Posted by: Christian | July 8, 2008

Agrarian Roots of Pashtun War and Peace Leadership

All Afghanistan experts are equal. But Boston University anthropologist Thomas J. Barfield is more equal than most. With a long involvement in Afghanistan (since the 1970s), Barfield brings some much needed expertise on Pashtuns and the broader society of Afghanistan to the issues that need to be addressed. Look up his work in The Afghanistan Analyst bibliography (pdf). His writings are essential reading (his dissertation and book were on the Afghan Arabs).

I have to admit that I mostly skip over a lot of what’s written on Afghanistan these days as quality most definitely has not kept pace with quantity. So I dig through the last 30-40 years to find relevant writings. And I came across an academic conference paper by Barfield from just last year that I had missed:

‘Weapons of the not so Weak in Afghanistan: Pashtun Agrarian Structure and Tribal Organization for Times of War & Peace’, Thomas J. Barfield, Boston University, for Agrarian Studies Colloquium Series “Hinterlands, Frontiers, Cities and States: Transactions and Identities” at Yale University.  February 23, 2007. Download PDF.

Photo by Vindemiatrix: Fields on the road to Jalalabad.

Afghan farms

Barfield’s Pashtun question that he addresses is this:

So why was it that the Ghilzai seemed to thrive politically in time of war and anarchy and so often produced the major military figures who were self made men? Why did the Durranis end up winning the peace from a position of weakness and were able to restore leadership to families that had dominated Afghan politics for generations with leaders who lacked a strong military base? And what light does this throw on the renewed Taliban insurgency, one of the first in Afghan history to have its base in the Durrani south rather than the Ghilzai east?

I do not believe that the answer lies in ideology but in the dynamics of social organization that itself is rooted in the long term structure of their respective agrarian economies. The more the agrarian structure was subsistence based and patterns of land ownership fragmented, the less scope there was for the emergence of powerful hereditary leaders, let alone dynastic families.

Old Soviet Poster of Pashtun farmer/fighter (source):

Pashtun farmer

So why do the Ghilzais, whose members did far more fighting against the British than did the Durranis, dominated the Khalq Communist faction, dominated the Afghan Communist military, provided the majority of the best mujahideen commanders and the bulk of the Taliban leadership (plus Jalaluddin Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar) keep losing out when it comes to national level politics?

…Successful [Ghilzai] leaders in this system were aggressive risk takers whose positions were based on their personal achievements that were hard to institutionalize. By contrast the Durrani Pashtuns in southern Afghanistan had come into possession of large tracts of lightly taxed agricultural land during the founding of the Durrani Empire. These rich irrigated lands located around Kandahar and Peshawar supported a hierarchical political system that required large agricultural surpluses to sustain them. It supported an elite of landowners whose tribal followers had in many cases been reduced to their economic clients.

In this system, power was relatively easy to maintain and pass on to descendants who rarely faced the personal power struggles required of Ghilzai leaders. Perhaps more important they could count on the support of their home regions if they entered national government. Ghilzai leaders could not-if they left their territories to enter the national stage rivals at home resented their success and undermined them at every turn.

Pic: Jalaluddin Haqqani.

Jalaluddin Haqqani

Barfield, while noting the importance of the Ghilzai-Durrani differences, shows that the religious nature of the Taliban helps to mute this rivalry.

…ibn Khaldun noted, religious leaders were often more successful than tribal ones in uniting large groups. Coming from outside the system and calling on God’s authority, they could better circumvent tribal rivalries.

…An advantage of a religious movement for rival Pashtun leaders was that there was no honor or prestige lost in subordinating oneself to the will of God or God’s agents.

To this could be added the effect of so many Pashtuns having been in refugee camps (reducing tribal influences) and the effects of a market economy affecting hierarchies in society. Barfield goes on to provide much in the way of a supporting argument and even applies (with some tweaking) the historical center-periphery cycle theories of ibn Khaldun to Afghanistan.

So, what does Barfield have to say about the post-2001 Durrani preeminence?

Their Durrani elite by its very nature had higher levels of education and sophistication than their Ghilzai counterparts. This gave them an advantage in the world of diplomacy where dealing with non-Afghans was key to success. Indeed the bulk of the cabinet officials in the new government were educated Afghans who had been in exile in western countries, a fact that riled the existing mujahideen commanders who saw them as carpetbaggers. Still, money talks: the Durrani were past masters of winning subsidies from world powers, while the Ghilzai mujahideen leadership had dealt only with Pakistan.* In a continuing civil war conflict situation, Karzai would have never emerged at the top. But in a contest where dealing with the outside world took precedence he had signal advantage over Ghilzai rivals. The latter were not secure enough in their own regions to make a play for national power. Karzai was because the Durrani elite stood to back him regionally as a way back to national prominence for the Pashtuns as a whole and the Kandaharis in particular. In this political ecology, assets in time of war became liabilities in times of peace.

Via PRTkand: The coronation of Ahmad Shah Durrani:

Ahmad Shah Durrani

So the Ghilzai-Durrani factor does matter. But note that he does not say anything along the lines of the Taliban being all Ghilzai and the government being all Durrani. Although Barfield does not argue that it should be the lens to explain all conflict in Afghanistan today (this view would immediately come up against examples of Durrani vs Durrani and members of either affiliation on both or neither sides), he does, in a very original manner, show that Ghilzai and Durrani affiliations are often a real recurring historical factor.

Download article.


  1. Excellent find. Thanks for posting and excerpting it. I’m going to download it and read it carefully. I’m also going to look up Barfield’s other scholarship on Afghanistan.

  2. i like this web site and every thing in it

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