Posted by: Christian | March 17, 2008

Afghanistan’s Local Power Structures: Exploit, Restructure, Enable or Destroy?

Local power structures in Afghanistan can be extremely complex and, especially since the Soviet-Afghan War, constantly in flux. You could read an academic article or book published in the last few years that discusses local elites, power structures, organizations and/or solidarity groups and believe that you know have a solid basis for understanding local society. But spend some time in a specific area, whether as a relief worker, consultant or in the military, and it’s likely that a much more complex situation will “emerge.”

Story and credit for the photo below here.

You could be introduced to the local elders and assume that they are the local power brokers. The late anthropologist Louis Dupree, one of the original American Afghanistan experts, provided an example of what outsiders could expect in the initial contact with locals:

The village builds a “mud curtain” around itself for protection against the outside world, which has often come to the village in the past. Sustained relations with the outside world has seldom been pleasant, for outsiders usually come to extract from, not bring anything into, the village. […]

In addition, an outsider seldom meets the true power elite of as village unless he remains for an extended period. When outsiders approach, the village leaders disappear behind mud walls, and the first line of defense (second line of power) come forward to greet the strangers with formalized hospitality, which surprisingly, enough also serves as a defensive technique. If the central government identifies the village or tribal elite, control becomes easier […].

This is just one small excerpt of a blog entry by Afghanistanica that discusses Dupree’s analysis and adds numerous caveats. The most important being “is this a pattern that still exists in numerous rural areas across all of Afghanistan?” Dupree, by the way, had experience as an insurgent in the Philippines before going on to earn a PhD in anthropology at Harvard University. [You can read this transcript of a tribute to Dupree that was read on the US senate floor]

So you may meet the local elites right away, or you might not. I’ve read several anecdotes of American troops realizing that they had been introduced to the local geriatrics rather than to the real local authority figures. But at the very least they probably got treated to some good tea. I would assume that once the locals realized the foreigners weren’t leaving immediately the intermediaries of the local elites would start to make contact. But again, different patterns in different communities would probably be observed.

The most problematic cases would be those in which the strongest local authority sees the outsiders as a direct threat to their power. This is when you start getting shots taken at you. And the shooters may not have anything to do with the Taliban at all. NGOs/humanitarian aid groups can inadvertently conduct development projects that strengthen local networks to the detriment of the central government (or the reverse) and foreign troops can establish relations with local commanders (or warlords, if you are partial to that term) that increase their autonomy in relation to the central government. However, this is increasingly less the case. It used to be much more common for foreign troops to be manipulated by local authority figures into attacking and destroying their rivals for local supremacy. This of course earns the foreign troops an unwanted inheritance of local enemies and rivalries.

This sort of situation would be easier to sort out if foreigners had gone in with an accurate map of the local human terrain, which they didn’t since one does not exist. But even if they had gone in with a decent understanding, the situation on the ground is constantly in flux. Afghan society has, like all societies, been going through a state of change. But the change in Afghanistan can, at times, be quick and massive. Abdur “The Iron Amir” Rahman had, by the late 1890s subdued the most troublesome locals and introduced a certain level a central authority to many areas of Afghanistan by means of forces, manipulation and incentives. This situation existed, with some exceptions such as the short rule of the ethnic Tajik Habibullah Kalakani, until the communist coup. Then the communists’ failed attempts at introducing reforms, the Soviet-Afghan War, and then the ensuing civil war plus the rise of the Taliban changed Afghan society to a very high degree: local authority figures were executed or fled as refugees, new authority figures in the form of mujahideen emerged, some minority groups some as Dostum’s and the Ismailis’ negotiated autonomy deals with the communists, Tajik-dominated groups (i.e., Rabbani, Massoud and Ismail Khan) rose to prominence, the old ruling families fled to Rome and elsewhere, local land “ownership” became quite unclear as millions of refugees fled the country, drug traffickers earned massive profits, trucking “mafias” made their own local arrangements, and etcetera…… You could go on forever about the changes to local and central power structures since the late 1970s. Obviously, war changes things.

Example below: Without war, the two men behind Karzai (Fahim and Dostum) would still be in their villages. But since their peaks of power the central government has progressively undercut their authority and power. They were initially useful to the American-led military effort but, in the long term, became a block to establishing Afghan government authority.

[photo of Karzai, Dostum and Fahim no longer available]

One commonly used term the local power/solidarity arrangements is “Qawm.” Afghanistanica pulled some quotes from various anthropologists and Afghanistan experts:

A qawm is the term used to describe any segment of society bound by solidarity ties, whether it be an extended family, clan, occupational group or village. Qawm is based on kinship and patron-client relationships; before being an ethnic of tribal group, it is a solidarity group, which protects its members from the encroachments of the state and other qawm, but it is also the scene of internal competition between contenders for local supremacy.

The Afghan-American anthropologist Nazif Shahrani gave a further definition:

Ethnicity and kinship, which are expressed linguistically through the same terms, qawm (people, tribe, group), wulus (nation, tribe, relatives), and tyfah (clan, tribe, group), represent the same or similar ideological frameworks in Afghanistan. Together with Islam, they provide the most fundamental bases for individuals and collective identities and loyalties, and they are the most persistent and pervasive potential bases for the organization of social formations, for the mobilization of social action, and for the regulation of social interaction among individuals and between social groups […]

Shahrani also noted that the qawm is not static, but rather will shift strategically. Richard Tapper, a British anthropologist also noted this:

According to context and situation, qawm may involve a varying number of individuals, close kinsmen, a village, an ethnic group, a religious sect or a linguistic group. It is therefore a highly ambiguous and flexible concept allowing for strategic manipulations of identity.

You can read the full discussion on the qawm at Afghanistanica.

So how popular are these local authority figures? It varies. Some provide valuable services to their “constituents” in the form of security, wages, resources, arbitration, etc… While others can have a predatory relationship, if not with the people in their own area of control, with people in neighboring areas or with those outside the local power/solidarity network. And others can be somewhere in between. What are people’s perceptions of the local authority of the armed variety? There is actually data on this, in a comprehensive survey (pdf) in 2007 funded by Euro news outlets, this question was asked: “Which of the following poses the greatest danger in our country?” These were the results:

  • Taliban – 52%
  • Drug traffickers – 23%
  • United States – 10%
  • Local commanders – 9%
  • Afghan government – 1%

In 2005 the same question was asked and local commanders earned 22% of the vote. The 2007 Asia Foundation’s survey (pdf) asked a slightly similar question:

afghanistan survey

The results show that, on average, Afghans have low levels of confidence in local militias, but the community councils (shuras and jirgas) enjoy much higher levels of confidence. So their opinions of local authority figures has to be looked at in regards to the exact role that the local authority figure assumes. And can’t a militia commander also serve in a council? But I think the most important caveat here may be with the variation in opinion across Afghanistan. The above surveys are a national average. But what about in certain areas such as Uruzgan, Kunar, Paktia, etc…? Their opinion may strongly contrast with the national average. Also important to note is that, to many people, a fuzzy democratic majority at a national level may not be the concern. Some people may, out of regards for their safety and/or the success of the mission/project, have to take into consideration the concerns of the local population or, in an even narrower aspect, the interest of those who have the potential to be valuable allies or troublesome enemies.

“Your” local constituent; friend, foe or somewhere in between. Credit and story here.

So how to interact with these local authority figures and power/survival structures? Are NGO workers and soldiers to act as an agent of the central government, extending its authority to a more local level? Or are they to give more weight to the needs of locals? Or of local authority figures? And is there a way to conduct oneself that can be acceptable to both the central government, local communities and local authority figures? And how does one reconcile those with the goals and needs of the foreign military and international aid community? How do you avoid pushing the losers of local power struggles onto the insurgents’ side?

I’m sorry if I’ve done nothing but raise new questions rather than answer them. But to be completely honest, you would have to be an anthropologist who spent many months in a village to understand well just that one community. The situation will be determined by local conditions. It really seems to be a case by case scenario.

And to throw one last variable in: what about the concerns of non-elite individuals? Even though rural Afghanistan has many communal features and strong group loyalties the individual may look to alternative power structures (i.e., the insurgents) for resources, prestige, protection or revenge.

So that’s my 10¢ worth. I’ve tried to raise issues rather than provide concrete answers. I don’t think those kind of answers exist. It’s hard enough to analyze American society, and that’s with thousands upon thousands of social scientists contributing to a better understanding of American society. At the risk of making a massive understatement, I would have to say that Afghanistan is somewhat different and harder to analyze.


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  4. Asking the right questions is half the problem, and you’ve certainly asked some good ones here. The thing I’d like to investigate (or better yet, have someone else investigate then write a decent book about!) is how the National Solidarity Programme interacts with the points you’ve raised, how it impacts on local power structures and so on. Through NSP, I’d say that NGO workers do act as an agent of the central government, justifying and legitimising the government at the local level. The porported aim is of course to respond to the needs of locals, but in many cases it is also manipulated by local strong men. A complex dynamic indeed. Great blog anyway, so thanks. Just out of interest, are you an anthropologist?

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  8. shifting alliances at village, local and regional level is absolutely what Afghan society is about. factionalism is embedded as a by-product of leadership struggles in a more or less subsistence economy. i was ten months in a village in the 1960s.

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