Posted by: Christian | February 11, 2009

“Afghanisation”: a rather unfortunate neologism

Or Afghanization if you prefer. But the British spelling should be noted here for a reason I’ll get to later. So what is this buzzword all about? Here are some excerpts:

From the BBC about a year ago:

The BBC’s Elettra Neysmith says “Afghanisation” is a popular concept at the moment within Nato. She says it has been cynically described as a “get out of jail free” card for Western countries mired in the deepening Taleban insurgency.[…]

Education Minister Mohammad Hanif Atmar said the answer lay in what he called the “Afghanisation” of security. Mr Atmar, who is a close ally of President Hamid Karzai, said Afghan forces needed more training. While Nato leaders have been calling for member countries to commit more troops to Afghanistan, Mr Atmar told the BBC that this was not the answer. He says a traditional Afghan system, with local communities being allowed to practice self-defence, would be more effective.

He believes that Afghan forces could defeat the Taleban in five years, instead of the 15 he believes Nato would need.[…] Mr Atmar says the “Afghanisation” of security has worked successfully in provinces like Khost and Paktia in the south-east, where the Taleban are active.

Atmar is now the head of the Ministry of the Interior (and a rumored presidential candidate).

Antonio Giustozzi gives a clearer definition:

These relative successes have turned the ANA into one of the pillars of the much touted “Afghanization” strategy. The term “Afghanization” itself is used with some ambiguity within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), sometimes implying a gradual withdrawal of foreign troops; at other times it implies the gradual shift of the weight of the fighting from the international contingents to the Afghans. A number of European countries seem to lean toward the first interpretation, while Washington clearly opts for the second.

The word has been used by Karzai, as early as 2007:

“Right now as we speak the preparation is going on to free that district from the hands of the Taliban,” Karzai told a joint press conference with visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel in his fortified presidential palace.

“The reason is clear, the reason is the weakness of the Afghan forces, the shortage, the right number of the forces, especially in the districts of Afghanistan when we are under attack by the terrorists and their associates,” Karzai said,”The situation requires an effort to expedite and energize the Afghanization of the whole exercise. In other words we must try, the international community and Afghanistan together to enable further the ability of the Afghan forces in numbers, in training and in equipping,” Karzai added.

Paddy Ashdown used the term, quoting Robert Gates:

US Secretary for Defence, Robert Gates, had it exactly right when he said “Afghanisation” is our task and our ticket out.

Ok, that’s clear enough. But it’s obvious that the people or person who came up with this word is not an historian. Because if they were they would know about the historical usage of  “Afghanisation.” The term was coined by a British Major (later Colonel) by the name of Charles Edward Yate. Essentially, “Afghanisation” described his plan for the ethnic cleansing of certain northern areas populated by Hazaras, Aymaqs, and especially, Uzbeks and Turkmens. They were to be replaced by Pashtuns who presumably would not be open to Russian overtures (everything was about imaginary Russian threats back then) and who would hopefully be loyal to the central government (Ishaq Khan certainly wasn’t). With further input from Captain (later Major) J.P. Maitland and the delivery of British subsidies the policy was implemented by Amir Abdur Rahman. The effects were devastating.  Remarkably, or typically, Abdur Rahman managed to hurt every community he could. Pashtuns were also victimized extensively during his rule.

“Afghanisation,” AKA “Pashtunisation/Pashtunization,” “internal imperialism,” “interior colonization,” etc… is still part of the popular memory in the north (albeit in not so brief terms), which leads to a comparison of “Afghanisation” as a neologism (new word) and its historical usage.  If modern Afghanisation is perceived by the ethnic groups in the north as essentially Pashtunization, will that not create a security dilemma? If and when the Afghan military and government organs  can function on their own, will they be broadly representative of Afghan society or Pashtun dominated? Confusing signals are being sent, foreigners are talking about disarming the north while arming the “tribes” in the south.  The old complaints heard about the domination of the power ministries by Panjshiri Tajiks have been replaced by murmering about Pashtun domination.

There’s nothing more scary than leaders/elites who are losing popular support giving inflammatory ethnic rhetoric a try in order to generate support (certain characters from every ethnic group are definitely doing this). This tactic has, in my opinion, limited resonance with the masses until that time when security dilemmas are created (OK, actually that’s standard ethnic conflict political science spiel). At the moment, appeals to ethnicity have less resonance in Afghanistan at the non-elite level than many imagine. But as shown by Taliban attacks on and massacres of non-Pashtuns, followed by post-2001 opportunistic and revenge crimes by Hazaras, Uzbeks and Tajiks against Pashtun civilians in the north,  “you may not be looking for trouble, but trouble may be looking for you.”

OK, enough meandering. What I’m getting at is the character of the Afghan state. If the most powerful elements of the state are seen as Pashtun, what stake will non-Pashtuns have in its long-term survival? Afghanisation, in its modern usage, is a good idea if that includes Afghans writ-large as opposed to defined narrowly as Pashtuns.


  1. I can agree with you to some extent. This also can be seen by the amount of the budgets spent on Southern provinces comparing to those spent on provinces such as Bamyan. It’s really hopeless. Why should I call myself Afghan, then?

  2. Quite beside the fact that it sounds way too similar to another “-ization” from the past. Vietnamization, anyone? And we all know that that worked out *so* well. At least that was what I thought when I saw the title.

  3. Really appreciated this post–well developed discussion of a term that will come to drive many domestic policy arguments on western strategy in Afghanistan.

    The ability of this term to mask the region’s complicated webs of ethnic lineage–all competing with one another in the Northern and Southern regions of Afghanistan, worries me though.

    I worry when western labels over-simplify eastern history.

    Really enjoyed this post.

  4. The whole nation is named after the dominant ethnic group’s name for themselves.

    Outsiders probably should use the word Afghanistani in referring to citizens of the current Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, but nobody seems to be pushing that.

    — the process in which Foreign Internal Defense empowers the Host Nation’s Armed Forces to take the leading role in the COunterINsurgency.

    Vietnamization succeeded in 1972. We will never know if it could have succeeded in 1975, because the Americans didn’t bother to try.

  5. Of course… “People-ization” means two things:
    -to empower the Host Nation in counter-rebellion/counterinsurgency
    -but mainly, the process to homogenize a country’s population culturally or ethnically… a seed for civil war (see Sudan for “arabisation” as a very good instance).
    Stéphane Taillat

  6. So what should it be called? Certainly using anglicized latin extensions tacked on the country name isn’t going to resonate in a nation that revers poets.
    What’s a word a poet would use that has cognates in Dari, Urdu, etc. and no past associations with evil programs? A challenge for the translators?

  7. @ staillat:

    No, that is not correct. cf: Balkanization.

  8. to canneerno4…i think its fair to say that Vietnamisation was a complete failure..American did try..but could only do so much considering the south vietnamese were actually making gains by the Americans being there. maybe you should check out your history


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