The Once and Future Afghanistan: An Interview with Thomas Barfield

In July, we sat down with Dr. Thomas Barfield, currently a Professor in Boston University’s Department of Anthropology, with research primarily focused on political development in Afghanistan. He is the author of several books, the most recent of which is Afghanistan: A Political and Cultural History. Currently President of the American Institute for Afghanistan Studies, Dr. Barfield has conducted extensive fieldwork in Afghanistan and throughout Central Asia.

SD: In the past, it’s been possible for single figures like Dost Mohammed Khan and Ahmad Shah Abdali to more or less unite Afghanistan – and yet these days it seems any unification of interests in the country remains elusive. What are the reasons why single figures like Karzai have difficulties accomplishing the same objectives? Are there inherent and unique problems of governance in Afghanistan? Is there a “formula” to be followed from history of Afghanistan’s past successful rulers like Abdur Rahman Khan?

Barfield: You have to remember that all of those leaders started off relatively weak. They did not start as the kings of Afghanistan, and in the case of Amir Dost Mohammed, it took him twenty years. He had unified the country by the time he died, but it had taken him his entire life. Amir Abdur Rahman pretty much killed everyone that stood in his way, which is a harder thing to do these days. But the powerful single leader is mostly just a useful way of looking at the past than a model to be emulated. Usually what happens is that a leader will start off very weak, absorbs or deflects weaker enemies and eliminates stronger enemies until he’s the only one left. All of this Karzai did not do. The same players that were around in 2001 are still prominent now, so Karzai stayed on top for the most part, but he never used that to eliminate rivals and consolidate power despite the fact that his position is highly centralized and potentially very powerful. The reason he never attempted to consolidate is because he’s a fairly weak figure that is backed by the US and NATO – and Karzai’s calculus was all about risk. Why take the risk if you have these big dogs in your yard?

Your rivals cannot get rid of you if your power comes from the foreigners. They used outside resources to centralize power to the degree that they have. So the question is, will someone come along afterwards and take advantage of that centralization? It is also quite possible that Afghanistan has changed enough that such a model would no longer work, that regions and their peoples are too empowered now to be brought to heel or shoved aside. When you look at it, they’ve been fighting a near-constant war for almost 30 years. The idea that one man, or group, could come in and dispossess everyone else was possible in the past, but these days? It may well be that it’s a model that could not necessarily be replicated in the present day.

SD: In terms of the American occupation and the often-debated strategy of “nation building,” do you think that was ever a viable strategy in Afghanistan? How prevalent were cultural gaps between the Americans and Afghans, both of whom ostensibly had the same goal of stabilizing the country?

Barfield: On a basic level, American forces did not recognize that nation building is a political process that necessitated dialogue between power brokers and their rivals. The people that we supported in state institutions may have supported us, but they may not have agreed with having an “all-powerful” style presidency that the Americans were trying to create. The Afghans previously had a highly centralized monarchical government, but because of our history we did not try to bring that system back in 2002. The previous monarchy was very lax in allowing provinces to essentially govern themselves, but somehow in Afghanistan we [Americans] decided to say “that won’t work, we won’t do that,” when that is the very thing in the United States that kept us more or less stable in the early years of our history. If George Bush had appointed the governors of Massachusetts and Barack Obama appointed the governors of Mississippi we would probably have a lot more civic strife here as well. The fact is, Massachusetts can go one way, and Mississippi another, and all be part of the same political system. But in other countries we seem to think that system would fall apart.

One of the key questions of this was to ask “what do you want your government to do?” And with that question unanswered in Afghanistan, it probably would have been better for the central government to focus on military, finance/development, overall security and leave things like healthcare, education, and local policing to the regional level. It simply lacks the capacity to perform all these functions. There’s no division of labor. Local governments, for instance, cannot raise their own taxes if all the money comes from Kabul.

There are certain advantages to that in terms of central planning, but if it does not work well, then guess who gets blamed? Additionally you don’t build any local capacity. And this is in Afghanistan, a place where Afghans themselves have layers of informal local governance and we never took advantage of that. A local society without a strong central authority to answer to can take care of itself, they perform most of the functions of a state themselves with little input. You don’t necessarily need a courthouse or a governor’s office with every office filled to the brim – maybe you do need that for a large city, but when you get out into the middle of nowhere, you simply need a minimum effective dose.

Nation building also takes a really long time and there are other considerations to address – like economics and education, having elections, creating a parliament, having a constitution. But all of that is just paper thin. The longer term institutions which may be incompatible with Afghan culture. For example, if an election is winner-take-all, there’s no incentive to compromise. Afghanistan has historically been a politically compromising place, with more sharing and divisions of power among rivals. That’s why elections can be very damaging, especially in unstable situations and cultures where there is no tradition of protecting minorities from majority abuse. Instead, the thought is “we won the election, and we can do whatever we want. We forget that half the institutions in the United States are designed to protect against majoritarianism, guaranteeing minority rights even if the majority wants to override it. We forget what Tocqueville called “The Tyranny of the Majority,” which can be very destabilizing, and if a local group feels like it has no option, then they will fight.

SD: So, a more federated government with a regional focus might be a more viable option?

Barfield: It’s too late now. The system is there, you have people with a vested interest in it, and they’ll defend it. There are some candidates who don’t feel that way – Abdullah for one, who has proposed a decentralized government. Ashraf Ghani sees himself as more, “I will take the centralized system and make it work.” They are very different viewpoints. Ashraf sees himself as the nation builder. But that’s often brought grief to Afghanistan, in essence because the people in Kabul and the people in the countryside have major disagreements about where the country should go. In Afghanistan you have had three state collapses in a hundred years. These failures are based largely on government overreach, and also on insurgents who are never able to create inclusive, stable governments. The Taliban were more or less successful in winning the civil war in the 90s, but they never established a government. Mullah Omar never moved to Kabul. There was never any next step.

SD Do you see Afghanistan’s current conflicts as contained? There are fears among Western observers that the groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan are inspired by the war being waged in Afghanistan? Is this likely to be the case or are the conflicts of Afghanistan strictly localized?

Barfield: Conflicts in Afghanistan are Afghan conflicts. After thirty years of war, however, you have people looking to take advantage of the state of unrest. So when there’s anarchy in Afghanistan, other groups and governments get involved. The Afghans themselves usually have very limited agendas. For instance, in Afghanistan you don’t see the same kind of sectarian violence, the Sunni versus Shia skirmishes that take place all the time in Pakistan and Iraq. There’s discrimination, there’s animosity, but nothing like in Quetta where there have been bombings against Shia for many years. By contrast, Afghanistan, the question is less “who will be exclusively the power in a region,” usually the question is more about “who will be dominant and who will be subordinate.” The Taliban are much more Islamist than other muj groups, but how much of that was the result of support, manpower, and ideology being imported from Pakistan?

SD: So Afghanistan did not create a safe haven for foreign terrorists?

Barfield: Well, it did, but only because they were invited to come. You’ll notice that the Taliban never went anywhere. Do you see any Taliban in Chechnya, or joining with al-Qaeda? No. They’re all parochial and they pay lip service to other groups’ struggles, but they generally choose not to die for them.

SD: How do you foresee Afghanistan’s development in the next 10-15 years? Does its current trajectory lead you to believe that a stronger national government will take shape?

Barfield: We’ll have to see how this election plays out. We are definitely at the boiling point. In theory, as long as there is money, international support, and weapons – then no insurgency in the past 150 years has ever succeeded in overthrowing a Kabul government that had an international patron. They could get rid of foreigners, or foreigners could leave, but once the foreigners actually left, it was always very difficult for insurgents to actually move their game up and actually take over a government. And if you look at the Taliban, they came to power in a complete power vacuum after the Najibullah regime collapsed. Additionally, no one was interested in Afghanistan and the last time an insurgency took control of the country had been in 1929 and even then it was a similar situation. Afghanistan had just declared its independence from Britain and therefore had no subsidies and without outside aid it was vulnerable to internal revolt. But the case that bears watching is the fact that Najibullah outlasted the Soviet occupation and its government, despite the fact that his regime was much more unpopular than Karzai’s and had more enemies. And yet even then, the Mujahideen were unable to replace it with anything. So that fact always surprised me and actually surprised everyone, I was on the border at the time that it happened. Even back to the Anglo-Afghan wars, the insurgents that beat the British did not take power themselves. The kings came back as if the war had never happened, even if they had surrendered to the British they came back and were immediately regarded as legitimate.

So the central problem of the American occupation asks, “Can we create a coalition?” This is a lot harder than it looks. If a leader appoints everyone, which is to say, every group to a position of power, then that still leaves the question of – where is the real power? Who has it? The bigger issue would be to see if countries like India or China will make good on their promises to make major investments in Afghanistan, because if the major powers of Asia start putting in infrastructure and large investments, then they’re going to be pushing for peace just out of self-interest. One of the big questions is, when the West goes, will the Asian powers step in to fill the void? Even Pakistan may realize it’s within its own interest not to cause trouble, particularly if it starts getting its electricity from Central Asia. If it has to go through Afghanistan, the Afghans can cut it off. Or perhaps the natural gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan to India, which is desperately needed. If that’s constructed, interfering with Afghanistan becomes a tradeoff for Pakistan because it’s a bad choice economically. Right now it’s free to interfere because there is no cost, but if that begins to change… I usually point out that this is how the United States brought stability to Europe after the war.

SD: So you think the TAPI pipeline is likely to succeed?

Barfield: Pakistan has no capital. It’s a beggar nation. So when India and China talk about infrastructure, they can pay for that infrastructure. On the other hand, it’s one thing to say “we need the energy and we’re going to put three billion dollars on the table to build it.” It’s quite another to ask someone else to build it for you. The only way you know these changes are permanent is when the countries with the money actually build the infrastructure. Only then will they be 100% invested. A lot of them, are also, frankly, waiting to see what will happen with that central transportation hub, Afghanistan.

SD: Afghanistan’s largest export right now appears to be heroin. What impact is this having on relations with neighbors? Is this more or less sanctioned by Karzai’s government or by local potentates or is it simply the “invisible hand” of the agricultural market at work?

Barfield: It’s a huge industry, it makes a lot of money for the all the people involved in it. But it used to be a government monopoly. During WWII, the Afghan government exported opium, which is all illegal now. These days they even do their own local processing of raw opium into heroin. The biggest consumer, the one most affected by the surge, is Iran, which has the largest addict population in the world. Russia and Europe are also very concerned about it. However, people within the government really benefit from this situation. The Taliban as well.

There’s a lot of money that’s there, but it’s primarily an economic problem with economic roots, so it’s difficult to get the government to shut down something that produces so much, particularly in areas where local agricultural development is utterly dependent on it as a cash crop. It’s not as lucrative as it looks however, because there are so many inputs and costs to growing opium. It’s to some extent a structural problem. I’ve always thought that Afghanistan should be brought into the world’s opium producing convention; other countries produce it for a legal market, and while that has plenty of problems to it, right now it’s totally illegal, and if Afghanistan had not missed the paperwork deadline sometime after the Second World War, it might have been one of the nations like India and Turkey which are major producers. We don’t associate them with rampant opium production, even if there’s a leakage that Australia also produces.

The idea that any Afghan government is going to make a concerted effort to go against this is unlikely. Historically, it’s not been an opium consuming country so the Afghans still see it as kind of an export, even though recent statistics show that they produce their own problem. However, the government really lacks the capacity and, after all, NATO troops who were in the South, US troops are in the South, did not make it a priority to wipe it out. They were in the security business, and not in the anti-drug business.

SD: How is the view of the local Afghan population of the Taliban different to our own? Do they see them as terrorists or as a legitimate political group with authority? Does the Taliban bear any similarity to other groups such as Hamas or Hezbollah, whose roles within their respective countries are considered more “service” organizations by their local populations? How factionalized is the Taliban, if at all?

Barfield: No, because they never really provided that much. The Taliban were never big on social services. Hezb-i-Islam, the Hekmatyar organization, is fighting against the government, and holds many seats in Parliament. The Taliban are a political faction, and there’s the Quetta Shura, which sits in Pakistan but is somewhat Afghan. Then you have the Haqqani network, which is pretty much all in Pakistan, a cross-border operation. And then of course, you have Gulbuddin Hekmatyar who has fought against the Taliban but he’s also against the government, but he’s not associated with the Taliban. The Taliban are not very popular, and they don’t have very much to offer, but they also don’t form a cohesive political movement. I guess the big difference is that in the United States we like to see things as black and white. In Afghanistan, sometimes you’re with us, sometimes you’re against us; we also look at these things as very ideological, and Afghans are not particularly ideological. So we find it easier always to talk about these groups as cohesive, we assume there’s ideology involved, but the other thing even before the war the Taliban were, or during the civil war, the Taliban were focused on Afghanistan and the Bush Administration never named them as a terrorist group, which was deliberate. The Taliban were a government before and people saw what a rotten job they did, so that doesn’t help them. I don’t think there’s much support for The Taliban or for a guy like Mullah Omar.

SD: Would you say there is a “national character” of Afghanistan? And if so, what would that be? What are the differences and mistakes that Western observers make when trying to diagnose the current state of Afghan politics or its history?

Barfield: Well, number one, they tend to not know any Afghan history. If you’re an American, you start in 2001. Or at best you go back to 1978. What do people always say? “Well, Afghans are always at war.” Before 1978 it was at peace for 50 years. So how come that happened? Culturally, there are still a lot of Americans that think it’s an Arab country. It is all kinds of things. They are very famous for being very independent minded, but it’s also important to know that what that means is that they are not xenophobic, and they have spent a lot of time in their history working with outsiders. The bigger thing is what I call an interlocutor problem – the people we deal with mostly are educated people in the capital that have one vision of Afghanistan, and actually most of the time that’s going to be compatible with ours. So we think this is really great. What we don’t understand is just because they are Afghans doesn’t mean they represent all of Afghanistan. Just as if you were to talk to different people in the United States and different parts of the country. What’s a hot button issue in one place is a no button issue elsewhere. And also, countries and their attitudes change over time. Sometimes surprisingly fast, sometimes surprisingly slow. Afghanistan suddenly has this huge urban population, never had that before. What does that mean? Don’t know. Also the majority of people were born after the Soviets left, so it’s a very young population. So what does that mean? Don’t know. The guys that we deal with are all in their 60s and 70s. It’s easy to write about the place and understand the politics over the past thirty years and it’s tough to remember all the characters but once you do it’s better than Game of Thrones, because the author doesn’t kill off people quite as rapidly. All these people that we are dealing with were formed during the Soviet War or during the Civil War. What about these younger Afghans that have an entirely different point of view and we hear nothing about that. At some point that will change. This generation will go, either faster or slower and similarly at some point we’ll find out what this high level of urbanization mean to the Afghans.

SD: What role do you foresee for the Afghan government post 2014, especially with the oncoming troop drawdown? Do you anticipate a more concerted effort to take control and centralize power, or do you believe that it will adopt a more aloof, laissez-faire posture?

Barfield: Yes, it depends on the two candidates running for president. Both signed an agreement with the Americans [the BSA] but Karzai won’t. However, their views on what government should be are quite different. Personally I think Abdullah’s is a little bit more realistic and Ghani’s represents a traditional Afghan-central state model. Neither is particularly revolutionary but they are both different.

SD: Is Abdullah’s more of a deviation from historical precedents?

Barfield: Yes definitely, because he represents part Pashtun and also represents the non-Pashtuns. So, for them, having more autonomy, being able to control their own affairs or to make the Parliament stronger there’s at least some offsetting power to the presidency in that country. Abdullah and others have argued on the basis of the constitution, and is in favor of more of a balance. Ghani, on the other hand, sees himself as a state builder – “it’s a great car, let me drive it.” He’s the exact kind of person that liked those very centralized constitutions. So, I don’t see him changing that because he thinks “if I can be in charge, I’ll make it work.” I think that may be wishful thinking, but I’m sure that’s how he sees it. Of the two, Abdullah would be more interested in changing the system to make it more decentralized.

SD: Is there a role for Karzai in a future Afghan government?

Barfield: Well that’s a really hard thing [for Karzai] to predict, but I think it’s safe to say he sees a very large role for himself. I think he will discover that when he’s not in the office that it will be more difficult. He certainly knows he will be marginalized if Abdullah wins. Ghani I think believes he can run. It’s one thing to have all the powers of the office, it’s another thing that when you don’t. If you had patronage, you had influence. His problem is he never created his own political party or his own political faction, he survived by manipulating others. So I think he may find it much more difficult than he thinks to be a political player. He’s not planning on leaving the palace. And it’s also quite dangerous for him personally.

SD: When interviewed recently, President Karzai stated his intentions of traveling freely throughout Afghanistan when his term was over. Do you find this to be a realistic statement?

Barfield: That’s because for twelve years he’s been inside Kabul. If you engage in wishful thinking… well I don’t disagree that he believes that, but on the other hand, he’s never… when Najib [ullah] was running the place he would go to places, because he was a people person who wanted to be seen everywhere. It was almost a point of personal honor in your face, here I am. But it’s a traditional model for Afghan kings, you stay in the palace, because you derive your power from there. It’s hard to know sometimes with Karzai what he really believes, if he’s dissembling or not. But personally, what I think he’s saying, he definitely believes that. And the problem for any ruler is that you live in a bubble, in a palace where everyone agrees with you. “Do people love me? ‘Oh everyone loves you, sire.’” Well, actually they don’t [laughter]. Who are you to know? Everyone who comes to visit me says what a great guy I am. Mitt Romney went to his headquarters in Boston sure that he was President of the United States. He could not believe that not only had he lost, he had lost by that wide of a margin. Polling for the most part is a little flawed because it’s based on sampling. Sometimes it’s hard to recognize how self-selected a sample group of people.

Saadi also wrote a humorous couplet about the tongue. The Shah was usually a Turkic speaker and his vizier was a Persian speaker. He didn’t know the language of the people in his court. So a guy comes up and is getting executed, and is asked if he has any last words, and the Persian couplet is: “When life grows short, the tongue grows sharp.” And this guy begins cursing out the Shah, and the Shah asks the Vizier “what did he say?” The Vizier responds, “He congratulates your majesty on his benevolence and honor and understanding about how to run the state.” The Shah is surprised and tells the Vizier to let him go” [laughter].

Saadi concludes the story with this advice: “A peacekeeping lie is better than a trouble causing truth.” But, it can also be dangerous, as too many peacekeeping lies begin to distort the reality field.

SD: Are there any books you’d recommend to students and pundits attempting to better understand Afghan history, aside from your own history of Afghanistan?

Barfield: There’s a lot of stuff that’s out there. One of my students has a book that’s out there on why elections are problematic in places like Afghanistan – Noah Coburn. He wrote a really good book and ethnography of a village north of Kabul, in terms of studies that were done recently that’s a really good one. Both of his books are very good.

For Southern Afghanistan there’s a book called “War Comes to Garmser,” which is a fascinating oral history by Carter Malkasian, who was a political advisor and who also has a Ph.D. in History from Oxford and who speaks Pashto. When you read it, if you want to understand the complexities of Afghan politics, this sort of uncouples it because it takes you all the way back to the Helmand River project in the 60s, decisions that were made there and consequences that are still around, as well as how the factions come together. It’s somewhat of an insider account, but he interviewed all of these people and was working out their oral histories. To see it, in essence, from the end of the Soviet period, to the Taliban period, to the American period, it’s a really interesting book. It’s a study of just one district. It’s one thing to talk complexity, but it’s another to actually see how it works out. And there are wonderful individuals in it; he’s got good stories about people from the Taliban, people on the Soviet side, and people on the mujahedeen side, and how all this stuff sort of worked out. That’s a pretty recent book, that came out in 2013. Those are good because they are about right now and based on direct observation, which seems to be in short supply these days.


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