Historically, Afghanistan is known as the “graveyard of empire.” This sobriquet is derived from historical tendencies of great powers to fail to conquer Afghanistan in their invasions. Great historical empires such as the Persians, Mongols, Greeks, Arabs, Turkish and the British Empire had tried to invade this small, yet mountainous and rugged country. In more recent memory, the Soviet Union and the United States both tried to occupy the country and instill a government that was loyal to their interests. Both ended in calamitous defeat, with the Soviets marching back home in 1989, and the United States humiliated in Kabul in 2021.
There are many reasons for this. There’s the geography of Afghanistan, which makes it difficult to invade. Its mountainous terrain and vast sprawling deserts coupled with brutal winters limit the ability of an invader to make much inroad, and also to maintain a secure supply line. The fact that Afghanistan endured so much conflict throughout its history with only a glimmer of peace has led every village in the country to be built with a fortress-like infrastructure — in local language known as the “Qalat.”
However, the biggest reason for Afghanistan’s “graveyard of empires” nickname is its divided society, which acts as a centrifugal force to any centralized authority — both Afghan and foreign, which seemingly creates endless conflict in the country. This also destabilizes the attempts made by invaders to occupy the land and effectively govern the occupied.
Many Afghans placed their loyalties on their ethnic tribes. Among the various ethnic tribes in Afghanistan, the most prominent are Pashtun, Tajik and Hazara. These tribes have been involved in an old political power struggle for decades for rule of the country, exacerbated by mistrust and skepticism towards each other. The British, the Soviets and the Americans severely underestimated the extent of this, and so exacerbated an already intense tribal conflict in Afghanistan that led to their defeats.
Afghan society is more interested in maintaining the rights of ethnic-linguistic tribes over individual rights or state authority. Take the Pashtuns for example. The Pashtuns are skeptical of a government that tries to govern without legitimacy on both religious and traditional aspects, asks them to pay high taxes, and tries to implement rapid changes to their society and their way of life. Lieven also mentioned the Pashtun belief that the government, though necessary, should perform limited duties, consisting of mediating tribal disputes and protecting the country from invaders.
Afghanistan, according to S.Yaqub Ibrahimi from Carleton University, is a state “built as a centralist state over a largely centrifugal society.” Centrifugal forces in the Afghan society can be, by definition, the vast geographical area of the country itself, with many areas sparsely populated and some even uninhabited. This creates a sense of distance from other Afghans, and also from Kabul. But in this context, the centrifugal forces are primarily human-made, which in Afghanistan’s case are its tribal divisions, income inequality and ethnic tensions.
This centralist state, through both revolutionary and conservative reforms, tried to control the periphery (marginalized tribes) from the center of power in Kabul, rather than actively integrating the periphery into the wider Afghan society. At the same time, the very same peripheral society that the central government was trying to control was actively resisting policies made by the central government and even attempting to overthrow the government. This “centrifugal force” in the society that pulled Afghanistan apart from the inside gave credence to the reputation of the Pashtun-dominated areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan as being resistant to state authority and “old masters of the art of not being governed.” As Afghans continuously put the ethnic or tribal identity over a shared national identity, a crisis of conflicting loyalty emerges that prevents Afghanistan from developing into a modern state. This centrifugal force was in full display in both the 2004 and 2009 Presidential elections, as the candidates received votes from those who share their ethnic groups. Afghans are not voting for those who do not belong in the same ethnic group, which destabilizes the attempt to rebuild Afghanistan with a strong central authority.
Scholars and observers often highlighted the failure of Kabul in effectively governing Afghanistan. However, this assessment does not fully describe the complexity of Afghan society. It ignores the centrifugal forces such as the immense influence from the many Afghan tribes and their resistance towards authority from Kabul, and the growing influence of religious fundamentalism and skepticism towards the societal changes made in the last twenty years.
Afghanistan signed the Bonn Accords in 2001 that stipulated a peaceful transfer of power from the Taliban to the civilian government led by Hamid Karzai. Foreign Policy magazine notes how this peaceful transfer of power is “exceptional,” as past power transfers in Afghanistan usually happened through nefarious methods such as assasinations and coups. Since the signing of the accord, the US spearheaded the reconstruction of the Afghanistan state. The challenge that the US faced was how to build a sturdy democracy in a state that is divided along ethnic lines and lacks experience with the concept of democracy.
The US sought for Afghanistan to implement a Western-style liberal democracy, where individual rights are paramount. However, the very fabric of Afghan society, with its division along ethical lines and economic status, indicates that guaranteeing one’s individual rights simply does not help. The societal divide in Afghanistan is palpable, with 73% of its population living in the rural areas. Rural Afghans are more concerned with issues that relate to their local societies. Ordinary rural Afghans never concerned themselves with the state of Afghani national politics. The rural Afghan community is adamant about reducing the central government’s influence in their local communities, thus allowing more traditional governing systems to be in place instead of adopting a more modern, centralized government. Further complicating the issue is the fact that, according to Thomas Johnson at the Culture and Conflict Studies Department at the Naval Postgraduate School, Afghans perceive and choose leaders “significantly on ethno-linguistic considerations.” This fragmented view of interests that are based on ethnic considerations often did not go hand-in-hand with the policymaking in Kabul.
Circling back to the example of the Pashtun tribe, where they view government that lacks legitimacy on religious and ethnic grounds as an illegitimate government: this is exactly the type of central government that the US propped up in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the 2001 Taliban collapse. The western-led reconstruction efforts completely ignored the issue of legitimacy in the eyes of Pashtuns. Since the Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group in the country, they are very influential in shaping the country’s future. The West, in its state-building efforts, failed to understand that the Pashtuns’ hostility towards rapid societal changes and authority from Kabul stems from the fact that modern, centralized state authority clashes with Pasthun tribal traditions.
The reconstruction efforts made by the West in Afghanistan acknowledged the importance of legitimacy. However, the mistake was in focusing more on what is considered legitimate in the eyes of Westerners, with regard to Afghan society, and not on local perceptions of what is legitimate. Legitimacy in the eyes of many Afghans rests squarely on traditions. The Pashtuns, in this case, considered a government legitimate as long as it practices Pasthunwali teachings on life adopted by Pashtuns, and makes decisions based on the tribal council (jirgas).
As legitimacy is a very important “social control” for Afghans, any government that lacks it would find it impossible to govern. It did not help that previous elections (2004 and 2009) in Afghanistan were riddled with accusations of electoral fraud that further diminished what already-miniscule legitimacy they had. Had the Western powers taken the time to understand the deeply rooted ethnic traditions and views, as well as the realities of Afghanistan itself, instead of insisting on implementing Western liberal democracy, some form of stabilized government perceived as legitimate by Pashtuns and other tribes might have stood.
Many Afghans — not only Pashtuns — see no reason to consider the US-propped Kharzai and Ghani governments as legitimate, as they could not even provide basic services or keep the country safe. The citizens wanted effective rule of law, strong judicial institutions, swift response towards rural issues — such as water and land rights, tribal and ethnic affairs — development of infrastructure, and guaranteed security. Both the Kharzai and Ghani governments failed to address the more pressing concerns of the rural citizenry and seemed intent on following Western fantasies of rapid modernization of the country, while naively ignoring the realities on the ground. Adding insult to injury, the institutions to which the citizens looked for security and justice — the courts and the police — are considered to be the most corrupt.
In addition to ethnic and tribal divisions, the growing inequality between rural and urban societies is also significant. Afghanistan’s urban population often seems to forget that there are people living in the vast lands outside of Kabul. While these urban elites sat home comfortably in relative security in Kabul, people living in the rural areas suffered from endless conflict between the Taliban and government forces. They also did not see any benefit in their economic status. Disfranchised, disillusioned youth from the mountainous areas turn to those they think can lift them up from poverty: the Taliban.
This unstable environment of a country divided along ethnic lines and by socio-economic status made it easy for the Taliban to come back from the ashes of defeat, and to cast themselves as Afghanistan’s saviors.
While many Afghans did not necessarily agree with the methods of the Taliban, a majority of Afghans viewed them as at the very least legitimate, or the lesser of two evils. Views are divided between those living in government-controlled areas and those in Taliban-controlled areas. Rural Afghans took a more pragmatic view of the Taliban, as they could provide security, be an effective mediator to tribal conflicts, and provide basic services and stability. Paradoxically, people also saw the Taliban as their greatest source of insecurity. They were concerned that the Taliban is a coercive authority, and they viewed the Taliban negatively for their role in launching attacks and creating chaos in cities that took so many lives. Those living in Taliban-controlled areas viewed them as the “preferred authority,” but it is not because they agree with the methods the Taliban used. The Taliban is viewed as the best option for long term stability. Also because of the mistrust the people have toward the central government, they viewed the Taliban as the lesser of two evils.
In terms of conflict resolution, which Afghans expected of their government, the inability of the Kabul government to effectively respond made it easy for the Taliban to gain influence. If the Taliban can provide justice and prove to be an effective mediator, this will help build their case as a legitimate source of authority in the eyes of many Afghans. They would have to make decisions that have popular support. People in the end viewed the Taliban as more swift in their response towards mediating and resolving conflicts, much better than the crumbling bureaucracy of the local government.
However, this pragmatic, instrumental acceptance of the Taliban and their legitimacy is very vulnerable, as the people could easily have been persuaded to back the Afghan government if they could have provided even a tiny bit of what the Taliban is offering in their “unique” methods of authority. The Taliban of 2021 claimed to be more moderate in its approach, and supportive of women’s rights. But barely three weeks after reclaiming power in Kabul, the Taliban imposed their hardline approach by whipping women who were participating in a women’s rally protesting the all-male government.
Overall, Afghanistan is a divided society that pits the majority rural, conservative people against the minority urban, more liberal people in a state that can barely function. The divide is palpable, as we see people fleeing from Kabul in the face of the Taliban, but people in rural areas more or less pragmatically deciding to live with the Taliban, since they are the only option that can provide stability, safety and services.
The failure of the West in rebuilding Afghanistan lies in the fact that they took the driver’s seat, trying to rebuild Afghanistan according to Western principles. Liberal democracy, strong central government, individual rights and women’s rights are concepts that are common in the West, but are almost completely alien to the people living in Afghanistan (aside from the elites in Kabul). The West neglected to understand the issues at hand, the realities of life for the majority of Afghans, and they pushed on with their fantasies of remaking Afghanistan as a model democracy in the Middle East. They never captured the hearts and minds of everyday Afghans, who certainly did not see the United States as the savior of Afghans they claimed to be. They viewed the West as supporters of an illegitimate government in Kabul that is corrupt and that neglected rural, everyday Afghans.
Misreading the ethnic divisions of Afghanistan caused the US thousands of lives and billions of dollars in a war that eventually resulted in nothing. Had more effort been made to understand these divisions, things may have gone differently.
Afghanistan is going to have to live with the Taliban for the foreseeable future. We will see if they live up to the promises they made to become a more moderate, modern government. Sadly, all indications so far have shown that they will not be changing their ways anytime soon.
Byrd, W. (2013, July 8). The Bonn Legacy. Retrieved from Foreign Policy: https://foreignpolicy.com/2013/07/08/the-bonn-legacy/
Ibrahimi Yaqub, S. (2019). Afghanistan’s Political Development Dilemma: The Centralist State Versus a Centrifugal Society. Journal of South Asian Development, 40-61.
Johnson H, T. (2017). The Illusion of Afghanistan’s Electoral Representative Democracy: The Cases of Afghan Presidential and National Legislative Elections. Small Wars & Insurgencies, 1-37.
Lieven, A. (2021). An Afghan Tragedy: The Pashtuns, the Taliban and the State. Survival (Global Politics and Strategy), 7-36.
Weigand, F. (2017). Afghanistan’s Taliban – Legitimate Jihadists or Coercive Extremists? Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, 359-381.