Posted by: Christian | July 13, 2009

A question…

This is really bugging me. I just got asked this question from someone who I probably told this to, as I have relayed this anecdote on several occasions. It goes like this:

During the Soviet-Afghan War, some prominent Afghan families strategically placed one son in the mujahideen and one son in the communist government (and perhaps sent off one son to get a spiffy professional education). Basically, “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” applied to your children. It says a lot about self-interest versus ideology.

Who wrote about this? It was a rather small mention in a long article or book. I’m in the US without my books or notes and I’m trying to go off of memory. And it’s not working.

Can anybody help on this one? I’m leaning towards someone who’s been writing for a while like Rubin, Dorronsoro or Roy…

Added July 26: Question answered here.


  1. Just heard Kilcullen mention this idea during his talk at Google around the 49 minute mark. Doesn’t say where he got it from. I don’t remember if it was in his book.

  2. Thanks Douglas, I’ll check it out. Kilcullen probably read the same book/article I did. He just remembered to write it down. :(

  3. Are you sure it wasn’t in one of Edwards’s books (the later one)?

  4. Kilcullen’s talking about a present-day phenomenon–one son fights for the govt, another for the Taliban. That’s interesting and I’d be very curious to see actual evidence for that, if it’s available anywhere.

    But my question was really about the Soviet war, same essential “hedging strategy” but different period. Edwards was my first search, and he does talk about related things on his chapter on the Safi uprising in Kunar against the Soviets. But not exactly “one brother on one side, another brother on the other.” Or cousins, whatever.

    I know I’ve read this. Somewhere.

  5. This anecdote was true not only for Afghanistan but also for other cultures in crisis situation. It characterizes a social culture of survival.

  6. Christian,

    I agree with Valentin Poponete. Your anecdote about Afghan families splitting among the big contenders isn’t unique to Afghanistan. The same happened with Korean and Vietnamese families when the Cold War became hot within their countries.

  7. Great, it’s not specific to Afghanistan. I’m lookin’ for specific Afghanistan examples, though.

  8. T.J, Valentine,

    You’re preaching to the choir. I know it’s not unique. (Kalyvas is on my book shelf). That’s why I wanted the Afghan anecdote, to match it up with what about 100 polisci writers have written about.

  9. I’m pretty sure it’s in the Shahrani chapter of Crews and Tarzi’s the Taliban and the Crisis of Afghanistan, but I don’t have it with me (it’s back in Leavenworth, alas). Maybe someone with that book can look it up?

  10. One of my colleagues here is doing work with the PRTs in Paktika was making a comment along similar lines. One brother can be a policeman while the other is with the Taliban and they hope they don’t have to meet each other when going about their business.

  11. Josh, I thought it may have been in Crews/Tarzi; couldn’t find it in the Sharani chapter (although I skimmed that very lightly).

    I’ve actualy read it more recently in something (which doesn’t help narrow the field unfortunately) – possibly a TLO or van Bijlert piece (again, skimmed to no avail). Don’t have any thing to back it up until I find the reference but…maybe a Dorronsorro, Giustozzi, Rubin or maybe a quick reference in an old AREU report (how’s that for NOT helping!). Any of those or an unattributed remark in any of a host of commentaries…

  12. I’ve read this too, and it can’t be in Giustiozzi or Rubin because I haven’t read them – possibly Rashid?

  13. Given the prevalence of close agnatic competitors within Afghan lineages, however, how can we be certain that this is a sort of conscious survival strategy? It may be that a cousin shut out of Taliban leadership due to a more dominant cousin being the local higher-up seeks his fortune with the government instead. A conscious survival strategy would probably only be seen within nuclear families, and even there competition can be a motivator.

  14. I would say competition in itself is not a motivator. There are other motivations that generate competition. Unless we suppose that all the Afghans have a sort of mental disease. Which is not the case. Ethology and sociobiology approaches are very useful in understanding this cultural mechanisms of survival.


    “First In” by Gary Schroen

  16. I am sure others have written on this as well, but I have quoted Goodhand & Sedra (2006) on this:

    “Afghans on both side of the conflict consistently subverted the bi-polar logic of their external backers; alliances in the field were constantly shifting back and forth between the mujahedin and pro-government militias. At the micro level Afghans would have family members in both the government forces and the mujahedin as part of a political risk spreading strategy. … In the aid sphere, Afghan actors were similarly adept at manipulating external patrons and creating room for manoeuvre for themselves …[as once] the division had been made between friend and foe, funding and support tended to be unconditional.”

    Goodhand, Jonathan and Mark Sedra (2006) “Bargains for Peace? Aid, Conditionalities and Reconstruction in Afghanistan”, The Hague: Netherlands Institute of International Relations ‘Clingendael’, Conflict Research Unit, August 2006.

  17. My own quotes:

    In the chapter on the Taliban in Uruzgan in Antonio’s book (forthcoming):

    “The variety within the Taliban movement also illustrates that the movement has a spectrum of enemies, and that not all Taliban fighters will attack the whole range. There are countless links between the local population (including the authorities) and the local Taliban, and the attitude towards individual Taliban commanders – and vice versa – tends to depend on tribal and factional proximity. Even those who are known to be ardent Taliban opponents are linked to individual Taliban commanders through tribal ties, marriage or shared history (of being former classmates, neighbours or brothers in arms) and will use these links when necessary. Many families in the meantime seek to maximize their collective patronage networks by having family members in all relevant power structures – as has been the pattern under all regimes.”

    And in a book chapter on institution building in Afghanistan (‘imaginary institutions’) in a book on development aid by the WRR (2009):

    “The main solidarity groups tend to be based on lineage (extended family, sub-tribe, tribe and ethnic group), but people create and add solidarity groups as they go along – as every relationship represents a potential waseta. As a result, classmates, former colleagues, neighbours and people who have fought together tend to keep in touch and to cultivate their relationship through mutual favours and obligations. These ties often transcend divides that seem most important to outside observers, such as the divide between government and insurgency. Goodhand and Sedra (2006) described this phenomenon quite well:..”

  18. Bob Canfield to the rescue!

    “The place where I have seen it is in an article by Alessandro Monsutti, who was writing about the Hazara families, who make sure they have contacts/relatives on both sides of a conflict, so they will always have a winner and a way to find refuge. The original article was supposed to
    appear in a volume that I and an Austrian anthropologist have edited and is waiting to be published, but the new version in the volume is different now and he has published it somewhere else. He mentioned the idea also in a book edited by him and Professor Muhammaed-Reza Djalali: Le Monde Turco-Iranien en Question: Définition, Confins, Spécificités. Edited by Muhammad-Reza Djalili, Alessandro Monsutti, Anna Neubauer. Geneva: L’Institut Universitaire d’études du Développement.

    If anyone but Monsutti has said all this I wouldn’t know.

    Hope this helps. Good to hear from you. If you are aware of all this stuff you are getting a great education. Keep me posted on what you are

    So thanks! You make me look good in front of my advisor!

  19. Martine, thanks, you’ve helped vindicate my poor memory. I thought it seemed familiar… a lesson why reading at midnight is never good for recall!

  20. Thanks to all, especially Martine and Hannah! These references are incredibly helpful.

    Weird thing is, I was sure I’d read this before, but all these references are in things I’m sure I haven’t read. So who knows.

  21. Is on page 497, Small Wars & Insurgencies journal volume 18, issue 3 dated 1 Sep 2007. the article is “Pushtuns, Tribalism, Leadership, Islam and Taliban: a Short View.”

    I wrote it based on my experience and observations from 1995 thru 2006. I don’t remember seeing or hearing any other source, which is why it isn’t foot noted. Might be elsewhere, is a fairly prevalent practice and must have been commented on by others prior to me. I am just not that smart.

    S/F, Vern

  22. Thanks to everyone for responding. The answer to my question is right above my comment here. Thanks to the author, Vern Liebl, for providing the exact answer.

    Other contributions above were also very helpful in demonstrating similar strategies. Thanks much!

  23. […] placement of family members in Afghan conflicts I asked this question 2 weeks ago: During the Soviet-Afghan War, some prominent Afghan families strategically placed one […]

  24. Does anyone know how many civilians are deployed inAfghanistan from IOs and NGOs. Many thanks


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