The Afghans: A Brief History

The Afghan People:

It is important to preface “Afghanistan: A Soldier’s Story”, with a brief look at the unique history, the culture, and the defining landscape of the Afghan people.

Afghanistan today, in the words of Iranian filmmaker Moshen Makmalbaf (Kandahar Cannes Film Festival 2001) is a country that “does not have a role in today’s world. It is neither a country remembered for a certain commodity, not for its scientific advancement, nor as a nation that has achieved artistic honours.” It is important in the face of such an indifferent contemporary world-view to take the time to understand the multiple layers of the Afghan people and the potential relevance of their future to the future of the global community.

An Afghanistan trapped in perpetual conflict will invariably have an impact beyond its borders. There will continue to be the economic and social disruption of waves of displaced humanity pouring into neighbouring countries. There will also be the continued use of uncontrolled mountain regions as secure training grounds for international terrorists by virtue of both geographical isolation and the driving force of poverty. It pays to be a terrorist in Afghanistan today. There will also be the challenge of controlling the cultivation of poppies for the development and international sale of illegal narcotics. Without viable and sustainable economic alternatives, for many this represents not only a real cash crop but also serves as funding for terrorism and arms acquisition.

The origins of the Afghan people are both diverse and obscure. The population, as of a July 2011 estimate, stands at just under thirty million. Roughly two-and-a-half million of this is made up of nomads who have for centuries, possibly millennia, moved annually with their herds and flocks between the plains and the uplands. It is a population of twenty or so main ethnic groups (more than fifty overall), possessed of distinct ethnic, physical and linguistic differences. The majority can speak at least one of the two official languages, Pashto and Dari, but there are over thirty different current languages in use.

The word Afghan has, until recently, been synonymous with Pashtun, the name of the country’s largest (nearly half the population) and most dominant ethnic group. The Pashtun tribe is further subdivided into a large number of sub-tribes the most dominant of which is the Durranis (formerly the Abdalis) from which comes the Afghan royal house, and the Ghilzai. Both sub-tribes live to the south of the country and have traditionally been antagonistic towards one another with the Durrani dominating.

The Pashtun overall are a proud and aggressive, highly individualistic tribe. Theirs is a familial and tribal society with predatory habits. They adhere to an ethos, called Pashtunwali, that is part feudal, and part democratic, combining an uncompromising Muslim faith with a simple code of conduct. The rigidity of this code has relaxed somewhat over time but still maintains social obligations of revenge (badal), hospitality (melmastia), and sanctuary (nanawati) that continue to guide conduct. Questions of honour (namus) specifically as they relate to economics or politics frequently result in private vendettas and collective conflict that are recognized as an integral part of Pashtun life. Pashtun society overall is highly parochial, fiercely independent and resistant to outside influence. Prior to the establishment of the Durrand Line in 1893 which established the border of Afghanistan with British India the Pashtun people extended their territory well in to what is now the North West Frontier of Pakistan.

The sub-tribes and clans of the Pashtun are called khels and the leaders of these khels are called khans. They often hold their positions by hereditary right but there are no firm rules of succession so factionalism is a dominant theme. The authority of the khans is competitive among the sub-tribes and clans and is largely dependant on the success of their leadership qualities. The only moderating influence is that of the assembly of elders, called the Jirga. This assembly can occasionally expand participation to all the adult males. The passage of time has seen the control of the khans find further expression in economic power resulting in something of a feudal system. The underlying ethic of equality, however, remains, with every adult male being entitled to participate in the jirga and contribute to the decision making process.

Religion has also played a central role in shaping the political culture of Afghanistan. Islam is practiced by 99% of the population in Afghanistan and is both the national religion and the basis of the Afghan culture and values. Dominated by Sunni Muslims (80%) it is likely the closest thing the country has to a unifying concept. Islam has superimposed itself on the ethnic diversity of Afghanistan, becoming the primary focus of loyalty. The imams or mullahs, as the spiritual leaders of Islam, have considerable influence which can include ritual, juridicial, medical and educational roles at village and tribal levels.

For all their local and regional power, however, the imams or mullahs are at the bottom of the religious hierarchy. Next up the chain are the ulama or maulvis, the scholars of Islamic Law and tradition, and the qazis and muftis who exercise judicial functions. There are also a number of influential Suffi mystical orders, the most prominent of which are the Qadiriyya and the Naqshbandiyya. Both orders are, by long standing tradition, heavily influential in politics and their contemporary leaders, Sayyid Ahmad Gailani and Sebghatullah Mujadidi, have also been leaders of militant Afghan resistance groups.

The Pashtun have long been expansionistic, generating long-standing antagonism between themselves and many of the other tribes of Afghanistan. Regional differences as a result, are significant. The towns and villages that are home to over 75% of the population are largely self-sufficient, however, and the inhabitants have long been accustomed to run their own affairs with little interest or even tolerance for outside interference. Local economies are based on subsistence level agriculture and animal husbandry.

The Afghan state, whether monarchy or republic, has never been strong enough to exercise any significant control throughout the country so little has been done until recently by a central authority in the way of educational or medical support or the development of infrastructure to support transport, communication or industry. Government revenues, furthermore, have been drawn from foreign assistance and taxes on commerce and business. The land, agriculture and pastoralism have been exempt from taxation. With Islam as the only common link, any sense of national unity is weak at best.

Afghanistan is a nation of contradictions. As a people they share a fierce devotion to freedom and can carry hospitality to embarrassing heights in accordance with the tribal ethos called Pashtunwali. They are, however, consistently and relentlessly formidable and indomitable enemies when they perceive that they have been affronted or wronged. As a people they also share a long history of conflict. They have consistently been invaded, subject to battles, sieges, vendettas, assassinations and massacres.

Whenever the Afghans weren’t enduring or resisting invasions they kept in good martial practice fighting among themselves. Today, after more than a quarter of a century of non-stop warfare, the Afghan people remain as problematic to US and NATO forces as they were to foreign armies 2,500 years ago. They can be briefly defeated but they cannot be conquered. To do so is far too costly in terms of lives lost and resources wasted.

Understanding the military history of Afghanistan is as much a lesson in geography as it is in politics or history. It is situated at the eastern most part of the great Iranian plateau and tucked under the nearly impenetrable arc of the Himalayas. As such it represents the primary land conduit between the great empires of Central Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and the Indian subcontinent.

The strategic relevance of Afghanistan as a pivotal crossroads in world events began to decline in the medieval era. With the emergence of viable and reliable global sea power Afghanistan lost its status as an essential highway between civilizations and became a veritable no-man’s land. It was still critical territory to the great empires, but now for negative reasons. The nineteenth century saw the start of what would become called the Great Game, where the world’s dominant sea power, Great Britain, engaged the then pre-eminent land power – Russia, in a contest for control of Afghanistan. Neither side had any significant interest in the country itself, in its people or resources. Its only value was that of a buffer between the two great nations

One of the lasting impacts of the Great Game on Afghanistan was the redesigning of the countries borders that had been established in 1772. The boundaries were reconfigured without regard to tribal territories, villages or families, to ensure that the borders of British India would at no time touch those of Russia. The Durrand line was introduced in 1893 and not only divided tribes, communities and families; it literally cut Afghanistan off from the sea. The country became politically as well as physically land locked. It also divided the dominant governing

Pashtun tribe with half remaining in Afghanistan and the other half consigned to be a part of the northwest territory of India. In August of 1947 they would be severed yet again with the creation of Pakistan. The Durrand Line was to be ratified by Afghanistan, but that never happened. It was to remain in force for 100 years so should have expired in 1993. That also did not happen and the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan has increasingly become a source of conflict between the two nations. Pakistan wants to see the Durrand line sanctified or made permanent so that it can retain the North-western Frontier, whereas Afghanistan does not regard the border as valid, particularly since 1993 when the territory it separated should have reverted back to Afghanistan.

The expiration of the Durrand line in 1993 would have returned sea access to Afghanistan and united the Pashtun people. It would also have cut Pakistan in half and reabsorbed Baluchistan back into Afghanistan.

The landscape of Afghanistan, where it is not made up of jagged tiered rows of mountain ranges, is largely dessert. Much of the meagre arable land is little more than seasonal pasture. This very rugged environment makes for a natural defence whether on a national, regional or local level. Afghanistan may be readily invaded, but as the British and Russians, and now NATO forces, know all too well, it is far more difficult to hold. For the people of Afghanistan it has often proved just as difficult to hold together.

The tribes of Afghanistan are stilled governed on a feudal basis, and have never been conquered or subjugated by a central domestic government. Transient armies may pass through devastating sedentary communities on the route of march, but such communities are the exception in Afghanistan. The mountain tribes of Afghanistan have managed to live, free and independent, in natural elevated rocky fortresses in the remote heights and deep valleys for centuries. The agrarian communities in the high valleys are more inclined to tend livestock than crops and often practice a semi nomadic lifestyle in order to move herds and flocks to seasonal pastures.

Readily defensible communities, a highly mobile people devoted to freedom, the Afghan mountain tribes are also excellent warriors and predators able to participate with devastating skill in collective defence, civil war or expeditions for plunder. Afghanistan has, as a result, never been held down by a foreign power, but it also appears to be incapable of national unity unless faced with a significant foreign threat. In the absence of external threat they have shown themselves to be inclined to intertribal conflict and feuding. The freedom they hold so dear is not the sort they see as readily provided by any central government or national declaration of rights. It is an individual and community based freedom of ancient derivation with little inclination to be bothered with government at all.

The other aspect of Afghan physicality that impacts on political culture is the absence of reliable and accessible transportation. The mountain tribes may be isolated by high rock walls and deep valleys, but desert and an almost complete absence of consistently navigable rivers also act as effective barriers between regions and tribes. To make matters worse, the Afghan people have historically been disinclined to develop a significant transportation infrastructure. The country has one of the worst road systems in the world and has absolutely no rail system.

Landlocked, Afghans must travel over 2,000 kilometres over rugged and unforgiving terrain to reach the nearest seaport. The air transport industry, furthermore, has a weak institutional framework and has no operational regulatory mechanisms. This has left the country with a high-risk profile that discourages international air carriers from identifying Afghanistan as a destination of choice. The end result is that significant portions of the Afghan population are physically cut-off both from one another and from any sense of a centralized governing authority.

Contemporary Afghanistan, can likely be best seen as emerging with the reign of Zahir Shah in 1933, when he assumed the throne following the assassination of his father. He remained in place until 1973 when he was overthrown by Daoud Khan and the Afghanistan Communist Party. Daod Khan abolished the monarchy, declared himself president and established the Republic of Afghanistan. In 1975 through to 1977 Daoud introduced a new constitution, and confirmed women’s rights but then turned around in typical Afghan fashion and began to oust suspected opponents in his government. In 1978 there was a bloody communist coup, Daoud was killed, Taraki was named president, a treaty of friendship was signed with the Soviet Union and Soviet tanks rolled in to Afghanistan on December 25 1979. The reforms introduced following the invasion were profoundly at odds with traditional Afghan values and were deemed to be anti-Islam. Every Afghan, as a result, was obliged to oppose both the reforms and their advocates, the Afghan communist leaders and their Soviet patrons. Children of the resulting tide of Afghan refugees who fled for the security of Pakistan would become the Taliban. The Afghans who remained to wage a passionate nationalist war against foreign occupation, the US funded warriors of Jihad, would become the Mujahideen.

When the Soviets departed in defeat February 15 1989, they left behind a leadership vacuum. The Afghan political culture, long tribalistic and sporadically held together by loyalty to one monarchy or another, had lost any semblance of legitimacy. There was no leadership available capable of uniting the tribes to rebuild the country. Tribal leaders, especially Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Burhanuddin Rabbani fought for exclusive control of Afghanistan adding to the hardship and suffering of a population weary of war. The Taliban promised a welcome peace and stability. Backed by Pakistan and welcomed by an embattled population the Taliban had little difficulty in establishing themselves as rulers of most of Afghanistan by 1996. Their rule was harsh and restrictive, but it offered the hope of peace and security to the Afghan people under their control.

The Bonn Agreement of 2001 and the 2004 Afghan constitution were intended to establish a process for political reconstruction in Afghanistan.  The Bonn Agreement identified the Interim Authority as the official repository of Afghan sovereignty until such time as a Transitional Authority could be established through an Emergency Loya Jirga or Grand Council to be opened by the exiled ex-monarch of Afghanistan, Mohammed Zaher. There was also to be a Constitutional Jirga to draft a new Afghan constitution, but until it did, the constitution of 1964 would prevail, except where the provisions were inconsistent with the Bonn Agreement or where they related to the authority of the monarchy. Given that much of the 1964 constitution was involved with laying out the authority of and absence of accountability for the monarchy it left a pretty bare bones starting point for a constitution. The Bonn Agreement also required that all armed factions within Afghanistan come under the command and control of the Interim Authority. Given that not all of the conflicted factions were included as signatories to the agreement this would later become problematic in efforts to establish peace and security.

The 2004 Afghan constitution identified Afghanistan as a single and united country belonging to all resident ethnicities determined to establish a government based on people’s will and democracy. The constitution declared the country to be an Islamic Republic, unitary, independent and indivisible. National sovereignty was established as belonging to the nation as exercised through representation.


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