Posted by: Christian | February 25, 2007

The Power(lessness) of the Mob in Afghanistan

In 1841, a mob formed outside the British mission in Kabul, leading to an enthusiastic mass stabbing of Alexander Burnes, a British political agent. The mission and a neighboring British officer’s house were stormed and all servants, women and children in those residences were killed. In 1979, a mob rose up in Herat and attacked the Soviet advisers assigned to the city. The decapitated heads of the Soviets and their families were mounted on sticks and marched around the city. In 1221, the people of Herat and Balkh rebelled against their new Mongol rulers. In the process the Mongol governor was killed. In 2006, a car crash involving American soldiers degenerated into an anti-western, anti-Karzai riot. UN and NGO offices, as well as private businesses were trashed and looted.

Obviously, all these incidents involve mob violence. What is significant is that the first two, against the British and the Soviets, emboldened Afghan tribesmen and soldiers, encouraging their active involvement in attacking the foreign presence. In 1841, after the riots in Kabul, Kohistani and Ghilzai troops decided it was time to attack. The result was the annihilation of the British forces in Afghanistan. In 1979 the Herat riot led to a revolt by the local Afghan Army troops. Of course, the Mongol response to the 1221 uprisings in Balkh and Herat was to massacre the entire population of both cities.

Thomas J. Barfield, an anthropologist and a legitimate expert on Afghanistan, briefly discussed historical riots by city dwellers in Central Asia and Afghanistan in an article titled “Problems in establishing legitimacy in Afghanistan” (Iranian Studies, Volume 37, Number 2, June 2004). Barfield notes that:

While conquered cities often rebelled after a conquest, this was less a challenge to the legitimacy of its government than a test of its staying power. Populations were rarely punished for such acts beyond the execution of the ringleaders and confiscation of property.

Barfield goes on to say that the Mongols clearly did not understand the “ritual nature of such challenges.” As for the British and the Soviets, they could never commit the sufficient level of troops to stabilize the country and the “Mongol option” was not available to them. Also, the British and the Soviets were attempting to bolster what were seen as gravely illegitimate governments, making their job especially hard.

So, on to the riots of 2006. The riots of 2006 had a very different outcome as Kabul police and ANA troops restored calm. The rioters were unable to overcome their narrow ethnic/regional base and the vast majority of Kabulis were in no mood to join in and give “anarchy” another go-around. Also, elections and various opinion surveys have shown that Karzai and the “international community” have a significant degree of popular support [added later: for example, this poll, in pdf]. This makes clear the distinction between earlier foreign occupiers and the current NATO/ISAF presence.

What does all this say about riots and mob violence in Afghanistan’s cities? In my opinion it shows that riots will only degenerate into open warfare when the occupiers are both weak and perceived as such. The weakness of the British response in 1841 encouraged ever-larger numbers of Kabulis, then Ghilizais and Kohistanis to get involved. Afghan Army troops in Herat reacted similarly after the Soviet advisers were wiped out. A weak or incompetent response in 2006 may have allowed the situation to degenerate into citywide riots, which would have had serious consequences for the reconstruction effort.

The failure of these riots may possibly have sent a message to the people of various Afghan cities that this government, having withstood the “ritual challenge,” is going to be around for a while.


  1. […] years ago today I wrote my first blog entry. I chose to write my first entry about the history of mob violence in Afghanistan and its relevance to a recent riot in Kabul. At the time I was pretty frustrated about the lack of […]


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