Afghanistan, then and now

By Anatol Lieven, February 17, 2014

Participants at the Loya Jirga in 2013

Participants at the Loya Jirga in 2013

Modern urban versus traditional rural Afghanistan, then and now. Time may have moved on, but the problems are big enough to be extremely concerning. The positions of the Afghan state in 1989 and 2014 are in certain respects very similar – too similar for comfort.

Once again, the modern Afghan urban tradition is fighting for its life against a rural Islamist insurgency. Once again, the state is overwhelmingly dependent on aid from a foreign great power for its continued survival.

Then: town vs country
When I visited Afghanistan as a journalist for The Times (London) in 1988 and 1989, it was the starkness of the rural-urban divide that most struck me. Kabul, and to a lesser extent Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif, were poor but functioning cities with certain attributes of modernity. The state, however corrupt and brutal, was a settled and accepted thing. Serving the state were at least some professional classes, among whom modern education – including for women – was also an established thing.

Once again, the modern Afghan urban tradition is fighting for its life against a rural Islamist insurgency.

In the Pashtun rural areas controlled by the mujahideen, the state had vanished completely – insofar, indeed, as it had ever existed at all. Nor was any serious attempt being made to rebuild it. This differentiated the Afghan mujahideen, and to some extent the Taliban too, from the various left wing and nationalist insurgent movements of the mid-20th century, whose intention was not to destroy the state but to replace the colonial structure with one of their own. Any reference to a judicial system was not to a state code, but to the pashtunwali (the ethnic code of the Pashtuns) or sharia.

I also felt very strongly among the mujahideen the degree to which the tribes both hated and lusted after the cities. When the state fell in 1992, after Soviet supplies of money, arms and fuel ended, the cities – and Kabul especially – were indeed torn apart by rival bands of mujahideen. What happened was worse than the looting of Kabul in 1929 or other occasions in its history, because the fabric of the city was also largely destroyed by modern weaponry; but Kabul’s destruction between 1992 and 1996 formed part of the same historical pattern.

The Taliban then restored a version of order based on a harsh and literal version of sharia – a development that had been prefigured in conversations I had with clerics and elders in the Pashtun countryside in 1988 and 1989. The Taliban have been widely portrayed by their enemies as representing a Wahabi-inflected form of Islam alien to Pashtun tradition, but this is not really the case. Such revivalist tendencies had existed for a long time, and had often been linked to hostility, both to the British and to the authority of the royal state in Kabul. A representative figure in this regard was the Mullah of Hadda, a leader of the rebellions against the British in the 1890s, who also had to flee from the wrath of Emir Abdur Rahman of Afghanistan.

Now: Taliban v outside support

But if the Taliban were not alien to rural Pashtun Afghanistan, they were most assuredly alien to Kabul and its urban traditions, and to a considerable extent to the non-Pashtun ethnic groups. The question now facing Afghanistan is whether these other groups and traditions will be capable either of resisting the Taliban, or of making peace with them; and whether they will be able either to fight or to make peace without great and permanent help from outside.

This dependence on outside support was the most obvious feature of the Afghan state ruled by President Mohammad Najibullah and the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) in 1989, and is still in the state presently ruled by President Hamid Karzai in 2014. Neither is, or was, simply a foreign creation or puppet. The present Kabul state, like that of 1989, has real Afghan sources of support. But, like the PDPA state in 1989, the present Afghan state is utterly incapable of raising the revenue it needs to maintain its basic functions, let alone fight off the Taliban.

The question now facing Afghanistan is whether other groups and traditions will be capable of resisting the Taliban.

Today, around 90 percent of the Afghan budget is paid for by foreign aid, and almost 100 percent of the military budget – four billion dollars a year – is provided by the USA. There is no prospect whatsoever of the Afghan state being able to raise these revenues itself. On the contrary: even the 10 percent of its money that the state does raise for itself mostly comes from import tariffs, and imports are above all being sucked in by the boom created by Western aid. So Afghan state revenues can actually be expected to decline sharply in the years to come.

The only way that the Afghan state could try to raise large quantities of its own revenue would be by legalising and taxing the heroin trade. This of course is something that the international community is very unlikely to allow – though I have no doubt that (as before 1992) government troops and police on the ground will in practice do this in order to support themselves. Indeed, they already are.

After 1989, the PDPA state survived for a number of years, astounding those western analysts (myself included, I am ashamed to say) who had expected it to fall very soon after the Soviet withdrawal. The reason was partly that, with the hated Soviet army gone and the threat of mujahideen conquest, looting and rape imminent, the urban classes rallied to the state against their traditional foes among the tribes. This change in feeling became very apparent to me during conversations in Kabul in the summer of 1989, especially of course with educated women.

Guerilla warfare vs attacks on defended cities
Another key factor then, and now, became shatteringly apparent to me – and everyone else – when I accompanied the mujahideen in their attack on the city of Jalalabad in March 1989. I had made several previous journeys with mujahideen groups, and had never felt in serious danger from government or Soviet forces (apart that is from the ever present and terrifying threat of mines). Local truces were in place in many areas (largely so that local mujahideen and government troops could share the opium poppy harvest), and the threat of air attack had been greatly reduced.

Above all, the mujahideen were too dispersed for it to be worth the Afghan government forces to dissipate their limited strength by attacking them – a key feature of guerrilla warfare. But when the mujahideen concentrated to attack the city of Jalalabad, it was a very different matter. They were pounded by government artillery and airpower (some of it, or so we believed at the time, Soviet planes with Afghan insignia) and the attack failed amid very heavy casualties.

This contrast illustrates a key difference between guerrilla warfare of the kind which the Taliban have mostly waged so far, and attacks on defended cities. The Taliban could capture cities in the 1990s because the forces defending them were weakly supplied with heavy weapons. Today, as in 1989, it would be a very different matter – as long as the morale and discipline of the defenders held out.

But that in turn depends on the soldiers being paid, fed and supplied with arms, ammunition, petrol and, if necessary, US air cover. The PDPA state lasted so well that it outlasted the Soviet Union itself – and then promptly collapsed for want of Soviet aid. Unlike the USSR in 1989, the USA is in no danger of ceasing to exist over the next few years – but US willingness to help the Afghan state may well cease to exist; and in that case the Afghan state will fall.

After 2014

In the games he is playing over the treaty with the USA on the continued stationing of US advisers and special forces, President Karzai apparently believes that he is both winning Pashtun popular support and exploiting a useful bargaining chip. Both, he might think, may help him both to manage the Afghan presidential elections this year and to guarantee his clan’s wealth, and himself a position as a power behind the throne in Afghanistan. What he has apparently not realised is the profound desire of many members of the US establishment to get out of Afghanistan and have nothing more to do with the place – a desire that his maneouverings are stoking further. In this sense, US aid may prove every bit as insecure as was Soviet aid after 1989.

US aid may prove every bit as insecure as was Soviet aid after 1989.

Then again, if the USA does withdraw completely, the Afghan state today has other potential backers, to a far greater degree than was the case with the PDPA state after 1989. Russia itself is much more powerful – and considerably more concerned by Islamist militancy – than it was in the mid-1990s; Iran has the same attachments to its traditional allies in Afghanistan as it did then; and, most importantly of all, India is very much wealthier and its desire to limit the influence of Pakistan has led it to make some very important investments in Afghanistan.

No degree of outside help will enable the Afghan state to crush the Taliban rebellion in the Pashtun countryside. There, support for the Taliban is far too strong; moreover increased Indian help will only lead Pakistan to increasing its own support for the Taliban. However, even if the USA were to withdraw completely, Russia, India and Iran should be able to prevent the Taliban from capturing Kabul, let alone the Hazara, Tajik and Uzbek areas of the country.

The fact that the Taliban is an almost exclusively Pashtun force (albeit with some non-Pashtun allies) obviously greatly limits their appeal compared to the mujahideen before 1992. On the other hand, it also makes them very much more united. The mujahideen were more ethnically diverse than the Taliban; the PDPA state and army were more ethnically diverse than the system created by the USA after 2001 on the basis of the (overwhelmingly non-Pashtun) Northern Alliance. Above all, the Afghan army of 1989 continued the traditions of the old Afghan royal army, and was chiefly Pashtun in its senior ranks. Najibullah himself made a much more convincing Pashtun leader than Hamid Karzai can ever hope to be, despite his descent from the Durrani royal clan.

In 2014 the Afghan state will simultaneously be managing a military withdrawal and a political transition through elections

Finally, there is the role of ideological systems introduced from outside. In the late 1970s, communism – in its almost insanely radical and savage Afghan Stalinist version – ushered in the entire Afghan catastrophe of the past three and a half decades by provoking a general revolt against the state and drawing in first the USSR on one side and then the USA on the other. However, by 1989 the radical aspects of the PDPA programme had long since been abandoned (on Soviet orders), and whatever the desirability of democracy as a general principle, it can hardly be denied that under the formidable Najibullah, the Afghan state was a more coherent and effective organism than the ‘democratic’ one that the USA and its allies have put together over the past 12 years.

Above all, of course, the Afghan state in 1989 did not have to hold elections. The west’s ideological programme has landed it in the position – almost surreally idiotic from a strategic point of view – of simultaneously managing a military withdrawal and a political transition through elections. Moreover, the ideological need to hold ‘free and fair’ elections means that is not clear who will succeed, and the USA is compelled at least to pretend to prevent Karzai – America’s own creation – from arranging the results.

None of this means that the Taliban can storm into Kabul and raise their flag over the presidential palace; but it does mean that Afghanistan seems likely to face a period of prolonged conflict and confusion, the ultimate outcome of which cannot be foreseen.

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Anatol Lieven is a professor in the War Studies Department of King’s College London and a senior fellow of the New America Foundation in Washington DC. A new, updated edition of America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism, was republished in September 2012 by Oxford University Press.

Article courtesy of Open Democracy

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