Causes and Consequences of the Destabilization of Afghanistan

Darul Aman Palace in Kabul, photographed in January 2004. Provided by Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons License.

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.”

(Originally published in Viewpoints Special Edition, Afghanistan, 1979-2009: In the Grip of Conflict, The Middle East Institute, Washington, DC,2009, pp. 23-26)

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3 thoughts on “Causes and Consequences of the Destabilization of Afghanistan

  1. Sean

    I don’t think there would be too many arguments that Afghanistan was handled well by the Soviets and The United States in the 80’s. It was essentially used as a pawn in the cold war by both nations, and most definitely added to the religious and political strife there.

    I would ask what you think of the current occupation of Afghanistan by the U.S. military. In the 9 years that the U.S. has been involved directly in Afghanistan, there have been marked changes in the country, and while many of them have been for the bad, I am of the opinion that the country is in better shape now than it was in 2000, and that the years to come will show an Afghanistan that is much more capable of governing itself in a manner that protects the rights of it’s people, not only within the Afghan borders but in the international community as well.

  2. M. Jamil Hanifi


    Welcome to Zero Anthropology! I am pleased to have a student with such critical, albeit ideologically tinted, awareness of global political processes. The framework and substance of my response to your optimistic reading of devastated Afghanistan is available in the above text (paragraph 5-9). Not only was Afghanistan not “handled well” by the major players in the Cold War, the country’s prospects for a state—albeit a soft state—format were fatally compromised by these competitors. By 1978 the infant state structure of Afghanistan had barely begun to walk when the US-USSR swords cut its legs off. The USSR wanted to install a socialist apparatus in Afghanistan. The United States, on the other hand, intervened for the sole purpose of dishonoring the USSR without any regard for the fragility of the state of Afghanistan and the political and economic welfare of its people. As a result Afghanistan rapidly declined into increasingly smaller and independent political and economic pieces. The country is currently on the verge of disintegration. Soon you will see a division of south (Paxtun) and north (non-Paxtun) to be dissolved in few years into additional fragments. The larger divisions and the prospective fragments are moving away at a rapid rate from Kabul, a former center which has lost its magnetic pull.

    From the start the military occupation of Afghanistan by the United States has been an ethnic cleansing project aimed at the Paxtuns—essentially the region south of the Hindukush. As such this bloody occupation had no constructive objectives in Afghanistan. Since World War II every place touched by the dark minded and Zionist controlled American imperial stupor has turned to dust. This bloody and dark minded imperium has become an expert at creating divisions—from Korea to the Near East to Middle America to parts of Europe. Afghanistan is the latest victim of this expertise in evil.

    The Taleban resistance is fundamentally a synthesis of Islam and Paxtun tribal structures which will never be defeated by the United States. The American violent coercive presence has produced in Afghanistan bottomless wells of disrespect, hatred, and contempt for the perpetrator. This cultural energy will sooner than later drive the occupiers out of Afghanistan. (See President Jimmy Carter’s latest analysis of the so called “war” in Afghanistan). In the meanwhile the massive Euro-American cultural presence winged by the American military has produced nothing but cultural sewage in Afghanistan. In addition to housing the totally corrupt American made and funded government, Kabul, a city which was a relatively clean and secure home to less than one half million residents during the late 1970s, now contains more than four million people living under truly primitive pre-industrial conditions. The city is an open sewer. There is no sewage and piped water system. The city is full of whore houses servicing the Americans and almost four thousand NGOs (more than one hundred thousand civilian occupiers) force feeding helpless Afghans with cancerous Euro-American capital. The disease of AIDS has been introduced by the Americans to Afghanistan since 2000; rates of HIV are skyrocketing in the country. Bagram air base is ringed by pornography and prostitution shops and other forms of Western cultural filth.

    Thus, today Afghanistan is in far from a “better shape” than it was in 2000. It is an American made political and cultural ruin. For a variety of powerful moral, political, and material reasons, it will be for the good of the global system, especially its bankrupted American component, for the latter to leave Afghanistan and return to the declining and decaying social and cultural spaces situated in the historically weightless fantasyland from sea to shining sea.

  3. Sean

    In your opening paragrph, you speak of the USSR’s occupation and the subsequent interventon of the United States. I wouldn’t say that the United States had no “regard for the fragility of the state of Afghanistan and the political and economic welfare of its people.” I would say that they (the U.S.) had less regard than they should have, and didn’t take the steps to protect the fledgling state that should have been taken after removing military presence. I would agree that their primary goal in supporting Afghanistan was not to aid Afghanistan, but to stop the Soviet Union from spreading control and influence there. This was a strong component of combating the Cold War, and without that desire, it’s likely the U.S. would not have entered the state at all, but allowed Soviet control. While this may have been beneficial in the short term to Afghan’s, the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union would have left a gaping political hole in a young country. ultimately leading to a similar decline in the country.

    While it is true that the highest number of Afghan combatants killed have been in the southern portion of the country (around Kandahar) and along the eastern border (between Jalalabad and Khost), you must make a fairly large leap to say that this is evidence of attempted genocide or ethnic cleansing. It is also untrue to say that there was no constructive goal in Afghanistan. I will say there is nothing directly constructive about war, and in that sense, you are right. War is destructive by it’s very nature. However, to say there is no constructive goal is entirely untrue. Following the cessation of hostilities, or, at the very least, a minimalization of hostilities, the goal is to ensure that the current Afghan government is viable, not only in creating a system of laws and constitution that protects the rights of it’s people, but to defend itself against those that would remove it from power, both foreign and domestic. While this goal is a long way from coming to fruition, it comes closer each day, and is a very constructive thing.

    On the subject of the Taleban, I absolutely agree with you. It can never be defeated by the United States, or by any other group, because it is a marriage of Islam and Paxtun tribal structure. I don’t believe the defeat of the Taleban is the goal, however. I would say, rather, that the goal concerning the Taleban is only to prevent/disrupt their ability to train terrorists, and help terrorist organizations from carrying out attacks. The Taleban are not inherently dangerous, any more than a group of Christians are. Misguided anger leads to western civilization becoming a scapegoat for all things that stand in opposition to Islam, and that anger, combined with religious fanatacism and zealotry lead to attacks on innocent people.

    One thing I will agree with you wholeheartedly on, without a caveat, is the spread of filth throughout the country. This is also true in Iraq. On and around bases, in places where Americans frequent spring up profiteers. These natives flock to a willing consumer with anything they think will sell, including pornography and sex. Rampant sex will, regardless of location, result in the widespread contraction of venereal disease. In this I blame human greed, whether it be American, Afghan, or any other people.

    Even with the terrible things that have happend in Afghanistan since the U.S. introduced a military presence again, the important thing to look at is the life of the average Afghan. After removing the Taleban from power, the people are experiencing freedoms many have never known. Women need not have a male escort when they leave the home, people may fly kites again, and countless items necessary to technological advancement and communication have become legal for the citizens again. Computers and satellite dishes, outlawed under Taleban rule, are no longer illegal. These allow for the flow of information and capital, and in a cyber technologically minded world, are necessary for societal advancement.

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