Originally posted December 2009
For most of its history, Afghanistan never constituted a single state because its territories were parts of larger empires. Under these regimes political legitimacy was anchored only in a ruler’s ability to maintain order and provide security. While today we assume that rulers must be representative of the people they rule, until the mid-18th century, the rulers of Afghanistan were almost invariably outsiders, mostly of Turco-Mongolian origin. This only changed after Ahmad Shah Durrani established a Pashtun dynasty in 1747 that would rule Afghanistan for the next 230 years. It retained many of the characteristics of its Turco-Mongolian predecessors, particularly the tradition that restricted leadership of the kingdom to members of the royal clan. From 1747 until 1838, Afghan rulers had only close relatives as rivals. Other Pashtun tribal groups stood aloof from such dynastic struggles and only demanded that the victor continue to respect their traditional rights or pay them off.
This well-established tradition of exclusive elite authority began to erode in the 19th century as the increasing sway of Western colonial powers changed the political structures of the region. During the course of two wars (1839-42 and 1878-80), the Afghans expelled the British from the country, but only by employing rural militias in rebellions over which the dynastic elite had no control. This set up a contradictory dynamic in which the Afghan rulers encouraged armed resistance to expel foreign invaders but then refused to share power when the war was over. It also valorized the principles of the defense of Islam and the Afghan nation, but at the cost of undermining the exclusivity of dynastic privilege. With each succeeding crisis and popular military mobilization, the restoration of state authority became harder and disputes over who had the right to rule the state became fiercer. The constant fighting over succession that gave tribal groups the considerable autonomy ended when Amir Abdur Rahman (r. 1880-1901) created a highly centralized state in which he was the sole arbiter.
Abdur Rahman’s successors all strived to maintain his level of centralization, but without success. In 1929 the dynasty was toppled in a civil war against his grandson, King Amanullah. But when a Tajik amir took the throne, they rallied behind a collateral Muhammadzai lineage led by Nadir Shah. Fear of being rejected as an usurper forced Nadir to hold a loya jirga to ratify his elevation to the kingship. While often described as “traditional,” the only other assembly convened to elect a leader occurred in 1747 when Ahmad Shah founded the dynasty. None of his successors saw the need to repeat the experiment. The dynasty continued under his son, Zahir Shah (r. 1933-73), and his nephew, Daud (r. 1973-78), although Daud ruled as the President of a self-proclaimed republic. A Communist coup in 1978 ended Daud’s life and terminated 230 years of dynastic rule. This government found its legitimacy challenged to such a degree, that only an invasion by the Soviet Union (1979-89) preserved it. As a result, Afghanistan was engulfed by an uncontainable conflict that replicated on a grand scale the pattern of the Anglo-Afghan Wars — the mobilization of groups throughout the country in resistance to (or in support of) the new regime.
More than any other set of events, the Communist coup and the Soviet invasion opened the question of political legitimacy in Afghanistan. The old dynastic tradition lay in ruins, yet there was nothing to replace it. This issue of who had the right to rule, and on what basis, lay unresolved even after the Soviet Union withdrew in 1989 and its client regime collapsed in 1992. Lacking any overarching political unity among themselves, the various mujahidin resistance factions led the country into a vicious civil war and lay the groundwork for the rise of the Taliban. These conflicts eviscerated the formal state structure they were fighting to control and engulfed an ever larger part of the Afghan population into political struggles from which they previously had been isolated. All the ethnic and regional groups in Afghanistan became politically and militarily empowered, reversing the process of centralization that had been imposed by Amir Abdur Rahman.
In 2001 the United States invaded Afghanistan in response to the September 11th attacks on New York and Washington. The Taliban regime collapsed quickly, and a new regime, led by Hamid Karzai, was installed in Kabul. A series of loya jirgas was held to give his regime political legitimacy and to draft a new Constitution. But choosing a leader by loya jirga had been used only twice in 250 years, and no leader in Afghanistan’s history had ever come to power via an election. Nor were the virtues of majoritarian rule immediately obvious to the country’s many regional and ethnic minorities. Beyond these questions of process, there was the question of whether such a new political system could escape the stigma of its foreign imposition. Nothing undermined the legitimacy of any Afghan government quicker than the charge that it was beholden to foreign masters.
A competent government might have overcome the defects that created it, but Afghan state building in the 21st century was fatally flawed in both structure and leadership. It attempted to restore a system designed for autocrats in a land where autocracy was no longer politically sustainable. The 2004 Constitution created a regime barely distinguishable from earlier Afghan monarchies and dictatorships. Despite the talk of inclusivity and popular participation, none was allowed at the local level. Provincial governors, police officials, and even schoolteachers were appointed exclusively by the central government in Kabul without consultation. Such a system required strong leadership at the top to be effective, and Karzai was not up to the task. It was the failure of leadership, more than defects in process and structure, which undermined his government’s legitimacy.
After a quarter century of war and social disruption, ordinary Afghans were not seeking perfection. They sought only security, economic stability, and a chance to live normal lives. Ironically, this was what the traditional systems of elite dynastic rule had provided over the centuries: security of life and property in exchange for obedience. Had Karzai been able to establish security and extend his government’s control throughout the country, he would have met this basic pre-modern test of legitimacy. Holding an election in August 2009 (particularly one viewed as cynically fraudulent) did not compensate for his government’s failure to meet this bedrock benchmark. The government administration came to be seen as corrupt and unable to deliver the security and economic development that ordinary Afghans expected. Fearing any possibility of rejection at the polls, Karzai committed such blatant fraud to ensure his reelection that his electoral victory weakened rather than strengthened his government. At the end of the process, he was a ruler who met neither Afghan nor international standards of legitimacy.
Afghan history portends an unhappy end for such a ruler, whether at the hands of his foreign patrons or his own people. Once again, a new Afghan ruler will seek to establish his authority and legitimacy. The country’s past suggests that to be successful such a ruler will need to convince the Afghans that he will not be beholden to foreigners even as he convinces these very same foreigners to fund his state and its military. In the absence of such a figure, and the departure of foreign forces, Afghanistan will not survive as a unitary state. The most likely event in that case would be a sundering of the country along regional lines since these always have been the true political bedrocks of the country.
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.