I secretly love world politics. This year, there are numerous important elections either underway or wrapping up. Because I believe history insurmountably influences the present, I always research a nation’s political history during election seasons so I know how past events influence current events in those countries. Studying world politics gives me an unusual thrill and gives me a chance to see history unfolding and revealing only deeper layers of history. That’s why I study it with such excitement.
Yesterday, the chair of Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission announced that because no candidate received 51 percent of the vote, there will be a second round of voting in June. The first round had a tremendous turnout, with approximately seven million voters despite threats and minor attacks from the Taliban.
The two remaining candidates have participated extensively in Afghan and world politics. Abdullah Abdullah is the frontrunner with 45 percent of the vote; he is a medical doctor and was a close friend and adviser to an Afghan military leader and national hero, Ahmad Shah Massoud, who fought against both the Soviets and the Taliban until his assassination on September 9, 2001 (now a national holiday in Afghanistan).
Abdullah’s opponent, Ashraf Ghani, received 32 percent of the vote; he was a member of the World Bank, a candidate for the United Nations, and has spent significant time abroad. Both are ethnic Pashtuns, though Abdullah claims to be of both Pashtun and Tajik background; both worked under the Karzai administration, and both claim to sign a security agreement with the U.S. that Karzai refuses to sign.
This year’s election is deeply entrenched in history, and nearly every factor is relevant to the future of the country. Backtrack a century to 1901. The Durrani Empire, an ethnically Pashtun dynasty, has strong centralized control over the country. Dubbed the “graveyard of empires” after Imperial Russian, British, and Mughal forces fail to fully control, occupy, or colonize the region, Afghanistan at the beginning of the twentieth century is under a strong and stable regime. One hundred years later, a weak Taliban government is defeated by U.S.-led NATO forces accompanied by the Northern Alliance, which has just suffered the loss of its most important leader, Ahmad Shah Massoud. Between 1901 and 2004, Afghanistan has not witnessed a peaceful transition of power; this may appear turbulent, but political turbulence only began for the average Afghan citizen in 1973. Previous transitions of power had only been changes in leadership. Though some changes had been violent, nothing was different to the average Afghan until ideologically driven regimes took power.
In 1973, Daud Khan forcibly removed his cousin, Zahir Shah, from power, and declared Afghanistan to be a Republic, even though he was still royalty. Although allied with socialist parties, the communist party (PDPA) seized power in 1978, thus ending centuries of dynastic Durrani rule. The following year, the Soviet Union under Leonid Brezhnev invaded and occupied Afghanistan after the PDPA failed to maintain a stable grip on the country, and would remain until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. As a result of the war, an estimated one million Afghans were dead and another three million were displaced in bordering countries such as Pakistan and Iran. Soviet rule was heavy-handed; many Afghans were imprisoned and maltreated or tortured for opposing the regime.
The U.S. and Saudi Arabia, motivated by Cold War politics, funded mujahideen Islamists to expel the Soviets, but when the U.S.S.R. collapsed and withdrew, the mujahideen fought one another for control. The country that had resisted full occupation and foreign rule for centuries found itself in a bloody civil war between extremist factions that could only maintain control of small portions of the country. In 1996, the Taliban took complete control of the capital, Kabul, and had control of most of the country until 2001. The Northern Alliance would maintain resistance in the mountains, where the Taliban maintains resistance today.
Taliban rule ended when the U.S. and NATO, allied with the Northern Alliance, invaded Afghanistan and appointed Hamid Karzai interim president. When foreign forces again tried to intervene in Afghanistan, the situation was historically unique. No longer was there a centralized government but instead a fragmented country under the flimsy rule of the Taliban who set up shop in Kabul. As a result of the Soviet war and U.S./Saudi-funded mujahideen civil war and authority, Afghanistan was a crisscrossing web of power relationships among local warlords and tribal leaders, resistance fighters, and the Taliban. After the Taliban was ousted, such relationships remained, and remain today as elections move into a second round of voting.
Ethnicity and nationalism are different in Afghanistan than in Europe. The European nation-state is largely based on a shared language, culture, religious tradition, and supposed ethnic traits unique to only Germans, Italians, Ukrainians, and other nationalities. As a result of this conflation, fascism in Europe in the 1930s was based upon ethnic and national grounds. Afghanistan is as diverse as Europe, but is one unified country. There are many languages, tribes, and clans who identify themselves as separate from all the others. Despite this diversity and tribal pride, Afghanistan is unified as a single political and cultural entity. It is comprised of layers of loyalty. Members of a clan are first loyal to the clan, then to their tribe, then their region, then their religion (in Afghanistan the options are Sunni or Shi’i), and lastly to their nation. Ethnicity is not tied to nationalism. Pashtuns, who have held power since the eighteenth century, do not advocate a Pashtun-only country, The Durrani family was Pashtun; the Taliban was Pashtun; the current president and both candidates have Pashtun origin.
When the U.S. arrived in Afghanistan, these issues were critical. One Pashtun clan, the Popalzai, went to the clan leader, a quiet and uncharismatic man named Hamid Karzai. His family traced its roots to the original founders of the Durrani dynasty, and Karzai himself was well-educated. When the Taliban assassinated his father, he inherited Popalzai leadership. In 2001, he returned to Afghanistan, reportedly riding in unarmed on a motorbike with three others, despite the fact that he was the next target for another assassination. He was a Pashtun who organized resistance against the Taliban at a moment when the Pashtun claim to rule was crippled by vicious yet weak leadership. Karzai was later selected by a committee in Bonn, Germany, to be a temporary leader.
Karzai called together a Loya Jirga (grand assembly) to vote on his leadership. This assembly brought together various local leaders from across Afghanistan, including warlords, though the term was and is inaccurate. Karzai would later use the Loya Jirga frequently to allow Afghans to decide on important national matters. These assemblies are relatively informal, because local leadership is subject to change and is based historical qualification, charisma, perceived and in some cases actual wisdom, ethnic and tribal leadership, and religious leadership. Recent Loya Jirgas have had many educated figures, and have had more women involved. These assemblies are an example of de facto leadership. They can be messy and disorganized, resulting in much criticism from western media who call Afghanistan backward, corrupt, and inefficient. To many Afghans, after three decades of foreign intervention, warfare, and brutality, a messy leadership comprised of people with integrity, but more importantly comprised solely of Afghans, is far more important than transparency and vendettas. Loyalty rests in whom you once fought; Abdullah and Ghani opposed the Taliban and the Soviets, and their Pashtun background connects them to a collectively glorified stable monarchy. Karzai and the U.S. often disagree; when the U.S. is viewed as one more country interfering with a people it does not understand, a people who function on their own terms and have done so until the world began intervening, this disagreement is understandable. After all, a baker is not asked to fix a clock.
Before 1973, the relationship between state and citizen in Afghanistan had been a conventional social contract: those in charge did what was necessary to keep the population safe, and the population acknowledged the sovereignty of the ruling elite. With socialists, communists, and the Taliban came ideologically driven rule, and the imposition of those ideologies onto the population. When Afghans opposed such imposition, the state relied on totalitarian tactics.
Late last year, Karzai again called together a Loya Jirga. Local leaders, military commanders, tribal lords, and de facto governors came together to discuss a security agreement with the U.S. Last month, seven million Afghans decided that they should have an authentic sovereignty over their own country; they have been fighting for such sovereignty for decades. Where Russian tanks once plowed across roads, where drones now circle overhead, Afghanistan waits for a second opportunity to select a leader from only a smaller pool of those who have earned their merit through genuinely Afghan actions, by fighting for its independence, freedom, and peace.
That’s how we got here. That’s how we went from a stable monarchy to an unstable democracy. Afghans turned out to vote, in some respects, as a protest against all the entities that have tried to control or direct their country, including the U.S. What is most important in this election is what the future will look like, either an Afghanistan for and by Afghans or a country divided up between stronger countries and parties, torn ideologically and politically. After three decades of atrocities, people such as Ghani and Abdullah seem well-equipped to steer the state away from internal disintegration. The real questions is whether or not the U.S. will let those men take the helm.
Barfield, Thomas. Afghanistan. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.