If time spent studying Afghanistan brings wisdom, thenThomas Barfield must have the judgment of Solomon: He has been traveling theresince the early 1970s as an anthropologist. Any book that he -- now a professor at BostonUniversity -- writes on the subject deserves to be takenseriously. His latest book, Afghanistan:A Cultural and Political History, also has the ambitious goalof being a comprehensive but readable short history of Afghanistan, with aheavy focus on the last nine years.
It hits the target. Although casual readers may find theearly pages hard going, the pace soon picks up; quotations from the poet Sa'diand Ibn Khaldun provide variety. Barfield's vision of the "longue durée" meanslooking at Afghanistan's development over the course of centuries. Not for himthe perpetually renewed mantra that "the next six months are critical";'he caninstead bring a vision of Afghanistan over the centuries to cut through knottydebates with easy self-confidence and lapidary sentences.
On Afghanistan's new ties with its northern neighbors in Central Asia, Barfield asserts: "Turko-Persia is back, and Afghanistan is apart of it."
For those who helped the Afghans design their presentConstitution, a scathing epitaph:
"Afghan state-building in the twenty-first century wasfatally flawed because it attempted to restore a system designed for autocratsin a land where autocracy was no longer politically sustainable."
For the defeatists, on the other hand, who feel the entireenterprise in Afghanistan was doomed from the start: "In 2001, Afghanistan wasa failed state but not a failed nation."
Stripped of their context, such remarks can looksuperficial; but the good thing about Barfield is that the reader can knowthese are intellectual icebergs, with a vast amount of research under thesurface -- and very often a number of implications and conclusions at whichBarfield hints, but never states openly.
None of these remarks above are meant lightly. His repeatedcondemnation of the centralized structure of Afghanistan's post-2001 governmentis based on his knowledge of the people of its regions, who wanted a proper sayin the way they are governed. Barfield's remark about Afghanistan not being a "failed nation" is based on some detailed thinking about why, exactly, noAfghan ethnic group wants independence.
What can the busy American policymaker take from this book?Taking lessons for the future involves reading somewhat between the linesbecause the book is mainly descriptive; its only prescriptions are addressed toAfghans.
First, centralization has been a mistake. Afghans, Barfieldsays, have been misled by the example of the "Iron Amir" Abdur Rahman more thana hundred years ago -- who achieved central rule of a limited kind, but onlythrough massive bloodshed. President Karzai should learn from the decades ofpeace enjoyed between 1929 and 1978, when the government co-opted local leadersrather than trying to impose Kabul's direct rule.
Second, reform will come slowly to Afghanistan, starting inthe cities and then spreading to the countryside. Abdur Rahman imposed Kabul'srule by killing more than a hundred thousand of his subjects; but even he "neverconceived of the state as an instrument of social and economic change …transforming Afghanistan's economy, values and attitudes was a task better leftto God." And reform must be led by Afghans, not dictated by foreigners.
Third, Barfield takes an upbeat view of Afghanistan'snatural resources and the new overland routes -- especially via Iran -- whichcan free Afghanistan from its dependency on Pakistan.
Fourth, donor agencies which have insisted on spending moneydirectly rather than through the Afghan government have "divorced thereconstruction process from the political one, reducing its utility as a sourceof patronage to build support for the new regime, since NGOs plastered theirown logos on projects rather than the government's insignia." Likewise, theyspent their money less effectively by using non-Afghan contractors and labor,so missing out on the chance to provide employment for Afghans.
On the whole, this book is an authoritative and well-writtensummary of what we might call the majority view. There is a streak in thisbook, however, of more radical thinking of which the "Turko-Persia" quote isthe first sign. Barfield is seeking to shift the reader's sense of what kind ofcountry Afghanistan is and to what region it properly belongs. He isemphasizing its Central Asian connections and drawing on his own knowledge ofits people (where his experience has mainly been in the country's north); itleads him near the end of the book to some startling predictions forAfghanistan's possible futures.
For the two final points, tucked away at the very end of thebook, are the most dramatic. Bad news for President Karzai: Reliant on foreignsupport and lacking real political support within the country, he "meetsneither Afghan nor international standards of legitimacy. Afghan historyportents an unhappy end for such a ruler."
Bad news, too, for his enemies. The Taliban, "fixated on apast that never existed," offers nothing to a burgeoning younger generation.Pakistan meantime -- which, Barfield says, never abandoned its covert supportfor the Taliban -- has been neatly sidestepped, in a maneuver that appears toowe little to Western ingenuity and a lot to Indian resource: With a new roadlink between Afghanistan's Nimroz province and the Iranian Chahbahar port,"India now has the capacity to dispatch troops and supplies directly toAfghanistan via Iran if it chooses to do so." Barfield suggests that aU.S.-India alliance against the Taliban, following a U.S. withdrawal, wouldundermine the basis for U.S. support of Pakistan and would provide a permanentmeans to keep Islamic militants at bay.
Here is Barfield's radical streak: With the building of aroad (the first of several which will link Afghanistan with Iran, and withformer Soviet republics to the north), Afghanistan is suddenly part of CentralAsia -- or Turko-Persia, as Barfield calls it. He is right to see these linksas opening up new possibilities for Afghanistan's future, but his next argumentis more controversial. The book does not endorse Afghanistan's breakup;indeed, it gives reasons why Afghans have historically rejected this idea. Butit does signal the possibility of it, opened up by these newfound links with "Turko-Persia" Afghanistan could split, it suggests, if no satisfactoryaccommodation can be found between a weak and overweening government in Kabul,which has failed to deliver Pashtun support and bargains with the Taliban, andstrong local (and largely non-Pashtun) communities which are feeling more andmore alienated. Mazar, Herat, and Kabul would join to form "Khorasan," while thetroubled south and east could be Pashtunistan.
This bombshell is tucked away in the middle of a paragraph,when it really deserves a whole book to itself. Perhaps it will get one; we canonly hope that it will be as well written as this one.
Gerard Russell was incharge of the British government's outreach to the Muslim world from 2001 to 2003.He is now an Afghanistan/Pakistan fellow at the HarvardKennedy School'sCarr Center for Human Rights.
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