Afghanistan: Past and Prospects

About this Episode

Guests
Robert Crews, Scott Levi, Alam Payind

NATO “officially” ended its combat operations in Afghanistan in late December 2014, but the country remains fractured by ethnic and geographical fissures, with local warlords controlling their own fiefdoms and the government in Kabul only nominally in control. And the Taliban — that American forces went in to banish in 2001— remains a force to be reckoned with. On today's History Talk, hosts Patrick Potyondy and Leticia Wiggins talk with scholars Robert CrewsScott Levi, and Alam Payind about Afghanistan’s complex history to ask what the past of these peoples and this country tell us about prospects for the future.

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Cite this Site

Patrick R. Potyondy, Leticia R. Wiggins , "Afghanistan: Past and Prospects" , Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective
April, 2015
https://origins.osu.edu/index.php/historytalk/afghanistan-past-and-prospects?language_content_entity=en.
April, 2015

Transcript

Patrick Potyondy 

Hello and welcome to History Talk from Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective. This is your host, Patrick Potyondy, at Ohio State University.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

And I'm your other host, Leticia Wiggins. The September 11th attacks on New York's World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon in Washington, DC put al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and Afghanistan on the map for many in the United States. Since 2001, US and NATO forces have been in Afghanistan, first invading to throw the Taliban from power and then supporting the government and Kabul with aggressive state building projects.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

The American occupation has resulted in millions upon millions of dollars invested and gone to line the pockets of local leaders and thousands of American, NATO, and Afghan lives lost. Yet, for this blood and treasure, Afghanistan's future seems grim and little better off than when the western militaries arrived.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

As NATO officially ended its combat operations in late December 2014, although clearly American military activity will go on much, much longer, the country remains fractured by ethnic and geographic fissures, with local warlords controlling their own fiefdoms and government in Kabul only nominally in control. Last year's presidential elections were fractious and deeply contested.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Corruption and an uncompromising economy remain, as does widespread poppy cultivation and the opium trade. And the Taliban, that American forces went in to banish, remain a force to be reckoned with and have made deep headway in neighboring Pakistan as well. Today, on History Talk, we examine Afghanistan's complex history. Has it always been this way in Afghanistan? What does the past of these peoples in this country tell us about prospects for the future?

 

Leticia Wiggins 

Joining us today are three guests knowledgeable in the intricacies of Afghanistan's history to put this area back into the broader historical and global conversation.

 

Alam Payind 

I'm Alam Payind. I am the director of the Middle Eastern Center at The Ohio State University. By training, I am a political scientist, and I'm a native of Afghanistan. I was a graduate student finishing my PhD when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.

 

Scott Levi  

My name is Scott Levi. I'm a history professor at The Ohio State University, and I'm a specialist in the early modern history of Central Asia. I've visited Afghanistan and lived for extended periods in Pakistan and Uzbekistan.

 

Robert Crews 

I'm Robert Crews. I teach in the history department at Stanford University, where I'm also the director of the Sohaib and Sara Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Great. Well, thank you all for joining us today. And we'd just like to begin with some deep background here, although briefly. So, Scott Levi, if you could tell us how Afghanistan was created in the first place.

 

Scott Levi  

So in terms of the political boundaries, we really only have to go back to the late nineteenth century. But the concept of Afghanistan as a political entity in multiple types of conceptualizations can be taken back to antiquity, really, in terms of looking at it as a modern nation-state. I think it's most common for scholars to look back to the early modern period, when Afghanistan was a collection of cities and the surrounding agricultural zones, pastoral zones so looking at like Herat in the northwest, Balkh and Mazar e Sharif in the north, Kabul in the east, and Kandahar, really in kind of the south-central, southeast part of the country. These were areas that were on the frontier between the Mughal Empire, centered in India, the Safavid Empire in Iran, and the Uzbek Khanates up to the north. It was a frontier zone. And I think, looking at the ways that Afghans themselves interacted with these imperial powers, it depended on the political vicissitudes at the time. The Afghans acted in their own self-interest. So occasionally, various groups of Afghans would align with the Mughals. And then, if there was a motivation to shift alliances, shift their allegiances toward the Safavids, for example, or the Uzbeks, then they would, so there are early modern routes to the concept of Afghanistan. As I said, the political boundaries are enforced on Afghanistan from outside. So in 1893, we see the establishment of the Durand Line, which becomes the political boundary between British India and this new state of Afghanistan. Three years later, in 1896, the Russian Empire established their own political boundaries with the state. So that's really, in terms of cartographic reality, that's where we see the establishment of our conceptualization of the Afghan state.

 

Alam Payind 

Well, Afghan historians usually say that the history of Afghanistan was dictated by its geographical location. Afghanistan is considered to be located on the crossroads of migration, conquest, and in trade. If it was the Persians, the Armenian Persians, they wanted to go to the prized India, they will have to pass through Afghanistan. If it was Alexander the Great going to India, he has to pass through Afghanistan, and if it was Genghis Khan and others, the Mughals of India. So they all pass through Afghanistan. So that's one reason why Afghanistan is so multiethnic, multiracial society. And Professor Scott Levi is right, that the modern name of Afghan used to be Khorasan in the history during the time of the Ghaznavids. This Afghanistan is a term that which was used in 1747, after Ahmad Shah Abdali, and Afghanistan was much bigger than what it is today. It was not a landlocked country. It was, in 1893, that the British separated a section from Afghanistan, which is now Northwest Frontier in Balochistan. So mid-Afghanistan is a landlocked country since then, since 1893.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

So we have this now historic background and we're curious to move it along to the twentieth century. And moving this conversation to the present, how has it been governed across the twentieth century?

 

Alam Payind 

Our elders would tell us in Afghanistan, when we were growing, that Afghanistan, for the first time, for 40 years, they did not have occupations by outsiders, or civil wars inside Afghanistan. It was a time when no outsiders came to Afghanistan. But quickly then, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan destroyed everything which existed. So since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Afghanistan has seen ten years of the Soviet occupation, then about other ten years of civil war in Afghanistan, probably nine years. Then came the United States involvement in the war in Afghanistan for the past fifteen years almost. So, if you take the history of thirty-six years of Afghanistan, so ten years of the Soviet occupation, and again, fifteen years of the United States involvement, again, it is occupation as far as Afghans are concerned. So the situation now is very complicated. The neighboring countries have become stronger and stronger, their influence in Afghanistan, especially the two neighbors, Iran and Pakistan, and also the United States. The Soviet Union is still an active power in the region, even though they have lost Central Asian republics, they're independent countries, but the cloud is there. India is a major power in the region, are very much interested in Afghanistan. So Afghanistan used to be the frontline country during the Cold War in the twentieth century. After the end of the Cold War, from 1990, when the Soviet Union collapsed, now, these other things have been created in Afghanistan, which is the Soviet invasion and the Iranian Revolution. These two incidences have really complicated the situation in Afghanistan.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

A lot of historians like to think about golden ages for nation-states and in their history, and we're wondering if there was a golden age for Afghanistan to kind of complicate the history here, a little bit of what maybe our average listener might think about Afghanistan, and so if there was one, where was it and when?

 

Scott Levi  

I'm gonna say the 11th century, Ghaznavid period.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Very early on.

 

Robert Crews 

But you always say that. I'm tired of hearing you say that. Everyone knows what you believe.

 

Alam Payind 

It's a relative term. Afghanistan never had peace that other countries are enjoying, because of its location and the politics of-

 

Patrick Potyondy 

That geographic location.

 

Alam Payind 

Yes, the geographic location and being a frontline country during the Cold War, and also before the Cold War, it was a frontline country during the great game between the British India and the Czarist Russia. So if you combine all these, there was this short period from 1963 to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, or the first communist coup in Afghanistan. So there was a period that Afghanistan had a new constitution and that new constitution was, relatively speaking, liberal. I'm one of the products of the coeducation in Afghanistan. So for the first time, that the girls and boys were in the same universities, became coeducational. Even high schools later became coed, and women were asked voluntarily to remove their burkas or hijabs or chadris in Afghanistan, they called them. So that was a period, very peaceful, and then the new constitution parties were allowed to participate. This is when this communist Afghan socialist party, of People's Democratic Party, and other Islamist parties also sprang in Afghanistan. It was a short lived, kind of openness in Afghanistan, and freedom of press was there. There were ten, eleven newspapers were published in Afghanistan. We did not have a television at that time, only radio stations. So this period was considered by Afghans, relatively speaking, a mini, small golden age.

 

Scott Levi  

Let me say, I'll add to that, that in all seriousness, that historians look back at much of the twentieth century as a period of progress in Afghanistan. We have today, in popular understandings of Afghan history, the idea that this is a place that's lost in time, that Afghanistan is this medieval society that is anchored by Afghan tribalism, whatever that may be. But as historians dig deeper, we find that even from the 1920s forward, there are a number of steps, including educational infrastructures, technology, the construction of factories, things that are really modernizing Afghanistan and the ways that we understand a modern society of the twentieth century. So it has much more in common with other nation-states in the region at that point. Looking forward, then we get the 1963 liberalization movement as well. So, much of the twentieth century is, we would identify as, that period of progress. Now, is this a golden age, as Alam Payind says? I think that's a subjective question. It's what constitutes a golden age. Certainly people in the 1920s, 1930s were unhappy with the ways that Afghanistan was progressing or some were very happy, and you could say the same about the 1960s and the 1970s. But, by and large, the nation-state itself of Afghanistan was integrated in regional developments, global developments. This is a topic that Bob Cruz is talking about in a book that he's recently finished, and maybe he'll be able to talk a little bit more about it for us.

 

Robert Crews 

Those are all excellent points. I think that I would defer to Afghans who've lived in historical moments to determine what it means for them. I think, in looking at some of the new noir literature that has come out, essentially, people often associate as we would, or others would, either their youth, time at university with the golden era of their lives. So, and going back to the moment that Professor mentioned earlier, that the period of the 60s, 70s for many urbanite couples, this was a really important moment that they still remember: when there were opportunities for education, when there was the coeducational possibility, and when there was a kind of political excitement about exploring alternatives to the then reigning monarchical politics. So this is when people begin to discover socialism, they begin to explore certain kinds of European parliamentary regimes, potentially, begin to explore political parties, begin to imagine an Afghanistan that might achieve a different kind of social equality; when writers begin to turn to rural themes and talking about peasant inequality, when they begin to thematize the problem of the factory worker and of city life. All these things are new to Afghan literature in the 60s and 70s, but are very much inspired by global literary currents. But outside that, you know, there is another part of Afghan society, which remains important today, which looks back nostalgically on the 1980s from two different perspectives. One is that of the communist regime itself, those who were close to the rule of Dr. Najibullah, who was the last People's Democratic Party leader, who then renamed the party. But he was roughly the contemporary to Mikhail Gorbachev, and for people, at this moment in Kabul especially, they saw this as a moment of great excitement in which Afghans were realizing socialism, right. Of course, it's being challenged by both Afghan fighters, the Mujahideen, and foreign powers, including United States. But for some, living in the diaspora, living in immigration, they still see some hope in that moment. They highlight things like the aspiration towards gender equality, toward mass literacy, things which the regime pursued with violence, but which in retrospect now, looks like goals, which are some ways analogous to what the Americans and other international actors have pursued in Afghanistan since then. So there's an interesting complication there and what I think some of them respond to saying, "This is what we tried to achieve in the 1980s and used against us," but from a very different political point of view. There are those among Mujahideen circles who look back to the period of the jihad, in the 1980s, as one of a political purity, a moment when they sacrifice themselves, when Afghans sacrifice themselves for the nation and for Islam to repel Soviet rule and to dismantle this socialist regime. So it's a contention: what is the golden age in the memory of different groups? It's part of, in a way, the political cycle today. What side were you on? Did you leave? Did you stay? Did you fight? Did you not? And unfortunately, the Mujahideen, who were so important in the 1980s, have retained a stranglehold on key sectors of Afghan politics, and they make claims to political authority based on that political legacy, the 1980s. So this is very much a live issue in Afghan politics.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

And tying these politics, then, to the tribal and ethnic divisions, might Afghanistan still exist as a nation-state in the conventional sense and should it, given these tribal and ethnic divisions?

 

Alam Payind 

It existed. This tribal and ethnic divisions are not a new thing. The neighboring country, Iran, they have a history of imperial central government. Afghanistan never created that kind of government enough. For a short period of time, they did under the Ghaznavids and Ghurids. I would say, from 1747, there were three British invasions and then there was one Soviet invasion. There were some other small invasions, too. So Afghanistan survived with all those different ethnic [divisions]. In Afghanistan, we have Uzbeks, we have Turkmens, we have Tajiks. But it's amazing that, anyone who have studied Afghanistan, that there is very little secessionist movement among the Uzbeks of Afghanistan, that they want to secede from Afghanistan and join Uzbekistan. There are very little secessionist movements among the Tajiks that, "Well, we do not want to be in Afghanistan or be an Afghan," or the Pashtuns, that same way, across the border in Pakistan. So as of yet, we do not have the secessionist movement. And when you said to the Uzbek, Turkmen, and Tajik, "By the way, this current situation in Afghanistan, the president of Afghanistan elected is Ashraf Ghani. He's a Pashtun, he comes from the Pashtun ethnic groups, but his first vice president is an Uzbek." So Afghanistan always had, even at the time of Amir Amanullah Khan, he was a Pashtun king, but when he went to Russia to visit Lenin or his person who would be a monarch in his absence and do the acting monarchy, was a Hazara at that time, few historians have rarely studied. So Afghanistan would say that they are all Afghans are ruled by the Khans, by the tribal chiefs. One Khan in Kabul was ruling Afghanistan by that sort of tradition. And those traditions were all mixed up when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. So the Soviet Union, for the ten years of occupation, they destroyed the old mechanism which existed, whether it's for dispute resolution or the tribal affairs, and did not create a new thing. And when they left in haste, so then Afghanistan went to the Civil War. And the Civil War barely was not ended, then happened September the 11th and Americans went there. So we are talking about this kind of history of Afghanistan. So we should not judge Afghanistan by the past thirty-six years. We should go a little bit beyond, before that.

 

Scott Levi  

It's difficult to think of an analogy, really, if somebody were to try and advance an argument that Afghanistan should actually be broken apart and fragmented into multiple different nation-states. But maybe the Balkans is an analogy that might work. Which is to say if you were to take each nation-state, and break it apart into its ethnic, or, in this case, if you want to use the word, tribal, components, how many different nation-states would we ultimately end up with? It's just not a feasible project.

 

Robert Crews 

Many of the differences that appear so prominent in Afghan politics today, and in fact, they're not ancient. They're not divisions of great historical import in every case. Some of them are quite new. And I think it's worth reflecting on the ways in which the Americans and other partners since 2001, have enhanced the meaning of certain differences in recruiting for employment at bases and in recruiting for NGOs and other financial institutions. And then, very crucially, in forming a new Afghan National Army, where Tajiks are very much over-represented in the officer corps. So we think historically about schools and armies being really central to nation formation. Those institutions have suffered under conditions of civil war. They've collapsed under these political pressures, beginning already in the 19, late 70s and early 80s, but now in an attempt to reconstruct them, international actors have put them back together in a way which has heightened some of their ethnic cleavages. The army is especially important for this. To what extent can an Afghan state construct national institutions through this military when its officer corps is so unrepresentative, for example? I think that another difficulty is that in in cultivating schooling, which has been an important contribution there too, because it has been so tainted by the international presence and by international agency, that's raised skepticism about the legitimacy of those schools in the eyes of some communities. So there are things, which I think are actually quite modern, quite new, their part, there's something that Americans too have contributed to the formation of.

 

Patrick Potyondy  

And so we've covered a very long history here of Afghanistan, even bringing in the eleventh century at one point. And so but this brings us up to, what was the impact of the Taliban years on Afghanistan? In what ways was this era an aberration of earlier patterns and how did the Taliban come to have the support that it did? And then moving forward even, maybe, what's the role of the Taliban in Afghanistan today?

 

Alam Payind 

In the history of Afghanistan, when you look at the past centuries, I'm not talking about tenth, eleventh, twelfth, thirteenth centuries, Afghanistan was never ruled by a group of clergy or priests. This is the history of Afghanistan. It's always by ethnic and tribal leaders and dynasties and military men and that sort of mostly laypeople. This, Islamist groups taking power, it's a totally new creation in the history of Afghanistan. It happened after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. When the Soviet Union invaded...I was just reading today's Zbigniew Brzezinski and President Carter and President Reagan. They would invite these Mujahideen, and I have their pictures, too. What happened? Brzezinski is speaking to these Mujahideen at that time. They're not Mujahideen. They're not even called Mujahedeen, they're refugees. They went to the refugee camps, and he was looking at the guns and he said that, "God is on your side." We Americans are going to help you. This was the doctrine at that time of Brzezinski, that we should destabilize. And they said that this is a trap, that the Soviet Union, now we can take the revenge from the Soviet Union what Americans suffered in Vietnam. So these are all...so what happened? Americans in Arab countries and Europeans, they wanted to support a group in Afghanistan. There was very little stomach to resist the Soviet invasion. And there were these groups of Mujahideen, this were all mostly refugee people, refugee leaders and others. So finally, they created a group and this Mujahideen were supported by Americans, by Europeans, by the Arab nations because most of these oil-rich Arab countries were nervous, too. So this is totally a creation after the Soviet Union. And when the Mujahideen finally failed, and then I was in Pakistan in 1994, when Pakistan supported the Taliban to come to Afghanistan, that they wanted to cross that oil from Turkmenistan to them, they, at that time, Taliban were very anti-Iran. So Americans and Pakistanis, and they all, and inside Afghanistan, too. So Taliban and Mujahideen were supported by outside people, not by inside or Afghans. They wanted to resist against the Soviet Union. Afghans did not like the Soviet Union, Afghans do not like Americans, either. So they do not like foreigners, period. That's the history of Afghanistan. But they did not want these Taliban or Mujahideen to come to power. But somehow they came, mostly with the foreign interest, foreign weapons. So these are the new developments. Let me give you another example. This Arab-Israeli issue is not even an issue in Afghanistan, it's so distant to the Arab Israeli issues. So the Palestinian problem is not a problem. All these Mujahideen now, when there are some of them are commanders, are declaring their allegiance with this ISIL. These are just for a small group of them. They do not want outsiders to interfere in the affairs of Afghans. If there would not have been the Pakistani support for the Mujahideen or the American support for the Mujahideen, they could not survive and the same is true for Taliban. Until this day, the Pakistani ISI is very much supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan. And they're supporting anti-Indian groups like al-Nusra and those groups in Pakistan, too, against India. So Pakistan has become a country which is detrimental to India and Afghanistan both. So this is the history there is tremendous literature on this provided by scholars.

 

Scott Levi  

Let me reiterate that the Taliban movement was born in the refugee camps in Pakistan. These were refugees who were fleeing war during the period of Soviet occupation. So it's a phenomenon that exists in a particular period of time and a particular historical context. So it's a unique phenomenon in the history of the region. It's not something that if we look back 50 years or 100 years earlier, we could find.

 

Robert Crews 

Also, to address the tail end of your question, I think that what has struck most observers is that they didn't disappear after 2001. They weren't militarily defeated. Yes, the leaders did pass into Pakistan, but not all of them. And then those who left, came back in many cases and within three years of 2001. The top came really back on the political scene. So that's a bit of a puzzle because the Taliban were known for their human rights abuses in Kabul, which they took in the fall of 1996, and their minds toward women. And they're backing four forms of Islam and of Islamic law, which most Afghans rejected, and yet they remain very much part of the Afghan political scene. It's difficult to gauge their support. The support has certain ethnic limits, it seems. But what the Taliban has become, and they are a dynamic force that continues to evolve, they have become a very strong, nationalist voice in Afghan Politics. I think that part of their appeal for some Afghans is that they have remained steadfast in opposing the American-backed presidents: Karzai, now, Ghani. They have been steadfast in opposing American occupation. Whereas some Afghan political figures have been sometimes equivocal, sometimes cautious in their criticism, the Taliban have been unrelenting. I think that has gained them some support, and especially because the Taliban have adapted their rhetoric to new conditions. They have, in a sense, acknowledged not explicitly, but implicitly, that they failed at governance when they ruled from 1996-2001. And they have since projected this image of incompetent administrators. They've adopted this very technocratic language. In the pronouncements they make, they have revisited their policy toward human images and technology. They now have a very sophisticated website, which speaks to the world in half a dozen languages. They issue very frequent proclamations, which respond very quickly to NATO and American military declarations. And very importantly, they've positioned themselves as spokesmen for the Afghan nation, not just for Islam writ large, but for the Afghan nation. They try to do this in a way that is multi-ethnic, in a sense that is meant to bridge divisions between Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns, and that's where I think some of the rhetoric runs into some tension, because not all Afghans accept that point of view. Of course, they tend to see them essentially as a Pashtun ethnic movement. So when one talks to Hazaras and Tajiks and other non-Pashtuns, there is extreme reticence about opening up a political space for the Taliban to return to some kind of political authority. And yet the Taliban persists, arguing again that, "We are, in a sense, the defenders of the nation. The other peoples and other groups have compromised themselves, but we alone stand with our critique of the American occupation and of their so-called 'puppets' sitting in Kabul."

 

Scott Levi  

In many ways, also, the Islamist platform, you could say, is a way to appeal across all of these different ethnic and regional ties. So in the context of the wake of the Soviet invasion, followed by an all-out civil war with various warlords from across the nation-state fighting against each other, the Taliban positioned themselves. Now, they're doing an even better job of doing so, but positioning themselves as the all-Afghan solution, not just benefiting the Pashtun or the Uzbeks or the Tajiks.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

I think that's a great wrap-up and we're able to bring ourselves from the eleventh century all the way to present in some ways. So we'd like to say thank you to our guests today: Alam Payind of the Ohio State University, Scott Levi, also from Ohio State, and Robert Cruz of Stanford. We really appreciate your time today, joining us.

 

Scott Levi  

Thank you.

 

Alam Payind 

Thank you very much.

 

Robert Crews 

Thank you.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

This edition of the Origins podcast, History Talk, was brought to you by the Public History Initiative and the Goldberg Center in the history department at The Ohio State University. Our main editors are Steve Conn and Nicholas Breyfogle. Our executive producer is David Staley. Our audio and technical advisor is Paul Kotheimer. Our audio editors and co-hosts are Patrick Potyondy and Leticia Wiggins. Find our podcasts and more at our website, origins.osu.edu, and you can find us on Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr. Thank you for listening.

 

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