Anatol Lieven, Professor at Georgetown University in Qatar and a senior fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft in Washington DC, recommends that the Afghans be allowed to govern themselves under systems they are used to systems which have enjoyed legitimacy historically, instead of expecting them to copy Western institutions.

In his May 2021 paper entitled: An Afghan Tragedy: The Pashtuns, the Taliban and the State (, Lieven says that historical research shows that it is a combination of Shariah law and customary law which has worked, and not Western institutions, whether the latter were introduced by external forces or modernizing indigenous rulers.

Several modernizing rulers of Afghanistan had put in place Western institutions, but the Afghans had always thrown them out either because they were malfunctioning or they lacked legitimacy among the staunchly conservative rural Afghans.

Historically, the Afghans have been very difficult to govern. Afghanistan has been known as “Yaghistan” (Land of Lawlessness). The various Afghan tribes have always had a fierce sense of independence, insisting on keeping firearms, conducting limited armed disputes with other kinship groups, or executing their members who violated traditional norms. Most foreign invaders or occupiers have had to capitulate to the poorly armed but gritty Afghans.

Role of the State

The Afghans have had a limited view of the role of the state says Lieven. “In the traditional Pashtun tribal view, the legitimate role of the state, though essential, is also highly limited. Apart from leading the people against invaders, it is to judge tribal disputes, and thereby prevent these disputes from creating a state of permanent warfare.”

But the Pashtun tribes have not been entirely hostile to state authority. “Rather, they have been hostile to three kinds of government: those lacking traditional or religious legitimacy; those which force them to pay too many taxes; and those which try to change their lives, their society and their traditions rapidly. The Shariah law and the Pushtunwali (the Paushtunway) are essential for any regime to gain legitimacy among the Pashtuns, Lieven points out. And the Shariah law and local tribal customary law are the bases of legitimacy among other tribes.  

The Pashtuns detest state interference, Lievensays. “The traditional Pashtun ethnic code of the Pashtunwali provides the rules of order, underpinned by the moral code laying down what it is to ‘do Pashto’, or live a correct Pashtun life. The legitimate role of the monarch (or his immediate representative) was mostly to mediate and judge in major tribal disputes that could not be resolved by local Jirgas (councils) of elders and religious figures. To this day, it is such community councils (or extended families themselves, in the case of an internal dispute or offence) that decide on the great majority of disputes and offences in rural Pashtun society, with no reference whatsoever to the state and its law. The villages will govern themselves, as they have always done. If they require anything of the government, they will go to it in the district center. They do not want the government to come to them. As before, the main service that they require of government is fair, impartial dispute resolution.

Aversion to Modernizing State

Aversion for state interference has led to rejection of the modernizing state”. An aspect of the modernizing state the Pashtuns detest is high taxation to raise funds of economic development. Successive modernizing leaders had used brutal measures to collect taxes, which had led to revolts. Some modernizing Afghan rulers who had enjoyed subsidies from abroad (as from the British in India in the 19 th.Century) were able to give tax reliefs, thereby gaining popular support.

If the US and the international community care for the common Afghan as they claim to, they should not slap economic sanctions on the Taliban regime. If they do, the cashstrapped regime will be forced to use hard methods to collect taxes which in turn will lead to disaffection, rebellion, economic ruin and human misery.

The rural Pashtuns detest modernization because it would destroy their comfort zone. Modernizing governments, inspired and sustained by foreign “infidels, have never been popular among the masses and have been overthrown.    

Afghan Nationalism

Among the challenges that the Taliban government will face is building the country on the basis of a common Afghan nationalism. The Taliban have been trying to evoke Pashtunnationalism but the Pashtuns are only 40% of the population, though they are the single largest group and have ruled Afghanistan since the 18th.Century. But imposing Pashtun-basednationalism on the Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks has not been easy. The non-Pashtun Northern Alliance overthrew the Taliban in 2001 with US support. If the Taliban want to survive in power,they have to give the other communities a place in the government and also recognize theirtraditional autonomy.

But apparently, the Taliban have not learn the lesson. In the caretaker government announced on September 7, only three of the 33 minsters are non-Pashtun though one of the two Deputy PMs, Abdul Salam Hanafi, is an Uzbek; and the Chief of Army Staff Qari Fasihuddin and the Minister of Economy, Qari Deen Hanif, are Tajiks.      

Role of Repressive Force

Despite their passion for autonomy and the importance of the free spirit, Afghans have been under strong governments that have enforced their will by brute force.

Lieven says: The true founder of the modern Afghan state was the ‘Iron Emir’, AbdurRahman Khan (ruled 1880–1901). He did so on the basis of four combined features that might be called the essential mixture of successful Afghan statecraft: traditional (in this case dynastic and religiously confirmed) legitimacy; outside subsidies; effective dispute resolution; and extreme ruthlessness.

His (the Emir’s) non-interference in the lives of his subjects, as long as they did not revolt against him, also helped. The subsidies came from Britain’s Indian Empire, after it had abandoned its disastrous attempts to conquer Afghanistan and embarked instead on building up Abdur Rahman’s rule as a buffer against the Russian Empire. These subsidies allowed AbdurRahman to build up the rudiments of a regular army and bureaucracy without having to increase taxes on the tribes.

As to his exceptional ruthlessness, the more colorful aspects of this may have been exaggerated by British observers – but there is abundant evidence of its basic truth, including in the Emir’s own memoir. Abdur Rahman himself claimed to have killed 120,000 of his subjects – a very large proportion of the Afghan population at that time.

Abdur Rahman’s successor, King AmanullahKhan, in the 1920s tried to go further and tried to modernize Afghanistan. But while doing this, he could not keep his subjects happy because the British stopped the subsidies and Amanullahhad to start imposing heavy taxes. Muslim clerics and tribal chiefs who were denied subsidies, led a revolt which ended in the eviction of Amanullah from power in 1929.

As in the case of past revolts against oppressive and Westernizing forces, the Taliban mobilized support for themselves by propagating Shariahlaws and traditional behavior using the authority and persuasive skills of respected Mullahs as well as ruthless force. The Islamic ideological base ensured compliance and loyalty. Acombination of a strong ideological base and the unity and discipline of the Taliban gave them a clear edge over the forces of pro-Western governments in Kabul.

Therefore, it is highly unlikely that the Taliban will become a modernizing force to get Western recognition. The most likely possibility is a lurch towards non-democratic powers like China, Russia, Turkey.



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