Afghanistan is Persian for ‘land of the Afghans’, ‘Afghan’ being a local synonym for the Pushtun tribes. Whilst modern historians tend to date the history of modern Afghanistan from 1747 when the Pushtun tribes agreed to unite under the leadership of Ahmad Shah Abadali, this was hardly the creation of a modern state. More than a century later, the Amir Abdur Rahman Khan (1880-1901) conquered the non Pushtun areas of Afghanistan. These included the northern areas populated by groups including Tajiks and other Farsi (Persian) speakers, Uzbeks and Turkoman, the central areas populated by the Shi’a Hazaras and the Hindu Kush populated by animistic tribes that the Amir renamed Nuristanis (‘people of the land of heavenly light’) to commemorate his forcible conversion of them to Islam.
Prior to the 1979 Soviet invasion even university educated Afghans typically thought of themselves primarily in terms of their tribal identity as Pushtuns or Hazaras etc rather than as citizens of Afghanistan. For many Afghans it was only when they fled as refugees to countries such as Pakistan, where aid workers and other westerners referred to them as ‘Afghans’ that this became the way they began to think of themselves.
Following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 the country became ruled by various mujahiddin warlords who controlled different regions of the country and fought each other for control of the central government. The main differences between these groups were not merely religious (Islamist or traditionalist and Sunni/Shi’a), but also ethnic with, for example, the Islamist Jamiyat-i-Islami led by Rabbani and Massoud being predominantly Tajik, while the Hezb-iIslami led by Hekmatyar being mainly Pushtun. Similarly, the Taliban – a movement that emerged among students in Deobandi madrassas (Islamic theological schools) in 1994 has always been predominantly Pushtun. Consequently, whatever happens to Afghanistan following the withdrawal of western military forces in 2014 is likely to be significantly determined by the ethnic faultlines of the Pushtun/non Pushtun divide.
What has changed post 9/11? In examining the likely outcomes for Afghanistan after 2014, it is worthwhile to reflect on the changes that the western intervention since 2001 has brought about. In addition to the removal of an international terrorist organisation that aimed to impose Islamic government and sharia on the entire world, two areas stand out – human rights and economic development.
When the mujahiddin were in charge of various areas of Afghanistan, most of them imposed a form of radical Islam that was somewhat stricter and more brutal than many people’s traditional religious observance, especially in the cities. Shopkeepers were beaten up with sticks and forced to go into the mosque to pray; there were some girl’s schools operating, but life for women outside the home was extremely restrictive. The Taliban massively increased this, closing down girl’s education, forbidding women to be on the streets without a male relative. This was despite there being thousands of war widows with no family who had no means of survival other than street begging. Religious minorities were persecuted, Afghans found to be Christians were executed, while Sikhs and Hindus were forced to wear yellow badges similar to those the Nazis forced on the Jews. One of the most positive aspects of the western military intervention has been the growth of freedom for women and minorities due in large measure to the remit of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) including the protection of minorities. This freedom has been welcomed by many of the more educated Afghans living in the cities, particularly Kabul. However, it is highly questionable how long it will last after 2014, particularly in the more outlying cities.
One of the most positive aspects of the western intervention has been the growth of the economy. Prior to 2001 there were almost no factories at all in Afghanistan – just a few bombed out former ones. Although there was some small scale industry such as the lapis lazuli mines in Badakhshan, there was little international trade. Unemployment was widespread, teachers in government schools were often paid only for two months of the year. Apart from money changers, taxi drivers and shop keepers, only employees of aid agencies had reasonable wages. Moreover there was almost no infrastructure, which in some ways reflected the fact that unlike Pakistan, Afghanistan had never been a European colony. There were roads between cities, but their use by Soviet tanks had left so little tarmac on them that it was generally easier to avoid the small islands of tarmac. The telephone system was almost non existent. Much of that has changed now. The flood of aid agencies arriving since 2001 has not only significantly improved basic health and education, but also boosted the economy, although the departure of westerners after 2014 is likely to reduce GDP significantly. However, US geologists have discovered some of the world’s largest supplies of copper and iron as well what may prove to be the world’s largest supply of lithium creating the opportunity for significant export growth. These create the potential for a tax base that could fund basic services such as health and education. Nonetheless, these are just economic opportunities; if fighting breaks out again Afghanistan’s economy and infrastructure could quickly go back to where it was before 2001. Peace and law and order is an essential requirement for economic growth.
The future after 2014 There are a number of cultural, religious and historical factors that provide clues to the likely state of Afghanistan after the withdrawal of the main western military forces in 2014:
The waiting strategy - Pushtun culture
The Taliban are a predominantly Pushtun grouping. The Pushtun tribal code known as Pushtunwali places two hugely important cultural duties on every Pushtun man. First, giving hospitality (Melmastia) including providing sanctuary (nanawati) to anyone asking for it. This duty made western demand to hand over bin Laden after 9/11 almost impossible to accede to. Secondly, taking blood vengeance (badal) on the extended family of anyone who has killed a member of his own extended family. This does not necessarily happen immediately, but involves waiting until the most opportune time, even if that is twenty years later. As the Taliban are predominantly Pushtun it would be extraordinarily naïve to think that their current strategy does not involve similar waiting until after the preannounced western withdrawal date before they launch their main offensive.
The Pushtun/non Pushtun ethnic faultline
As the Afghan National Army (ANA) is 97% Farsi speaking, after 2014 it is likely to be strongest and most loyal in Farsi speaking areas particularly Kabul and to lesser degree the Northern areas such as Panjshir and Badakhshan. Conversely, the ANA will face its greatest challenges in the Pushtun areas of the south and east such as Uruzgan and Helmand provinces where the ANA is currently being mentored by Australian and British forces respectively.
The rural-urban divide
Whilst the ANA is likely to control Kabul and probably major cities, it is much less likely to retain control more than temporarily of outlying rural areas. Prior to the 2001 western intervention successive Afghan governments had at best minimal control of most of these areas, particularly those at some distance from Kabul. There is therefore likely to be a rural-urban divide as well as an ethnic one.
The waiting warlords
That does not automatically mean that the Taliban will take over either the rural or even the Pushtun areas. There are two other possibilities: first, local tribal control based on village elders (maliks) and councils (shuras) which is the traditional form of government in much of Afghanistan; secondly, the warlords who fought each other for control prior to 2001 still have considerable power because the Karzai government set up under western auspices after the 2001 intervention was a coalition government. These warlords lead groups that fought as mujahiddin (holy warriors) in the jihad (holy war) declared against the Soviet invaders. However, such mujahiddin commanders are not part of traditional Afghan culture. They were originally young men with guns who gained power at the expense of the old men, the grey beards, who are the traditional elders in Afghan society. They are also predominantly radical Islamists in contrast to the traditionalist Islam of wider Afghan society, which whilst fundamentalist by western standards was not overtly political. In the opinion of many ordinary Afghans the ‘good people’ got out of the mujahiddin when the Russians left. The remaining groups led by regional warlords had a reputation not just for butchery, but also for looting and rape. During this time there was significant ethnic and religious ‘cleansing’, with the Hazara ethnic group who are Shi’a being particularly targeted by a number of Sunni mujahiddin groups. A reoccurrence of this is a distinct possibility after 2014.
Two particular groups pose an immediate danger to the Afghan government after 2014, the Haqqani network and the Hezb-i-Isami group led by Gulbaddin Hekmatyar. The Haqqani movement which eventually emerged from a split in Hezb-i-Islami has engaged in a significant level of attacks on western forces. In contrast, Hezbi-Islami appears to be playing a waiting game. Hekmatyar’s ambition for power is chilling. Following the Soviet withdrawal, he was offered the position of prime minister in a coalition government of other mujahiddin groups, but despite reportedly being urged by Bin Laden to accept it, he instead shelled a large area of Kabul to destruction because he wanted to be president. Hekmatyar (b.1947) appears to be biding his time, allowing other groups to fight western and ANA forces while his Hezb-i-Islami forces conserve their energies to enter the contest for power after the withdrawal of western forces in 2014.
Central to the future of Afghanistan will be the election of a new president in 2014 as President Karzai’s maximum two terms come to an end just as western forces are withdrawing. Hamid Karzai is a unique figure in Afghan politics, educated at Cambridge University, head of the royal (Popalzai) clan of the Pushtuns, he also has had significant credibility with Farsi speakers.
The longer term
Any return of the Taliban or other radical Islamist groups to control of part or all of Afghanistan would mean the brutal imposition of sharia in a similar manner to the way the Taliban enforced it before 2001. However, Afghan history shows that whenever there has been a clash between Pushtunwali, the Pushtun tribal code, and sharia, Pustunwali has always won with mullahs in fact being regarded as outsiders in Pushtun society. The classic example of this was the case of Sayyid Ahmad Shah Bareli who led a Taliban like movement in the early part of the nineteenth century. However, when he preached against Pushtun marriage customs, the Pushtun tribes conspired against him and murdered both him and his immediate followers one night in 1831. Pushtun ballads are still sung in memory of this event. It is this anti clericalism in Pushtun tribal culture that may ultimately cause a Taliban revival to burn out.
It would therefore appear that best long term strategy for western governments to adopt would be to aim initially at a return to conditions similar to those experienced in Afghanistan prior to the Soviet invasion. Then the outlying rural areas were largely under the control of tribal law, which whilst harsh by western standards is, unlike the sharia which the Taliban brutally enforced, not an expansionist ideology. However, in major cities, particularly Kabul and amongst the educated elite, such as senior civil servants and professors, there was increasing western and liberal influences which were slowly filtering out to wider society. In some respects they have quietly continued to do so, albeit somewhat more covertly, throughout the trauma of the last thirty three years. It is this long term strategy that the West must now engage in, if Afghanistan is not again to become a haven for radical Islamists intent on plotting terror attacks on the West as part of their strategy to force the West to accept Islamic government and sharia.