redistributive agency for locally produced surplus economic resources. The poverty of Afghanistan caused by its isolation, the absence of modern means of communication, and the lack of participatory political institutions accounted for the remoteness of the Afghan center from its periphery. Throughout the 20th century, the literacy rate in Afghanistan remained under 5%. Thus, despite attempts by the state-sponsored elite in official government publications and in the curriculum of the few newly instituted state-controlled elementary and secondary schools, a national collectivity and a nation-state were not successfully established in Afghanistan. Ethnic, linguistic, sectarian, and regional idioms of identity hindered prospects of nation, nationality, and nationalism.
During the first three decades of the Cold War, the Afghan government received substantial amounts of economic and military aid from the USSR and economic assistance from the United States. These resources enabled the state to undertake a limited number of modernizing projects in education, communication, and industrialization that required a closer relationship between the center and periphery. The expansion of the coercive ability of the state safeguarded these undertakings. The overthrow of the Afghan monarchy in 1978, the subsequent Soviet invasion in 1979, and the substantial Soviet military presence during the 1980s resulted in the militarization of the Afghan periphery by the United States, facilitated by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. The introduction of large quantities of weapons and funds exacerbated simmering historical ethno-linguistic, sectarian, and regional divisions in Afghanistan and encouraged alternative social and political structures and processes of local governance in the periphery.
The increasing and openly expressed ethnic and sectarian divisions were echoed in the organization and operations of the various American-sponsored mujahidin groups (dubbed “Freedom Fighters”) who vigorously competed for the material and political favors of their Western benefactors. These fault lines produced occasional armed confrontations in the field among the mujahidin, especially in the period between the withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1989 and the complete withdrawal of the United States from the region in 1992. The Taliban movement emerged after the withdrawal of the United States from the region and during the anarchy that followed the collapse of the Afghan central government in 1992.
The post-1978 social and political instability allowed millions of Afghan men to participate in various forms of opposition to the state as well as in the unrestrained and illegal movement of commodities, including drugs, across international borders. They experienced first-hand the fragility, indeed the absence, of the Afghan state and the viability of local rule as an adaptation to the waning and eventual disappearance of central power.
The neocolonial Euro-American presence in Afghanistan is guided by policies and strategies that are predicated on a culturally and historically invalid premise that is widely circulated in the Western media by “analysts,” “strategists,” “experts,” and academic “specialists” on Afghanistan. They argue that the collapse of the state structure of Afghanistan could have been prevented had the United States continued its support of the mujahidin after 1989, especially after 1992. But this argument is contradicted by the political and cultural realities on the ground. The decline of the state structure of Afghanistan and the radicalization of Afghan Islam started long before the armed forces of the Soviet Union left the country in 1989. The radicalization of Islam in Afghanistan started immediately after the United States assumed sponsorship of the mujahidin in early 1980. The Soviet withdrawal and the corresponding termination of the US subsidies for the mujahidin are events that, ipso facto, have little to do with the collapse of the state of Afghanistan, the emergence of the Taliban, and the penetration of the country by al-Qa‘ida. The ideological and material seeds for these transformations were sown during 1979-1980. In fact, had the United States continued funding the mujahidin after 1992, interethnic and sectarian tensions in Afghanistan would have become even more pronounced than they have become during the post-9/11 years, and Wahhabi fundamentalist Islam would have established wider and deeper roots in the country.
The gulf between the Afghan center and periphery continues to widen, producing increasing degrees of regional political and economic autonomy in Afghanistan. So far six such autonomous regions can be identified: the North-Northeast, predominated by Uzbek, Turkman, Tajik, and other Farsi-speaking groups; the Northwest, in which Farsi speakers predominate; the Central highlands, where Farsi-speaking Shi‘a Hazaras predominate; the East-Southeast, where Ghalzi Pashtuns predominate; the Southwest, where Durani Pashtuns predominate; and the West, which is populated by a mix of Ghalzi and Durani Pashtuns and Farsi speakers. In each region, political leadership is provided by former members of the American-sponsored “Freedom Fighters,” now labeled “Warlords.” The economies of these regions interact directly and at increasing intensity with the economies across the nearest international borders.
Relations with Iran provide the best examples of these processes. Iranian capital is heavily invested in the central, northern, and northwestern regions of Afghanistan. Iran is subsidizing the construction of a railway from its border to Herat and Mazar-i Sharif. The third “Joint Exhibition of the Islamic Republic of Iran and ‘Ancient Herat’” was held in Herat in September 2009. Iranian industrial products and handicrafts from the Herat region (mostly carpets and scarves) were displayed. The exhibition was co-sponsored by the Iranian city of Mashhad and the chamber of commerce of Herat. The report about this international exhibition by the BBC made no reference to the involvement of the central government of Afghanistan. In addition, Chinese and Pakistani capital is heavily invested in southern and eastern Afghanistan.
Currently, there is little centripetal social and economic movement in Afghanistan. Most production moves in a centrifugal format, away from the center. Given the current unstable conditions in the country, further political and economic fragmentation looms for Afghanistan. If this trend continues alternative territorial and political entities with new labels will soon replace what is known as “Afghanistan.”
The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.