Thomas Barfield – Political Legitimacy

Thomas Barfield of Boston University spoke at Yale on April 6, 2010. Professor Barfield is Professor of Anthropology and the Director of the Institute for the Study of Islamic Societies and Civilizations at Boston University. He is also the President of the American Institute of Afghan Studies. His most recent book is Political Legitimacy in the Land of the Hindu Kush: Ruling Afghanistan 1500-2010.

Summary by Anna Kellar

Professor Barfield began his talk by questioning two of the prevailing notions about Afghan history:

How can Afghanistan be a “graveyard of empires” if everyone conquered it before 1830?

And if it is such a fractious place, how did it keep a single dynasty for 200 years?

For a very long time, Afghanistan was ruled by Turkic tribes, who were hierarchical, with only certain lineages allowed to compete for power. A ruler like Babur was a professional king, who could rule any where. Conquest in this kind of society was more like a corporate takeover – the leadership changed, but there was little effect on the average person living in the territory, and no concern for the consent of the governed.

Professor Barfield made the analogy that a homogenous empire is like American cheese, with the same law applying uniformly to everyone within the borders. Central Asian Empires look more like Swiss cheese, with the valuable, cheesy parts of the empire governed directly, and the holes governed indirectly. It was true that no one conquered the Pashtuns, because their land simply wasn’t worth the trouble. The people who live in the ungovernable parts have to rely on the centers for supplies. The problem is that we tend to view Swiss cheese as defective American cheese and try to fill in the holes, in places that have never been directly governed.

There was no such thing as patriotism and defense of the homeland in Afghanistan until the British invasion in 1838. Then the success of a nationalist-religious uprising demonstrated to the rulers that they couldn’t defeat foreign powers without mobilizing their people. However, this changed the system of who had a say in governance, and every mobilization increased the unruliness of the population. Nonetheless, the people who lived in the ungovernable bits never took over the government. They fought the wars, but the old dynasty clung to the structures of power. Barfield argued that this divide matched a tribal split between Ghilzai and Durrani Pashtuns.

Ghilzai and Durrani

According to a saying, Ghilzai have the sword, Durrani have the state. The split comes from their different political ecology. Durrani live in the irrigated southern plains, they inherit valuable land, and so their politics are based around hierarchy and patronage, and they are risk averse. Ghilzai on the other hand, live in the eastern mountains, practice subsistence agriculture and have a more egalitarian political structure, exemplified by the jirga council.

In times of anarchy, Ghilzai do well. They value individual achievement, and aggressive leadership. Najibullah, Hekmatyar, Haqqani, and Mullah Omar all were/are Ghilzai. However, the skills that make good warlords, do not necessarily make good peace time leaders. The job of an Afghan king is to link the country to the outside world in order to bring in patronage. Following the fall of the Taliban, there was an abrupt shift from the wartime to the peacetime framework. People saw that the future lay with politics, and having the toughest, most aggressive leader, was no longer a good thing. Karzai, a Durrani with ties to the ruling dynasty, was brought in because he was able to charm the Europeans.

For an Afghan leader to be successful, he must manage both internal and external demands. He must tell foreigners that without him there will be chaos, while assuring Afghans that he can take the foreign money while keeping the foreigners themselves out of the country. There is another historical lesson: every leader installed by an incoming foreign power has failed, while every leader installed by a retreating power has succeeded. From Shah Shujah and the British to Karmal and the Soviets, the weak personalities that were initially chosen to rule managed to annoy both Afghans and their foreign patron. However, the strongmen installed by the fleeing foreign occupiers, such as Abdul Rahman or Najibullah, usually succeeded

Barfield argued that this pattern suggests that the American government should have abandoned President Karzai in the last election. The perception of power is power, so if we had backed Abdullah, he might have been able to win a run off. There was a misreading of signals between Washington and Kabul – while the American government tried to talk about neutrality and legitimacy, Afghans read that as our support for the status quo. Rather than trying for neutrality, which no one buys anyway, we’d be better off playing political hardball. There might be more political progress, according to Professor Barfield, if the Afghan government were run the way Lyndon Johnson ran the US House of Representatives, using development aid like patronage to encourage good behavior.

The Yale Afghanistan Forum would like to thank Professor Barfield, Professor Monsutti, The Gattis Smith Lecture Series and the Council of South Asian Studies.


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