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The view from where the people live
on May 3, 2010
According to Thomas Barfield, the only way the Afghans could rid their country of the Russians was to make it ungovernable. Having gotten the Russians out, they have been unable to govern themselves, either.
However, based on this impressive review, Afghanistan was never really governed anyway, certainly not in a modern sense. This can be said of any Muslim majority state, with the difference that Afghanistan is, at least according to Barfield, a nation, unlike, say, Iraq or Turkey. It is not quite clear how the Afghans, who divide themselves ethnically, managed to reach and maintain a sense of nationhood, but evidently they have done so.
Barfield, an anthropologist at Boston University, did field work in Afghanistan as far back at the early 1970s and is one of few Americans to have lived in the country's rural villages. Since almost all Afghans, until recently, lived in the backwoods, this puts Barfield in a strong position to report.
A determinist, Barfield traces much of what Afghanistan is about to its geography and to developments from thousands of years ago, but he also asserts that the decade of Russian occupation changed Afghanistan permanently. Rural Afghans fled to cities, the economy was wrecked, but education was, briefly, expanded. These changes overlie, but they do not erase the ancient geographical, environmental, religious and social structure.
It is thus no surprise that President Hamid Karzai, put in power by outsiders because they thought that he was, to some degree, like them, should have lashed out at the powers that keep him in power, choosing deaths of civilians as an excuse. Many more civilians are killed by the Taliban, by tribal insurgents and by Muslim outsiders than by NATO, but a Karzai would never call them to book in the same way.
Barfield masterfully explains why: Until very recently, there was almost no mass politics in the country. The endless, violent disputes were between ethnic factions and among a ruling line (the Durrani Pashtuns). In the deeply divided nation, no faction could expect to be superior by itself, so no one could afford to permanently alienate any other faction. Political loyalty does not exist in Afghanistan, and it is not unusual for men who were being murdered (and raped, although Barfield does not mention this) by another clan one day to become allies of their enemies a few days later.
There are other points that have escaped those who would meddle in Afghanistan. The Pashtuns do not recognize the Durand Line that puts some in Afghanistan and some in Pakistan. Pakistan, like Germany in 1914, has to worry about a two-front war, so it is not in Pakistan's interest to see a strong, independent and democratic Afghanistan.
Although the scene was set even before Alexander's armies marched through, and Afghanistan was part of various Turko-Persian empires for a millenium, Barfield says Afghan politics effectively starts in the 1740s, when a Durrani dynasty was established that lasted until 1979.
Even non-Pashtuns have a strong sense that the country is made to be run by a Pashtun (Karzai is a Pashtun, as is Taliban leader Mullah Omar, though neither comes from the Durrani elite). Until recently, this deference to the Durranis was, more or less, an asset toward stability. It prevented all-out brawls when it came time for succession, since not every Afghan with a rifle and cousins with rifles was thought eligible to contend for the throne. This shortened the violent interregnums, but it did nothing to prevent them. For the past century, every leader was either murdered or exiled, until the re-election of Karzai.
It is instructive to consider the remaking of the Afghan polity in the 1890s, compared with what went on in the Ottoman Empire at the same time, although Barfield does not do this. Nevertheless, both traditionalist monarchies were revolutionized from the top, the Ottomans in an allegedly liberal manner with a constitution, the Afghans in a typically despotic manner by Abdur Rahman.
The result, though, in each case was a centralization and the destruction of the traditional peripheral restraints on the the power of the executive. In neither case was there modernization, and the brief effort of the king in the '20s in that direction resulted in deposition and civil war in Afghanistan. That assured that no subsequent executive would make even a gesture toward modernity.
As a result, Afghanistan stagnated at a time when even other Muslim countries were making some changes. Since the liberalizing king Amanullah fell on the issue of educating women, which horrified the community, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that Afghanistan's misery is its religion.
If there is a deficiency in this meaty book, it is the slight attention given Islam, which gets about two pages. About all Barfield has to say about it is that Afghans believe themselves to have the purest and oldest conception of the religion, an opinion not supported by history and bizarre because they do not know Arabic. This makes them even more resistant to reformation than other Muslims.
Barfield notes that earlier students also treated Islam as a given, like sunlight, not because it was not important but because it was central. Nothing in Afghanistan happens outside the context of religion.
It is is odd that Barfield should skimp this topic, especially since, he notes, Sufism is so strong there. Sufism is generally outside the torments of political Islam.
In a brief summation, Barfield says, "To change the status quo, there needs to be an end to violence within Afghanistan and threats from its neighbors." A tall order, and he does not believe Karzai is up to it. He has no other candidate to offer, though.