Posted by: Christian | August 16, 2010

Re-creating the Tribal Khan in Afghanistan

This idea was suggested in a New York Times op-ed. An excerpt:

A second initiative is to bring back the traditional rural power structure. We have to restore the power of the tribal leader, the khan.

What happened to the tribal khan/leader? The article offers an explanation:

The resistance to the Soviet occupation, steeped in radical Islam, overturned that traditional power structure. By the time the Soviets left, the village mullah had a higher social standing than the tribal leader or local political representative.

Every single thing in that sentence needs to be qualified, and some of it needs to be tossed out. But if one wanted to say that traditional community structures were greatly damaged by the war then I would agree. So, how does the author propose that the tribal khan’s power be restored?

Afghans are fond of saying that the thing they do best is politics; we must let them do it. This means moving toward a far weaker concept of central government and encouraging local solutions to local problems. American aid should go directly to rural communities rather than to the Karzai government. And we must identify key tribal leaders and local politicians and give them around-the-clock protection with American troops. It’s astonishing how much credibility a village leader can gain simply by not being assassinated.

So, if I read that right, the solution is to (a) radically restructure the system of Afghan government that has been in place during the post-2001 period, (b) magically find the capacity to distribute aid locally at a rate umpteen times higher than it is now through programs like the NSP (drink from the fire hose!), and (c) become body guards for “key tribal leaders.”

Right, OK. Let’s just say A and B were somehow implemented – unlikely as it is – how does C work?  The supposed tribal leaders have, in the opinion of the author, lost their power starting 20-30 years ago. Are they now waiting by in reserve, stroking their beards and clutching their certified-by-a public-notary documents proving their status as a “tribal khan” for whichever person would be tasked with identifying the local khan? And how old are they? To be a tribal khan when the Soviets invaded, you would already have to me middle-aged. Middle aged + 30 years in Afghanistan = probably dead. Plus, to be a khan you have to regularly distribute patronage, protection and create public goods. As soon as you stop doing that you are forgotten. Or are there some “key leaders” sitting around in plain sight that the US military just needs to “engage,” but has neglected to do so?

Allow me to introduce another problem here. How do we know that the decline of the tribal khan is a recent phenomenon – on that started with the Soviet-Afghan war? I would argue that the tribal khan was already on his way out, starting in a process that began in the last two decades of the 19th century during the rule of Amir Abdurrahman. The state grew stronger at the expense of local leaders throughout the country, albeit unevenly. But it’s quite likely that economic changes undercut the power of the rural khan (not just Pashtuns) in a far more efficient manner. The khan’s authority and influence was built on agriculture. And changes in the economy and agriculture started to undercut his power, especially after the 1930s. You may want to give the article below a read:

Jon W. Anderson, ‘There Are No “Khans” Anymore: Economic Development and Social Change in Tribal Afghanistan’, Middle East Journal, Vol. 32, No. 2 (1978).

He isn’t claiming that the khans are gone, but he is claiming (in the 1970s) that he is on the decline as the agricultural economy is being transformed.

Even worse for the NYT op-ed’s arguments, the local leadership has been very fragmented in some parts of the country, with constant contestation:

‘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.

Can an outsider just waltz into a community and empower someone? Yes they can. This involves distributing guns and/or money (we’ve been there, done that, it’s not working). But who would object to a “restored” power figure? The government? The insurgents? The locals? The process creates winners and losers in the local power structures – every local big guy will identify as a khan if that’s what it takes to get the goods. To whom do you think the loser will turn to when some US government program has enriched their rivals? Will the winner not only behave benevolently, but act in the interest of the US government?

Traditional Afghan society has undergone radical changes. The expansion of a modern market economy and modern agricultural techniques have weakened the power of the traditional leader. The expansion of central authority since the 1880s has weakened the power of the traditional leader. The Soviet-Afghan war, the civil war, the rise of the Taliban and the post-2001 intervention have weakened the power of the traditional leader. The arrival of modernity and globalization has weakened the power of the traditional leader. Now you are telling me that an outside power can just wave it’s soft- and hard-power wand and recreate tradition power structures – structures that we understand very poorly? You are telling me that the process we unleash would work in our favor?

I’m skeptical. Attempts to recreate traditional power structures elsewhere in the region have been jokes (Uzbekistan’s mahallah committees and Turkmenistan’s ultra-absurd Council of Elders). But seriously, where in the world have traditional power structures been revived during a time of conflict and massive social change? The traditional power structures based their power on the structure of the old system, and it’s gone. The old system could theoretically regenerate in a similar form. But not right now. Not during a war. And not as long as the old agrarian economy is a “thing of the past” (expect that to remain so for our lifetimes).

The op-ed actually gets worse:

While creating a network of more enlightened religious figures to compete with the hard-liners will take time, we could jump-start progress by creating a group of “mobile mullahs” — well-protected clerics who can travel through rural areas and settle land disputes and other issues. These men should come from the general areas in which they will be performing their duties and be approved by community leaders.

Nothing says religious legitimacy like an outside-the-community mullah escorted by American soldiers. I can’t decide which idea is less feasible: the one involving the khan or the one with the mullah.

Social engineering on a massive scale for American strategic interests is not our strong point. And neither is Afghanistan.

“The khan is dead. Long live the warlord.”


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