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.