What Kind of Regime?

by Joshua Foust on 7/14/2010 · 12 comments

Adam Curtis—whose blog with the BBC, which if fabulous, collects old photos, videos, and radio broadcasts from Afghanistan—recounts William Dalrymple’s theories of Afghanistan:

William Dalrymple wrote a really good piece in the Guardian last week arguing that by installing members of the Northern Alliance as the rulers of Afghanistan in December 2001, the Americans and NATO were unwittingly taking sides in a civil war that had been going on since the early 1970s.

They installed a Tajik-Uzbek-Hazara regime that has little interest in democracy. And what are called the Taliban insurgents are in reality a rebellion by the Pashtun majority in the country against that elite. And thus might represent the will of the majority.

He also argues that the fighting has become part of the proxy wars fought between India and Pakistan for the last 45 years. This is the argument too of the Economist. It had a fascinating piece last week about how Pakistan’s support for the insurgents, like the Haqqani network, is driven by its fear of the growing Indian presence in Afghanistan.

If this is true it means that we in the west have become like foolish bit-players blundering around in a complex regional war that we do not understand.

Right, so that’s just wrong. At least if you’re defining the sides ethnically. As one example, Jamiat-i Islami, one of the biggest factions of the Northern Alliance, had a large number of Pashtun members, especially in the Parwan—Kapisa—Shomali area. Secondly, what the fuck? A regime where most of the cabinet ministers are Pashtuns, where most of the governors (except those in obviously ethnic-majority provinces) are Pashtuns, and where the vast majority of aid and reconstruction money is spent on Pashtun areas is not exactly a “Tajik-Uzbek-Hazara regime.” Sure, there’s a Tajik and a Hazara Vice President, and where other minority leaders, like Ismail Khan or Abdulrashid Dostum, can make asses of themselves they’re incorporated into the government.

Secondly, while Afghanistan has been embroiled in wars for a good 30 years, only a few of them have been civil, and those civil wars have been different civil wars. And I’m not sure it’s even fair to consider these civil wars noticably different from the many civil wars Afghanistan fought in the 20th century, aside from scale. We can look at the Bukharan Rebellion in 1928, the 1929 coup, the Safi Rebellion of 1945-6, the Gujjar Wars of the early 1960s, the Balochi insurgency in the 1970s, and then the initial anti-communist rebellion in Kunar and Nuristan in 1978.

These rebellions, which generally were about smaller, insular communities resisting the encroachment of central control, are not materially different than the current struggle to impose a central government on many of the same regions. We can argue over whether it’s a good idea or not (I’m of the opinion we should let the Afghan government choose where we go and what we do there), but what’s difficult to argue is that anything other than the Soviet War was particularly unusual other than scale (the Soviet War, since it was the result of an invasion by foreigners, is a separate thing).

But when we look at what happened in 1989, we see something very familiar: small, regionally-based militias fighting against a central government trying to impose control. When Najibullah gets thrown to the street, and then to a UN compound in Kabul, we see something very similar again: larger, still regionally-focused militias fighting over control of the government. It’s one way the fighting morphed somewhat—rather than merely resisting central control and seeking autonomy, in the 1990s the fighting changed to who gets to be in the center and impose control outward.

The Taliban almost won that round, until they supported Bin Laden’s attack on the U.S. Then the U.S. intervened on behalf of the non-Taliban side of the war, and gained central control. Now the center is fighting to impose its will on the periphery, where some local, regionally focused militias enjoy the support of a broader organization, and resist the imposition of central control.

I’m going to get in trouble for a lot of this, primarily for complaining about Dalrymple’s over-generalization by over-generalizing the last century of Afghanistan’s conflicts. But I think it’s important to remember that simply saying “oh we’re intervening in a civil war” might be true in one sense, but it glosses over so much of what the term “civil war” actually means in Afghanistan.

Okay, you can yell at me now.

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– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Turgai Sangar July 14, 2010 at 1:26 pm

What if the Taliban are the only ones who can actually handle a country and society like Afghanistan?

They were particularly heavy-handed in Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif at the time, basically as a revenge of the periphery against the arrogant city folks. But in the south, for example, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is often remembered as a are period of calm and stability after years of arbitrariness and terror by petty warlords.

They also confirm that ragtag armies are often more effective than hightech armies. In the end, it’s what you can endure and what’s between your ears that counts.

Yama July 14, 2010 at 2:55 pm

I think this idea is again overly broad. “At least the Taliban brought security” is one of the most pernicious lies of their entire mythos. Read the early accounts of the Taliban from the late-90s and you will see that they are only legitimately remembered as establishing security and taming anarchy in one specific place: Kandahar. In Helmand, they wrested control from established local clans in a very bloody feud. In Ghazni, they overthrew one of the most competent and social service-oriented “warlord” administrators in the country, Jamiat’s Qari Baba. By overrunning Ismail Khan’s Herat, they destabilized the most prosperous and secure fiefdom in the country. And further north, they were responsible not only for being “particularly heavy-handed,” as you euphemistically characterize it, but for committing genocide. Outright genocide.

anan July 14, 2010 at 3:15 pm

Turgai Sangar, would you like the ANA to be heavy handed too? If it did, do you think the ANA would become as unpopular as the Taliban? One reason the Taliban is so unpopular is because of its heavy handed techniques, and lack of trained professional forces. The ANA’s training and professionalism and refusal until now to use heavy handed techniques are a major reason they are popular among Afghans, including Afghan Pashtuns.

The Taliban are not liked [understatement] by almost all of the 59% of Afghans that are not Pashtun. The Taliban are also disliked by about two thirds of Pashtun. About a quarter of Afghan Pasthuns represent the Taliban’s base.

Why can’t the Taliban participate in local and national elections, and share power proportionate to their share of the Afghan electorate?

anan July 14, 2010 at 3:07 pm

There is so much bizarre analysis out there, sometimes I wonder why you even bother to respond.

Many people have asked where the idea that the GIRoA is anti Pashtun or isn’t sufficiently Pashtun comes from.

Karzai is commander in chief. All ANA and ANP report to him through the chain of command. All promotions and transfers are approved by him. He also commands the civilian parts of the GiRoA, and even exercises great power over provincial and district governments. He must be Uzbek/Tajik them, right? A Pasthun, Karimi, is chief of staff of the ANA. He was for many years the deputy chief of staff for operations of the ANA, in which positions he commanded all operational forces of the ANA and what was then called ANAAC [now called AAF or Afghan Air Force.] The ANA is about 41% Pashtun, approximately the same percentage that Pashtuns represent of Afghans. So far this summer, Pashtun recruitment into the ANA has been strong.

And the Safi Pashtuns, who anecdotally seem to represent many of the pro Karzai Pashtuns and ANA soldier Pashtuns . . . hell they must be secretly Uzbek and Tajik too.

Its all a big conspiracy. That’s it.

Can someone explain to me why the “West” is the appropriate grouping to use versus ISAF or international community. Are Japan and South Korea “western”? On what planet is Japan not playing a large role in Afghanistan?

Why the assumption that Indian [and Russian, Iranian, Chinese] interests are automatically different from “Western” interests, whatever the term “Western” even means. Maybe Takfiri extremists threaten all of us, and we should all collaborate together to defeat them.

One could make the case that India has long had close links with Pashtuns. The Afghan monarchy de facto tilted towards India against Pakistan 1947-1973. India was ruled by the Ghilzai Pashtuns in the 1550s before the Seljik Turkish Mongol Moghul empire conquered India [and Afghanistan.] India’s biggest movie star is a Pashtun Indian who doesn’t speak Pashtu. Many of Gandhi’s closest supporters were Pashtuns, including the founders of the ANP movement in Western Pakistan. Many of India’s closest allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan are Pashtuns. Karzai is one of them.

It seems to me that the best framework to understand the wars of central and south Asia is to think in terms of the following:
1) Pakistani civil war that is spreading out in all directions
2) Pashtun civil war on both sides of the Durand
3) War between GIRoA/ANSF and their allies against the Taliban and its allies
3a) war between ISAF/NATO and Taliban
3b) Proxy war between Russia and the Taliban
3c) Proxy war between Iran and the Taliban
3d) Proxy war between India and the Taliban
4) Huge amount of organized crime that gets confused with the other three wars

Nobody July 14, 2010 at 6:33 pm

Anan, what about 5. India Pakistan?

And is number 2, the pashtun civil war, the most significant? How would you describe it?

reader July 14, 2010 at 6:59 pm

I suspect a big part of the idea that US/ISAF= Anti-Pashtun Tajik/Uzbek alliance comes from the US’ early support for the Northern Alliance and the much touted personality of A.S. Massoud.

As always, anan, I appreciate your insight and comments, even if, unfortunately, we don’t agree 100% of the time. Your final points are spot on, it would appear.

anan asks”Why the assumption that Indian [and Russian, Iranian, Chinese] interests are automatically different from “Western” interests”

Because our leaders and their leaders would have it so. The Russians, in the guise of Soviets, were our primary enemy for around 55 years, give or take a few years. Add to that a very old Anglo tradition of Russophobia dating back to the time of Peter the Great and put on steroids during the 19th century. In some ways, the modern state of Afghanistan was a creation and a victim of this Russophobia. Also keep in mind that the US and China are involved in a deathly economic embrace that is a combination trade war and intense partnership.

Regarding the fight with radical Islam, you are right that the Russians and the US share a common concern. I would only add that in Xinjiang the Chinese don’t face a rise in radical Islam so much as a classic nationalist separatist movement which is as legitimate as that of the Tibetans’. But, honestly speaking, the Chinese also have a claim to Xinjiang as they have occupied that area since ancient times off and on.

I’d also add that this war isn’t an existential crisis for the US in quite the same way that it is for the Karzai government and its supporters. What is at stake for Americans, however, is the US’ position as world hegemon and interventionism. Personally, I’d rather not sacrifice the US (economically speaking or to encourage ongoing American militarism) to save Afghanistan from the Taliban. It would be nice if the US could save Afghanistan and the world without descending further into a pit of debt and militarist excess, but it won’t. That might sound callous, but it is a cruel world.

Finally, I think some Hindu Nationalists might take umbrage at your pointing-justifiably so- out the ongoing Indian-Afghan historical ties ;). One of the great villains of Hindu history, Mahmud of Ghazna, was also from what is now Afghanistan.

anan July 14, 2010 at 7:02 pm

India Pakistan from India’s perspective is about India’s war with Taliban and Al Qaeda linked networks. India isn’t anti Pakistan per se at the policy establishment and public level. Pakistan gets less coverage in the Indian press than it does in the American and British press. India’s biggest threat probably comes from the Pakistani Taliban which also threaten the Pakistani state.

I still think the most important conflict is the Pakistani civil war. My best estimate is that a majority of ANSF/ISAF casualties come from Taliban that are closer to Pakistani Takfiri and are not Mullah Omar QST centric. Note that 10% of insurgents can cause a majority of ANSF/ISAF casualties if they are elite embedded combat advisors and leaders.

Mullah Omar centric QST is less of a factor in Eastern Afghanistan, where the Taliban are linked most closely to global Takfiri extremism.

There is also the problem of a couple billion dollars a year worth of non Afghan Taliban financing.

All of these factors relate to the Pakistani civil war. The Taliban might have killed 7 thousand Pakistani Army + Pakistani Police. [Actually more according to what some have told me.] The more foreign connected Taliban are the largest threat in Nuristan, Nangarhar, Khost, Paktia, Kunduz and Baghlan. They also fight better than the Mullah Omar centric drudges do in the south.

This said, the Pashtun civil war factor is almost as important in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Pakistani Army, ANA and Taliban seem to have no difficulty recruiting Pashtuns to fight for them.

In Southern Afghanistan, the Taliban is much more Mullah Omar centric than it is in Pakistan and Eastern Afghanistan. Only 3% of ANA are southern Pashtu versus 38% non Southern Pashtun. Does this partly reflect Pashtun civil war?

To add confusion, it might be worth mentioning that all of the following have publicly declared Mullah Omar the leader of the global islamic caliphate and pledged personnel fealty to him:
2) All the major Kashmiri groups including LeT/JeM
4) anti Shiite and anti Iran groups LeJ/Sipah e Sahaba/Jundullah
5) Osama Bin Laden and Zawahiri
6) “some” of the Chechen groups
7) “some” of the Uighur groups [who often seem to fight for LeT for some strange reason]
8) Siraj Haqqani
9) HiG/Hekmatyur

This doesn’t mean that they really listen to Mullah Omar, they merely claim to. Not sure Mullah Omar is so happy to have all these “followers” and to have all the terrorism they cause blamed on him. In fact, I think Mullah Omar doesn’t trust many of these crazies as far as he can throw them, and would love to kill at least some of them if he could get away with it with plausible deniability. I suspect that Mullah Omar might be scared of some of his “followers” and be concerned that they might kill him and his core lieutenants. I wonder how safe the Mullah Omar centric QST Taliban really is in Pakistan.

Nobody, there is a school of thought that focuses on separating Mullah Omar and Baradar from the bulk of their “followers”, and sharing power with them in Southern Afghanistan. That, however, wouldn’t solve most of the intense fighting in Eastern Afghanistan and Pakistan. And how would GIRoA/ANSF/ISAF be able to protect the Mullah Omar centric QST from LeT/LeJ/Siraj/TTP/TNSM/IJU/IMU?

I don’t see how this problem ends without greatly strengthening the ANA and ANP. A process that just began for all intensive purposes in November, 2009.

anan July 14, 2010 at 7:13 pm

“Finally, I think some Hindu Nationalists might take umbrage at your pointing-justifiably so- out the ongoing Indian-Afghan historical ties 😉 . One of the great villains of Hindu history, Mahmud of Ghazna, was also from what is now Afghanistan.”

Don’t think so. Many of the greatest heroes and villains of the Vedic, Puranic, Ramayana, Mahabharata stories are Afghans 🙂 Some of the holiest spots of Hinduism and Budhism were in Afghanistan until around 700 AD. There is also a close connection between Vedic Hinduism and Zorastrianism and pre Zorastrianism Iranian religtion/culture.

Before the Brits cut Afghanistan down to size in the 1800s, all of Pakistan, much of Northern India, Eastern Iran, and parts of the former USSR were all ruled by the Durrani Afghan empire. Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India are all closely linked.

To change the topic. Russophobia sulks. So does China phobia. I think China’s economic growth has greatly benefited America.

reader July 14, 2010 at 8:41 pm


Once again, a very good post on the difference between the conflict in Eastern Afghanistan and Southern Afghanistan, and on the old connections between Afghanistan and Northern India going back to ancient Indo-Iranian times. I’d only add that before you had the Durranis, you had the Lodis.

Do you think that Mullah Omar could be approached by the West? Or is he so dependent on his “followers” and his legitimacy is so dependent on the ongoing jihadist rhetoric that he couldn’t separate himself?

This of course is assuming that dealing with Mullah Omar is even politically feasible from an American standpoint. I’m not making excuses for the Taliban, but regarding some Westerners acting horrified at the thought of dealing with the Taliban, or the Russians for that matter, I’d only say that so far I’ve more dead relatives thanks to the Germans than to the Taliban or the Soviets (and I suspect most Americans are the same). Americans have an uncanny skill for regarding the current enemy as the most evil, of all evils right up to the time they make peace or defeat the enemy, and then forget about it all. Some might call that magnanimity, I’d say short attention span.

anan says, “I don’t see how this problem ends without greatly strengthening the ANA and ANP. A process that just began for all intensive purposes in November, 2009.”

This is true, but the Afghan and American political clock is ticking. It really is a race for time at this point, I suspect. If there isn’t genuine progress, from an American standpoint, that will stand up to internal Western critics, the nation-building project might be over. And remember the image of Afghan forces in Western press, even in sympathetic press is more negative than positive. I know, anan, that you attribute the overt negativity in Western circles to a lack of knowledge of Afghan media. That might very well be true, but this war is as much about public perception as actual events. And most Westerners, particularly Americans, are easily swayed one way or the other.

What the Karzai government and its Afghan supporters have to figure out, is how to get their message across to Westerners without sounding like propagandists. Unfortunately, from their standpoint, they are dealing with public relations disasters like the Dubai villas scandals and missing cash. This is probably more the fault of Americans than Afghans, but when do people blame their own? It’s much easier to blame crooked foreigners, and ignore the reality of these money scandals, which is a massive transfer of wealth from one group of Westerners to another. I’d also add that a different media approach is needed, because anymore the embedded journalists, and familiar journalists are losing credibility. Some of them are, not surprisingly, but disgustingly, paring down their optimism to save their own skins.

I’m not saying the Americans will leave. No, they will pull back for Biden’s CT plus abomination, and drag the pain out for everyone for years. And because such a plan might prove profitable for certain segments, I don’t see any real opposition to it if there is no good news this year.

Conrad Barwa July 14, 2010 at 11:57 pm

A regime where most of the cabinet ministers are Pashtuns, where most of the governors (except those in obviously ethnic-majority provinces) are Pashtuns, and where the vast majority of aid and reconstruction money is spent on Pashtun areas is not exactly a “Tajik-Uzbek-Hazara regime.”

I think the problem is that most of the Pashtun Cabinet ministers and many of the Governors are seen as having weak power bases within the country and very little local support – without foreign backing they wouldn’t be where they are. You can see this in operation in some of the provinces – I mean what was Wali Karzai before he became governor of Kandahar? A restaurant owner? Both here and in Helmand, governors and the provincial administration have had difficulty in adapting and controlling local power networks and winning sufficient consent of the populace. Again mostly because they are seen as interlopers who have spent most of their time outside the area and sloped in off the back of foreign troops. This creates something of a legitimacy problem. So simply waving the fact that you have Pashtun faces, doesn’t necessarily mean you have Pashtun support.

Secondly, on the issue of funds, you would need to show what exactly they are being spent on and where. Many large infrastructure projects and security-related construction will have limited direct benefits to locals. There is also the massive problem of leakagesand diversion. We might well be spending the vast bulk of funds in Pashtun areas, but this hardly means that there is a plethora of income-generating and social welfare projects popping up at the grassroots level, transforming the locals’ lives. Apart from anything else, the security situation and the administrative capacity of the Afghan state is far too weak to sustain this effort. And from what I have seen in the south, that of the NGOs and international organisations/agencies is not much better.

Prithvi July 16, 2010 at 9:10 pm

Right now I’m going to through MOS school at Twentynine Palms CA.

Here’s a list of the top ten words I hear everyday:

1) hoorah
2) devil dog
3) Afghanistan
4) subnetting
5) protocol
6) chow
7) bitch
8) Afghanistan
9) unsat
10) aye

This is purely anecdotal, but all our officers and NCOs seem to take it for granted that we’ll all be in Afghanistan next year. I don’t really buy that the US is war weary…yes, it’s unpopular, but with the all volunteer force, it’s not as if the US population is really bearing the burden of the war other than out of their pockets (but not at the moment, what with recent tax cuts and govt borrowing).

As for those of us in uniform, well, we’re psyched and scared in equal measure. We signed up during an armed conflict so we knew what that could mean. And in some dim way, even the most insular marines perceive that they will be participants in a major historical event.

So I think the US will be in Afghanistan for a long time. The Obama administration has already walked away from its tentative 2011 schedule.

Prithvi July 16, 2010 at 9:11 pm

I have no idea why there’s a smiley face next to Afghanistan. I wasn’t trying to make light of this.

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