This may be slightly out of the left field. I’ve been interested in the progress and poverty of the disadvantaged for many decades now. As part of my Masters in International Development 2003-4, I wrote my dissertation on The Fragmentation of Afghanistan from a Political-Economy lens; I received ‘a first’ grade, but feel free to judge for yourself here. Given the recent external force withdrawal in 2021, I thought it would be appropriate to share my thoughts and ideas as an idealistic young scholar back in 2004. Part 1 here, is the introduction chapter, starting with a quote from Francis Fukuyama with whom I had a keen interest at the time:

‘the record, if we look at it honestly, is not an impressive one, and in many cases our interventions have actually made things worse’ (Fukuyama 2004: 30).


Author: Graham Squires; June 2004

With the democratic election in Afghanistan set for October 2004 following U.S. (United States) government led intervention, I hope to uncover whether an imposed liberal democratic system and ‘humanitarian intervention’ can give stability, peace and the opportunity for development to a country that has been described as experiencing a ‘failed state’.  In doing this, I will analyse theories of weak and failed states, political development and state-building that relate to the case of Afghanistan.  The importance of an emphasis on politics and the state can be seen as ‘many economists have concluded that some of the most important variables affecting development are not economic but institutional and political in nature.  There was an entire missing dimension of state-ness that of state-building and hence of development studies that had been ignored amid all the talk about state scope’ (Fukuyama 2004: 29).  Weak or failed states are of specific attention as it is argued that they ‘are close to the root of many of the world’s most serious problems, from poverty and AIDS to drug trafficking’ (Fukuyama 2004: 17).

The U.S. using its military geopolitical power as the only remaining global super-power and in response to the attacks received on September 11th 2001 ‘has taken on major new responsibilities for nation-building and state-building in Afghanistan and Iraq’ (Fukuyama 2004: 18).  It is the way in which these new responsibilities are being put into policy and practice that is of concern here, and more specifically the emphasis on a liberal democratic political structure as a panacea for societies that have been fragmented.  From this, I will uncover the scope and implications of ‘creating’ Western style liberal democracies in a broadly tribal Islamic society such as Afghanistan.  I also intend to show that more detailed analysis and understanding of a particular region’s historical evolution and deeper societal structure is necessary for successful state-building and constructive humanitarian intervention.  Furthermore, a detailed analysis of specific cases of interventionism are needed since ‘the record, if we look at it honestly, is not an impressive one, and in many cases our interventions have actually made things worse’ (Fukuyama 2004: 30).

In order to analyse these questions, I will firstly define what I will refer to as ‘tribes’, this will be followed by critically engaging with Gellner’s initial theoretical model of tribal society and Islam as set out in his analysis of Muslim Society (Gellner 1981)An outline on the workings of Islamic ‘segmentary lineages’ will be made, these draw upon Gellner’s interpretation of Islamic society as discussed by the 14th Century writer Ibn Khaldun who has been cited as a key influence on the understanding of the relationship between Islam and tribalism (Lacoste 1984).  Gellner’s interpretation of the Khaldunian cycle that describes how traditional Muslim society never allows a ruling group to dominate will also be outlined.  Critique and adaptation of Gellner’s Islamic tribal theory will then be discussed to enable an exploration of alternative theories relating to state-building and fragmentation in Muslim society.

Alternative analysis in the third chapter will initially be explored through the analysis of class-relations, especially in their development and association with a ‘rentier’ state (Bromley 1994).  Lacoste’s use of the work by Ibn Khaldun that explains a break from the Khaldunian cycle will then be shown.  This will discuss the role of taxation by the ruling classes and the recruiting of mercenaries that may have encouraged state strength.  By looking at the rents and taxes that ‘feed’ states, analysis will move beyond Gellner’s ahistorical and ‘zoned’ model as the appropriation of rents by a state may change with the transition to modernity.  Historical material understanding of ‘tribal breakouts’ in the Middle East (Bayly 1989) will be outlined in order to meet the missing historical context that may reveal how states have been built and fragmented.  Other alternative state-building theory will be shown and integrated into the Afghanistan case such as through ideas of ‘political underdevelopment’ (Moore 2000) where independent rule of a ‘periphery’ state over its citizens can be dependent on the financial and military support from the wealthier ‘core’ countries.  Alternative theory such and its application to the case of Afghanistan may reveal whether Gellner’s model and its variations are adequate in their theory of state-building and fragmentation of states in Muslim society.

The case of Afghanistan and its application to the above theory will be developed in the fourth and fifth chapter, and it will be made apparent that Afghanistan’s specific attributes in terms of its geography, geopolitical position and ethnic make-up are crucial to discussing whether it is peripheral to the general concepts of the Middle East or Muslim society.  As a brief introduction, geographically Afghanistan is ‘a land of stark and rugged beauty, of snow-covered mountains, barren deserts and rolling steppe’ (Ewans 2001: 1).  Two-thirds of it lie above 5000 feet with ranges that bisect the country that ‘may be likened to a hand outstretched to the west, with the wrist lying on the Pamir knot’ (Ewans 2001: 1).  It is a landlocked country that had its frontiers defined towards the end of the nineteenth century.  In the far north-east, ‘high in the Pamirs, is a fifty mile border with China, from which runs the so-called Durrand Line, the frontier that divides Afghanistan from Pakistan’ (Ewans 2001: 2).  To the west Afghanistan borders Iran and to the north it borders with the republics of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.  Afghanistan has many ethnic divisions that are made ‘even deeper by linguistic, sectarian, geographic and other cleavages’ (Goodson 2003: 83).  The general ethnic composition of Afghanistan is outlined by Goodson when he states that ‘the Pushtuns, who make up 40 to 45 percent of the population, generally live in the south and east, while Tajiks (about 25 percent) live primarily in the northeast and urban areas, the Hazaras (perhaps 13 percent) in the central mountains, and the Uzbeks and Turkmen (less than 10 percent each) in the north-centre’ (Goodson 2003: 84).

Chapter four will provide an analytical history of the case of Afghanistan up to the period of the Military coup in 1978.  This will be analysed in order to find if the theoretical interpretations by Gellner and the outlined alternatives can be applied to the Afghanistan case.  Discussion of whether political ‘segmentation’ occurs in reality will firstly be shown using the work of Dupree who in some ways tries to show that Tribal Warfare in Afghanistan is a reflection of the segmentary lineage system (Ahmed and Hart 1984).   Further analysis of Afghanistan as having a segmentary lineage system and its capacity for state-building will be shown by uncovering the tribal institutions of Afghanistan as discussed by Rubin through his account of the ‘old regime’ (Rubin 1995).  ‘Tribal breakouts’ to the first Anglo-Afghan war (1839-42) will then be uncovered to see how historical material development in the context of the rise of gunpowder empires can be compared and contrasted to state-building as viewed by Gellner in the Khaldunian ‘never ending’ cycle, and Lacoste in the appropriation of power through tax and mercenaries.  Study of the period from the first Anglo-Afghan war (1839-42) to King Amanullah’s fall (1929) that was seen to experience some state integration and reform will bring out how external rents set the trajectory of Afghanistan in the world state system to be characterised by weak state relations with its extensive tribal society.  This will be made particularly apparent when outlining the re-emergence of tribalism running parallel to a rise of rents to the central state from communist interest such as the Soviet Union.

The fifth chapter will continue to discuss ideas such as a weak ‘rentier’ state, using the Afghanistan case following the military coup in 1978.  This will discuss state-building and its relation to tribes in terms of Afghan factions within the communist party prior to direct Soviet occupation (1979), followed by an understanding of the Soviets approach to tribal and ethnic groups during its occupation.  The impact on the tribes and the ‘failed state’ at the centre will then be analysed in order to bring the state-building capacity of the Taliban that emerged from the subsequent civil war.  From here the Islamic elements such as those in Gellner’s model may be brought back into the analysis as the Taliban regime and al-Qa’ida appear to draw power through their Islamic ideals.  More material elements may also need to be analysed though as state-building is now being imposed by other external interests in Afghanistan, such as U.S. concern over the narcotics trade and oil pipeline routes.

The final chapter will draw together the analysis of state formation theory and the two critical periods of Afghanistan’s historical development.  The Afghanistan case will show whether the theory as discussed by Gellner is relevant, or whether criticisms of his theory and alternative explanations of state formation may be more useful.  Furthermore, by using the Afghanistan case I will try to integrate alternative theory into Gellner’s model, for instance by linking historical materialist elements of ‘tribal breakouts’ to the ahistorical cultural model discussed by Gellner.  Analysis of the Afghanistan case should also reveal how regionally specific factors have conditioned state-building and fragmentation of its civil society that has extensive tribal and ethnic groups.  These regionally specific factors will be shown in relation to the external powers that have shaped its misfortune and how these external powers now claim to be re-building the state on ‘humanitarian’ grounds.  These conclusions should then provide the basis for an assessment of the difficulties (and success) of the future tribal assembly, or Loya Jirga (Grand Council), that is intended to complement and mirror the imposed Western liberal democracy.

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